February 11, 2011 / Mediation, Uncategorized
In 1991, the Academy Award for Best Picture went to the disturbing psycho thriller, The …
February 16, 2011
Operator, give me information.
Information, give me long distance.
Long distance, give me heaven.
. . . Give me Jesus on the line.
—“Operator,” The Manhattan Transfer, 1975
What is the Bible? Most obviously, a book—hence its English name, from the Greek biblion, “book.” Like any book it consists (or used always to consist, until recently) of words on paper. It is a thing fixed and physical, a manufacture, an object you can kiss or kick, decorate or incinerate, place reverently on a lectern or chuck into a toilet.
But is that what the Bible really is? The ancient givenness of the physical biblion as the place where words dwell with authority has been shaken—blown away, some would say—by the fluidity with which electronic information is transformed, searched, transmitted, copied, and stored. Why dork around with paper any more? Aren’t printed books just an obsolete storage technology, like 5-inch floppies? Isn’t it obvious that a “book” is really just any large collection of symbols meaningfully arranged, so that the Bible (or the phone book, or Tom Swift and His Deep-Sea Hydrodome) is as much itself whether memorized, printed on paper, or temporarily haunting a memory chip?
The answers may seem obvious, but believers of book-cherishing religions might hesitate to answer quickly. In Judaism and Christianity, at least, God Himself appears to have almost a fetish for physical books. The tables of stone on which Moses is said to have received the Law came from God’s own hand, making God not only their author but their publisher. After Joshua “discomfited Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword” (Exodus 17:13, KJV), God told Moses, “Write this for a memorial in a book.” Here, implicitly, it is the permanence of writing that matters. But in the ancient mind-world we glimpse through these texts, writing is not merely a good way to preserve information. In the book of Numbers, a ritual curse is transferred from priest to adulteress in a magical procedure that underlines the power believed to reside in the written word:
the priest shall write these curses in a book, and wash them off into the water of bitterness; and he shall make the woman drink the water of bitterness that brings the curse, and the water that brings the curse shall enter into her and cause bitter pain . . . (5:23-24).
Here ink is transformed into a sort of anti-sacrament by having momentarily been the physical vehicle of a verbal curse: to embody a symbol is to be changed by it in essence. In contemplating this text we are far away indeed from our contemporary assumption that paper, ink, and electronic media convey an immaterial something called “information” that is perfectly disinct, detachable, and transmissible, the one and only locus of meaning. The independence of substance and symbol that is a given for us did not exist for the ancients. Certain other dualisms that come naturally to us did not occur to them, either: individual and tribe, justice and vengeance, magic and mechanism, body and soul.
Fascination with the physical book continued with the early Christians. The first two words of the New Testament are, in at least two common translations, “The book” (KVJ, RSV). In Revelations 20, several books are opened before God, including a “Book of Life.” Other religions do the book thing too: in one translation, the Koran uses the word “book” 244 times. Baha’is believe that they possess a set of error-free holy texts in autograph. Mormons believe that Joseph Smith was directed by an angel to find parts of the Book of Mormon inscribed on golden plates buried on a hilltop in Wayne County, New York. Many Christians, Baha’is, Mormons, and Muslims believe, in fact, that their respective holy books are infallible, word-for-word messages from the divine originally received as miraculous tablets, scrolls, dictations, or golden plates—that is, as divinely-produced physical books. No wonder that Bibles, Korans, Torahs, and other sacred texts have for millennia been ornamented, elevated, kissed, carried in procession, and otherwise revered. To this day, in some Jewish traditions, a prayer book that falls to the floor is kissed; if a Torah scroll is dropped, the dropper and all witnesses atone by daylight fasting for 40 days; and burial services are held for burnt Torahs (see here and here).
All this is in pretty severe tension with our modern, technological idea that the physical body of a book is irrelevant — that a “book” is nothing more or less or other than a symbol collection, and must therefore be equally at home in any medium at all, even the most ephemeral or electronic. Yet the seed of this tension was, I think, present from the beginning: the most ancient concept of the “book” included copyability, that quintessentially informatic quality, as when God tells Moses that “it shall be, when [the king] sitteth upon the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write him a copy of this law in a book out of that which is before the priests the Levites” (Deuteromy 17:18, RSV).
So the idea of the holy book contains, and has always contained, a tension or contradiction. First of all, the unique, physical object is intrinsically important: it has, or sometimes had, what we would now consider magical properties. It is handed to us by God or by God’s messengers, or at least so the tales tell, and is carried about in the Ark of the Covenant as in a sort of Flintstones bookmobile. God produces books, consults books, repeatedly orders someone to write in a book. The physical book of holy words is a holy object. Yet, at the same time, its essence is symbolic, and it is well understood, even anciently, that physical selves or instances of any book can be multiplied by copying symbols. And this seems to imply that the identity of a book is independent of any physical medium—in harmony with our modern assumptions about information.
Why not an e-mail?
Like the other dualisms I’ve mentioned, the distinction between content and container, information and medium, or text and paper feels to me both obvious and suspect. I can’t see my way completely out of it and I can’t see my way completely into it and I’m not sure it would be wise to do either. As H. L. Mencken said, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” And the human race has always maintained a prudent inconsistency: do even the ultra-Orthodox mourn when the Torah flickers in and out of electronic existence on a score of anonymous servers as one downloads it through the Internet (as I just did), or when someone erases it from a hard-drive (as I also just did—using the “Empty Trash” command, no less)? I doubt it: they would be mourning full-time.
I’m a modern: constitutionally divided, ironic, and a wee bit protean. I produce and consume electronic texts with pleasure, yet they make me nervous, too, and I return to physical books with relief. Is this nothing but a mark of being born in 1962, of growing up before Facebook and the iPad? A habit, signifying nothing? If so, it’s a habit rooted in thousands of years of cultural history, a habit strangely confirmed by the holy books of the theisms, a habit hard to shake even for a person who has studied information theory, programming, and logic design and who makes his living on a computer—that is, who is neither ignorant nor afraid of the new ways.
No, the geezer hypothesis is too easy: it’s not that I simply “didn’t grow up with computers.” It’s that I am unshakeably unsettled, firmly ambivalent. I know that information dualism is at best a partial truth. I feel, though I cannot explain, that between the Ark of the Covenant and the blinking, blocky hard-drive on my desk, which houses the very same texts that were believed to reside in the Ark, there is a real difference that is non-arbitrary, more than technological. And I feel, though I cannot explain, that this difference subsists not only between the Ark and my hard drive but between any book and any e-book, any physical object and any informational object. A book is copyable, and that is a profound fact about books, but there is also something in any physical copy of a book that inheres, that is unique to it, that cannot be copied or transferred, that is not informatic. A Jew who gasps when she sees a Torah hit the floor knows it. Any child who has ever hugged a beloved book knows it. I know it.
Dualisms are hard to shed because they make sense. Maybe that’s a sign that we shouldn’t shed them too hastily. At the same time, if we happen to be Christians for whom the Incarnation is central, then we might also be wary of all dualisms, especially body/soul, spiritual/material, divine/created. Maybe informatic/physical, too. Maybe, in fact, we needn’t be either-or about dualism itself.
The relationship between the familiar codex (edge-bound) book and Christianity is even more intimate than I have indicated, according to historians. But — that is for another time. For now I’ll just note something that should qualify, or better yet overarch, all Christian thinking about revelation, the Bible, literacy, print, and kindred matters: Jesus wrote no book. Nor is it recorded that he ever told his disciples to write any book. He did write, of course (John 8:3-11). At the time, the Pharisees were trying to entrap him with the fixed text of the Mosaic law that had been so long and so devoutly preserved in the Bookmobile of the Covenant: and, as King James’s scholars Englished it many centuries later, “Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not.” Was the finger in the dust a comment on the danger of worshipping words made permanent?
[Originally published July 12, 2010]
Larry Gilman started growing up in West Orange, New Jersey, in 1962. Since the fifth grade he’s lived in other parts of New Jersey, in Chicago, and in Vermont, where he and his wife now hunker in the hills. He was trained as an electrical engineer but has since opted for a life of freelance writing and editing. He is Episcopalian.