One of the signal events of religious history was the Reformation in western Europe in the 16th century and onwards [an argument can be made that the ‘reformation’ is an ongoing process]. I say ‘signal’ – an archaic use of this word meaning an event whose importance signalled profound change – because the reformation of western Christianity came to have an impact on cultures and religions around the world. This impact was driven by the expansion of western European society to most of the rest of the world, and through the competition for souls between protestant and catholic states. Protestantism was primarily carried by the British, who although officially Anglican, dragged along all sorts of evangelical institutional modes and habits of thought in their wake.
Print culture was and is, intrinsic to reformed Christianity. Christianity in the West prior to movable type and the paper necessary to printing and Christianity in the East did not require a print culture – although reading and the text of the Bible were fundamental. This Christian culture was oral and tactile, appealing to the senses firstly and with its intellectual component largely confined to those who inhabited the very small cadre of educated, reading individuals – mostly monastics and by the 16th century as a product of the Renaissance, a handful of educated lay people.
Cheap, widely disseminated printed material began to make western Christianity over into an intellectual and rational pursuit.
Corey Pressman’s thoughts linked above look at the factor of finality being integral to print culture. To compress his thoughts, printing of books produces a product that by its physical nature, must have a beginning, a middle and, most tellingly, an end. Each book [or pamphlet or essay] is a complete, unitary, self-contained physical and intellectual, object. Amendments, arguments can be made – glossing is the most obvious [and incidentally, hated by librarians in my generation] – and other self-contained printed objects [books] are produced to add to or contradict those books. So, books are final, but not wholly so.
This does not detract, however, from the advent of the internet, its chief aspect these days, the world wide web, and more recently, eBooks. The net and web and eBooks have shattered, or are shattering I should say, the finality of print. Print culture went a long way to training our minds to think and comprehend in a linear, beginning, middle and end fashion. The net and the web and now eBooks, are retraining us to think in a fashion similar to that of our oral culture ancestors. We can produce a website, or eBook which has a beginning, middle and end – but that product is merely one link in a non-linear web of other objects that the thinker can leap around on in a non-linear fashion. Print-based publishing companies are attempting to put this new wine into their old wine skins, but these skins are bursting all over the place.
In my World Religions online course at the University of Guelph I have begun to seek a new wineskin for the new wine – gradually moving away from total linearity. There are 12 units…. with an introduction and a conclusion.. but there is also now a ‘star field’ graphic which groups religions against the backdrop of a stellar scape by cultural type, and in which students can click on any of these and jump across hyperspace to that religion. I have also introduced [gently] the use of the Prezi presentation tool, rather than power point type tools, because it too can present material from a bird’s eye view, showing linkages, rather than a linear, cause and effect presentation. I am mindful always of the old logical fallacy, post hoc, ergo propter hoc…..
In terms of religion itself – well, the Reformation ingrained in us the idea of a linear text governing our understanding of our own faith and of religion in general. These are early days, but I wonder at the eventual impact of the shattering of linearity which seems possible, if not probable, on faith…