The Technological Origins of Protestantism, or the Martin Luther Tech Myth

[Caveat lector: the first part of the title is a bit too grandiose for what follows. Also, this post addresses the relationship between technology and religion, more specifically, the relationship between technology and Protestant Christianity. This may narrow the audience, but I suspect there is something of interest here for most readers. Finally, big generalizations ahead. Carry on.]

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation. The traditional date marking the beginning of the Reformation is October 31, 1517. It was on that day, All Hallow’s (or Saints) Eve, that Martin Luther posted his famous Ninety-five Theses on a church door in Wittenberg. It is fair to say that no one then present, including Luther, had any idea the magnitude of what was to follow.

Owing to the anniversary, you might encounter a slew of new books about Luther, the Reformation(s), and its consequences. You might stumble across a commemorative Martin Luther Playmobil set. You might even learn about a church in Wittenberg which has deployed a robot named … wait for it … BlessU-2 to dispense blessings and Bible verses to visitors (free of charge, Luther would have been glad to know).

Then, of course, there are the essays and articles in popular journals and websites, and, inevitably, the clever takes that link Luther to contemporary events. Take, for example, this piece in Foreign Policy arguing that Luther was the Donald Trump of 1517. The subtitle goes on to claim that “if the leader of the reformation could have tweeted the 95 theses, he would have.” I’ll get back to the subtitle in just a moment, but, let’s be clear, the comparison is ultimately absurd. Sure, there are some very superficial parallels one might draw, but even the author of the article understands their superficiality. Throughout the essay, he walks back and qualifies his claims. “But in the end Luther was a man of conscience,” he concedes, and that pretty much undermines the whole case.

But back to that line about tweeting the 95 theses. It is perhaps the most plausible claim in the whole piece, but, oddly, the author never elaborates further. I say that it is plausible not only because the theses are relatively short statements – roughly half of them or so could actually be tweeted (in their English translation, anyway) – and one might say that in their day they went viral, but also because it trades on an influential myth that continues to inform how many Protestants view technology.

The myth, briefly stated in intentionally anachronistic terms, runs something like this. Marin Luther’s success was owed to his visionary embrace of a cutting edge media technology, the printing press. While the Catholic church reacted with a moral panic about the religious and social consequences of easily accessible information and their inability to control it, Luther and his followers understood that information wanted to be free and institutions needed to be disrupted. And history testifies to the rightness of Luther’s attitude toward new technology.

In calling this story a myth, I don’t mean to suggest that it is altogether untrue. While the full account is more complicated, it is nonetheless true that Luther did embrace printing and appears to have understood its power. Indeed, under Luther’s auspices Wittenberg, an otherwise unremarkable university town, became one of the leading centers of printing in Europe. A good account of these matters can be found in Andrew Pettegree’s Brand Luther. “After Luther, print and public communication would never be the same again,” Pettegree rightly concludes. And it is probably safe to also conclude that apart from printing the Reformation does not happen.

Instead, I use the word myth to mean a story, particularly of a story of origins, which takes on a powerful explanatory and normative role in the life of a tradition or community. It is in this sense that we might speak of the Luther Tech Myth.

The problem with this myth is simple: it sanctions, indeed it encourages uncritical and unreflective adoption of technology. I might add that it also heightens the plausibility of Borg Complex claims: “churches* that do not adapt and adopt to new media will not survive,” etc.

For those who subscribe to the myth, intentionally or tacitly, this is not really a problem because the myth sustains and is sustained by certain unspoken premises regarding the nature of technology, particularly media technology: chiefly, that it is fundamentally neutral. They imagine that new media merely propagate the same message only more effectively. It rarely occurs to them that new media may transform the message in a subtle but not inconsequential manner and that new media may smuggle another sort of message (or, effect) with it, and that these may reconfigure the nature of the community, the practices of piety, and the content of the faith in ways they did not anticipate.

Let’s get back to Luther for a moment and take a closer look at the relationship between printing and Protestantism.

In The Reformation: A History, Oxford historian Diarmaid MacCulloch makes some instructive observations about printing. What is most notable about MacCulloch’s discussion is that it deals with the preparatory effect of printing in the years leading up to 1517. For example, citing historian Bernard Cottret, MacCulloch speaks of “the increase in Bibles [in the half century prior to 1517] created the Reformation rather than being created by it.” A thesis that will certainly surprise many Protestants today, if there are any left. (More on that last, seemingly absurd clause shortly.)

A little further on, MacCulloch correctly observes that the “effect of printing was more profound than simply making more books available more quickly.” For one thing, it “affected western Europe’s assumptions about knowledge and originality of thought.” Manuscript culture is “conscious of the fragility knowledge, and the need to preserve it,” fostering “an attitude that guards rather than spreads knowledge.” Manuscript culture is thus cautious, conservative, and pessimistic. On the other hand, the propensity toward decay is “much less obvious in the print medium: Optimism may be the mood rather than pessimism.” (A point on which MacCulloch cites the pioneering work of Elizabeth Eisenstein.) In other words, printing fostered a more daring cultural spirit that was conducive to the outbreak of a revolutionary movement of reform.

Finally, printing had already made it possible for reading to become “a more prominent part of religion for the laity.” Again, MacCulloch is not talking about the consequences of the Reformation; he is talking about the half century or so leading up to Luther’s break with Rome. Where reading became a more prominent feature of personal piety, “a more inward-looking, personalized devotion,” which is to say, anachronistically, a more characteristically Protestant devotion, emerged. “For someone who really delighted in reading,” MacCulloch adds, “religion might retreat out of the sphere of public ritual into the world of the mind and the imagination.”

“So,” MacCulloch concludes, “without any hint of doctrinal deviation, a new style of piety arose in that increasingly large section of society that valued book learning for both profit and pleasure.” This increasingly large section of the population “would form a ready audience for the Protestant message, with its contempt for so much of the old ritual of worship and devotion.”

All of this, then, is to say that Protestantism is as much an effect of the technology of printing as it is a movement that seized upon the new technology to spread its message. (I suspect, as an aside, that this story, which is obviously more complicated than the sketch I’m providing here would be an important element in Alan Jacobs’ project of uncovering the technological history of modernity.)

A few more thoughts before we wrap up, bear with me. Let’s consider the idea of “a new style of piety,” which preceded and sustained momentous doctrinal and ecclesial developments. This phrase is useful in so much as it is pairs nicely with the old maxim: Lex orandi, lex credendi (the law of prayer is the law belief). The idea is that as the church worships so it believes, or that in some sense worship precedes and constitutes belief. To put it another way, we might say that the worship of the church constitutes the plausibility structures of its faith. To speak of a “new style of piety,” then, is to speak of a set practices for worship, both in its communal forms and in its private forms. These new practices are, accordingly, a new form of worship that may potentially re-configure the church’s faith. This is important to our discussion insofar as practices of worship have a critical material/technological dimension. Bottom line: shifts in the material/technological artifacts and conditions of worship potentially restructure the form and practices of worship, which in turn may potentially reconfigure what is believed.

Of course, it is not only a matter of how print prepares the ground for Protestantism, it is also a matter of how Protestantism evolves in tandem with print. Protestantism is a religion of the book. Its piety is centered on the book; the sacred text, of course, but also the tide of books that become aides to spirituality, displacing icons, crucifixes, statues, relics, and the panoply of ritual gestures that enlisted the body in the service of spiritual formation. The pastor-scholar becomes the model minister. Faith becomes both a more individual affair and a more private matter. On the whole, it takes on a more intellectualist cast. Its devotion is centered more on correct belief rather than veneration. Its instruction is traditionally catechetical. Etc.

This brings us back to the Luther Tech Myth and whether or not there are any Protestants left. The myth is misleading because it oversimplifies a more complicated history, and the oversimplification obscures the degree to which new media technology is not neutral but rather formative.

Henry Jenkins has made an observation that I come back to frequently: “I often tell students that the history of new media has been shaped again and again by four key innovative groups — evangelists, pornographers, advertisers, and politicians, each of whom is constantly looking for new ways to interface with their public.”

The evangelists Jenkins refers to are evangelical Christians in the United States, who are descended from Luther and his fellow reformers. Jenkins is right. Evangelicals have been, as a rule, quick to adopt and adapt new media technologies to spread their message. In doing so, however, they have also been transformed by the tools they have implemented and deployed, from radio to television to the Internet. The reason for this is simple: new styles of piety that arise from new media generate new assumptions about community and authority and charisma (in the theological and sociological sense), and they alter the status and content of belief.

And for this reason traditional Protestantism is an endangered species. Even within theologically conservative branches of American Protestantism, it is rare to find the practice of traditional forms of Protestant piety. Naturally, this should not necessarily be read as a lament. It is, rather, an argument about the consequences of technological change and an encouragement to think more carefully about the adoption and implementation of new technology.



*  I hesitate to add mosques and synagogues only because I do not believe myself to be sufficiently informed to do so and also because they are obviously not within the traditions shaped by the life and work of Martin Luther. Jewish and Muslim readers, please feel free to add your perspectives about attitudes to technology in your communities in the comments below.

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5 thoughts on “The Technological Origins of Protestantism, or the Martin Luther Tech Myth

  1. As a Catholic myself, I guess this illuminates the slight discomfort or dissonance I feel whenever I look at local parishes’ efforts at promoting the faith through modern media—subconsciously, I’ve associated progressive media use with Protestantism, what with their regular television programs, etc.

    Also, just to share, and sorry if this is in a different context though the core idea is the same: I’m reminded of Filipino writer Nick Joaquin’s provocative essay, ‘Culture as History’. There, drawing from Marshall McLuhan, he argues that the concept of a Filipino national identity originated not with the 19th-century intellectual patriots, but with the arrival of the Spanish colonizers and their Western technology in the 16th century, which gave the (prehistorically divided) natives a shared experience of adapting to new material ways of life.

    I’m thinking that such a materialist analysis potentially applies to many other nations’ ‘origin story’, but I do not expect such interpretations to be dominant to the point of being widely taught in classrooms and written in textbooks. The drama of personality-based historiography has an emotional weight that makes its message stickier.

  2. Superb post. I recently commented on related issues here. In particular, I focus on the Church’s outsourcing of its textual practices to other agencies, something which will necessarily change our sense of the relationship between tradition and Scripture and between the Church and the Word.

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