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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The Deforming Gaze We Encounter On Social Media

Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a short story, “The Birthmark,” in which a young “man of science” named Aylmer marries a beautiful young woman named Georgiana. Georgiana was nearly perfect in Aylmer’s eyes, nearly perfect save for a small hand-shaped birthmark on her cheek. As the story unfolds, Aylmer conceives of a scheme whereby he might remove the birthmark. As you might guess, this being Hawthorne and what not, this scheme does not go well. In fact, it proves fatal to Georgiana.

The story is, on one level, a cautionary tale about hubris and how the quest for perfection can be the enemy of the good. But there is another interesting dimension to the story. It is also a study of human psychology, exemplifying how our desires come to be shaped by others from whose gaze we derive and internalize a particular understanding of who we are and who we ought to be.

Needless to say, Aylmer is awful. Not long after they marry, he brings up the matter of the birthmark, suggesting that something might be done about it. Georgiana innocently confesses that her birthmark “has been so often called a charm that I was simple enough to imagine it might be so.” This self-understanding Aylmer, with monstrous indifference, undoes. “Ah, upon another face perhaps it might,” he tells her, “but never on yours. No, dearest Georgiana, you came so nearly perfect from the hand of Nature that this slightest possible defect, which we hesitate whether to term a defect or a beauty, shocks me, as being the visible mark of earthly imperfection.”

The narrator reveals to us that “Aylmer’s sombre imagination was not long in rendering the birthmark a frightful object, causing him more trouble and horror than ever Georgiana’s beauty, whether of soul or sense, had given him delight.” Not surprisingly, then, “Georgiana soon learned to shudder at his gaze.”

And she was also transformed by this same gaze. Finally, she herself approaches Aylmer about the possibility of removing the birthmark and wonders about the risks entailed. He assures her that he can successfully remove the birthmark with minimal risk, and she concedes. Indeed, she was prepared to concede even if he had said that grave risks would attend his work: ‘”If there be the remotest possibility of it,’ continued Georgiana, ‘let the attempt be made at whatever risk. Danger is nothing to me; for life, while this hateful mark makes me the object of your horror and disgust.'”

I bring this story to your attention because it illuminates an important dimension of our online experience, especially on social media. Put in rather neutral terms we might simply say that the story illustrates the intersubjective origins of our desires, including, and perhaps most acutely, our desires about our selves, and that this intersubjectivity is amplified and refracted by our use of social media (massively intersubjective identity, or MII, if you like).

Put more pejoratively, we are all subject to the deforming influence of the Internet’s gaze, from which we discern the image of who we ought to be. We internalize this image and it becomes the tacit template for our online interactions.

This raises a few questions we might consider. For example: For whom do I perform when I perform online? or What is the nature of the audience whose approval or notice I seek? or Who am I becoming as I modulate my actions and self-representations to elicit the emotional consolations I seek from the reward mechanisms of social media? or To what degree is my project of self-realization co-opted by the structural dynamics of social media?

Another way to approach the matter is to ask why snark is the default dialect of social media. Snark is the style of the all-too-self-aware; it is the easiest voice to assume when earnest straightforwardness is ruled out by the nature of the mediated rhetorical situation.

The nature of social media is such that we cannot forget the artificiality of our situation. The added layer of mediation materializes immaterial internal and social dynamics making them subject to analysis and manipulation. That is to say that social media, like the technology of writing in Walter Ong’s words, “heightens consciousness.” I would suggest that it hypertrophies consciousness. To take another pass at the same idea, we might say that social media grants access to the social unconscious as Walter Benjamin proposed that photography did for the optical unconscious.

Social media platforms inevitably present themselves as a stage before an audience. We cannot but be actors playing the role we believe the audience desires us to play.

There is another wrinkle as well. We are surrounded by other actors on this stage who are likewise playing their parts. We are, however, tempted to forget our co-performers are also acting their part, and we take their performances to be authentic representations of their condition, while we ourselves are haunted by our own seeming inauthenticity. This means that that we are co-ordinating our own performances on the basis of misread and misunderstood signals. The online intersubjective web thus suspends and entraps us. It generates self-defeating efforts to achieve authenticity, and these efforts only manage to spin more of the web that ensnares us.

It is true, of course, that it is not only on social media that we become who we imagine others or Another wants us to be. I would only suggest that the conditions that accompany the online variations of this dynamic are primed for unhealthy outcomes. These condition include the abstract and indeterminate nature of the gaze we encounter, the peculiar psycho-social reward mechanisms social media platforms deploy, the disembodied character of our interactions, etc.

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Eight Theses Regarding Social Media

1. Social media are the fidget spinners of the soul.

2. Each social media platform is a drug we self-prescribe and consume in order to regulate our emotional life, and we are constantly experimenting with the cocktail.

3. Law of Digital Relativity: Perception of space and time is relative to the digital density of the observer’s experience.

4. Affect overload is a more serious problem than information overload. The product of both is moral apathy and mental exhaustion.

5. While text and image flourish online, the psycho-dynamics of digital culture are most akin to those of oral cultures (per Walter Ong).

6. Just as the consumer economy was boundless in its power to commodify, so the attention economy is boundless in its power to render reality standing reserve for the project of identity construction/performance. The two processes, of course, are not unrelated.

7. In the attention economy, strategic silence is power. But, because of the above, it is also a deeply demanding practice of self-denial.

8. Virtue is self-forgetting. The structures of social media make it impossible to forget yourself.

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Twitter: Trump’s Ring of Power

“I often tell students,” media scholar Henry Jenkins once noted, “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.”

It’s a provocative grouping, which gives the observation its punch, and, as far as I can tell, it is also an accurate assessment. The engine, so to speak, that drives the media-related transformations of political or religious culture is the imperative to “get your message out.” Of course, as media theorists have observed, how you get your message out may transform the message itself and the audience.

We might say, then, that Twitter is to Trump what radio was to FDR or TV was to Kennedy or Reagan.

It is not that FDR was the first to use radio, or Kennedy TV, or Trump Twitter–those firsts were Coolidge, Truman, and Obama, respectively. Rather it is that these were the first presidents to fully exploit the potential of each medium, for better or for worse. Their success depended upon a confluence of personal qualities, existing cultural dynamics, and the affordances of the medium. Their success also reconfigured the norms of political culture and discourse–there was no going back and no way to undo the consequences.

The striking thing about Trump’s use of Twitter is how he deploys it, not only to circumvent the press but to control the other media as well. Need to shake up the news cycle? No problem, a tweet will do it. Thus the real power of Twitter was not necessarily that of reaching the audience on Twitter itself, which is quite small compared to TV, but in setting the agenda for how other media would cover the election and transition. It is as if Twitter were Sauron’s ring, the one ring to rule them all. In this case, the one medium to rule all media.

Incidentally, not unlike Sauron’s ring, Twitter also tempts users with power, the power to torment and destroy ideological opponents by unleashing armies of underlings, for example. But, like the One Ring, the power it offers to those who would wield it is ultimately illusory and destructive. The wise refuse it. They even refuse the temptation to do good by its use, for they know the ring serves its own ends and ultimately they cannot control the forces they unleash.

Orality and Literacy Revisited

“‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone,” lamented John Donne in 1611. The line is from An Anatomy of the World, a poem written by Donne to mark the death of his patron’s daughter at the age of sixteen. Immediately before and after this line, Donne alludes to ruptures in the social, political, philosophical, religious, and scientific assumptions of his age. In short, Donne is registering the sense of bewilderment and disorientation that marked the transition from the premodern to the modern world.

“And new philosophy calls all in doubt,
The element of fire is quite put out,
The sun is lost, and th’earth, and no man’s wit
Can well direct him where to look for it.
And freely men confess that this world’s spent,
When in the planets and the firmament
They seek so many new; they see that this
Is crumbled out again to his atomies.
‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone,
All just supply, and all relation;
Prince, subject, father, son, are things forgot,
For every man alone thinks he hath got
To be a phoenix, and that then can be
None of that kind, of which he is, but he.”

In the philosopher Stephen Toulmin’s compelling analysis of this transition, Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity, Donne is writing before the defining structures of modernity would fully emerge to stabilize the social order. Donne’s was still a time of flux between the dissolution of an old order and the emergence of a new one that would take its place–his time, we might say, was the time of death throes and birth pangs.

As Alan Jacobs, among others, has noted, the story of the emergence of modernity is a story that cannot be told without paying close attention to the technological background against which intellectual, political, and religious developments unfolded. Those technologies that we tend to think of as media technologies–technologies of word, image, and sound or technologies of representation–have an especially important role to play in this story.

I mention all of this because we find ourselves in a position not unlike Donne’s: we too are caught in a moment of instability. Traditional institutions and old assumptions that passed for common sense are proving inadequate in the face of new challenges, but we are as of yet uncertain about what new institutions and guiding assumptions will take their place. Right now, Donne’s lament resonates with us: “‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone.”

And for us no less than for those who witnessed the emergence of modernity, technological developments are inextricably bound up with the social and cultural turbulence we are experiencing, especially new media technologies.

One useful way of thinking about these developments is provided by the work of the late Walter Ong. Ong was a scholar of immense learning who is best known for Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, a study of the cultural consequences of writing. In Ong’s view, the advent of the written word dramatically reconfigured our mental and social worlds. Primary oral cultures, cultures that have no notion of writing at all, operated quite differently than literate cultures, cultures into which writing has been introduced.

Likewise, Ong argued, the consciousness of individuals in literate cultures differs markedly from those living in an oral culture. Writing in the late twentieth century, Ong also posited the emergence of a state of secondary orality created by electronic media.

I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see Ong and his work invoked, directly and indirectly, in a handful of pieces about media, politics, and the 2016 election.

In August 2015, Jeet Heer wrote a piece titled, “Donald Trump, Epic Hero.” In it, he proposed the following: “Trump’s rhetorical braggadocio and spite might seem crude, even juvenile. But his special way with words has a noble ancestry: flyting, a recurring trope in epic poetry that eerily resembles the real estate magnate’s habit of self-celebration and cruel mockery.” Heer, who wrote a 2004 essay on Ong for Books and Culture, grounded his defense of this thesis on Ong’s work.

In a post for Neiman Reports, Danielle Allen does not cite Ong, but she does invoke the distinction between oral and literate cultures. “Trump appears to have understood that the U.S. is transitioning from a text-based to an oral culture,” Allen concluded after discussing her early frustration with the lack of traditional policy position papers produced by the Trump campaign and its reliance on short video clips.

In Technology Review, Hossein Derakhshan, relying on Neil Postman rather than Walter Ong, argues that the image-based discourse that has, in his view, come to dominate the Internet has contributed to the rise of post-truth politics and that we do well, for the sake of our democracy, to return to text-based discourse. “For one thing,” Derakhshan writes,

we need more text than videos in order to remain rational animals. Typography, as Postman describes, is in essence much more capable of communicating complex messages that provoke thinking. This means we should write and read more, link more often, and watch less television and fewer videos—and spend less time on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.

Writing for Bloomberg, Joe Weisenthal, like Heer, cites Ong’s Orality and Literacy to help explain Donald Trump’s rhetorical style. Building on scholarship that looked to Homer’s epic poetry for the residue of oral speech patterns, Ong identified various features of oral communication. Weisenthal chose three to explain “why someone like Donald Trump would thrive in this new oral context”: oral communication was “additive, not analytic,” relied on repetition, and was aggressively polemical. Homer gives us swift-footed Achilles, man-killing Hector, and wise Odysseus; Trump gives us Little Marco, Lyin’ Ted, and Crooked Hillary; his speeches were jammed with mind-numbing repetition; and his style was clearly combative.

There’s something with which to quibble in each of these pieces, but raising these questions about oral, print, and image based discourse is helpful. As Ong and Postman recognized, innovations in media technology have far reaching consequences: they enable new modes of social organization and new modes of thought, they reconfigure the cognitive load of remembering, they alter the relation between self and community, sometimes creating new communities and new understandings of the self, and they generate new epistemic ecosystems.

As Postman puts it in Technopoly,

Surrounding every technology are institutions whose organization–not to mention their reason for being–reflects the world-view promoted by the technology. Therefore, when an old technology is assaulted by a new one, institutions are threatened. When institutions are threatened, a culture finds itself in crisis. This is serious business, which is why we learn nothing when educators ask, Will students learn mathematics better by computers than by textbooks? Or when businessmen ask, Through which medium can we sell more products? Or when preachers ask, Can we reach more people through television than through radio? Or when politicians ask, How effective are messages sent through different media? Such questions have an immediate, practical value to those who ask them, but they are diversionary. They direct our attention away from the serious social, intellectual, and institutional crisis that new media foster.

Given the seriousness of what is at stake, then, I’ll turn to some of my quibbles as a way of moving toward a better understanding of our situation. Most of my quibbles involve the need for some finer distinctions. For example, in her piece, Allen suggest that we are moving back toward an oral culture. But it is important to make Ong’s distinction: if this is the case, then it is to something like what Ong called secondary orality. A primary oral culture has never known literacy, and that makes a world of difference. However much we might revert to oral forms of communication, we cannot erase our knowledge of or dependence upon text, and this realization must inform whatever it is we mean by “oral culture.”

Moreover, I wonder whether it is best to characterize our move as one toward orality. What about the visual, the image? Derakhshan, for example, frames his piece in this way. Contrasting the Internet before and after a six year stay in an Iranian prison, Derakshan observed, “Facebook and Twitter had replaced blogging and had made the Internet like TV: centralized and image-centered, with content embedded in pictures, without links.” But Alan Jacobs took exception to this line of thinking. “Much of the damage done to truth and charity done in this past election was done with text,” Jacobs notes, adding that Donald Trump rarely tweets images. “[I]t’s not the predominance of image over text that’s hurting us,” Jacobs then concludes, “It’s the use of platforms whose code architecture promotes novelty, instantaneous response, and the quick dissemination of lies.”

My sense is that Jacobs is right, but Derakhshan is not wrong, which means more distinctions are in order. After all, text is visual.

My plan in the coming days, possibly weeks depending on the cracks of time into which I am able to squeeze some writing, is take a closer look at Walter Ong, particularly but not exclusively Orality and Literacy, in order to explore what resources his work may offer us as we try to understand the changes that are afoot all about us.