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Books Make Faith, Faith Makes Books

Books Make Faith Faith Makes Books Mirko Tobias Schaeffer

Mirko Tobias Schaeffer

Philip Jenkins - published on 08/20/14

How religion shapes the spread of information.

I have a long-standing interest in the relationship between religious faith and the media in which it is presented: books make faith, and faith makes books. This issue is particularly pressing right now as books yield their primacy to other forms of media, especially electronic.

If there is one part of Christian history that “everybody knows,” it is that printing changed religious consciousness during the Reformation era, by allowing the Bible to be placed in the hands of every individual, young and old, male and female. But this fact is part of a much larger truth about the relationship between the dominant medium of information and the nature of the religious message, both in Christianity, and outside that faith.

Not just in the realm of Christianity, religion shapes the spread of information. Printing emerged in response to the demands of Buddhist religious organizations, and the first printed books, in China and Korea, were Buddhist sutras. The very first printed book that we can date reliably is a copy of the Diamond Sutra, from 868, some six hundred years before Gutenberg’s Bible. To print a text is to agree definitively on its final form.

The story of Christianity is intimately bound up with the rise of new ways of presenting information, especially in the replacement of the traditional scroll by the codex, the ancestor of the modern book. (I am here drawing heavily on Alan Jacobs’s excellent article from 2011 on Christianity and the Future of the Book”.)

The invention of the codex created the Bible. In Greek, ta Biblia can mean either “the books" (neuter plural) or "the book" (feminine singular). When the books of the Bible were available on separate scrolls, it was easy to see them as separate free-standing works, “the books”, which could be subject to a mix and match approach of acceptance and rejection. But when they were kept within a single text between two covers, then it was clearly The Book, one book, a concept that gave a mighty boost to the notion of canonizing certain texts and excluding others.

The codex was, in its origins, a highly theological invention. As Jacobs suggests, one primary goal of the new medium was to include both Old and New Testaments within one cover, to stress the harmony and continuity of the texts, and to refute heretics like the Marcionites who set the two at odds. As anyone could see or feel, clearly the two Testaments were one. This allowed and encouraged the quest for parallels and resonances between the two, the ancient quest for typology that so shaped Christian art through the centuries.

To return to the Reformation, in no respect were Protestants more radical than in the dominant forms of media used to teach and discuss religious truths, with all that shift implies for cultural sensibilities. As has often been remarked, the Reformation was a media revolution. Traditional societies had taught their truths through visual imagery, such as stained glass and sculpture; through music; and above all, through drama and ritual action, which often involved a large amount of communal participation. Protestants taught through the word, in the form of books and tracts, hymns and sermons. God became Word.

The new religious model was made possible only by the rise of printing, which we think of most directly in terms of books and especially Bibles. Equally significant though were pamphlets, handbills, song-books, chapbooks, and especially cartoons, which were a major vehicle for distributing the Reformation message throughout Germany and Northern Europe. In creating the modern world, printing was as significant as the new mechanisms of central state power made possible by artillery. Thomas Carlyle famously listed "the three great elements of modern civilization, Gunpowder, Printing, and the Protestant religion."


Even more than the ancient codex, printing the books of the Bible in the order they acquired cemented or canonized that particular sequence, and gave an unanticipated weight and significance to books that now stood at the start or end of the respective Testaments. The primacy of Genesis and the Garden suggested the centrality of the Pauline doctrine of Original Sin. The appearance of Malachi at the end of the Old Testament gave that book a special significance that it had never enjoyed in the Tanakh. And concluding the whole Bible with Revelation gave a new significance to apocalyptic doctrines and imagery. The book had a clear narrative, from the Garden of Eden through Armageddon. Far more than any novel, the book had a Beginning and an End!

Many factors in printing and book-making encouraged textual fundamentalism. The creation of numbered chapters and verses by the sixteenth century made Bible verses much easier to locate, and encouraged the use of proof texts as knockdown arguments in religious debate. Later, we find the practice of printing Jesus’s words in red type, giving them an extra-weighty character, and rejecting criticism or selectivity.

Also from the seventeenth century, the creation of the portable or even pocket-sized Bible encouraged a simplistic Biblicism, the sense that spiritual truth could be localized within this specific textual object. The presence of this object was as much a leap forward from the Middle Ages as the appearance of the huge translated Bibles kept chained at church pulpits. Finally, the word really was in the hands (pockets) of the people.

Through history, the appearance of study Bibles and Bibles with commentaries has tended to change the content of the message, as readers see comments and marginal texts as part of the scripture itself. English governments disliked the Geneva Bible not because of the quality of its translation, but because of its subversive commentaries. Another example of this would be the Schofield Study Bible of the early twentieth century, with its presentation of prophecies and apocalyptic, which shaped interpretation of the Bible books themselves.

And this was not just a matter of words. The use of visual images in certain books of the Bible—especially Revelation— encouraged a fascination with those apocalyptic portions of the Bible text, at the expense of more cerebral or moralistic sections, such as Wisdom literature.

Similar themes emerge in later centuries too, especially as other religions tried to find simple pocket versions that encapsulated their doctrines in pocket form, to compete with Christian missionaries. In the nineteenth century, this motive explains the rise of the Bhagavad Gita as the “essence of Hinduism.” Buddhist and Hindu lands both evolved parallels to the very potent example of the Gideon Bible. The Little Red Book of Chairman Mao was a direct response to the pocketable scriptures offered so abundantly by Christian missionaries.

Today’s new electronic media should have an impact on our notions of "ways of being religious" quite as substantial as the book and mass literacy did centuries ago, and in so doing, will also transform notions of authority and individual belief. But that is the subject of another post.

Philip Jenkinsis a Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University and author of The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade.

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