George H. Guthrie

            George H. Guthrie


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"Social Media" Networks and the Christian Movement: Three Phases

"Social Media" Networks and the Christian Movement: Three Phases

Last night I had the privilege of participating in a panel discussion at our local synagogue in Jackson, TN. This was Part 2 in a 3 part series stretching from September to May. Part 1 dealt with the formative years of Judaism and that religion's relationship with the Christian movement, Part 2 generally with the "bridge" between the ancient and modern worlds (specifically the Middle Ages), and Part 3 will deal with Judaism and Christianity in the modern era.

My role last night was to discuss briefly the impact the printing press had on these two faith communities and the world. That set me thinking about various forms of "social media" and "networks" in their various expressions through the ages, and how Christians used such media for the sake of the gospel and the church.

1. Hand-written Documents: One Message, Many Places & Times

For the first two decades or so, the Christian movement was primarily oral in the communication of its message. The book of James may have been written as early as the mid-40s, and Paul's letter to the Galatians at the end of that decade, but the gospels probably did not begin to be put down in written form until some time in the middle of the next decade. However, think about the multiplication effect on the message as letters, gospels, a sermon (the book of Hebrews), and the Revelation were put down in writing.

  • An apostle's testimony was no longer limited to places where he was present.
  • Particular expressions of the message, teachings, and stories of the first Christ followers could be in multiple places at once. For instance, when Paul wrote Romans in the mid-50s, it began to be copied and those copies spread across the Mediterranean world. So, perhaps, believers in Rome, Alexandria, Ephesus, and Jerusalem could all have access to Paul's teaching.
  • As the eyewitnesses of Jesus' life, ministry, death, and resurrection began to die off, their teachings were multiplying through the world, their "voices" living on in scrolls and books to continue the witness and the expansion of the Christian movement.
  • Those documents could be read over and again, studied, and used to evaluate teachings people offered to the church. Heresies were rejected because they failed to adhere to the teachings of Jesus and the apostles.

Thus, Christian social media of the first centuries played a critical role in the the Christian mission. In this phase the key words are multiplication and continuation of the witness.

2. The Printing Press: A Rapid Medium for the Masses

A massive leap forward in "social media" came with the advent of the printing press. Prior to its invention, books were produced on parchment or vellum, which were expensive. One source suggests that about 170 calves or 300 sheepskins were needed to produce an average copy of the Bible. Even in the most efficient scriptoriums (places where manuscripts were copied by specialists), it would take almost 2 years, with 45 scribes working full-time, to produce just 200 books. Yet, just a half century after the printing press was invented in 1450, over 6 million books had been printed in Europe!

Johannes Gutenberg was a German blacksmith and goldsmith, who was born in 1395. In a first, he came up with a metal alloy to make the type blocks (wood had been used before), which made his type both durable and of very high quality in terms of the print. He also invented an oil-based ink which also was more durable than the water-based inks that others had used.

The first book printed was the Gutenberg Bible, produced in 1455 or 1456. It was a 2 volume copy of Jerome’s Latin Vulgate, the translation which had been the official translation of the Catholic Church for a millennium. Approximately 120 copies were produced on paper, which had become common in Europe a couple of centuries earlier, and another 30 were deluxe copies printed on parchment. Thus, we have had the choice between "economy" and deluxe, leather versions of the Bible from the beginning!

The Gutenberg Bible

A part of the Hebrew Old Testament (the Psalms) was printed in 1477, and the whole of the Jewish Scriptures in Hebrew came along in 1488. The first published Greek New Testament was rushed to print by Erasmus in 1516, and the first Bible with verse divisions (a Latin Bible) was offered in 1528. Tyndale's New Testament was the first English Bible to hit the market and did so in 1526, while the whole of Martin Luther's German Bibel, which would have such a profound effect on the German language in the coming centuries, came along in 1534 (his New Testament had been released in 1522, 4 years prior to the one by Tyndale).

Prior to this time, copies of the Bible were terribly expensive, accessed primarily by the elite, the educated, and the wealthy. But with the advent of the printing press, all that changed. Also, Christian materials could be mass-produced, spreading the teachings of leaders like Martin Luther and John Calvin throughout Europe. There were at least 3 great impacts on the culture:

  • The Rapid Dissemination of Ideas. An article in The Economist, entitled, "How Luther went Viral," noted that thousands upon thousands of copies of Luther's "95 Theses" were printed in a short amount of time, launching the Protestant Reformation, the anniversary of which we celebrate this year. This was the first "viral" media in history, as people scrambled to read this document that shook the foundations of Europe and eventually the world.
  • Growth in Literacy and Education. People wanted to learn to read, to be able to read the Bible, and then they wanted to read other works. This bolstered an emerging middle-class and prompted economic development in Europe. In terms of the broader impact of printing Haward Rheingold writes, “You can't have an industrial revolution, you can't have democracies, you can't have populations who can govern themselves until you have literacy. The printing press simply unlocked literacy.
  • The Ability to Challenge Both Religious and Secular Authorities.  Benson Bobrick writes, “Once the people were free to interpret the Word of God according to the light of their own understanding, they began to question the authority of their inherited institutions, both religious and secular, which led to reformation within the Church, and to the rise of constitutional government in England and the end of the divine right of kings.” 

Thus the printing press, as a new form of social media, transformed the world, and the words of Scripture and the teachings of the Christian faith got into the hands of common people. In this phase the key words are rapid, affordable, and mass production. 

3. Internet: Immediate and Constant Access

As we consider the impact of social media in our own day (and the world is full of articles and blog posts on the subject), let me just suggest that both the immediate and constant access to all kinds of information (both good and erroneous) certainly is shaping the modern world and the church along with it. The key words here are immediate and constant.

Every form of social media has down sides, and this has been the case from the beginning of the written page (see William Powers wonderful little book, Hamlet's Blackberry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age, Harper, 2010).

Yet, who can deny the positive benefits of being made aware of profoundly helpful articles, audios, and videos with the push of a button. The gospel is going forth to dark corners of the world in ways that were before unimaginable. Access to Christian education has entered a new phase around the world as remote peoples can take advantage of high quality teachings half a world away.

Nevertheless, how will we steward the social media of our own age? How might we address the down sides of such media, even as our forefathers and mothers did in the age of Paul, or Augustine, or Luther? Let's thank God for social media through the ages, even as we seek diligently to use it wisely.

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