Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | March 29, 2008

The Trouble with Books (Part Deux)

The Trouble with Books is that we need them.

Ours is no longer an oral culture. This holds even to the point where schools seem embarassed whenever memorization is required. Rigorous training of the mind, memory skills and the like are something left for the home. Let Mom and Dad do the grunt work while teacher plays Muppet to our offspring. Today, creativity and originality are highly valued, and the need for conferring familiarity with our cultural inheritance seen as unnecessary. And as much as this devalues this same creativity we pretend to prize by affording it no context, it serves our focus on the immediacy of the “now”. There can be no other choice than to broaden audiences through serving the lowest common denominators.

I think if we had an oral culture, the advent of mass media might have presented less of a problem. We would have integrated its tools into well-established cultural systems and maintained the rich fabric of a high culture without attendant losses. Unfortunately, our bookish culture was overwhelmed by the expressive emotional power of the media and lost much of its influence. Sadly, this was not offset by the protections afforded in a well-guarded oral tradition.

Accordingly, one of our first steps in returning home to a richer and deeper faith through the Orthodox Church seems to involve a return to recovering both our bookish and oral traditions… through reading. This is good, for the early church was indeed an oral culture and reading – especially reading aloud – affords entry into its riches. The ancient path was to learn the prayers by rote, by singing, and through worship as an instrumental part of catechesis.

In this it is not all surprising that The Word should be incarnate: after all, there was scarcely another choice. People were the personal media devices of the day, ready to “play” anytime, anywhere… batteries not included. And despite the lack of electronics, the wonder of these human ipods among their beholders was certainly no less than we feel on holding one in our hands today. The stature of the oracles, the poets, the “singers” of lore and legend in the ancient world reflected the common belief that the gods spoke to them through the muses. As a result, the words of these artists were not entirely their own… at least not among the best of them… but delivered to them from on high.

The greatest of these were eventually recorded in text. Joseph T. Lienhard in “The Bible, The Church and Authority” makes this clear as the path of scripture as well. Living witnesses were treasured over the written word. In many cases, the parallel between this oral tradition and scripture continued well beyond the limits of the lives of the first hand witnesses to Christ, and in some measure continues to this day in the lives of our saints and living witnesses, in those for whom theosis is more than an idea, more than a prayer, and more than something for others more perfect and committed than ourselves.

Yet increasingly, the two strains interleaved and depend as much upon one as upon the other. Few would suggest that contemporary saints have done without scripture, or that contemporary understanding of scripture can do without the witness of the saints. In “The Arena”, the good Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov makes clear not just that the line of living witnesses has weakened over time through scarcity and decay, but also that scripture grew in relative stature and in virtue as our understanding of it was expanded through time and cumulative testament.

Today we have a plethora of books in English that help deliver an understanding of scripture according to the Fathers. Among other things, we rely on these to simplify the lives of our overburdened priests and to disseminate a consistent, vetted understanding. We cannot do without these. Again, “The Arena” makes crystal clear in its many warnings that we are to be very careful in relying on each other, on our clergy, and hierarchs that we remain committed first and foremost to Christ, and excuse nothing contradictory simply as “following orders”. Error respects no one.

Fact is, the good Bishop Ignatius demolishes many of my pet thoughts as well. The virtues of one-on-one teaching, the virtues of endeavoring to understand and see Christ through the Old Testament alone as the Apostles were taught… all simply reflect vain temptations.. to see them as some sort of Holy Grail. And as if that weren’t enough, at the end of the day, my correction comes from a book. Surely more will be coming…. both books and corrections.

Finally, books are indeed an enormous aid in the translation of one’s life in the middle of its journey from protestantism into true faith as they offer the prospect of filling some of the gaps in a lifetime missed. Yet this too, is an illusion, as the world itself cannot contain, nor could our lives encompass all the books that would fill these gaping holes (John 21:25). Surely somewhere, we – and especially I – must come to see that the gaps in our lives and understanding were filled in elsewhere with material that matters to God in ways we simply cannot see. We are forgiven. And in this belief we will have life in His name (John 20:31).


  1. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”


    To move us from the intellect down to the heart. To move us away from books and towards/into the spiritual realm. To teach us to fight against the undertow of the world (intellect) and push our way to shore and solid ground (the heart).

  2. Athanasia: Well said. Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: