Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Christianity and the Book

Next academic year I will be leading a faculty seminar here at Wheaton on Christianity and the Book: Histories and Futures. Participating in the seminar will be faculty from English, Education, Chemistry, Ancient Languages, Communications, and the Library. Oh, and our President wants to be there too.

We’ll want to start the year by acknowledging that the book is a technology, and that, therefore, we need to think well about technology in general. Here I think Albert Borgmann’s Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life will be especially helpful. We will also want to develop a specifically theological vocabulary, and might be assisted in that endeavor by Murray Jardine’s The Making and Unmaking of Technological Society. We will read Leo Marx’s terrific essay, “Technology: the Emergence of a Hazardous Concept” and sample some of the more pessimistic (Jacques Ellul, Neil Postman) and optimistic (Kevin Kelly) thinkers about technology.

Then we’ll turn to the history of the book. We’ll need an anthology: either The Book History Reader or A Companion to the History of the Book.

For the particularities of Christianity’s relation to the book, we’ll read, among other things, Roberts and Skeat’s The Birth of the Codex, Anthony Grafton and Megan Williams’s Christianity and the Transformation of the Book, and Ivan Illich’s In the Vineyard of the Text. When we get to the Reformation it’s going to be hard to know what to select: I’ll probably come up with readings from Elizabeth Eisenstein, Andrew Pettegree, Adrian Johns, and Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin. Surely there’s a place for Ann Blair’s Too Much to Know.

Then — and here's where it gets really tricky — late in the year we’ll want to think about how Western culture is shifting away from the dominance of the codex and what implications that has both for Christianity and for higher education. I’d love to discover that some brilliant sociologist is studying churches and new media, but I haven’t discovered that yet. We may need to read some McLuhan at this point. Also perhaps essays from Robert Darnton’s The Case for Books and Grafton’s Worlds Made by Words.

And then, on the embrace-the-future side of things, we’ll want to read The Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age, by Cathy Davidson and David Theo Goldberg. Possibly Kamenetz’s DIY U and Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus. And many blog posts by many different people.

What am I missing? What else should we read? What topics should we explore? Whom might we invite to come and speak to our group? Help me out, folks.


  • Mark Bauerlein, lit prof at Emory who has not been shy about the negative effects of new media, gave an excellent paper at the James Madison Program in Princeton this year on the increasing irrelevance of academic publications. He might be a good conversation partner for the higher education segment of your seminar.

  • Would parts of this seminar be open to the public?

  • Anonymous said...

    What about using the Kapr or Fussel text on Gutenberg?

  • Matthew, thanks for the thought.

    Deb, no, alas, this is a faculty conversation, not a public meeting.

    Anon: sorry?

  • Sounds like a wonderful course--I wish my university was as supportive of cross-disciplinary and/or team-taught programs such as this! Your tentative reading list is impressive, but I suppose I have the same reaction to its foundations as I did to Nick Carr's excellent The Shallows: why Borgmann instead of Heidegger's far more influential "The Question Concerning Technology"? The latter is a hard read, but it gets at the deep, structuring, and perhaps misleading power of "technological" thinking better than anything else I've ever read.

    All the rest sounds great. I'd never even heard of that particular work of Illich's before; I'll need to check it out.

  • Russell, please know that we don't do a lot of this kind of thing here at Wheaton — in particular we don't do much interdisciplinary team-teaching. But I think our new President and other members of the administration want to do more of it. (LIke other colleges and universities, we're still digging out of a financial hole.)

    I thought seriously about Heidegger, and will reconsider, but at this point I've judged that it's just too idiosyncratically dense for people with no background in Continental philosophy. It's amazing, though, no doubt, and will be in the background of much that we say and do.

  • You might want to look at James O'Donnell's Avatars of the Word, which draws insights from the history of Christianity and considers the role of the university in the digital age.

  • Christopher said...

    Brian Brock recently published a book that might be of interest:

    Christian Ethics in a Technological Age. (Eerdmans, June 2010.)

  • A tiny, ugly font makes *The Book History Reader* a real pain to read.

  • For how the early Christians interacted with their books: Larry Hurtado's The Earliest Christian Artifacts, and Harry Gamble's Books and Readers in the Early Church.

    Also, if Christian scholars are servants of the church, I sure hope something of your group's study will be shared with the rest of us in some form. Please!

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