I love magazines, of all kinds. I tend to hoard them and save tear out sheets and just generally clutter up my house with this form of the printed word. Since we recently recarpeted our bedrooms and their respective walk in closets, I had to pull out all those stacks of magazines and tear sheets. I don't just want to put them back in there and clutter up the closet again. Soooo.. I have been going through and tossing a lot of these old mags and sorting tear sheets, putting some of them in my computer and tossing a lot of them.
In this process, I recently found an obscure magazine that I think I found one time in Israel, even though it is published in Washington, DC. The Biblical Archeaological Review has a lot of articles on Israel, of course, because many archeological sites important in the Bible are in that country. That is probably why I saved it.
I ran across an editorial in that magazine that started me thinking. Ben Witherington III, professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, KY wrote: Sacred Texts in an Oral Culture: How Did They Function? In this opinion piece, there is a discussion of the oral Biblical culture. The literacy rate in cultures both BC and into the early part of the Modern Era was between 5 and 20% depending on the portion of the culture examined. Most communications were oral. Most written documents were meant to be read aloud and often to a group of people. Because people couldn't read, they had no concept of reading silently in solitude. It was expensive to publish the written word. Papyrus was expensive and scarce; ink was expensive and the cost of a scribe to copy a text was huge. Even the letters Apostle Paul wrote were meant to be carried to the recipients by someone familiar with the text and to be read outloud to a large group there. This meant that written documents were highly respected and special. "Since literacy belonged to the social elite, written texts in this oral cultures would have served the purposes of th elite -- conveying their authority, passing down their judgements, establishing their property claims, indicating their heredity, and the like." Carrying this respect one step further, these documents were often regarded as Holy or as containing a special spirituality and fell right into the rituals of the common religious practices of the day. Hence the "People of the Book", the people of the Old Testament, and later the importance of the New Testament to Christianity.
Again considering this oral culture, we can understand how words were regarded to be "living" because important things were always spoken. But then to have a way to write these words down and preserve them, to give them material substance, we can see that these words on papyrus would not be regarded as just cyphers, as just symbolic. Words were believed to have strong power and a strong affect on people and on their lives. Yes, the writing of the words of God held immense power. But that importance and power also must have rubbed off on ordinary spoken words. One can assume that people thought before they spoke and one can see that a certain view might be expressed very carefully. Of course, we were human then too and hot words were mispoken then also.But thinking about what Dr. Witherington wrote, about the difference between that culture and ours led me to wonder.
Moving forward in history, we arrived at a time in the Victorian era, where written words were available to a much larger percentage of the population. In the 1840s 30-50% of brides and grooms could sign their name on their marriage certificate. By 1900 97% of the couples could sign their names. This measure of literacy showed that the ability to read and write had dramatically increased. The written word was more available than ever before. But there was still a civility, a calmness, and multiple forms of polite expression apparent in written communications between people. All sorts of extra words conveyed greetings, wishes for health and wealth, and peoples titles were utilized to express a respect for the other person's position. Read an old letter sent by your great grandparents or grandparents. The style is longer, flowing and expresses a degree of consideration for the recipient not seen today.
Now fast forward to our current culture, a written culture if there ever was one. Look at this screen from which you are reading. These letter cyphers and words fly magically through the air in seconds to be distributed far and wide. I am writing these words very quickly and cheaply; I can write a lot of them without much consideration or thought, especially about the effects of these words whereever they are distributed whether electronically or on paper. Also I am writing this in solitude, with no group around me to react, and to give feedback, not even an individual whose facial response to my words are visible to me. The words themselves have therefore seemingly become cheap. They don't seem to have the power that they once had. And yet they can have hurtful power. We have forgotten what these words can mean. Our current culture makes us forget about this hurtful power. Greetings, respectful titles and lengthy expression of feelings have disappeared. Even the words themselves are disappearing. Hence the appearance of all sorts of abreviations: LOL, OMG, etc. Of course, since we can't see who we are communicating with some of these abbreviations are trying to supply what our face and mannerisms would supply in person. But the shortening of communications, the reduction of words, the lack of pleasantries, and the ease with which we throw out these communications has led to a change in the style of our living. I think this change in the use of the written word and its manner of distribution has resulted in some of the lack of civility, the bullying among young people, even the vitriole in political discourse that we are seeing today. I feel that the power of words needs to be reassessed and a respect for the written word as it was respected when delivered orally needs to be reawakened. In other shorter words, think before you write. In invite comments on this topic.