In today’s scripture readings we hear Christ give the command, “write what you have seen” (indeed he says this twice in the space of a couple of paragraphs) and at the end of John’s gospel we have it explained that while there was so much more in the way of stories that could have been recorded, those that John selected were “written so that we may come to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God and that through believing you may live in his name.”
It has been and should be a principle for us as disciples: we must know the story of Jesus and tell it with understanding and focus on its saving message; and we must also share our personal encounters with Christ so that we might provide inspiration, comfort and hope to our brothers and sisters in faith; and perhaps, spark the curiousity of those who don’t yet believe.
We do this by using the best technology at hand, we look to use the most efficient and effective means by which we can spread the good news of Jesus Christ. Two thousand years ago, that meant taking that revolutionary technology we call writing, using it, but also being innovators in its use. We are to be a technological people, sophisticated in our communication.
Other great religious traditions have scriptures, have writings, but Christianity is the most insistent upon reading and writing as a central activity. This spurred a revolution in human society, a drive to literacy and a valuing of popular education unseen in the world up until then. Everywhere the Church goes, it seeks to educate, to make literate the people it encounters; even to the point of creating written language for cultures that have language but no writing.
We often fail to appreciate that writing is a technology, as much as wireless internet service and space travel. Indeed, those latter things would never have come to be but that we became literate. We also likely fail to grasp just how recently this technology arrived. We think about cuneiform tablets dug up in the deserts of Iraq, from the ruins of the first human cities, and these date back 5000 years, and then consider writing an “ancient” technology. Fair enough, but consider that modern human beings, homo sapiens, have walked the earth for 200,000 years. Almost 98 percent of the time humanity has existed, we’ve been illiterate.
Even in the time of Jesus’ ministry, even among the Jews who were exceptionally literate for an ancient people, the vast majority of people couldn’t read or write; these were valued skills that afforded a whole class of people known as scribes a position of privilege.
Only the wealthy and powerful had scribes among their servants; kings and princes, high priests, and wealthy merchants could retain men who could write up contracts, treaties, copy works of literature, transcribe the scriptures, facilitate translations.
Like in the early days of computing when a computer was something you had to go to a university or a government research facility to see; and its operation was entrusted to men and women in lab coats; scribes and their writing desks were the tech wizards of their day.
And the communication network that existed two thousand years ago, the one by which books and letters, news and information was moved about was one where the most efficient, the fastest system lay exclusively in the hands of the powerful. Rome, like other ancient empires, had a government communication system of couriers to transport documents and public town criers to disseminate the official news; and so, information moved from one end of the empire to the other relatively quickly: a few weeks. But the rest of society only had an informal system. You would entrust a letter to a friend or pay someone going in the direction of the place you wanted to get your letter to, and hope for the best. This, as we know from the famous letters of St. Paul, Sts. Peter, John and Jude, was how the Church first communicated across the great distances of the empire.
If you had a message you wanted broadcast, that is publicly announced as the Church had, there really was nothing aside from standing in the town square and shouting. And if the authorities didn’t care for what you were saying, you’d soon know it – we have in our scriptures the stories of St. Paul and the beatings and times of imprisonment he suffered for his efforts. In our day, the forum is twitter and facebook, and to a lesser extent than in the past, television broadcasting. Like the massive computers of old, these services and networks require vast resources to operate and to dominate social communication; it’s hard to compete with multi-billion-dollar tech and media companies.
There was a television series in the latter half of the 2000s titled “Rome.” It was a great show; a fictional retelling of the events of the late Roman Republic and the beginning of the Empire centred on the lives of two common Roman legionaries. One of my favourite recurring minor characters was someone credited at “the newsreader.” He was an ancient town crier who announced the news of the day in Rome’s forum, along with reading paid advertisements just like it was evening television newscast. For the purposes of the show, this was to recap things for the viewing audience. It was almost always a bit of comic relief how he presented the news. While everything he said was strictly factual, it was presented in such a way that you knew who was in charge in Rome, and how Romans were to think about current events. So, for example, General Pompey was a hero of the republic and Julius Caesar a public criminal one day; and then a week later, Julius Caesar is hailed as the father of the nation, and Pompey was now called a fugitive from justice.
Christians today are in a similar situation: we do not have one of the big voices in our culture and what will be the news and how it is to be understood is decided by others. And those who are have the megaphones, stream into peoples’ laptops and televisions by the 100s of millions present an often-disturbing solidarity in what is considered legitimate news and information, analysis and interpretation, what is culturally/socially acceptable and to be celebrated. That this reflects the interests of the powerful, of corporate culture and government authority, is understandable. Their advertising pays for the news networks; government subsidies here in Canada certainly makes struggling newspapers and broadcasters careful not to unduly offend those writing the cheques; pending legislation will have government decide who is a journalist and who is not, who disseminates news and who is a practitioner of misinformation and that is bound to have an effect on what we hear and see in the media.
Catholic and Christian publications, online news services and broadcasters, already with a small audience because of the way our media is structured will be up against it. We have to be aware of the way governments and corporations control access to information. Favouring with interviews those who are friendly to them is one obvious example. We must recognize that those who report and comment on events from a Christian perspective are going to be seen as enemies of their agenda.
So, we are going to need to get clever about how we use the best technology at hand to spread the gospel to a world, to our local community, that desperately needs to hear the good news.
In ancient times it was expensive to produce scrolls and transport them safely. When Christian wanted to distribute their scriptures as new churches formed, they also faced an increasingly hostile Roman government that looked to impound these scrolls.
Christians discovered that if you took the scraps from the scroll-makers, the odd bits and pieces and turned them into what today we would recognize as “pages” that could be sewn into much more compact volumes known originally as codices, but what we would say are “books” not only were they cheaper to make, they were easier to hide.
The Church also decided to use the language of the people. A form of Greek known as koine, which was disdained by the educated elite. This was not a refined, educated form of Greek, but the language of merchants and tradesmen. But by using it, more people could read it, understand it; and it could be more easily taught to others.
So, we did get the message out in the past; we spread the good news; we spoke our personal witness. It’s time we got clever again for the sake of those who need to hear the gospel, and to know Jesus Christ and his resurrection. For how else will the people gather for the healing and the reconciliation our society needs, if they do not know the truth of our God who is the source of the health and love they desire?
We must discover effective ways to make him known, a better means to make his message understood, and to show more effectively others how they can make their way back to him. Amen.