Shakespeare has been luckier than the Bible or the prayer books, over the last few generations. No prim and earnest committees have been struck by the English Departments, to rewrite his text. The surviving professors have been content to continue fussing over the manuscripts.
I once toyed with, then abandoned, a little satirical production that would be presented as “the new ICEL version of Julius Caesar,” working on the same principles as the begetters of the Roman Missal of 1973. It would deliver that “less literal correspondence with the original as a dynamic equivalence” feeling. Needless to say, all the poetry would disappear, along with any meaning it happened to be carrying when last seen.
The task was too grim for me, and by now the result would seem as stale and dated as all the many productions of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy from that unheroic era. Forty years is a long time, as we discover when glancing through old Kodachrome snapshots that reveal, e.g., what an ass we were in long hair.
Yet the same mischievous impulse itches away, and today I find the notion of adapting Shakespeare to the conventions of the Internet not always suppressible: “Tweet havoc and let slip the dogs of war!”
Like most closet Luddites who sneak out to check for messages in email, my first response to Pope Benedict’s new Twitter account was almost involuntarily derisive. One feels almost programmed that way – as if derision were the driving force in the Twitterverse, as mendacity its fuel. Anything short of vile sounds Pollyanna.
And it was only when I reflected upon the esteem in which I hold not only Pope Benedict’s office, but his person, that I straightened up. For would the Church in past ages have hesitated a moment to embrace any new communications technology? On the contrary, her instinct was: take charge.
For there is nothing wrong with “technology,” per se, and as the NRA argues, it is not guns that kill people; just as it was never books and pamphlets, per se, that spread heresies and triggered wars. It was only the authors of them.
The selection of targets remains the human prerogative, and it is only in the mind of the criminally deranged that the gun selects its own. (How often, quoted in the media, I have read a street thug passively describing what his gun was doing, as if it were some deus ex machina, how it even found its own way to the scene of the crime.)
The Holy Father tweets
The analogy of iPhones to Glocks is likewise one that may suggest itself, while reading “comments” posted at almost any mass website; or watching that Twitterverse choose its next victim. And as we now begin to realize, this technology has placed frightening new powers in the hands of schoolyard bullies, and networked schoolyard mobs.
The so-called “Internet apostate,” Jaron Lanier – among the pioneers of “digitized virtuality” – has more recently been campaigning against what he now calls “digital Maoism” and the “hive mind.” A piece about him in the Smithsonian magazine drew my attention to the sophistication of his critique.
For Lanier does not merely condemn declining standards of etiquette. Beyond, he reviews the actual achievements of a technology that promised to cut out the middleman, and has into the bargain cut away the middle class and middle of the economy, too. Little remains between gargantuan purveyors of Internet services, and the vast underclass of Internet consumers, whose every twitch may now be monitored and fed into the database of our Brave New World.
He, who with his colleagues a generation ago campaigned to “make information free,” succeeded beyond intentions. They were further able to make that information worthless, at least to the providers of it. He explains how Google and like enterprises now casually pillage everything their little customers can gather or create, and alone cash in on the result.
And all this while encouraging in the matrix that heady narcissism by which the little ants are persuaded that they have been somehow freed. They may “express themselves” (entirely without cost!) in aggregating waves of niceness, or nastiness, while Google inserts the advertising, “selling the people back to themselves” in Lanier’s telling phrase. And . . . .
“We are so ‘full’ of ourselves that there is no room left for God.”
This phrase, embedded in the pope’s Christmas message, strikes me as perfectly fit for battle in the electronic realm. And having often elsewhere watched angelic agencies transform the most unlikely materials into the steel for Saint Michael’s blade, I’m prepared to believe that good could come of the exercise.
One might even argue that there is no choice. The electronic media have become established at the very “interface” between persons – even between monks in monasteries – and if the Church is not there she is entirely cut out.
This pope, in whom I place so much confidence, is not trying to be “trendy” or “get with the times.” He is a traditionalist of the first water, and quite obviously not attracted to strutting on the stage. Moreover, in who he is, and from his position, he has as good a view of the evangelical topography as anyone alive. In God’s sight, he makes his judgments accordingly.
As he also communicated, throughout his Christmas message, ringing in every word: our Church cannot be on the defensive. She is in a battle, openly with the world, for every human soul. Except in prayer, she does not have the luxury of retreating to some mountain fastness where the world cannot molest her. It is not her business to be absent from the battlefield.
And it is no longer the message we are trying to “revise.” Instead, our task is to put the unrevisable message of two thousand years on every channel.