In discussing the mystery of the Trinity in Adult Sunday School, we followed the thought that reading silently to oneself was uncommon in history until quite recently, and thus the believer’s experience of scripture, lessons, and discussion about God was quite different. God was known out loud, most often in a group. Jesus didn’t carry scrolls around, nor did he sit and contemplate it a long time and then speak extemporaneously when they handed Him one at synagogue. Talmud was written in the form of a conversation about the text, and Torah was discussed. Paul Saenger has an academic book brought out by Stanford University Press Space Between Words tracing how differences in writing slowly changed reading from oral to silent. When Augustine read silently to himself, people wondered whether he was just faking, and whether it “counted” as having read the text, the effective reverse of modern debate debate whether listening to books on tape consitutes reading them or not.
Reading silently, then, drove the development of printing as much as printing encouraged the spread of silent reading. An interesting history and thought discussion, of course, but I am more concerned here with the effect this has had on faith and the experience of God. As a culture, we are at the extreme of this perception of God as something that happens on the page and in our heads, so it is not surprising that bibliolatry and gnostic abstraction are among the particular heresies Americans have been prone to. As one who does not partake in most religious media, neither music, nor film, radio, TV, conferences – I think I am on the outer edge of silence even in this culture. I do discuss a fair bit. I attend services. I read. But there is clearly a danger for me of experiencing God mostly in my own head.
It is very Protestant, an uber-Protestant personal faith that sees its expression in both the evangelical and pietist Quiet Time/ Meditation/ Sola Scriptura branches of the faith, and the academic and seminary portions of all our denominations. It is isolating one part of the faith, often necessarily and with powerful effect. But it would be a foreign and dry faith to the huge majority of those who have carried the name of Christ – and most Jews, frankly.
Saying things out loud gives them a reality they did not seem to have before, as anyone who has ever shared a personal secret knows. The faith was always much more concrete and physical in earlier ages, and still is in most places of the world.