Reactions and Reasons

When I first read Robert Funk's "Call for a Canon Council,"/2/ I had a series of strong reactions. First, I was delighted to see someone taking the problem of the biblical canon seriously. I have long felt that most biblical scholars unduly neglect the comparatively clear reception history of the biblical books, while devoting a disproportionate amount of time and energy groping their relatively foggy production history.

Second, the agent provocateur in me took perverse pleasure in imagining the consternation a canon council might provoke, both in the sedate pews of certain churches and in a few ivory towers of academe. Surely, daring to question the contents of Christian scripture would stir things up royally and lead to a lively public debate, right? What could be more provocative, more radical, more fundamental than questioning the very contents of the biblical canon?

Finally, however, by the time I had read to the end of the "Call for a Canon Council," my strongest and most enduring response was that this is not nearly the radical proposal that it had first seemed. The problem with the call is not what it says, but what it does not say; not what it proposes, but what it neglects even to consider. How can a proposal to reexamine the contents of arguably the most influential collection of written texts in human history fail to take into account the current revolution in electronic communication media? To call a canon council on the eve of the twenty-first century and not even mention that we now live in the Electronic Age is like calling a council in the fourth century CE and forgetting to record the results in a parchment codex, or like organizing a reform movement in the sixteenth century but neglecting to exploit the propaganda potential of the printing press.

If we take seriously the biblical canon as a product of manuscript and print cultures, then as "the Late Age of Print"/3/ gives way to the Electronic Age, a truly radical question would be whether the notion of canon itself can survive. Funk wants to call into question the contents of the biblical canon, but the Electronic Age calls into question the notion of canon itself.

Several sources spark my interest in the fate of the notion of canon. First, I have practiced reader-response criticism since the 1970s./4/ In retrospect, it was fortuitous that I stumbled upon the work of Stanley Fish and Wolfgang Iser on the shelves of the Seminary Coop Bookstore in Chicago, because the stock value of Readers and Reading, Inc. has done nothing but rise ever since, which makes me glad I invested early. Everywhere in poststructuralist critical theory today the problematics of readers and reading are a constant concern./5/ Now it seems that technology also is getting into the act; recent theoretical discussions of hypertext stress that electronic text demands the involvement of active, responsive readers of the type that reader-response criticism has long theorized./6/

Second, with my interest in readers and reading it was only natural to consider the history of the reading of the Bible--its reception history./7/ This led me to develop the college course that I call "The History of the Bible," which deals with issues that are ordinarily ignored in introductory Bible courses and that typically get shunted off into appendices of introductory textbooks, if they get mentioned at all. I refer to topics such as: the mechanisms of memory in oral cultures; the practices of scribes in manuscript cultures; the multiple manuscript traditions of biblical books; the canonization process; the history of biblical translation, concentrating on the English Bible in the first 150 years after Gutenberg; and, throughout, issues of the authority of the Bible. I work with a historical schema, borrowed from Walter Ong,/8/ which allows me to examine the biblical traditions in terms of the language technologies in which they were communicated: primary orality, manuscript culture, print culture, and the secondary orality of the Electronic Age./9/

The remaining major impetus behind this essay is the current revolution in electronic information technology. I confess a long love affair with the Macintosh computer, a more recent dalliance with hypertext, and a strong addiction to email and other cyberspatial wonders of the Internet./10/ Currently most of my reading is in books, articles, and electronic texts that address the convergence of poststructuralist critical theory, collaborative learning, and electronic technology. In the discussion that follows I shall make heavy use of three books in particular: Jay David Bolter's Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing; Richard A. Lanham's The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts; and George P. Landow's Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology. There are many other, similar titles appearing these days,/11/ but these three are superb and are recommended to anyone starting to read in this area./12/ All three share the conviction that the electronic media, and hypertext especially, are driving a major cultural transformation, and this must inevitably transform, not only the criticism of literature, but the very form and function of literature itself./13/

Relying on Bolter, Lanham, Landow, and others, I want to talk about what texts are beginning to look and sound like as a flow of electrons, instead of paper and ink. As I describe the dominant characteristics of electronic text, and hypertext especially, I think it will become obvious how deeply electronic text challenges the fundamental presuppositions of print culture, including the key notion of central, authoritative, canonical texts. Most of us are unaware of our presuppositions about how writing and reading operate in print culture. This is hardly surprising, since it is often when presuppositions are challenged, or rendered untenable, that they first rise to consciousness. In the early days of the Electronic Age we may begin to grasp what it used to mean to live in the Late Age of Print:

. . . many of our most cherished, most commonplace ideas and attitudes toward literature and literary production turn out to be the result of that particular form of information technology and technology of cultural memory that has provided the setting for them. This technology--that of the printed book and its close relations, which include the typed or printed page--engenders certain notions of authorial property, authorial uniqueness, and a physically isolated text that hypertext makes untenable. The evidence of hypertext, in other words, historicizes many of our most commonplace assumptions, thereby forcing them to descend from the ethereality of abstraction and appear as corollaries to a particular technology rooted in specific times and places./14/

Before describing the dominant characteristics of electronic text and their implications for notions such as canon, I need to indicate what I will not be addressing in the following pages. I shall not address the history of the formation of the Christian canon./15/ I shall not enter the fray over competing proposals for how to do (or not to do) canonical criticism./16/ I shall not deal with the fierce canon wars raging in literary and cultural studies today./17/ I shall also have to ignore the cross-cultural study of the phenomenon of sacred scripture by historians of religion./18/ Thus, I am ignoring a host of significant conversations on the topics of canon and scripture. The electronic revolution is well worth our focus here, however, as it promises to pull the technological rug out from all the conversations above.

If I am bracketing out major conversations on matters canonical, the least I can do, then, is to state a few simple assumptions about the notion of canon. I assume that the fundamental concern undergirding any canon is authority, and that authority articulates a sense of personal and communal identity, as well as norms and values that guide belief and practice./19/ Furthermore, I assume that, strictly speaking, canons are products of manuscript or print culture (although primal, oral cultures may have roughly analogous sets of central, authoritative symbols/20/). Moreover, I believe that the biblical canon has always been more open and fluid (i.e., more like hypertext!) than the rhetoric about canon has wanted to allow. For example, biblical scholars and preachers know that the 'canon within the canon' is an everyday fact of life. People do not grant all biblical books equal status, affection, or attention. Conversely, countless extra-canonical books, ancient, medieval, and modern, are also profoundly authoritative for Christians. David Tracy calls these authoritative, yet extra-canonical books "classics," which is a nice way of having your canon and supplementing it, too./21/

Another area that I regret having to slight in this paper is the burgeoning study of orality and literacy and the history of communication media. It must suffice to say that I am deeply influenced by the work of McLuhan, Havelock, Ong, and I am respectful of their critics, such as Finnegan. Here, too, I shall only state a few operating assumptions. Perhaps my biggest assumption is that most of our preconceived ideas about language, literature, writing, reading, and texts are shaped more than we can possibly realize by our experience of print culture./22/ For all the differences among theorists of orality and literacy (e.g., Finnegan's critique of McLuhan and Ong/23/), this much is agreed: literacy and print especially have contributed mightily to the shaping of the modern world. Our world is unimaginable, our lives unthinkable, apart from the technologies of McLuhan's "Gutenberg Galaxy." Furthermore, although there is much debate over where the Electronic Age might be taking us, there is much agreement that we hurtling ever-faster into a Computer or Electronic or Information Age, and that dramatic changes are afoot. What the changes will be, and whether they will be good or bad--who knows? But that we are living in a time of great technological and therefore social transformation is hardly open to question. A large question for readers and critics of the Bible is, What will be the fate of the Bible in the Electronic Age? How might it be 'translated' into the new electronic media? Is it likely to survive as something still recognizable as "The Bible"?

(Go to the next section)
(Go to the previous section)
(Go to the Outline)