Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Talking in a Dark Room

I sometimes wonder about the web and the blogosphere...I often feel like I'm talking in a dark room, before a profuse but unseen audience. I know there are people out there, and some are even listening...but they can't be seen or felt or experienced. For all the trumpeted praise it's received as the ultimate in global communication, the world wide web is not very communicative. Yes, you can connect with anyone, anywhere in the world, at any time—but can you communicate?

Our technologies have run so far ahead of us, in both practical and evolutionary terms. It all began, of course, with Gutenberg's revolution some 550 years ago. I think it is one of the more tragic errors in human history that the first product of his new technology was a mass-producible form of an ancient and essentially dead literature that hadn't been reanimated since its birth in the oral mists of pre-history.

This seems to point to a crucial difference between old books that seem to remain alive and those that further stiffen in their morbidity. People like Legge, Wilhelm, Greg Whincup, and Carol Anthony are the stewards of a continually growing and renewing work called the I Ching, which was originally written some 5,000 years ago. Lao Tzu, of couse, has enjoyed nearly innumerable renaissance moments, from famous writers such as Ursula Le Guin and Stephen Mitchell, and others who live in that electronic anonymity that is the world wide web. Poets like Kabir and Rumi keep dancing in the light of the quantum Whole that some call God, and are able to reflect that light back toward us through a stream of fresh and vibrant translations, made over the centuries since they first sang. Fitzgerald and Fagles have given Homer a strong and modern voice that speaks to us just as deeply today as the blind poet's lyrics moved his contemporaries.

But the Bible is somehow different. True, there have been a few—Stephen Mithcell among them—who have attempted to draw its rigid and dying voice into the language of the present; but their influence has been minimal. The only modern translations that are available today are just as stiff and soul-smothering as the old King James and its feudal-era imitators. These are the works not of individual men and women, and they are certainly not the work of poets; they are the corporate efforts of boardroom-style committees with private and insidious agendas. In this month's Harper's Magazine, Bill McKibben draws a brief and fascinating portrait of this literary corpse we call the Bible, and its shrill and violent modern interpreters. He is forced to conclude his reflections on a rather dark, but probably realistic note:

...more likely the money changers and power brokers will remain ascendant in our "spiritual" life. Since the days of Constantine, emperors and rich men have sought to co-opt the teachings of Jesus. As in so many areas of our increasingly market-tested lives, the co-opters—the TV men, the politicians, the Christian "interest groups"—have found a way to make each of us complicit in that travesty, too. They have invited us to subvert the church of Jesus even as we celebrate it. With their help we have made golden calves of ourselves—become a nation of terrified, self-obsessed idols. It works, and it may well keep working for a long time to come. When Americans hunger for selfless love and are fed only love of self, they will remain hungry, and too often hungry people just come back for more of the same.

I am reminded that we are now able to download and access the Word of God, in nearly any known language, onto a cell phone, a PDA, or a Blackberry device; and draw spiritual inspiration after answering the last of our day's email. But can we feel the breath of God in that bundle of wires and silicon circuits? We can, indeed, assure ourselves that God is in the thing—as It is in all things. But really, can we feel It? Can we work past the level of appearances, and read beyond the word to the loving Energy that wrote it? McKibben's answer, which agrees with my own, is "No, we cannot—not yet." And as long as that answer remains the same, we will have leaders who will annihilate 3,000 innocent citizens of a great city, or who will wage a Sisyphean war against a foreign nation that had done his country no harm—all in the name of God and His holy and confidential Word.

No comments: