I looked, and behold! a spray tan horse (or, how the loss of literacy could spell the end for western civilization)

When Kim Kardashian tweeted, “Today marks the 100 year anniversary of Armenian Genocide!” as if she were giving a birth announcement, it predictably elicited some snickers. But not from John McWhorter. In his Daily Beast article appropriately titled “Why Kim Kardashian Can’t Write Good,” McWhorter argues that America is shifting from book-patterned thinking to more informal, verbal-based communication, and that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s just an example of “times changing in ways that hurt no one.”

On the surface, he seems to agree with media theorist Neil Postman’s premise that the primary communication medium a society uses will necessarily shape how it communicates, and that each medium has its own structure and emphases. What he doesn’t claim (and what Postman does) is that not all mediums are appropriate for all messages, and that when a new medium becomes the predominant one in a culture, it can fundamentally change the public discourse. Writing, for instance, is linear and builds upon previous information. Television, in contrast, must be formatted to be consumed in bite size chunks where no previous knowledge can be assumed. This is why Postman argued that education, as traditionally defined, is better accomplished through writing than through television.

Although this concept of mediums shaping messages was given popular expression by media theorists like Postman and Marshall McLuhan, it has much older, deeper roots in Judeo-Christian thought. In the Old Testament, we find two mediums of communication privileged when it comes to facilitating theological education and worship: writing and speech. Writing seems to be the highest form of discourse given the place of primacy that the Ten Commandments, and indeed the whole Torah, had in the Jewish mind (see Deuteronomy 31:10-12). However, oral discourse also had a distinct religious importance since it was the primary mode of daily communication; thus the command to talk regularly about the law of God with one’s children (Deuteronomy 6:7).

In contrast, pictorial representations for the purpose of teaching and inspiring worship were not completely without merit (Exodus 25:22), but could not be used to facilitate worship proper, as the Hebrews learned all too well during the incident of the golden calf (Exodus 32). God could be represented in words, particularly those written words that He inspired, but not in images. The implication of this is that the medium in which a message is transmitted is not irrelevant to the content of the message. Pictorial representations of the God of Israel were not seen as capable of conveying the things about Himself which He wanted to disclose, but would instead lead the recipients of His self-disclosure astray.

The relationship of medium to message is implicitly disclosed in the New Testament as well. Jesus of Nazareth, the itinerant preacher, relied primarily on verbal modes of communication, and can therefore be contrasted with Paul, the writer. Jesus told memorable parables and stories which could be easily remembered and reinterpreted for different contexts. Paul wrote long letters that relied upon sustained linear argumentation. He communicated his points by building his case progressively and carefully arranging his data. He wasn’t interested in quickly grabbing the attention of a passerby and sharing a convicting aphorism for him to remember, but in demonstrating his thesis to someone who was willing to follow his train of thought from beginning to end. The result is that Jesus’ theology has to be constructed by the reader while Paul’s already is constructed. The listener trying to make sense of Jesus’ philosophy will miss quite a lot if he isn’t capable of laying it out systematically, as Paul did. That’s what makes Kim Kardashian’s tweet, symptomatic as it is of a larger trend, so terrifying. It represents a fundamental failure to think beyond 140 characters.

The danger we find ourselves in today, of casting aside the more literate Pauline approach, is that in doing so we will have lost the ability for sustained, developed, complex thought and be left instead with a worldview resembling a Twitter feed—a random arrangement of slogans and metaphors. Once we have given up literacy because it’s too difficult, we cannot be like those oral cultures which were shaped by Homer, the Mishnah, or Beowulf. We’ll be lucky if we can aspire to Lady Gaga.

Is Kim Kardashian the harbinger of the West’s doom, and proof that careful, structured thought is on its way out? Perhaps. But that is exactly why westerners should remain, as the Qur’an referred to Jews and Christians in an era of increasing illiteracy, a people of the book.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *