Aug.-Sept. '00

Genetic Engineering

Editorial: Animal Experimentation

Notes from the Cultural Wasteland

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In the beginning was the word.

So begins one of the apocryphal texts.

As a culture, we have depended on the word for our understanding of the nature of God, heaven, hell, the afterlife, and the forces behind good and evil. More accurately, our thoughts on these things have been shaped by our communications--oral tradition, the "sermon," the written word--whereby one human or group has communicated opinions and beliefs to the rest of us.

The obvious example of this would be the official religious texts: the Bible, the Talmud, the Koran, etc. For centuries, most people in Christian society depended on the clergy to learn of these words, so every concept one had of such things was filtered through the church. Then Gutenberg's printing press changed the world in dramatic, fundamental ways. Now the average Joe had access to his own Bible and became free to interpret "the word" for himself. The church soon lost its monopoly on religious beliefs, the Reformation happened, and Christianity splintered into a seemingly infinite number of sects.

I started thinking about this subject one night while browsing through the pay-per-view offerings on cable television. About half the movies I could order that night had something to do with religion. There was Dogma, Stigmata, and several others.

I thought about that. If Gutenberg's press changed things so fundamentally, could movies and television accomplish something similar? Printed literature has fallen in our cultural hierarchy, the book seemingly challenged by electronic media--movies, television, DVDs, and the Internet. Thus today's Steinbecks and Hemingways are probably creating in digital video or HTML. Human perception even seems to be undergoing an evolutionary phase in which our thinking is shifting away from a form suited to traditional linear communication towards one more suited to sound bites, quick cuts, and hypertext links.

I wondered: Will a new religious point of view emerge from this shift in communication styles? I flipped through the channels. The proselytes were there: the televangelists and religious dramas filled the Christian broadcasting stations; electronic retellings of the old stories were there, too--an old Hollywood movie, a special-effects-laden retelling of the Exodus, played on one of the classic movie channels; Bravo advertised The Last Temptation of Christ.

A memory wormed its way from the back of my mind into my consciousness. I once taught a Humanities and Literature class to a group of very bright high school students. I had decided we would explore mythology as it appeared in literature, and for contemporary examples, we watched movies like Black Orpheus and Jesus of Montreal. This prompted a lively discussion about how popular literature had, over the years, contributed more to our understanding of religious concepts than had the "official" texts.

One student had read Dante and pointed out that our concepts of heaven and hell came mostly from him. This surprised a young woman in the class. "What about Satan's fall from heaven?" she asked. "Didn't that come from the Bible?"

"Nope. Milton," answered the other student.

I thought about that as the television listings scrolled past: Printed text is falling from its place in our culture and being shoved aside by electronic media. What will be the effect in a hundred years? If Paradise Lost and The Inferno have more effect upon our beliefs about heaven and hell than the church and the ancient texts, will End of Days and What Dreams May Come shape our great-great-grandchildren's understanding of such things?

If you look around, you can see evidence that the sects produced following Gutengberg have largely become obsolete and new ones have begun to arise. A decade or so ago, for example, the self-help movement created a virtually new religion (Scientology) based on the twelve steps of AA, gaining ground by converting just-out-of-rehab Hollywood types. More dramatically, "Wicca" is now spreading, in the form of a new folk religion, loosely based on ancient traditions, finding its expression largely through the Internet and with no organizing "head."

This trend scares me, because any thought communicated as "truth," especially when motivated by financial gain, has potentially destructive consequences. On the other hand, while culture fragmented when religion, morality, ethics, and the like, fell into the hands of "the common man", humans ultimately moved toward autonomy. As Erich Fromm pointed out, just as a mature person must break away from mom and dad, a mature humankind will eventually discard heaven and hell to take responsibility for its own future.

So the power of electronic communication could either bring humanity into a brighter future where ethics and spirituality evolve to a higher plane, or it could serve as a mind-controlling social engineer far more insidious than traditional organized religion.

Think about that the next time you order a pay-per-view movie.

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