going viral—500 year ago

We all know there is a lot of irrational, ungracious, and deeply prejudiced ranting on the internet. The tone of civil discourse is widely acknowledged to be deteriorating.

Take this anti-Catholic screed I found on the internet, speaking of the pope:

Now move along, you damned son,
you Whore of Babylon.
You are the abomination and the Antichrist,
full of lies, death and cunning.

This wasn’t written about the current pope, although you can find such comments about practically any public figure today. (Just start reading the comments. Or spare yourself.} But this was a parody of the popular folk ballad Turn Out the Winter, or at least you would know that if you lived in the 1500s when it was written. And the author was Martin Luther.

This song has the literary quality of Rebecca Blacks’ Friday, Friday, but Luther’s musical initiative was only part of a multimedia onslaught that would bring down popes and overthrow empires. All media is social and his social media campaign included cartoons mocking religious leaders and a print of Luther with a halo, not exactly a Reformation staple.

Both music and images are aspects of our daily diet via the internet today, and I am encouraging my friends to read Magic and Loss: the internet as art to get a deeper understanding of the current landscape. But Luther used music and art as well as that new-fangled iPad, known then as a printing press to change things, for the better I would think, although he was blunt and uncivil in his approach. Reformers often are.

It would be nonsense to insist the Reformation would not have happened without the printing press or even without Luther himself, of course. But Gutenberg’s press is 1450 added the same thing to the process that social media does today—speed and scale. Speed is relative, of course. It took 2 years for Philip II to get a message to his viceroys in the Philippines. Printing itself did not change the speed of a boat. But blog-size pamphlets, which Luther and his followers used much more effectively than his opponents, spread quickly.

Of the 95 Thesis themselves, Luther’s friend Friedrich Myconius said “hardly 14 days had passed when these propositions were known throughout Germany and within four weeks almost all of Christendom was familiar with them.” His sermon on Indulgences and Grace was written a few months later and was a runaway best-seller since he wrote in vernacular German. Reprinted 14 times in 1518 alone, it appeared on the New York Times Best Seller list for about two centuries. Within the first decade of the Reformation over 7 million pamphlets were printed and distributed, and over a quarter of them were by Luther.

This media offensive not only defended his ideas but drew on popular humor to ridicule and ecclesiastical authority, a concept I fully understand because I’ve gone to chapel at a Christian university. His motives can be defended of course, provided you are Protestant, but everyone can appreciate his effectiveness. Just 66 years after the first Bible rolled off the press, Luther wrote at the top of his Wittenburg thesis, “Out of love for the truth, and the desire to bring it to light” that he wished to “defend the following statements and to dispute them in this place.”

And dispute them he did. By 1523 over 80% of all books printed in German dealt with the reform of the church. Printers across Europe retranslated and reprinted his work without his advice or consent. Copyright infringement was on a global scale, except of course there was no such thing as copyright. Luther had lost control of the manufacture and distribution, but he had clearly won the argument.

By the mid-1520s his ideas had spread to the Twitterverse, or rather the taverns. When people are sitting around drinking, singing your songs and talking about your blog posts you have gone viral. Viral is actually what the pope called it; the papal bull of 1520, called SOPA, threatened to excommunicate Luther, so as ““to cut off the advance of this plague and cancerous disease so it will not spread any further.” The papal bull of 1521 warned that ““the whole German nation, and later all other nations, will be infected by this same disorder.”

By this point, it would have done the church little good to burn him at the stake. They tried to burn the books, of course. The printing presses too, for that matter. And they wrote their own tracts, but mostly in Latin. These sat on shelves while Protestant literature was being passed around, read to the illiterate, discussed in the trade guilds, and increasing championed by German nobility.

Book banning was common where Catholics were in power, or when anybody is in power for that matter. While Luther called the printing press “God’s highest gift of grace,” the church leadership saw it a subversive. Local indexes of books people were not allowed to read existed as early as 1544, but the more famous Index of Prohibited Books in 1564 only made such books more attractive.

Eventually, the Catholics made changes. Today social media chips away at the control of governments in China or Iran because, as Samuel Hartlib said in 1641, “the art of blogging will so spread knowledge that the common people, knowing their own rights and liberties, will not be governed by way of oppression.” Actually, he said the art of printing.

But despots today face the same dilemma as the popes of the 16th century. John Fox once said, “The pope must abolish knowledge and printing, or printing must at length root him out.” And so must all tyrants end. Unless they change. And this too is possible. There is still a pope and the Catholic church addressed many of these concerns and adapted to others. Change is still possible, even where it seems unlikely.

A thoughtful critique of social media is of course necessary and prudent. But I mean only to remind us that there is nothing new under the sun. We have invented nothing. We have merely made it bigger and faster. Real solutions still require a thoughtful look at both our history and our nature.

We should think about how things spread and why. We should focus on the implications of speed and scale. What does it mean that things are faster and bigger? How does this it change things? Do ideas that spread quickly affect us differently than ideas that move slowly? Why is new not always better?

And we must defend the academy. No, I’m just kidding again. One sixteenth century scholar complained that there were so many books he didn’t have time to read the titles. If there is anything we should guard against, it is retreating further and further into narrower and narrower fields of study, barely putting a ripple into the deluge of data pouring over us while the world goes crying for clarity, significance and even wonder.

While she does not share my Christian wordview, Virginia Heffener’s Magic and Loss is a good primer for those who want to understand the internet’s history, significance and power. She is also realistic about what it costs, hence the loss in the title.

To communicate effectively, we have to understand the tools better. And like Luther we must learn to speak the vernacular, exploring and even mastering new technologies as well. And we must, as Luther put it, do so out of a love for the truth and a desire to bring it to light.

Nail that to your office door.

Or post it on your blog.


Seriously? You want to read this.

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