[From the archives.]
The role of the earliest religious architecture is controversial. Clearly there is an element of tribute, of ostentatious sacrifice, of magnification and praise. But why some ancient temples were ziggurats, some domes, some pagodas – we can give no general explanations.
Christian churches, on the other hand, have a technological explanation; they are fortresses of the book. A scriptural religion needs books to function, and a scriptural religion with as many far-flung, socially disembedded outposts as Christianity needed a little fortress to protect the one invaluable book and the one invaluable book-reader it could dispatch to each corner of the empire. Past that, the fortress needed an auditorium in which every member of the parish could gather to hear the one book-reader read from, and hold forth on, the one book. These fortresses had a few incidental features as well – illustrations to dramatize the stories that the illiterate would never read, bells to keep the hours and summon the community to their shared observances. The technological level at which religious authority was communicated (and was made common, a property of communitas) dictated both the institutional and the physical form of the Church.
This is not to say that Christendom was monolithic. The need for book creation, for one thing, led to the existence of a system of monasteries and universities in parallel to the churches, and these monks had the independent standing to travel as itinerant preachers. But still, religious expression was still funneled through the narrow channels suggested by the technological and institutional problems of book-scarcity.
Printing ended this scarcity and, while making scriptural religion much more practical in theory, in practice it made all the ideas of the religious authorities about how the church should be run obsolete. Institutions which had, centuries earlier, been technically necessary, had been layered over with encrustations of new meanings and purposes. But these encrustations could give the underlying structure no integrity once its timbers had been rotted away.
Recent historians tend to enjoy the game of understanding religious dissent as a social, class, or even philosophical phenomena. But in fact, it is a technological phenomenon, every bit as much as web logs and file-sharing are technological phenomenon in our own days. Future historians will no doubt write about how transgressive or class-conscious it was to learn to touch-type, but as a matter of fact the power and cheapness of personal computers in the 1990s made the value of typing obvious practically overnight.
This is the light in which we should understand the spread of literacy in early modern Europe. Cheap books, high-quality books, books on diverse subjects; these make reading worthwhile. Poor readers, numerous readers, readers with a range of interests; suddenly these made publishing worthwhile, and a virtuous circle has begun. But now the traditional purpose of the church becomes fuzzy. We do not, strictly speaking, need a fortress for the scriptures if everyone has a copy in their own home. We do not need everyone to squeeze into the auditorium if just about anyone can quote the Bible on any street corner. We do not need images as a substitute for scripture if we can turn to the original text itself. Indeed, the medieval Bible was often a sort of compendium which squeezed the text itself and number of approved commentaries on the text into a single volume so that, on the assumption a parish would have one book, that one book would pack as large a punch as possible. Now, the Bible was disaggregated and the commentaries and the apocrypha could, if one so chose, be printed in separate volumes.
The tension between the Church and the lay preachers was precisely that between modern media and the so-called “comment section”. The lay preachers thought the Church was corrupt and useless, and finally had a platform on which to say it; the Church saw that lay preaching would be the downfall of the Church, and wanted to stamp it out or control it. But the two camps were tied together, because the reformers wanted to critique and supplant the forms and functions acquired by the medieval church whose power they coveted. Where they triumphed, the reformers ended up removing the icons and keeping the belfries. Preaching moved back inside. The papists, meanwhile, saw no problem fighting fire with fire and soon had coopted the whole technological apparatus of the reformation for the purposes of counter-reformation.