The Reformation as Media Event (Part 7)- Technological Determinism

The following excerpt is the seventh portion of Read Mercer Schuchardt’s piece, The Reformation as Media Event. This excerpt explores the ways in which the printing press produced, in all of the above, the “technological determinism” that is the very reductionist, simplistic, and dismissive concept proposed by many contemporary scholars to buffer themselves against the percepts of the massively obvious changes that the new medium created.. A version of this paper was published in The People’s Book: The Reformation and the Bible in April 2017, which was itself a print version of a talk given in 2016 at the Wheaton Theology Conference. The book can be purchased here and the video can be viewed here.

Magic Indeed

In one of the most curious sidebars of the printing press’s effects, we see a link between the technology of the printing press and the naming of a key principle of the Media Ecology discipline.  Gutenberg’s partners Johann Fust and Peter Schoeffer printed the 42-line Bible in 1456, and sales were brisk:

An early author relates that Fust carried a parcel of Bibles to Paris and attempted to sell them as manuscripts.  The forty-two line Bible had no title page, no page numbers, nor other innovations to distinguish it from handmade manuscripts.  Both Gutenberg and his customers probably wanted it that way.  When the French observed the number and conformity of the volumes, they thought witchcraft was involved.  To avoid indictment and conviction, Fust was forced to reveal his secret.  This event is alleged to be the basis for the popular story, related by several authors, of the German magician Dr. Faustus (Johann Faust in an early version), who grew dissatisfied with the limits of human knowledge and sold his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge and power.[1]

To those innocent of the knowledge monopoly of a new technology, the perception of “witchcraft” is inevitable, and is precisely what science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke meant when he said that, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”[2]  Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, has the famous line, “A sound magician is a mighty god.”  This early Gutenberg Bible sales story in Paris would later become the basis for one of the primary analogies used by Neil Postman to describe all technologies:  A Faustian Bargain.

… all technological change is a trade-off.  I like to call it a Faustian bargain.  Technology giveth and technology taketh away.  This means that for every advantage a new technology offers, there is always a corresponding disadvantage.  The disadvantage may exceed in importance the advantage…[3]

In this way we might go so far as to say that the printing press is one of the formal causes of the discipline of Media Ecology itself.  And of course, the question of the Faustian bargain is but an echo of the question that our Lord Jesus Christ asks when he asks, “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world, but lose his own soul?”[4]

Indulge Me One Last Time

Finally, it is worth noticing how two significant figure-ground shifts have occurred within the Catholic church since Luther’s posting of the Ninety-Five Theses 500 years ago.  The first noticeable fact is that the Catholic church is still the world’s largest religion and still offers plenary indulgences – but it no longer does so in printed form.  They seem to have taken the message of the Reformation to heart, having lost the battle of print, and have kept indulgences in the acoustic realm rather than making hardcopies in the visual realm; a sort of spiritual tradition pattern in the old “scripture vs. tradition” dichotomy.  If the spirit gives life, and the letter kills, as Paul reminds us, then by returning indulgences to the acoustic realm the Catholic church seems to have devised a strategy for maintaining a practice that was simply unfeasible under visual, printed conditions.  Today’s Catholics cannot acquire a printed letter of indulgences; instead, they receive indulgences that are verbal, acoustic, and spiritual in that the indulgence is itself an invisible thing that one “receives” in exchange for some act or service.  Pope Benedict offered indulgences for downloading the Catholic app (get details).  Pope Francis granted indulgences to Catholic faithful who followed his Twitter feed in 2013[5], and a plenary indulgence to Legionaries of Christ in 2015[6]  In neither case did the recipients of these indulgences receive a printed document with their name, or date, and the “time off” purgatory in their name.  Of course, we see here, with the abandonment of the individualistic medium of print the return to the distribution of indulgences as a group activity as opposed to a personal one.

The second thing worth noticing is that in April 2016, Pope Francis issued his “Joy of Love” (Amoris Laetitia) document, in which he suggested, in his own words, that Catholics should employ “individual conscience” when handling sensitive matters related to second (but unrecognized) marriages within their own diocese.  This is a longer story than can be related here[7], but significant for our understanding is how it is now the Catholic Pope, and not the Protestant Luther, making a rhetorical strategy out of “conscience.”  And so we see, after five hundred years, just what a figure-ground shift, what a give and take, that the printing press has produced for Christian history.

Access the introduction, parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, or the full article

[1] Meggs, pp. 72-73.

[2] From Clarke’s three laws, the third of which appears in his 1973 revision of his essay, “Hazards of Prophecy:  The Failure of Imagination” in Profiles of the Future (1962).

[3] Postman, Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change.

[4] Matthew 16:26

[5] Ryan Jacobs, “What the Pope Really Meant in His Twitter-Indulgences Announcement” The Atlantic, July 19, 2013, accessed online at

[6] Doug G. Ware, “Pope Francis grants plenary indulgence to controversial Legionaries of Christ”, UPI, October 29, 2015, accessed online at

[7] Perhaps most note-worthy is that it was media commentators who seized on the word “conscience” more than anyone else.  While Pope Francis did use the term, he meant it not in the sense of “how I feel” but in the sense of “a conscience informed by Catholic teaching.”  As in his earlier comments about sexuality and other hot-button issues of the day, the change was more a softening of the Pope’s rhetoric than a change in any official church teaching.

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About the Contributor

Read Mercer Schuchardt

Read Mercer Schuchardt
Read Mercer Schuchardt is the Chairman of the Editorial Board of Second Nature and is an Associate Professor of Communication at Wheaton College. He is the co-author of Understanding Jacques Ellul. He and his wife Rachel have ten children and live in Wheaton, IL. 

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