Prophecy in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

March 24, 2004 | 25 comments
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Last week’s Sunday School lesson, like many in our ward, was a string of scripture verses taken out of context, interspersed with quotations from random General Authorities on the keywords in each verse. Many talks assume a similar format these days. It occurred to me that these lessons and talks would not have been possible even five years ago, and that perhaps we ought to spend a little time paying attention to the changes wrought by lds.org.

My title is a meant-to-be-cute-more-than-deeply-suggestive reference to Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” which any of you who’ve suffered through a course in cultural critique in whatever form will have read. Among other things, Benjamin pointed out that both the function and the very nature of the work of art are fundamentally changed by the possibility of mass production. I wonder if prophecy undergoes similar transformations.

The advent of broadcasting general conference might be the first instance of technology seriously impacting the revelatory process; even just needing to carefully fit one’s sermon into externally imposed time parameters would, I think, subtly change the nature of one’s speech. Of course, it’s likely that the major inspiration for a prepared talk occurs during the preparation rather than the delivery, but still, there are plenty of stories about the charismatic nature of early church leaders’ sermonizing, and such charisma is likely to be lost or at least subdued by needing to hue to a set schedule.

No doubt you can trace out the intermediate steps yourselves, so I’ll fast forward to the present, when General Conference is entirely teleprompted and even the hymns are shortened to fit broadcast breaks. All the talks are available more or less immediately after conference, and published in searchable form at lds.org within a month. It may be this searchability that most dramatically alters our use of conference talks in the church–up until a few years ago, one had to remember that a particular speaker had given a talk on a certain topic and the date of the address, or spend a goodly amount of time searching through separate index issues of the Ensign. Sermons like the ones we mentioned in the “Great Sermons” thread–ones that were memorable and/or delivered by folks higher up the hierarchy ladder–were likely to be quoted more often, and thus, I think, have greater impact in shaping beliefs among the rank and file.

What does it mean that sermons don’t have to be particularly memorable anymore to be quoted? Does the searchability of conference talks & Ensign articles encourage our nasty collective habit of out-of-context prooftexting? (Yeah, no editorial bias in the phrasing of that question :) !) Does it matter to you that you don’t thumb through back issues of the Ensign anymore to try and find that talk you remember–are we missing those serendipitous discoveries that (maybe) make more room for the spirit to get a word in edgewise? Or are these losses compensated by the ease of increased access to the words of our leaders?

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25 Responses to Prophecy in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

  1. greenfrog on March 24, 2004 at 11:23 am

    If I were in charge (*laugh*) I’d ban quotations of any variety in sermons. I listen to sermons to hear what the speaker thinks and has experienced her/himself. These days, typically the speaker opts not to think, in preference for quoting someone else. Unfortunately, the Harold B. Lee RS/MP lesson manual last year generally opted for a meta-discourse itself, quoting Harold B. Lee quoting someone else who had a thought.

    Once.

    The lessons taught from such a manual were so abstracted from an actual thinking human being that I began to wonder if I had fallen into a recursive algorithm of spirituality.

    Since Harold B. Lee seemed to do the same thing in his sermons well before the advent of the Net, the tendency seems to have been well established. The Net has probably made such an ability more general than it used to be.

    I candidly think that it is the natural product of teaching Primary children to sing “Follow the Prophet” rather than “Search, Ponder and Pray.”

  2. brayden on March 24, 2004 at 11:35 am

    The standardization/mechanization of general conference talks has to cut back on the extent to which “shoot-from-the-hip” revelation occurs during conference. Who can forget the scene from Windows of Heaven (is that what it’s called) when Lorenzo Snow breaks down in the middle of his St. George talk to bust in with instant revelation? Is that sort of spontaneity even possible anymore? Would the teleprompter guys go crazy if general authorities routinely received actual revelation during the presentation of their talks?

    I wish there were more Elder Haight-type talks in conference. I’m sure I’m not the only one who really looks forward to hearing from him because you know that whatever he says will be straight from the heart, given his sight impediments. I feel blessed that conference is much more accessible due to technological innovations of recent years, but I wonder what our ancestors would think to see how formalized the presentation of revelation has become.

  3. Kristine on March 24, 2004 at 11:46 am

    I’m with you, Brayden, in loving Elder Haight’s talk and feeling nostalgic for less scripted days. (And greenfrog, I have a long screed about “Follow the Prophet,” which has been temporarily forestalled by the funny entries in the songs thread–but it will out! and soon).

    But is that too easy?? It’s so tempting to slip into the elegaic mode when looking at the Mormon past; there have to be better and more nuanced ways of thinking about it.

  4. brayden on March 24, 2004 at 12:05 pm

    Kristine – Of course there’s no going back to yesterday’s style of conference. The benefits of having a scripted, globally diffuse conference may outweigh the advantages of the intimate style of gatherings of our parents’ and grandparents’ times. I’m wondering though if this shift in format may actually change the way revelation occurs in the Church.

    Most of the unscripted (or less formalized anyway) sermons now take place in leadership meetings with the Brethren and stake presidents, bishops, and other ecclesiastical leaders. These meetings still have that “shoot-from-the-hip” style. Perhaps it is in these gatherings that the Brethren try out and perfect their burgeoning revelatory ideas and then bring them to the more general Church public once they have tested them out on a safe audience. I’m speculating of course.

  5. Russell Arben Fox on March 24, 2004 at 12:06 pm

    Of course, the apologists for technology will argue that the Spirit is in the medium; that the increased speed, breadth, and transparency of communication in the church is itself an example of inspiration working on us. I happen to think that’s garbage. I can’t make any sense of inspiration as an event instantiated in the form of seamlessness and homogeneity; how a revelation can be anything but a disruption of one sort or another I do not know. I guess there may be some sort of power to the idea of all of us comprehending one another, being on the same page, sharing the same sources, even having, in a sense, already heard the same message before it’s been given…but I wonder what kind of power it really is. Take it away, Max Weber.

  6. Nate Oman on March 24, 2004 at 12:18 pm

    One interesting point: I think that the advent of the computer searchable text is responsible for the greatly increased use of the Journal of Discourses in general conference, which you will notice is getting cited MUCH more often.

    I tend to think that we may over-idealize our spontaneous past. Many of the talks of yester year may have had a charismatic spontaneaity, but a lot of them were simply rambling, poorly organized, and boring. Now we get compact and boring. It would be nice to have this discussion in a way that wasn’t infected with reflexive Heideggarian and Weberian nostalgia for pre-technological purity. Given the number of German speakers on this blog, I suspect that may be a vain hope.

    For example, I think it is (sorry Kristine) silly to say that broadcasting is that first technology that has fundamentally changed the revelatory process. Consider the differences between a world in which scripture is very expensive and difficult to obtain (remember what Nephi et al did to get their scriptures) to one in which scripture is widely available and very cheap. The whole of idea of private scripture study rather than public, liturgical study was made possible by cheap printing. That shift, in turn, has lead to a model of revelation based on private study — consider Joseph Smith and the epistle of James versus Ezra finding the book of the law in the temple.

  7. Jan on March 24, 2004 at 12:22 pm

    Two weeks ago at my branch, each of the talks were given on thier ‘favorite general conference talk.’ This, of course, was an invitation to mostly read from the original talks with little to no input from the actual speaker. When input was given, it was usually in the form of, “what he meant by that was X.” I don’t know if they thought we were too stupid to understand what the original talk was about, even though they read most of the thing to us, but it seemed like it at times. The speakers that day enjoyed this subject to such an extent that the branch presidency is (according to rumor) going to ask for more of these talks about other talks.

    Of course, these speakers liked that subject; they didn’t have to do much work to prepare for it! All they had to do was print out the original talk from general conference from a web site and read it, occasionally interjecting a comment or definition here and there.

    The internet has made it all to easy to be lazy when preparing for lessons and/or talks. I think that the internet is a valuable resource, when used correctly, but it can be abused by people who are unwilling to think for themselves (which might not be a bad thing, on reflection).

  8. Randy on March 24, 2004 at 12:22 pm

    I certainly agree that there is a tendency among members to simply cut and paste prior conference talks when they are asked to speak. Seems to me, though, that this is not a problem unique to the internet age. Before, people simply quoted from the Sunday School manuals, or from Mormon Doctrine, or from the latest conference talks. The internet has simply made more potential sources available. I don’t see how that could possibly be a bad thing. Indeed, it may actually increase the number of different voices that get heard. I’m also not too worried about missing out on “serendipitous discoveries.” Seems to me that the internet makes these types of discoveries more, not less, likely, even when searching lds.org. Beyond that, the ability to search the entire set of scriptures for key words is absolutely invaluable. That people don’t take more advantage of this, as opposed to searching for old conference talks, says more about us than it does the technology.

    I am curious, though, as to what sacrament meetings must have looked like 100+ years ago (assuming they even closely resemble what they are today), given that most members (I assume) probably had little more than the scriptures to speak from. Any thoughts?

  9. lyle on March 24, 2004 at 12:45 pm

    Russell, did you ring? lol… :)

    I’m not convinced that technological constraints takes anything away from the message. If God wants an impromptu revelation given; the speaker will simply ignore the teleprompter…and the commercial break will just be delayed.

    Frankly, I’m rather shocked that we are looking for negatives, rather than positives, in technological change. As Jan pointed out, perhaps the inet makes it easier for talk preparers to cheat; however, it makes it easier as Nate mentions, to really do research and place the burden of interpretation & growth on the individual learner.

    Kristine, what about the effect that the inet catalogues have on the impact of women’s ideas? Personally, I find myself using talks from women much more…now that I am simply typing in a search word and looking through everything that pops up. I think the electronic medium has increased our capacity to grow closer to God and to have a more open and porous conversation with each other.

  10. Dave on March 24, 2004 at 1:08 pm

    One wonders why so many speakers use the lds.org search capability to find forgettable passages from GA talks rather than canonized scriptural passages. I think it has something to do with the KJV Bible, whose language is simply off-putting (hate that term) to many modern folk. At least GA quotes are in understandable modern English.

    I would point out that LDS.org controls the process–if they wanted less emphasis on GA talks, they would only make “good” talks available. Making them all available and fully searchable is equivalent to informal approval or canonization. To make the lowliest GA temp’s talk (those on a 5-year contract) as accessible as the President’s talks also constitutes a rather generous evaluation that all GA talks are sufficiently inspired to merit quoting.

  11. Nate Oman on March 24, 2004 at 1:16 pm

    “Making them all available and fully searchable is equivalent to informal approval or canonization.”

    Gimme a break! This is letting the search engine do an awful lot of theological work.

  12. Kim Siever on March 24, 2004 at 1:57 pm

    FWIW, I have heard a number of GAs in a shhot-from-the-hip style during regional and stake meetings (for example, in a question/answer period), and I’ll tell you this: I’m sure glad those same GAs have a teleprompter during Conference.

  13. Kristine on March 24, 2004 at 2:00 pm

    Nate, you’re right, of course, about “the first” technological encroachment–I’d have had to go back at least to Gutenberg. Maybe “the most obvious in the relatively short history of the latter-day church”?

    And I did at least note that nostalgia can be misleading, even if I am guilty of closet Weberian and Heideggerian whatever : )

  14. Kristine on March 24, 2004 at 2:04 pm

    Also, Nate, I don’t think Dave’s entirely off in his assertion that posting everything on the website constitutes some sort of official approval. At least for the “keep the conference issue of the Ensign next to your scriptures” crowd, there is some tacit suggestion that whatever is correlated is quasi-scriptural. The possibility of using the search engine as a topical guide greatly expands the amount of stuff that will be *perceived* as authoritative (even if 3 seconds of critical thinking would debunk that perception).

  15. Russell Arben Fox on March 24, 2004 at 3:10 pm

    Nate, noting (via Weber or Heidegger or anyone else who has thought seriously about the relationship between ideas and their historical embodiments) that the material conditions for revelation change with changes in technology isn’t the same as making a normative point. Given what I understand revelation (or “charisma”) to entail, I really don’t see how it couldn’t be in conflict with technology-driven ideals of accessibility and simultaneity. But that isn’t to say that such conflict is BAD–on the contrary, it may well be a GOOD thing that the possibility of revelation has, in the contemporary church, been relatively efficiently situated and defined. (This is a mistake too many people make about Weber–they assume that his arguments about the “institutionalization of charisma” are an attack on such institutionalization, because it just sounds so nasty. But that not the case at all. Weber believed in bureaucracy; he thought that “slow drilling through hard boards” was a noble vocation.)

    To put a personal spin on it…I strongly suspect that I wouldn’t have been able to handle Joseph Smith as my prophet (always seeing visions at the drop of a hat…or IN his hat for heaven’s sake!), and I’m sure the church as a body of believers operating temples, overseeing missions, running a university, collecting tithes, and so forth, wouldn’t have been able to endure it either. Does that say something good or bad about the church today? Or both? I think, though it’s not brought out explicitly, that this is one of real issues at the heart of Givens’s discussion of “dialogical revelation” in his book By the Hand of Mormon.

  16. Clark Goble on March 24, 2004 at 4:44 pm

    I’ve come to this late and haven’t read any of the comments yet.

    However I think we are in a new phase. For a while Biblical language was so common and the text so read that everyone quoted verses out of context as they spoke. Joseph Smith did that, probably even when receiving revelation in the D&C and BoM. (I’m convinced a lot of “quotes” aren’t so much quotes as simply using a scriptural phrase to convey an idea) For a long time educated people did the same with fragments of Homer and other classic works.

    Then came the period of darkness when people just didn’t quote like that. TV then impacted that much more as people just didn’t read that much.

    Then came the “great awakening” when computers allowed people to have the benefits of quotable memories without the memory. So phrases once again could be taken out of context to convey a point.

    I guess my point is, at worst the LDS.org resource has allowed us to behave the way people did when they read their scriptures regularly.

  17. Clark Goble on March 24, 2004 at 4:53 pm

    A couple of more comments. I think that the “significant” talks still get hit and commented from more than others. Likewise apostles get quoted more than all the rest. As a few have insinuated, bad speakers are bad speakers. At best we have a change in how they are bad. But personally I’ll take the current culture over those horrible melodramatic stories in “Especially for Mormons” that used to get quoted all the time.

    Regarding search engines. If the church’s search engine is inspiration, what does that make Google?

    Russell spoke of “fracturing” as necessary for revelation. Deconstruction as revelation? Perhaps. The problem is that all play is deconstructive and continuity and homogenity is as much a result as great rifts in perspective. My own feeling is that sometimes revelation can come as a shock, and sometimes it is a subtle movement we don’t notice until we look back. D&C 123:16 seems relevant.

    In my own case I find the church’s search engine invaluable and wish that the journal of discourses and other conference talks were available there. (Or at least Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith and Teachings of Brigham Young)

  18. Adam Greenwood on March 24, 2004 at 5:11 pm

    I find it kind of ironic that the usual suspects in favor of more liberalization, democracy, letting a thousand flowers bloom, and so on to the end of the world, are regretting that the Church hasn’t ruthlessly discarded most voices to create a small universe of talks with official imprimatur. Such are the twists of life. [Note: I am NOT inviting discussion of my own apparent hypocrisies. Were there to be any.]

    Unfortunately the Church hasn’t updated its technology much so a simple way of ranking talks isn’t available. If the Church hyperlinked citations in talks to the actual talk, then a searcher would gradually be led on to the meatiest discourses, and one could easily devise an engine that actually prioritized talks organically.

    Besides the investment in switching systems, this also runs into the problem of unattributed citation, or at least unspecified “Our prophet tells us not to do X.”

    In any case, the problem of taking quotes out of context is endemic not just to the modern age. A lot of Christian, specifically NT, discussion of the OT is pretty much taking quotes out of context as far as I can tell. Nephi could well be doing something similar to Isaiah.
    If Nibley is to believed, something similar is fairly often a feature of prophetic language.

  19. Ryan on March 24, 2004 at 6:09 pm

    Thanks, all, for your perspective-giving comments concerning the new searchable wealth of information we all have at our fingertips. I say “perspective-giving” because I’ve noticed a creeping feeling approaching guilt lately, every time I’ve prepared my Gospel Essentials lessons using only the manual, scriptures, and my own insights and whatever light I can glean from the spirit. I mean to say that I feel like I haven’t truly done my best to prepare my lesson because I haven’t looked for neato relevant quotes online. Now that I’ve realized the source of that pressure, I’m amazed I’ve let myself fall prey to it. Can it be that the recent ubiquity of obscure, obviously “searched” quotidbits in every church talk and lesson has now set some bizarre new standard for those talks and lessons, that amounts to an expectation that all of us must now do the obligatory search for some snappy little soundbite from any anonymous general authority who might have weighed in on the topic? Have others ever felt that pressure, or am I just overly impressionable?

    This new pressure to run the little searches and add the little quotes leads to the following: taking a tangent from Kristine’s original inquiry about how a change in medium changes the substance of the message, one might ask: How does the change in the medium alter how the mainstream membership incorporates the message? Because of the simple advent of the searchable conference talk, have we taken some kind of hint that those talks need to become a larger part of our discourse? What about the new trend in the Ensign to have many or most of the articles in any given issue penned by a general authority or auxiliary leader? Are all of these things having the effect (whether intended or not) of consolidating the majority of the real thinking among our leaders, suggesting that the rest of us just build our gospel thought processes around these received truths?

  20. Dave on March 24, 2004 at 6:30 pm

    Nate, I was speaking loosely when I wrote “canonization” earlier. My point was that if LDS.org continues to make all GA talks easily available when it is known they are being used as kind of a keyword-searchable database of semi-authoritative statements for use by Church members in talks or lessons, then LDS leaders obviously don’t object to the practice. If they objected, there would be announcements or changes rather quickly, I think.

    It would be really great (and not hard to do) to make the database searchable just by talks by apostles, or just conference talks, or just talks/articles by one author. I think most members would naturally gravitate toward more recent statements in Conference of Big 15 leaders if they could focus on just that set of articles. For all I know there is a search engine or Google hack that does this already.

  21. Grasshopper on March 26, 2004 at 9:21 am

    Actually, Dave, the Advanced Search (Magazine Search) does allow you to narrow your search to single authors, Presidents of the Church, First Presidency, Quorum of the Twelve, and General Conference addresses only (as well as other combinations). Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work properly.

  22. lyle on March 26, 2004 at 7:54 pm

    Adam: Yup. I think Brent said it best when he mentioned that calling others are their inconsistencies doesn’t work well…at least if you are conservative. But, cf. BCC has a thread comment on the Church/Public Policy thread re: how both sides are inconsistent…but Liberals have rationalizations/arguments and Conservatives just pretend they don’t exist. Perhaps this will draw some response for your comment? nah…

  23. Dustin on March 28, 2004 at 10:36 pm

    All I would add to the mix is that technology doesn’t threaten the principle behind revelation–God communicating his will to his children. All Technology does is change the way that process occurs.

    Maybe the GA’s have had some “unexplained” quotes show up on the teleprompter, or better yet, maybe President Hinckley’s received some “very special” emails. Who’s to say, though I will say the hard part is adjusting ourselves to change, and all the frustrating new ways we come up with to miss the point of things.

    To me, looking back on the “glory days” and worrying over the present and its future is seductively easy and consequently suspect. Not to say it isn’t helpful or even necessary, only that it generally misses the fact that nothing has fundamentally changed.

  24. Dustin on March 28, 2004 at 10:36 pm

    All I would add to the mix is that technology doesn’t threaten the principle behind revelation–God communicating his will to his children. All Technology does is change the way that process occurs.

    Maybe the GA’s have had some “unexplained” quotes show up on the teleprompter, or better yet, maybe President Hinckley’s received some “very special” emails. Who’s to say, though I will say the hard part is adjusting ourselves to change, and all the frustrating new ways we come up with to miss the point of things.

    To me, looking back on the “glory days” and worrying over the present and its future is seductively easy and consequently suspect. Not to say it isn’t helpful or even necessary, only that it generally misses the fact that nothing has fundamentally changed.

  25. Dustin on March 28, 2004 at 10:37 pm

    All I would add to the mix is that technology doesn’t threaten the principle behind revelation–God communicating his will to his children. All Technology does is change the way that process occurs.

    Maybe the GA’s have had some “unexplained” quotes show up on the teleprompter, or better yet, maybe President Hinckley’s received some “very special” emails. Who’s to say, though I will say the hard part is adjusting ourselves to change, and all the frustrating new ways we come up with to miss the point of things.

    To me, looking back on the “glory days” and worrying over the present and its future is seductively easy and consequently suspect. Not to say it isn’t helpful or even necessary, only that it generally misses the fact that nothing has fundamentally changed.