Colin James looks at the connections between social media, Martin Luther and a secular Easter
…six months from now will come the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s famous, and fabled, nailing of “theses” to a church door which sparked a revolution – via the still newish medium of printing.
Luther’s door-notice proposed a seminar on the church’s sale of “indulgences” which, for a price, allegedly got people more quickly into heaven through purgatory, where one purged one’s earthly sins. Luther, citing Augustine of Hippo, reckoned the decision on where one went after death and how quickly was for God alone.
This was a wrathful God, angry at humans’ disobedience, but also a merciful God, redeeming chosen repentants through Jesus Christ. The church had interposed as intermediary and the cash fed the clergy better.
At the time upstart communities of friars such as the Dominicans and Franciscans had church bigwigs fearing they might lose control. They turned on Luther and demanded obedience.
As often in such circumstances, as some autocrats learn the hard way, this was a counterproductive overreaction.
A counter productive reaction is now referred to as ‘the Streisand effect – “an attempt to hide, remove, or censor a piece of information has the unintended consequence of publicizing the information more widely, usually facilitated by the Internet.”
A stubborn sort, Luther instead expanded his inquiry into the clergy’s other ungodly activities.
Working with an artist friend and writing in straightforward language, he published short pamphlets with jazzy front pages questioning aspects of doctrine.
These quickly caught on. They were bought and read, then read out to others – an early sort of social media.
The result was fast popular ferment. In today’s parlance, we might say Luther went viral.
And some of this resulted in the opposite to what Luther campaigned for.
Ironically, Luther’s version of Christianity and its derivatives led many to doctrines as narrow as, or narrower than, what he protested against.
The way people behave hasn’t changed much, it’s just the means of behaving that has advanced. Because of simple and instant mass communication things can happen faster but are often very fragmented and short lived.
A few pockets of resistance and despair still lament and flail against ‘neo-liberalism’ but the many don’t care, they have moved on to their own bubbles in social media.
Over the three decades since the radical economic deregulation of the 1980s, policy that originated from intellectual analysis of economic imbalances has increasingly come to resemble doctrine, especially, as indicated here last week, in monetary policy.
It is a doctrine from which a few benefit handsomely, the middle gets by and a large swathe of people are trapped in indigence. Think ultra-low interest rates and high house prices and rents, for example.
Interest rates used to be low before ‘neo-liberalism’, until Muldoon’s money manipulations went mad.
A modern Luther might nail “theses” to a Facebook page or blog or tweet demanding an end to an arrangement that privileges a few and offends public decency.
The difference now is there are ‘theses’ being nailed to Facebook every day. It’s difficult for anything to be seen outside small bubbles, unless they happen to get a viral lift – but that is more likely to be inane claptrap, the Nek Minit phenomenon.
And if, as 500 years ago, this modern Luther were to apply ingenious design, clear messages and new technology to spread a message fast and wide, the doctrine might suddenly be overturned – a 21st-century Reformation.
Something similar was touched on in Jesus Christ Superstar:
If you’d come today
You could have reached the whole nation
Israel in 4 BC had no mass communication
That seems very unlikely, unless the message was delivered via a nude selfie. I’m sure there will be modern wannabee Jesuses and Luthers nailing theses all over the Internet. But the market has changed, as has the competition.
Politics seems to be well down the popularity charts but James suggests that if it were to happen it could then take one of two courses.
One is what is going on in rich northern democracies, a descent into populism or populist-distorted policies defensively adopted by established parties.
The other is a rethink from first principles by cooler minds responding sensibly to 2010s conditions that are very different in many ways from the 1980s – a rethink that leads not to schisms and conflict but a constructive 2020s future.
The second is much harder to do, as Europe found 500 years back.
And it seems a remote possibility – what are the chances of our politicians working together on “a rethink from first principles by cooler minds responding sensibly”?
Not in election year.
Not in the year after the election, when the new Government will be intent on delivering on it’s campaign promises and bribes.