If the devil has used the printing press so effectively to advance his purposes, one can only imagine how easily the internet can be twisted to his purposes.
Whether or not you believe Satan is an actual (fallen angelic) person, we all recognize the web provides a ready conduit for unimaginable evil. Recent discussions of the traffic that occurs on the Dark Web is sobering. Actually, not “sobering,” but frightening.
While a small fraction of the data is innocent, the majority deals with criminal and dehumanizing material. Some investigators suggest more than half of the data transfers involve pedophilia.
I’ve been doing some personal research into parallels between the advent of the printing press and the rise of the internet. I’m approaching it from the perspective of how each has provided access to competing faith claims.
Martin Luther viewed the “recent” invention of Gutenberg’s press as divinely appointed to coincide with what would come to be known as the Reformation.
Roman Catholics also published treatises and pamphlets opposing the calls for institutional change within the church. The persuasiveness of arguments aside, one reason for their lack of success against the evangelical leaders was simple.
Rather than writing for the German people in their own tongue, they directed nearly all of their initial energies at writing for the elite, in Latin. While only a minority of sixteenth century Germans were literate, only a small percentage of these were able to read Latin.
During the first half century of the existence of movable type for the press, the majority of published titles were religious. Only later did popular and secular titles eclipse them.
However, they did. Many were wonderful. Scientific and literary knowledge blossomed.
Foremost among the good fruits disseminated by the press, we would have to include the works of the Inklings, especially C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. (Consecrated imaginations are capable of wondrous creations!)
Eventually, of course—given humanity’s imperfect nature—this neutral device was harnessed to baser purposes.
This would lead a nineteenth century minister to write an essay with the title of this column, “The Devil’s Printing Press.” Thomas Green described the dilemma vividly.
The first book printed in Europe had six hundred leaves, and it took nearly ten years to make it. Now books are written, printed, sold, read and forgotten in one-fourth the time. A single century ago, and a man well to do, thought himself fortunate if he had one book in this wild western world.
Today there are books in well kept rank upon almost every cottage shelf It is little wonder that the powers of evil should have invaded the province of the influence of the book shelf and bound up in attractive colors and insidious page the poison of wickedness and sin.
Later in his address, available to read at your leisure here, he contrasts the noble and corrupt purposes for which the press (or internet) might be used.
There are papers of every shape and for every use; daily, tri-daily and almost hourly, weekly and semi-weekly, monthly and quarterly, and filled with everything. You have no idea unless you have given it especial attention, of the magnitude and wondrous dimensions of the newspaper as a factor in civilization. You have little idea, unless you have studied it, of the influence, the formative power of this outwardly ephemeral agency upon human life.
You have little idea, unless you have sought it, of the labor, the enterprise, the energy, the talent, the outlay necessary to plan and execute this gigantic result. You have little conception of the influence of the printing press, as an enlightener, as a pioneer of civilization, as a promoter, a creator, a conservator of purity and virtue; and you have little idea of the magnitude of the devil’s work through this mighty agency, as in a thousand ways he uses it for pollution and ruin.
Green’s florid and dated verbiage may weaken the impact of his argument. Likewise the revivalist tones of his message. Still, as the existence of the dark web reminds us, even the good can be touched by corruption. Perhaps our vigilance can reduce this danger.
We will close now with another description by the author of the lurid material which preceded the pornography which abounds today. Would that our dulled sensitivities remained innocent enough to “blush” at explicit material, as he says.
But the devil has a channel by which he ruins life and character, in a specialty in the newspaper line that panders to the low and more bestial part of man’s being. Broadcast over the land there are sown every day almost countless thousands of papers filled with the corrupt, lascivious, the impure, gathered from all the fact and fancy that a filthy mind can contrive.
Facts that transpire often in the lowest slums of life are here placarded with all the embellishment of illustration and seductive coloring; language and recitals no man would read without a blush are hidden in its folds. It is a slimy, salacious mosaic of filth and wickedness, and yet go up and down the city streets and in every news-dealer’s window and on every corner stand they are spread out for inspection and sale.
The woodcut illustration above comes from a book entitled The Dance of Death, and is the first representation of a printing press. The point being made was not to associate death with printing, but to reveal how death comes to all, unanticipated, regardless of who they are.
10 thoughts on “The Devil’s Printing Press”
The circles I move in tend to see this as usually true. In fact, one of the most exciting things I discovered upon launching into the waters of internet creation myself was the power for good the web allows us.
What else are we to expect from the great corrupter?
Also, the work God engages in is typically quiet and below the surface. One of the reasons I follow Wycliffe’s blog is to be reminded of the exponential growth in their abilities provided by the internet.
As I’m sure you are aware, there is also the ability to reach into many corners of the world where Christian witness is banned.
No book author would wish to return to an era when manuscripts were truly that. Nor do I wish to plunge my family into an internet free lifestyle. Praise God for filter services!
You and I share the same understanding of these matters.
It is the ability to touch isolated corners of the globe that amazes me most–and it happens instantly. Truly a wonder.
Timely post. The internet has also brought out more of worst in media/TV and print as they try to compete for audience eyes. More important than ever for parents/family leaders and those who are respected and influential to provide education and balance…especially balance. Society as a whole seems to blush at less and be more accepting of many harmful ideas. Not really what the word “sophisticated” was meant to be.
I smiled while reading your comment as I thought about the “classic” cinema images that often adorn your columns. It’s amazing how some of the oh-so-tame pictures of flirtatious actresses (and actors) might once have been regarded as scandalous. Of course, there is a vast (and growing) gap between the entertaining and the destructive… the silly and the corrupting.
Some of those musicals and Hollywood costumes were pretty risque …I remember wanting to see a Liz Taylor movie and my dad said no because the costumes were too skimpy.
Movie ratings actually meant something and were enforced then.
Although many of the regular films did have dialogue with adult meanings unless you were a clueless kid – carefully crafted so the films would appeal to all ages.
But then we were all very clear on what was real life and what was only done in movies.
Your last line states it perfectly.
When a medium is new, it immediately fills with two things: Corruption, and creativity. The question is how to foster the creativity while resisting the corruption.
As we Lutherans are wont to say… simul justus et peccator. At the same time as we are redeemed saints, we remain stumbling sinners. It’s a dichotomy–even noble things like creativity are subject to corruption. Oh, for that day when the old passes away and all things are made new.
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