Moses' two stone tablets with their ten stark laws could never have given rise to rabbinic Judaism had they stayed on their native stone. Jewish law and lore had to wait, instead, for the scroll to come along. But Scrolls would probably have been too dear and too Few to capture and diffuse Christianity as it tried to separate itself from Judaism had the cheaper and more manageable codex not also come into common usage at about the same time. Most assuredly, the original palm leaves and leather scraps of Muhammad's followers could never have contained and disseminated the recitation of the Prophet had there been no codices in which posthumously to collect the suras and accumulate the hadith.
There might have been no Protestantism had there not been a Gutenberg, precious few ordinary Reformation and Enlightenment Europeans would ever have seen aQu'ran had there been no presses to make its reproduction feasible, and the great words of Maimonides might never have filtered beyond their native Spain into the customs and understanding of millions without printed books. We had indeed become people of the book, and our broadening, diverging beliefs had become passengers of its pages. More recently, had the potential for cheap books not combined with mass literacy, and the two of them with mass expansion of retailing systems, there would have been few primarysources among the devout poor, and little commentary by which to challenge and expand the received interpretation and authority of the local priest, rabbi, or imam.
But the book and its technology did make these very advances, many of them within my life time. Older Americans, even many younger than I, watched as the fire of Billy Graham merged with the fire of Rumi on private bookcases and library shelves. We watched as the pastoral charisma of Rabbi Schneerson consoled and challenged those who had known as well the pastoral charisma of John Paul II. And we watched as thepremises of both holy men came to be seen in relation to those of Buddhism and the Dalai Lama, whose books sat, and still sit, beside theirs on best-seller lists as well as home bookshelves.
Books became the stuff of animated conversation. The like-minded found each other, and seekers became small groups of the exploring faithful, the authority of their quest being the authority of their texts. Believers and questers alike had become people ofbooks, lower-case, without the quotation marks, and very plural, their spiritual hungerexpanding as the quantity of available books expanded.
The web, like the scroll, the codex, and the presses before it, has also set the book one step closer to becoming what it has always wanted to be--words. While no one of us can know just what this particular bit of evolution ultimately will do to us, we can be fairly certain that before it is over, we as believers will have been re-defined yet again. Common sense might even suggest that without noticing, we have already become the people of words, lower-cased, without quotation marks, and plural. We just may be well on our way already to some kind of ecumenism of respect. And respect--a very substantial word itself-while still lower-cased and without quotation marks, is very definitely singular. Nor, of course, is it very far from a Love that only lacks its quotation marks to obviate any further need for mere belief.