The history of religion, especially in the West, has been interwoven with the history of the book. Or put more accurately, with the history of the technology of the book. Christians, Jews, and Muslims have referred to themselves and each other for centuries as "People of the Book." The "Book" is, of course, the Torah. But our three major monotheistic communions might just as well call themselves people of the book, lower-cased and without quotation marks; their very stature as major faiths is in many ways a result of the book's (lower-cased and without quotation marks) ever-increasing ability to expand its domain.

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 a Qu'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 primary sources 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 the premises 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 of books, lower-case, without the quotation marks, and very plural, their spiritual hunger expanding as the quantity of available books expanded.

Then, just as the millennium ended, the book, like a good athlete in high-tech Nikes, crouched down and made another leap. It became the very stuff of the internet -- pixels its new ink, the screen its new format. The web gave the book exactly what every prior advance in its technology had also given it: greater accessibility, more portability, greater longevity, larger audience. But the web has added what had not been before. It has given the book an interactivity that potentially incorporates the whole family of human believers. It has almost thrust seekers after truth into global conversation -- intimate, invulnerable, almost anonymous, this conversation has entered our social lives characterized by spiritual candor and shameless frankness. "How it is with me" and "This
Is what I understand" have become the words of belief. The consoling constants of earlier times anchor the conversation now as sub-texts, but no longer as either its obligatory or absolute content.

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.

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