“Open your mouth for the mute,

for the rights of all who are destitute.

Open your mouth… ” (Proverbs 31.8-9a).

Whose stories survive the wheels of time?

The stories of the powerful.  The stories of the famous and infamous.  History is the reconstruction of the past based on extant media, that is, the words and pictures that have been preserved over the long, slow trawl of time.  But the extant media was either produced within halls of power or was at least focused on the happenings spawned out of those halls of power.  So, do we have access to the history of the poor?  Are we able to know the historical realities of the bulk of our race who have gone before us, those who lacked access to expensive media accoutrements like ink and vellum?  And if we do not have confident access to the way of life for the majority of humankind over the years, do we really understand our history?

Okay, it is true—the above paragraph sounds dark and perhaps even cynical (a disposition I try to avoid since I have a book out against it!).  It is probably also true that the preceding statements are overly simplistic and verbally painted with brushstrokes a bit too broad.

But surely we can detect the disturbing scent of truth oozing from between the words, can’t we?

I came across this quote yesterday:

“What passes for history is merely the propaganda of the victor transcribed by different hands and described from different angles.” [1]

The words belong to Malcolm Muggeridge from his second lecture on media for the 1976 London Lectures in Contemporary Christianity.  The long-time media veteran delivered these lectures at All Souls Church (under John Stott’s leadership), and they are preserved for us (as extant lit!) in the medium of a little book, Christ and the Media.  His comment above conveys the dark truth that media has been primarily the domain of the powerful.

Now, admittedly, history is not entirely uncovered from the past by sifting through literary remains.  Archaeology discovers more than just ostraca and papyrus scrolls.  But the building materials that survive are mostly masonry or stone.  The straw and wood strips of rural shacks are not as easy to unearth as the foundations of a palace.  And, admittedly, the surviving media from the ancient world are not all from the hand of the rich or their commissioned subjects.  The notes and lists of everyday folks have turned up in the sands from time to time.  The haunting sight of scrawled depictions of hunting and gathering show up in caves that were probably not considered very posh even back in the day.  Even so, Muggeridge has a point.  Much of history has been recorded for us by those who had access not only to the costly tools of the ancient media trades but also to the great luxury of time, the time required for the laborious process of producing posterity.

Media has not been very democratic.

Ah, but the winds of change and human progress are all astir, right?  The Internet!  Thus the democratization of media, as it is sometimes called.  Media has been extracted from the elite and placed in the palms of normal folk.

There is a lot of truth to this.  But we should still be aware that iPhones in those palms cost a pretty penny, that Internet cafes across the globe are not free, and that media-access does not equate to media-control.

In an attempt to reach out to local youth while serving as a pastor of a small church with very few local youth in attendance, I permitted myself the rather embarrassing indulgence of playing one of their video games.  The particular game is one of the most popular online gaming systems in use.  I was annihilated at every turn.  But more disturbing was the occasional appearance on the screen of a dark world map.  Tiny dots of light were all aglow.  The teenagers kindly explained that before me was depicted the current global scene of those playing the game at that same moment, each light representing a gamer.  My stomach churned a bit when I noticed that the lights were concentrated in the US, Europe, Japan, and South Korea.  Entire swaths of the planet—the geographical realms inhabited mostly by the world’s less affluent—were covered in darkness where this global game had yet to extend its reach (which, I gather, is a good thing in this case).

Not everyone has access to media.  And access to media is quite different than the control of media.  Throughout history, and still today, media marginalizes.

So what about the Bible?

Christian Scripture is a collection of extant literary remains from ancient religious cultures.  The Bible is media.  Were those documents the production of the powerful?

In some cases, most certainly.  But think about the cries of the oppressed screeching so brutally out of the Psalter.  Think of the aching laments of exiles whose homes were left smoldering.  Think of the prayer of Hannah in her infertility, the pleas of the outcast prophet beneath a broom tree, the gasp of surprise by a poor virgin in Nazareth, the horrific outcry of a naked man nailed to a cruciform post.

Could it be that another distinguishing feature of the Christian Bible is that it tells the story of the ancient poor and distressed, that it voices to us the history of those to whom history has allotted such little press?

We do not read Facebook status updates from the poor today, but we can read the cries and prayers of the ancient poor in Scripture.  What astonishing media the Gospels are—accounts of a poor brigand’s flash-in-the-pan itinerant teaching and then inglorious death.  How could such literature survive?  Muggeridge offers an answer—

“The reason the Bible can never become irrelevant or outmoded is that, unlike all other histories, in its case, the victor is God.” [2]

Thoughts…?

[1] Malcolm Muggeridge, Christ and the Media (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 1977), 59.

[2] Ibid.

4 thoughts on “History, Media, the Bible, and the Poor

  1. But surely the Wisdom literature, particularly the Proverbs (one of which begins this post), derives from elite, royal circles (as did all wisdom literature in the Ancient Near East) and the Psalms were in Israel’s memory largely attributed to their greatest victor, the King David (who also was remembered for his egregious act of oppressing a foreigner and his wife). What seems more surprising is that a people would canonize a whole tradition in their sacred literature that attributed their violation of God’s covenant (and eventual exile) to their shoddy treatment of the orphans, the widows, the poor and the oppressed (in large swathes of the prophetic books). Who does this in antiquity? Who would dare inscripturate a history of the formerly oppressed oppressing the oppressed and then tell your sons and daughters to study it diligently?

    On another note, I remember from reading Timothy Dudley Smith’s biography of John Stott that Stott was upset by Muggeridge’s very critical remarks toward the modern use of media, particularly as I vaguely recall that the BBC (whose offices were across the street from Stott’s church, All Souls) were partial hosts of those lectures.

  2. John, you are one of Hopeful Realism’s MVCs, Most Valuable Commenters! Thanks so much for taking time to share those insights. You are right, of course, about the wisdom literature and so much of the Psalter. Even with those sections of the Bible with clear royal associations, though, it strikes me that Scripture does give voice to the weak in such a unique fashion. As you point out, it is amazing that even the failings toward the weak would be so uncensored and even inscripturated. I had not thought about that!

    On Muggeridge: I think he is a bit more cynical toward media than I am comfortable with, personally. Though the lectures seem to be delivered with a sense of humor and a very frank disposition acknowledging that he has seen God use media in extraordinary ways, despite his biases against it. His wisdom is invaluable, though, in my view—he spent all those decades steeped in media and has taken time in those lectures to reflect on them.

    Thanks for reading and writing! I wish this were a conversation over coffee….

    ~Andy

    1. Let’s go for more than coffee…maybe lunch at the Purple Onion (I could go for some mint tea as well) or a plate of pancakes from IHOP perhaps?

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