Last week’s Sunday School lesson, like many in our ward, was a string of scripture verses taken out of context, interspersed with quotations from random General Authorities on the keywords in each verse. Many talks assume a similar format these days. It occurred to me that these lessons and talks would not have been possible even five years ago, and that perhaps we ought to spend a little time paying attention to the changes wrought by lds.org.
My title is a meant-to-be-cute-more-than-deeply-suggestive reference to Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” which any of you who’ve suffered through a course in cultural critique in whatever form will have read. Among other things, Benjamin pointed out that both the function and the very nature of the work of art are fundamentally changed by the possibility of mass production. I wonder if prophecy undergoes similar transformations.
The advent of broadcasting general conference might be the first instance of technology seriously impacting the revelatory process; even just needing to carefully fit one’s sermon into externally imposed time parameters would, I think, subtly change the nature of one’s speech. Of course, it’s likely that the major inspiration for a prepared talk occurs during the preparation rather than the delivery, but still, there are plenty of stories about the charismatic nature of early church leaders’ sermonizing, and such charisma is likely to be lost or at least subdued by needing to hue to a set schedule.
No doubt you can trace out the intermediate steps yourselves, so I’ll fast forward to the present, when General Conference is entirely teleprompted and even the hymns are shortened to fit broadcast breaks. All the talks are available more or less immediately after conference, and published in searchable form at lds.org within a month. It may be this searchability that most dramatically alters our use of conference talks in the church–up until a few years ago, one had to remember that a particular speaker had given a talk on a certain topic and the date of the address, or spend a goodly amount of time searching through separate index issues of the Ensign. Sermons like the ones we mentioned in the “Great Sermons” thread–ones that were memorable and/or delivered by folks higher up the hierarchy ladder–were likely to be quoted more often, and thus, I think, have greater impact in shaping beliefs among the rank and file.
What does it mean that sermons don’t have to be particularly memorable anymore to be quoted? Does the searchability of conference talks & Ensign articles encourage our nasty collective habit of out-of-context prooftexting? (Yeah, no editorial bias in the phrasing of that question :) !) Does it matter to you that you don’t thumb through back issues of the Ensign anymore to try and find that talk you remember–are we missing those serendipitous discoveries that (maybe) make more room for the spirit to get a word in edgewise? Or are these losses compensated by the ease of increased access to the words of our leaders?