Literacy & Books: Shaping Religious Experience

Over at The Atlantic, Heather Horn interviews Andrew Pettegree, who has just written a history of the book titled The Book in the Renaissance.  After pondering the (bright) future of books, they discuss the profound ways in which vernacular books and a literate public forever changed religious experience:

But one mustn’t ignore that the mainstay of the [sixteenth century] market was always the market in religious books. About 40 percent of the total output of the printing presses in this period throughout Europe was religious books.

So the most important cultural impact of print, I think, is to make reading a natural extension of worship. The move from religion as a devotion of presence and observing to one of study, reading, and participation—that’s the critical shift in the sixteenth century and it’s one that embraces all varieties of belief and it wouldn’t have been possible without print.

What Pettegree describes is nothing less than a monumental paradigm shift.  This 16th century development not only changed the way people experience religion, it also had the enduring effect of changing the way people — primarily those in the West — conceptualize religion.

If you ask most people today, they will tell you that an essential accoutrement of a bona fide religion is sacred writings or texts.  This is a specifically Western bias and mistake that has led to countless misunderstandings of spiritual traditions not grounded in the printed word.

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