Liturgy is becoming fashionable again. In the last post, we saw that liturgical expressions of worship are gaining a foothold in evangelical circles. And we saw that those who aren’t engaging with structured religion are finding meaning in a religion of technological consumption that mirrors very closely the liturgy of Judaism. These emerging realities are tokens of what we called a “secondary orality.”
Secondary orality was a term coined by an academic by the name of Walter Ong in his 1982 treatise Orality and Literacy. He describes secondary orality as “a more deliberate and self-conscious orality, based permanently on the use of writing and print.” This secondary orality isn’t going to be a perfect, resurrected replica of the “primary” orality that saw the rise of Judaism. It’s going to be a cyborg blend of the written, print, and electronic traditions—a blend that may seek to restore the communal value of oral culture. In a word, we’re returning to the sort of acoustically meaningful culture that saw the childhood and adolescence of Judaism. If primary orality was the primordial soup that produced Jewish liturgy, secondary orality is producing a technological liturgy that’s remarkably similar. There’s something important here about the Messianic Era, as Yeshua warned about reading the signs.
The proof is in the patterns.
The verses following the Shema in Deuteronomy 6 have become the foundation for much of Jewish liturgical practice. I appreciate the way that the NIV translates verses 8 and 9: “tie them [the commandments] as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.” From these verses, Judaism has derived several liturgical practices. The injunction to bind the commandments has been interpreted as the practice of tying tefillin during morning prayer. The tefillin are small boxes bound with leather to the wrist and head that contain the words of the Shema. They are symbols—physical representations of the non-physical concept of what it means to love God. The injunction to write the commandments on the doorframe has interpreted this command as the mezuzah, a small box affixed to the doorpost of a house, containing the words of Deuteronomy 6.
These practices have technological analogs in secondary orality. The tefillin is mirrored in the emerging realm of wearable technology, particularly the Apple watch and like products—small boxes bound with leather to the wrist, and eyewear such as the failed first iteration of Google Glass. These technologies are used in the same way that the Jews use tefillin—as tools of reminder. Already, the theological implications wax ominous. We recall the prophesy of the second beast in Revelation 13 that “forced all people, great and small, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads.”
Likewise, perhaps the contemporary tech analog for the mezuzah is the wifi router, a small box that every technologically “observant” household owns. It is traditional, when entering a Jewish home, to reach up and touch the mezuzah. Symbolically, acknowledgement of the box becomes a touchpoint of entrance, a sort of signifier of commonality with the belief of the household. Similarly, household wifi is the touchpoint that one must acknowledge as one walks through the door to the Internet.
The liturgical practice from Numbers 15 to wear “tassels on the corners of your garments” and the practice of wearing the tallit during prayer also have technological analogs. You will often see Orthodox Jews, even the very young children, reaching down to touch the tzitzit that hang from their shirts. Throughout the day, the presence and feel of the tzitzit acts as a reminder to keep the commands of God. They are grasped in prayer as a physical touchpoint between the worshiper and the divine. In traditional Judaism, the tzitziyot are also affixed to a four-cornered prayer shawl called a tallit, which is worn over the head or around the neck. Though the tradition of the tallit doesn’t have a biblical origin, per se, its traditional function during prayer is to acknowledge the headship of God, to block out the distractions of the world, and to aid in achieving “kavannah” or perfect concentration in prayer. This is not unlike a pair of headphones, worn over the head or around the neck and used to block out the outside world.
In the same way that the tzitziyot attach to the tallit, so too, our smartphones attach to headphones and serve as both signifiers and a conduits. They label the observant and facilitate communication. We reach for the phones at the corners of our garments as touchpoints between ourselves and the global village. The compulsion with which we handle our phones is not unlike the devotion of the Orthodox Jew. To them the motion is instinctive, engrained in their psyches. And to us, the smartphone is likewise. It is sheer stimulus—a vibrating drug in our pockets that keeps us high on the methadone of connectedness.
Rites of Passage
Traditions of conversion and coming of age express themselves liturgically in secondary orality as well. The Jewish conversion process requires circumcision: quite literally the partial loss of that which is most private. So too, in our “conversion” to the technological religion, we must agree to the fine-print terms and regulations, and offer up the foreskin of our private information. Children now experience technological bar or bat mitzvahs—rites of passage where they become responsible for the knowledge that is only a Google search away. They become not sons and daughters of the commandment, but sons and daughters of the Internet. Clearing browser history becomes the new “mikvah” or ritual baptism of Levitical purity, and these rituals are being offered to increasingly younger and younger children. From an early age, children understand “brand holiness” as well as Jewish children knew not to mix wool and linen. So too, even the dietary laws of Leviticus and Deuteronomy may be mirrored malevolently in the eating disorders pervasive among young women bombarded by mediated representations of the self.
The Levitical sacrificial system outlined in detail in Leviticus and Deuteronomy is not unlike the system of technological obsolescence that characterizes the ever-shifting software and hardware environment. In order to stay connected, old models of software and hardware must be “sacrificed” to newer models and versions. Updates are the price we pay for maintaining closeness with the brand. Each update ideally provides a better experience for the user. In a similar way, the sacrificial system functioned to temporarily “cover” the individual’s unholiness so that they could draw nearer to God’s holiness. Over and over again, individuals would bring sacrifices to the Temple to renew their devotional lives. The same phenomenon resurfaces every time we purchase a newer iPhone or download the latest operating system.
Even the physical places that are associated with the technological religion are somehow vaguely familiar. The flagship Apple store in New York is a glass cube, stalely lit from the center by the light of a floating Apple logo. It uncannily resembles the glass cube of the New Jerusalem which descends out of heaven in Revelation 21—a city illuminated from the center by the light of the glory of God.
There is a way to theologically reconcile these seemingly contradictory lights. And Messianic Judaism is poised to offer such reconciliation.
More in part three, Easy Immortality.
- Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the World (London, England: Routledge, 1982), 136.
- Revelation 13:16 ESV
- Numbers 15:38 ESV
- Farhad Manjoo, “Flaws and Wonder Strapped to a Wrist” The New York Times, April 9, 2015, B1.