Day 3 of 5 of the short story A Saintly Soul Abducted by K.G. Watson
McNeil slouched back in what amounted to blasphemy from his student and was about to interrupt, but Liam knew enough not to let him. If he let the Prof get started, he’d spout propaganda that had the weight of time and lineage he revered. Liam plunged on.
“Millennia before there was a Christian church in Ireland, there was an oral tradition, as there was in most of the world. Writing arrived like a scourge. It was the tool of the weak-memoried or anti-social. But writing was mystical in allowing communication between people who never met and across time that exceeded lifetimes. Could there be a better device made for support of a religious practice that claimed communion with the miraculous?”
“The trump card was that it eliminated the fallibility of human recall – sometimes. Here was certainty on the written page. Except for those who felt obliged to add words of interpretation. “This is what the author really meant,” claimed those trying to elevate themselves above the original. So in Patrick and the snakes, the interpreters claimed the use of the word for ‘serpents’ was a metaphorical one.
“We know there were no snakes. We think he was referring to pagans in their midst,” and they chuckle their way down an explanation that ignores the source and intent of the original oral presentation.
“To illustrate the point about oral tradition conveying accurate information over millennia, you can’t beat the burial mound at Newgrange in Drogheda County. Details of astronomical observation were collected over eons by those living there before the pyramids were built. It was passed by word of mouth generation after generation until enough had been gathered and saved without writing, and the tomb could be built about 3200 BCE. We’re talking about a memory exercise that exceeds the time the Christian Church has existed!” A thick sheaf of photocopies joined the others on the table.
McNeil had never felt so assaulted! The very foundation of modern progress rested on the infallibility of the written word. His pupil had just pointed out that libraries of the world had not been around as long as they had been. He exploded out of his chair. “You cannot test words not written. What you would do by raising gossip to the level of careful thought is turn the wisdom of the ages, written in books, into a debate.” The older man was livid.
“Is it a debate about what was really, or what people wanted it to be?”
“It’s not as easy as that,” shot back the equally red-faced student as his supervisor sat. “Our protestant friends not long ago had a program of trying to decide from the Biblical records what Jesus said. By applying a term called ‘voice printing’ along with other criteria, they feel they have extracted the words for the man at the well from those that copiers or editors added over time. At least it gave another view of this person they worship … without the window dressing.”