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Media and Western Cultural Literacy
by John Freed, Ph.D.
a college-level, humanities course as an e-book
Phoenix and Son Press
2018 revised edition
The objective of this e-book is to provide historical era markers and
contemporary analogues for entry to an understanding of Western
cultural literacy for the approximately three thousand years between
Homer/Bible and Google/Twitter.
J. E. Freed
Creative Commons Copyright – 2016-18
Foreword for Media and Western Cultural Literacy
The premise of this book is that all human cultures are created and changed by
the artistic expressions generated within them and are made widely
transmissible only when appropriate communication technologies [media] have
also been developed and deployed.
Without the narrative stories and parables in the Bible, there would have been no
Judaic or Christian religions.
Without the epic poetry of Homer and Virgil, the plays of writers such as
Aeschylus and the philosophical writing of Plato and Aristotle, there would
have been no sophisticated Greek and Roman cultures.
Without the lyrically poetical and easy to memorize verses in the Koran, there
would have been no Islam.
Without the Gothic cathedrals, the illiterate peasants throughout Europe would
not have known their way to eternal salvation.
Without ancient texts copied and preserved in Irish monasteries and Islamic
libraries, Western culture itself would not have evolved past its economic
subsistence, tribal level.
Without the heroic visions of Michelangelo, scientific integrity and
articulateness of Galileo, deeply human character portrayals of Shakespeare,
critically inspiring operas of Mozart and the rationality of the Federalist
Papers writers, modernity itself would not exist.
Without books written in the languages actually spoken by the common people
in their national vernaculars and mass produced cheaply on printing presses,
there would have been no reformations of the church or democratic
Without our technological media (photography, film, global television
satellites, computer-assisted digitalizations and low-cost, high-speed
transmission capabilities) very few in the society would have had the
opportunity to be heard or have open access to the rich, treasure trove of our vast
With the advent of fully electronic digital “new media,” our imaginations are no
longer restrained by the production limitations that nearly all other media
imposed. We are all now potential producers as well as consumers of the human
cultures that we share. This ebook is such an exemplar.
Chapter One's Texts and Contexts
How Ancient Stories Bind and Define Us
“A need to tell and hear stories is essential to the species homo
sapiens--second in necessity apparently after nourishment and before
love and shelter. Millions survive without love or home, almost none in
silence; the opposite of silence leads quickly to narrative, and the
sound of story is the dominant sound of our lives.”
Reynolds Price (1980's)
“The ancient Poets animated all sensible objects with Gods or
[Spirits], calling them by the names and adorning them with the
properties of woods, rivers, mountains, lakes, cities, nations and
whatever their enlarge and numerous senses could perceive.
And particularly they studied the [Spirit] of each city and country
placing it under a Mental Deity until a System was formed, which
some took advantage of and enslaved the vulgar by attempting to
realize or [detach] the Mental Deities from their objects. Thus began
Priesthood; and at length they pronounced that the Gods had ordered
Thus men forgot that All Deities originally resided in the [Poet’s]
William Blake (1790's)
“There is no story that is not true.”
Chinua Achebe (1958)
"We tell stories and listen to them because we live stories and live in
them. Narrative equals language equals life: To cease to narrate is to
John Barth, (1960's)
One of Michelangelo’s “Captives” (c. 1520)
And an illustration for Simone Weil’s essay on Homer's “The Iliad”
There were animals that we now call human beings (homo sapiens) about
100,000 years ago, long before there was anything we now classify as human
To qualify as a part of human culture requires more than the DNA connection to
our common mitochondrial mother. It requires recognition of our common,
human expressions. To sound rather biblical, “Through their images and words
shall ye know them.”
Just as our DNA determines much of what we are, and can be, our culturally
shared stories and symbols contain transformative power both for us as
individuals and for our constantly evolving societies.
The goal of this book is to explore the particular ways that art transforms
culture. Technologies, from ancient oral narratives through medieval cathedrals,
geographical explorations, public theatres and the printing press to the nearly
ubiquitous open access of current electronic media, will be studied as essential
to both the creation of the works themselves as well as to their transmittal over
space, time and peoples. The book historically contextualizes a number of
critically important artistic units of cultural information [epiphanies or memes]
in order to demonstrate the process of cultural evolution. The book also
highlights the primacy of the imagination and the intertwining roles of
creator/artist/adapter, medium chosen and publisher/producer/promoter.
The critic Harold Bloom believes that William Shakespeare should get the
most credit [or blame?] for inventing modern humanity. And if you are a
psychologist or sociologist I claim that you will learn more about human nature
by reading Shakespeare’s plays closely than by studying actual case histories.
Since I have taught Shakespeare at the college level for over thirty years, I don’t
dispute Bloom’s grandiose position, but obviously to understand a claim such as
his there has to be a fuller understanding of cultural contexts. Our establishing
cultural contexts will range from ancient Greek, biblical and folk tales right up
through the “Google-ization” of the contemporary world.
Here are the book’s study units in roughly chronological order. In each there will
be a contemporary context or access to electronic resources:
Chapter One -- How Ancient Stories Bind and Define Us
Chapter Two – Iconography vs. Iconoclasm: The Image vs. The Word
Chapter Three -- The Absolutism to Relativism Paradigm Shift: Inter-Cultural
Chapter Four -- The Paradigm Shift from Medieval Internationalism to Early
Chapter Five: The Democratic Paradigm Shift: Privileges of the Aristocracy vs.
Rights of the Common Man [Woman?]
Chapter Six -- Gender Equality: Communities of Individual Artists and
Promoters as Change Agents
Chapter Seven -- The Transformative Power of Technology-based Media:
Film, the Global Medium, and Cultural Hegemony
Chapter Eight: The “New Media” Paradigm Shift: From Free Libraries to
Open-Access MOOC's and social media
In the broadest sense, without the factoring in of relevant context there is no
valid interpretation of meaning. The kind of contexts that we will try to reconstruct answers some of the following questions:
What are the distinguishing characteristics of Western culture? Who produces it
and what value is it? Who has access to it and at what relative cost? How
essential is its transmission? How has it evolved and for what purposes is it
As we engage with the materials of this book I especially want us to note the
primacy of the imagination as it is stimulated and trained by encounters with art.
This in turn creates units of cultural information [which some people call
memes] that are transmitted and evolve over time in meaningful ways which
some people call epiphanies. An epiphany is defined as “a realization or
comprehension of the essence or meaning of something or someone.” It is like
the tongue of flame that appeared on the head of each of Christ’s apostles that
gave them the insight and wisdom they needed to carry on their work.
I once heard Baba Ram Dass, the famous 70’s mystic and guru, answer a
question about which were the sacred texts. His answer has stayed with me to
this day. “Sacred books are uniquely sacred to each individual. You know them
when you come across them. In a sense they seek you out.”
Some works that I consider sacred are the Oresteia by Aeschylus, the philosophy
of Christ abstracted from the New Testament, most of the plays of Shakespeare,
the poetry of George Herbert, the operas of Mozart and Puccini, the U. S.
Constitution with all of its amendments, the poetry of Rumi and Tagore, the
novels and paintings of D. H. Lawrence, the philosophical writings of Simone
Weil and hundreds of films.
So let’s begin our search for culturally important (sacred or not) works at the
“In the beginning was the word. . . it was made flesh and dwelt amongst us.”
What a wonderful description of the creative power of ancient stories that John
gives in his Gospel. In so many ways we still “live with” the creatures that
emerge from these stories and they still shape our lives.
The three ancient stories that I would like to discuss are Abraham and Isaac,
Hansel and Gretel and the Trojan War. They are all over three thousand years
old, and I’ll bet they are all familiar to you today.
The Abraham and Isaac [Ishmael] Story
The Holy Bible: King James Version. 1611 (2000)
Abraham Commanded to Offer Isaac
And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham,
and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am.
And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest,
and get thee into the land of Mori'ah; and offer him there for a burnt offering
upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.
And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and
took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for
the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told
Then on the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place
And Abraham said unto his young men, Abide ye here with the ass; and
I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you.
And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon
Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife; and they went both of
And Isaac spake unto Abraham his father, and said, My father: and he
said, Here am I, my son. And he said, Behold the fire and the wood: but where is
the lamb for a burnt offering?
And Abraham said, My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a
burnt offering: so they went both of them together.
And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham
built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid
him on the altar Jas. 2.21 upon the wood.
And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his
And the angel of the LORD called unto him out of heaven, and said,
Abraham, Abraham: and he said, Here am I.
And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing
unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld
thy son, thine only son, from me.
And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a
ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and
offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son. Heb. 11.17-19
And Abraham called the name of that place Jehovah–ji'reh: as it is said
to this day, In the mount of the LORD it shall be seen.
And the angel of the LORD called unto Abraham out of heaven the
and said, By myself have I sworn, saith the LORD, for because thou
hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son,
that in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy
seed Heb. 6.13, 14 as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the
seashore; Heb. 11.12 and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies;
and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; Acts 3.25
because thou hast obeyed my voice.
And the piece of cultural knowledge in this story [its special meme] that is to be
transmitted is “uncritically trust God’s commandments whether they make
human sense or not.”
Just as Abraham proceeds without questioning God’s infanticide command, St.
Ignatius of Loyola, the Spanish founder of the very intellectual Jesuit Order,
proclaimed in the sixteenth century, “If the church declares that ‘black was
white,’ I would believe it.”