For several years now I have been watching, with weary distaste, a comparatively new development in the history of the Church Militant — the insistence on having a tape recorder on hand for every gathering of brethren who have come together to discuss the problems of the Church. Apparently this innovation is based on a passage of non-canonical Scripture: “Where two or three are gathered together in My Name, a tape recorder must be in the midst of them” (I Beelzebub 13:13). I have given the matter much careful thought. (Please hold that question about whether college administrators can think; I intend to take that up in a later column.) Apparently this mania for tape-recording is either a form of sadism or a heretical emphasis on perfectionism. Under the reading of perfectionism the demand for a tape recorder seems to be based on the idea that everything that is said in the heat of a debate or the relaxed atmosphere of a discussion is complete, final, and perfect and that it must therefore be preserved for posterity.
Seen as sadism, the tape recorder syndrome is, of course, the idea that a man can be haunted and persecuted from now until eternity by an unhappy phrase, an incomplete statement, or a mere lapse of the tongue. “This is what the man said in 1950!” the tape recorder disciples cry, “and now we can throw it into his teeth, shout it from the housetops, and publish it verbatim in our magazines. He said it, he can’t deny it, and we’ll plague him with it until he totters into his grave — and maybe even beyond that.” One can almost see a new vision of the Dies Irae with the Judge upon his throne, listening to tape recorders smuggled past the gate of death by those who, in this life, thought they did Him service by playing the part of accuser of their brethren.
Whatever the theology and psychology of the tape recorder idea may be, it is easy to forget that as an instrument for capturing and preserving truth it is singularly inadequate and weak. Have you ever seen a transcription of one of your lectures or sermons taken from a tape recorder? It is a shattering experience. Did I really leave all of those sentences incomplete? Am I really so illiterate, particularly in the wrong places — “a” when I thought I had said “the,” a solemn-appearing sentence which I had uttered in a sarcastic tone of Voice, syntax scrambled like a plate of spaghetti, the ascription of a saying to Isaiah when I know well enough it is from Amos, “uhs” and “ahs” all over the place? Is this what my audience really heard? The answer is clear. On one level this is precisely what they heard. On another and far more important level this has no relation at all to what they heard. For they heard a man, not a machine. They saw his gestures, the changing expressions of his face. They knew his mood.
The tape recorder can faithfully reproduce words. It can not reproduce the milieu in which the words were spoken. But surely the milieu is just as important as the words themselves. And so, after long study, I have re solved never to expose myself to a situation in which three of us are gathered together — the brother, I, and the tape recorder. I may be old-fashioned, but I prefer that the third presence be that of our Lord — the Lord of forgiveness and mercy — who has known for thou sands of years how weak and inarticulate we are when we try, as we must, to pour His thoughts into the shallow molds of our poor human words.
By the way, all of what I have been saying about the inadequacies of the tape-recorder applies to those who are constantly throwing Luther’s Tischreden at us. Veit Dietrich, the faithful (but, one suspects, rather dull) scribe was the sixteenth-century counterpart of our tape recorders. Aside from the hazards noted in the paragraphs above, how would you like to be quoted, word by endless word, on something you said after a heavy dinner, with perhaps two or three glasses of good German beer under your belt, and in the company of your best friends who, in your opinion, could do with an occasional shock to blast them out of their academic rut? Luther had a brilliant, provocative, dancing mind and it would appear that good conversation was one of his favorite forms of recreation. And if one credits him with the puckish sense of humor that one keeps running into in even his serious writings, one can imagine how he must have enjoyed baiting the solemn Philip, the serious theologians, and the slavish note taker, Dietrich. I can imagine Blessed Martin slipping into his nightshirt after a session with the boys and almost choking with laughter as he recounted to Katie how he had shocked poor Philip with some outrageous observation on the validity of humanistic study and Katie answering, “Really, Martin, you have got to quit teasing poor Philip like that. He’s so frail, you know.” But I am sure that the very remark that Blessed Martin considered his joke of the evening has been dealt with at length in a monograph by some German theologian, probably under some such title as Luthers Ansichten ueber den Humanismus, Dargestellt Anhand einer Bemerkung zu Melanchthon in den Tisch reden.