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Rev. Walter J. Ong; traced the history of communication

LOS ANGELES -- The Rev. Walter J. Ong, a Jesuit priest and a leading scholar in the field of language and culture who traced the transition from oral to written communication in his more than 20 books, died Tuesday at St. Mary's Health Center in Richmond Heights, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis. He was 90.

In his writings and lectures, Father Ong explored the development of communication from its preliterate beginnings to its current reliance on radio, television, and the Internet. He was fascinated by the transition from one form of communication to another. He used ancient stories such as Homer's "Odyssey" to demonstrate that preliterate cultures relied on "oral thought," in which the storyteller might contradict himself and the story itself might change over time until it was written down.

He contrasted oral tradition with the written, using the works of Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle to illustrate the change. A written text relies on a set of ground rules for logical reasoning, as well as a consistent use of terms, to communicate information.

The two traditions influenced cultural values, Father Ong pointed out. Although an oral society places a high value on communal memory and the elders who are the main link to history, a literate one focuses on individual reasoning and introspection.

The rise of technology introduced other changes. In a high-tech culture, a person reads a novel and imagines a movie in his mind. The Internet blurs people's exterior and interior worlds. Virtual reality is no longer a private matter.

Father Ong's meticulous research on those developments helped lay the foundation for an understanding of modern media culture.

Some of his research corresponded with the work of his famous teacher, Marshall McLuhan, whose interest in the history of the verbal arts in Western culture inspired Father Ong to pursue his own studies.

He was McLuhan's student in graduate school when he completed a master's degree in English at St. Louis University. McLuhan was a faculty member from 1937 to 1944. (Father Ong went on from there to earn a doctorate at Harvard University.)

Although McLuhan became a pop-culture guru in the 1960s -- "global village," his term for the interconnectedness of the world by mass media, is now included in Webster's Dictionary -- Father Ong remained a scholar's scholar. His writing style was dense and complex, not easy to grasp. His ideas were subtle and cumulative, not catchy. His most highly regarded book, for example, is titled "Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the World" (1982).

"Ong is the sort of guy the experts read," said Thomas J. Farrell, whose book "Walter Ong's Contributions to Cultural Studies" (Hampton Press, 2000) has helped make the priest's work more accessible.

Born in Kansas City, Mo., on Nov. 30, 1912, Father Ong said he knew he wanted to be a priest from the time he was in high school. He entered the Society of Jesus in 1935 and was ordained in 1946.

He spent most of his teaching career in the English department at St. Louis University. He taught courses in Renaissance literature, his specialty, along with a range of others. He also lectured at Oxford University, Yale Divinity School, and a number of other top schools around the world until he retired in 1991.

Despite Father Ong's academic achievements, "he was first and foremost a priest," Farrell said. "He said daily Mass at 5:30 a.m., regularly heard confessions, and wore cleric's garb wherever he went."

Father Ong's academic work only strengthened his belief in God. "God created the evolving world, and it's still evolving," he told the St. Louis Post Dispatch in March 2002.

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