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Scan Reading & Aliteracy

There is a growing trend in our nation toward "scan reading." It's most serious consequence is "aliteracy." In centuries past, societies were plagued with illiteracy. The Puritan invention of public schools in 17th Century America changed all that. Eventually, most Americans learned to read. Now, however, we are bombarded with news clips on our cell phones and sound bites on our computers. And we have become "scan readers." Please take time to seriously consider what is communicated in the following interview, first posted on the Desiring God web site:

1. What is the use of reading for a spiritual life in general? And can illiterate Christians (e.g. in the medieval age) also be faithful Christians?

These are important questions, so thank you for the opportunity to talk about reading.

In his wisdom, God ordained literature and literacy to play a central role in revealing his unfolding plan throughout the ages. Literacy is so central to God’s design that more than 300 verses in the Bible speak of what is written, a reference to what has been recorded previously (e.g. “It is written . . .”). Scripture is consistently looking back and re-evaluating what has been written as a guide and guard for the future. God’s written word is the hallmark of biblical spirituality.

The apostle Paul penned this truism: “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4). As we look back on the ancient revelation recorded on the pages of Scripture, we find a fresh vision for the unseen future ahead of us. Literature and literacy unite historical reflection and future anticipation into one noble, transcendent purpose.

But is it possible for illiterate Christians to be faithful Christians? The answer is yes — and many of the first Gentile Christians would stand as proof of this point. While literacy among first-century Palestinian Jews was quite strong, the literacy rates in Roman provinces hovered around 10 percent; meaning most of the first Gentile Christians were illiterate and solely dependent on oral communication (Harris, Ancient Literacy). However, this inability to read, in itself, did not prohibit their fidelity to the gospel.

Even still, the true Church is never satisfied with illiteracy, and robust Christianity has fostered learning throughout history. Where the reformers brought the gospel of Jesus Christ, education blossomed (see John Calvin in France and John Knox in Scotland). The spread of the gospel carried both a warm embrace of the poor but a sanctified impatience with ignorance and illiteracy.

We see indications early in the New Testament Church that literacy was intended to take on an increasingly normative role in the Christian life. The skill of discernment grows when Christians have access to Scripture, in their own language, to use in evaluating the spiritual climate in which they live (Acts 17:11). Skillfully living by the Book means illiteracy in culture is one problem, but biblical illiteracy within the Church is another problem altogether. Many early Christians were biblically literate in spite of widespread illiteracy. Today I fear we face the opposite problem.

2. What do you think is the impact of the common practice of reading, i.e. the quick scanning of dozens of short Internet articles a day, for our spiritual life?

We are flooded daily by information in our digitally-driven world: social media updates from our friends, blog posts from many different voices, breaking news articles from journalists, and dozens of emails from everyone else. To manage the daily deluge of digital data, scan-reading is a modern necessity to help discern what requires our more thoughtful attention (and what we can safely skip).

Even right now, I imagine some readers are scanning this interview to see if it is worth the time commitment. I take no offense. Scan-reading is an essential survival skill in the digital age, but we must also remember scan-reading is best used as a first-level separation mechanism between the necessary information we need and the un-necessary information we don’t need (and for many of us, 90 percent of the data we scan on a daily basis is of little or no consequence to our lives).

Unfortunately, for many people inside and outside of the church, scan-reading can become a default method of literacy for everything, and this poses all sorts of problems. As I recount in my book (Lit!), even professional readers who formerly enjoyed reading long novels have found their minds so shaped by online scan-reading they can no longer read the very same novels they once enjoyed. This attention decline is a detrimental problem for Christians who possess God’s eternal word, which stands alone in its proven value.

3. More specifically: what do you think, in contrast, would the impact of a practice of slow reading be for our understanding of God?

The purpose of reading is to learn new things, experience new truth, and change for the better. The content that has most challenged and changed my own life are the resources I have invested the most time. The faster I scan, the less enduring impact is made. By default, this puts ephemeral blog posts and short articles at a disadvantage. Short online materials appeal to scan-readers, but the low time commitment and focus it asks of the reader actually makes the piece unlikely to permanently alter the reader. Short blog posts or social media updates are meant to be read quickly, and they can affirm (or offend) our thinking, or they can bring clarifying affirmation to our thinking, but they do not require the time investment necessary to change a reader’s thinking. Changing minds will continue to be the work of long-form journalism and patiently read books.

More tragically, I fear very few Christians invest any meaningful time trying to discover God’s ultimate purposes for literacy and literature, and therefore we do not rise very far from the world’s use of literacy. In reality, the highest purpose of reading is communion with God. As Christians we believe God is here, he speaks, he listens, and he desires to commune with us. Literacy is transformed from an information ingestion to a spiritual discipline intended for us to hear from God, to slowly dwell on him and the significance of Jesus Christ, his creation of all things, his death for sin, his resurrection over death, and his ascension and ongoing cosmic reign.

Reading slowly and meditatively is how the Bible confronts us, reproves us, corrects us, and thereby changes us and trains us for action (2 Timothy 3:16–17). As this is happening, our slowed reading pace protects the meditative time our affections need to keep pace with our minds. If we fail to delight in God, our literacy is proven defective. Spiritual reading is not merely about personal illumination, it’s about offering us space to “taste and see that the Lᴏʀᴅ is good” (Psalm 34:8). God is glorious and worthy of all our delight. We are to rejoice in Christ always. Scan-reading about Christ cannot accomplish this.

Scripture is a banquet feast for the soul. Scanning through the Bible in haste is like jogging through a gourmet buffet. Such haste leads to information indigestion and biblical illiteracy — the inability to resist the waves and wind of a culture hostile to God. But most sadly, scan-reading the Bible leads to spiritual malnourishment. God invites us to feast and enjoy him. For the Christian who is a patient reader, God offers the heart-satisfying joy in the beholding of the glory of Jesus Christ. Delighting in the Word made flesh is the consummation of God’s highest purpose of literacy (2 Corinthians 3:12–18).

4. Is not a plea for reading and meditation just a kind of conservatism? Should we not instead look for new ways of finding God, for example like with the old Roman-Catholic “books for the layman” (religious art)?

Intuitive spirituality is reckless, but we’re all guilty. We are drawn to seek God apart from his revelation. As men intuitively grasp for God, one grabs the leg of an elephant, another grabs an ear, another the snout, but with our intuitive spirituality we can do little more than gather in a circle around an animal we presume to be our god. God is never far from us, and yet we follow our intuition and think it will lead us to God — when in reality our intuition only leads us into the temple of ignorance built for ‘The unknown god’ (Acts 17:16–34). If Christ has been raised from the dead, we have no excuses for God-ignorance (Acts 17:30–31). God is close to us, so close he can be found in his Son, Jesus Christ, as revealed in Scripture.

Likewise, visual-oriented spirituality is incomplete. Images can present to us the world as it is, but pictures cannot interpret what we see. Language communicates to our minds the meaning behind the images we see with our eyes. This explains why old silent movies needed text slides, why new movies need writers and dialogue, and why newspaper photographs need captions. Language brings precision and clarity of meaning to what we see with our eyes.

For example: Jesus Christ was nailed on a Roman cross between two robbers, one on his right and one on his left — this is a reality we can depict in a bloody movie, on a graphic poster, or in a classic painting. But go one step further. “For our sake he [God] made him [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” — this is a reality that must be expounded with Apostolic words (2 Corinthians 5:21). The crucifixion’s meaning was invisible and cannot be shared without a common language. Only for one who has come to know the theological meaning of the cross (by words), can a painting of the crucifixion finally take on its fullest meaning (in the form of image). So visual spirituality, which can appreciate a lot of the visible created universe, is severely limited in communicating theological meaning.

Ultimately, it is irrelevant to pin the rise or decline of literacy on the opinions of conservatives or liberals. What matters are the words of Jesus Christ. He tells us in plain language true spirituality is not experienced by intuition or by aesthetic taste, but rather it comes about in a vibrant relationship of knowing God and being loved by him, abiding in his love, and honoring him in an organic union that thrives off concrete revelation. True spirituality is measured by our honest life-response to the articulated words of Jesus (John 15:7–12). Such a definition helps to clear the fog of intuitive spirituality that creeps into our postmodern thinking.

5. For readers who identify themselves as “scan readers” and now struggle to slowly and patiently read entire books, what are some practical ways for them to grow?

If all of us are now being forced to develop a bi-literacy — skillful in scanning information, and patient in slowly reading important texts — then all of us are faced with the challenge of cultivating the patient pace of slow reading. Here are three practical tips.

First, find ways to separate yourself from digital distractions. If you read books on a device that comes packaged with social media apps or email, and you find your attention with books frequently broken and lured to check things online, you may need to put the device aside entirely. I do this often. I turn off my phone, pick up a printed book, grab a pen, and go to a place where I can be separated from the bells and whistles of digital distractions and sit and read for an undistracted 45 minutes. This exercise may be painful for the first few times, but gradually you will notice a difference if this time can be protected.

Second, read challenging books slowly. I find it helpful to occasionally read the works of Shakespeare or a 17th century Bible translation (KJV) in order to encounter unfamiliar words. This discipline forces me to slow down and decipher word meanings, often reading a paragraph two or three times until the author’s sense becomes clear. Who has time for reading at such a slow pace? The reader who knows that some writings — the Bible — are of infinite value and require the highest mental discipline we can offer the text. Escaping to another century with the intent of understanding will necessarily slow your pace and develop your sustained, linear reading attention.

Third, for parents, it is important that mom or dad model the slow reading of important texts for their children. If you have young children at home and you engage in some form of devotional reading of the Bible together, it’s wise to read slowly and not skim over unfamiliar words. Stop and help explain hard words, and then help everyone understand the author’s meaning. Patient understanding is essential if we are to respond with the appropriate joy of discovery that fuels our communion with God.

Parents and pastors are custodians of literacy for future generations of Christians who will come to discover the invisible God of the universe is speaking directly to us through his Son, in the pages of the Bible, by the illuminating power of the Holy Spirit. Such a view of literacy is glorious and worth protecting at all costs.

Related resources:

Book, Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books

Blog post, Four Reasons Men Don’t Read Books (with a Practical Suggestion)

Tony Reinke (@tonyreinke) is a staff writer for Desiring God and the author of Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books (2011) and John Newton on the Christian Life: To Live Is Christ (2015). He hosts the Ask Pastor John and Authors on the Line podcasts, and lives in the Twin Cities with his wife and their three children.