Friday, July 16, 2004

Reading Books-The Church and Imagery

Most of us have probably seen this study by the NEA referenced in some fashion or another recently.  It concludes that reading, especially the reading of literary fiction, is declining fairly sharply.  Having read a few reactions to it in the “main stream press” I think the best treatment came from the NY Times.  There the author detailed some of the categories that were oddly excluded and even oddly included in the survey, shedding light on what was considered “reading” by the NEA.
Without quibbling about the details, though, I think there are a couple of points to ponder.  The first is what I consider to be the clear superiority of the printed word over visual mediums and the internet.  The NYT author noted that even though people are reading books less, they are filling a lot of that time on the internet reading.  Although that is no doubt a good thing (better than watching TV or playing video games all day), there is simply something more permanent, more enduring with a printed book.  Anecdotally, I know that reading the Bible over a web page is a poor substitute for reading a printed Bible.  Maybe I am not quite used to it yet, but I simply don’t interact with the text as well when I can replace it with the Yahoo News page or The Onion with a couple flicks of the wrist.  Even though I close my printed Bible when I am done reading it, the words are still there and are never replaced with something less valuable.  And when people, young people especially, read printed books more than the internet, I think it instills an important, although subtle, lesson about the importance and permanence of ideas.
As just a thought, I wonder if this subtle lesson about the import of words and ideas was caught in the NYT’s final paragraph:

Not that books are likely to improve any time soon. The really scary news in "Reading at Risk" is tucked away on page 22. While the number of people reading literature has gone down, the number of people trying to write it has actually gone up. We seem to be slowly turning into a nation of "creative writers," more interested in what we have to say ourselves than in reading or thinking about what anyone else has to say.

 It seems almost natural that if we have learned that other people’s words are impermanent, we will be less inclined to pay attention to them.
As I reflect further on this study, I wonder what the implications are for the use of technology in the Church.  We are, after all, a People of the Book and not a People of the Power Point.  When it comes to the Church’s relevance to the culture, it is one thing to analyze the culture and describe it as something which has moved away from the printed word; it is another thing altogether to prescribe that kind of approach for the Church.  I am not against the use of technology and/or visual imagery in the Church per se, but I think it has to be done in a reflective and thoughtful fashion.  I cannot count the number of times I have heard pastors say things like, “most of my people don’t read much, so we…” and use that as a kind of justification for not encouraging people to read more, or for their ubiquitous use of technology in place of the printed word.   In my opinion, part of the job of discipleship is to get people into the Word, even if they are not readers.
There are several good books and articles out there on the differences between the written word and visual imagery.  Dr. Groothuis’ web page contains several articles.  Neil Postman has also written wisely on this issue in Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology and Amusing Ourselves To Death.   

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