Flex the brain

Culture | FEATURE: Reading books the right way will keep a mind in shape the way exercising keeps a body in shape

Issue: "Sciavo: Saved by the bill," Nov. 1, 2003

Christianity depends on reading. Therefore, Christians have to read.

These are overstatements-obviously, many illiterate persons over the centuries have had faith-but they emphasize that God has chosen to communicate Himself to us by handing us a Book. Christian spirituality is grounded not in having visions, not in hearing voices inside our heads, not in cultivating mystical experiences, but in receiving the Word of God. That is, by reading.

What we know of God-and of ourselves and where we stand before God-we learn by what He tells us about Himself, and He reveals Himself to us most clearly by means of human language that has been written down. This Word can then be studied, contemplated, and applied, and when the Word is preached and proclaimed, the Holy Spirit is powerfully at work, creating repentance and faith in Christ.

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The word bible simply means "book," and in the Holy Bible, God speaks not just about history, theology, and objective information. He also speaks to its reader and hearer personally, to the heart and the soul. Every genre of literature is contained in the Holy Book, from gripping narratives to passionate poetry, from mind-teasing parables to personal letters. A personal relationship to God, like human relationships, is built on the medium of language, of two people communicating with each other. The Christian speaks to God in prayer; God speaks back by means of His Word.

So Christians dare not despise reading. In fact, where Christianity has gone, literacy has always followed. The Old Testament scribes and the reading of the books of Moses as a rite of passage for young Hebrews led to Christian academies and the invention of the universities. The very goal of universal literacy grew out of the Reformation and its emphasis on the Bible.

When the Reformation made the Bible once again central, churches opened schools to teach people how to read it. And once they could read the Bible, they could read anything. As the newly invented printing press churned out Bibles and theological texts, newly educated millions read them voraciously and also books of other kinds. With access to knowledge and information, the medieval class system started to crumble and social mobility shot up, as commoners started their own businesses and in some cases became wealthier than their feudal masters.

Literate people soon became able to take part in their own government. Political liberty, self-government, and democratic republics became more common. They would be impossible if it were not for books, pamphlets, periodicals, and newspapers, and people who could and would read them in order to become informed, to thrash out ideas, and to make intelligent decisions.

Arthur W. Hunt, in his new book The Vanishing Word, shows how Christianity and the written word have prospered together. He also shows what happens when the habit of reading is lost and people orient themselves instead to sensate images. Reading encourages thinking, reflecting, and the cultivation of truth, but image cultures tend to be driven by subjectivism, superstition, hedonism, and propaganda.

The great media critic Neil Postman-who died last month-pointed out the ways that reading encourages certain habits of mind. Reading teaches us to think in a logically connected way. It cultivates a sustained attention span. It conditions us to think in terms of abstract ideas, objective truth, and sustained reflection. But television and other media that depend on images condition us to subjectivism. TV cultivates a short attention span and a purely emotional response. It increases the demand for constant, entertaining stimulation and undercuts the capacity for delayed gratification.

Today we have become a nation of channel surfers, and we are paying the price in political apathy, moral indifference, and the mad pursuit of sensation. Even our books are often reduced to the entertainment formulas of the pop culture. The old problem was illiteracy, that many people could not read. Today, although illiteracy remains even in products of our school system, the bigger problem is aliteracy, that many people can read but never do.

Imagination as a human capacity is extraordinarily important, and greatly neglected. Imagination is not some mystified "creativity" that is the sole province of artsy types. If you can picture the tree in your back yard or recall the new car smell or visualize the finished product while you are still working on it, you have imagination. But those who merely consume visual images by sitting passively in front of a TV screen are absorbing the products of someone else's imagination. Those who created the TV shows are indeed using their imaginations, just as they are writing and reading, but the viewer's mind is not left with much to do. Read a novel, though, and your mind, as led by the storyteller, is doing the imagining.


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