The Reading Brain Is Dying

Book reading is on the decline. Fewer people read books these days, and those who do read less often than before.

Yes, literacy rates in the United States are high (roughly 88 percent). And sales of hardcover books have grown in recent years, while e-book sales remain steady. But many of these books are meant to be gifts, a decoration for a table or shelf. Americans love books for how they look; they spruce up the room where we devote our spare time to Netflix.

In Reader, Come Home, Maryanne Wolf explores the science of the “reading brain” and what might happen to our capacity for critical thinking, empathy, and reflection as we spend more and more time with digital devices.

As a writer, it’s disheartening to think that the vast majority of the books published every year will attract merely a handful of readers. I just submitted a manuscript to a publisher for my next book, a work that emphasizes the importance of theological orthodoxy and makes a case for doctrine in a world (and church) where the details of dogma are often dismissed as irrelevant and unimportant. As I labored over each phrase and sentence, I couldn’t help but wonder, How many people will actually read these words?

Then there’s the question of what the decline of reading means for the most important book of all, the Bible.

Loss of Biblical Literacy

Brad East recently said Christians who want to steward and share the Scriptures with the next generation face a big challenge: “a double loss of literacy.”

First, biblical literacy is on the decline. On a recent visit to the Museum of the Bible with my daughter, we experienced “Washington Revelations,” a video attraction that “flies” you all around our capital city, showing you many of the Scriptural references engraved in famous buildings and monuments. Beyond the markings on monuments, you also find allusions to Scripture in our historical records, presidential speeches, and cultural artifacts. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton quotes George Washington’s vision of everyone under their own vine and fig tree, an image that comes from three Old Testament references (1 Kings 4:25; Mic. 4:4; Zech. 3:10).

A cursory knowledge of the Bible—its main features and themes, its important quotes and stories—was once a feature of ordinary American life. Not anymore. Brad claims that even his students who grew up in church often find unfamiliar the Bible they believe.

Loss of Literacy in General

Biblical literacy? That’s a loss. But the bigger challenge is the loss of literacy in general. East writes:

“Teenagers and twentysomethings today, by and large, are not . . . readers of books. They read endlessly, as a matter of fact, but their reading takes place in 5–15 second chunks of time on a glowing device, before the next image or swipe or alert restarts the clock. Minds trained on this from a young age simply lack the stamina, not to mention the desire, to read for pleasure for sustained stretches of time.”

And so, East says, we should revise our expectation that as a part of discipleship every Christian will develop a new habit that he or she has never engaged in (spending hours in “deliberate demanding literary study” or “consistent deep private reading”). If 80 percent of American families didn’t buy or read a book last year, should we be surprised when most Christians don’t spend significant time reading Scripture alone? And if individual Bible reading and personal study is not the primary way the next generation of believers engages with God’s Word, what might Scripture-focused discipleship look like?

Now, I do wonder if East is a bit too pessimistic in assuming this double literacy loss is a foregone conclusion. Granted, he’s on the front lines with college students, and he sees habits of thought and trends in this area up close. But I don’t want to abandon the hope (and neither does he) that at least some young people will be “super-readers, masters of the sacred page, the way our mothers and grandmothers and great-grandmothers were.” It’s true the ambient culture that produced that level of attention and devotion has disappeared, but I hope Christian colleges and universities might stem the tide by creating an environment where the cultivation of such habits can flourish. What if, in the years ahead, one of the distinguishing marks of Christian young people was that they read?

Word-Saturated Churches

Still, I echo East’s suggestions for how we might renew our vision for reading Scripture as part of the life of the church. It reminds me of Jonathan Leeman’s book The Word-Centered Church, first published under the title Reverberation, which includes a similar vision:

“The ‘ministry of the Word’ . . . begins in the pulpit, but then it must continue through the life of the church as God’s Word becomes absolutely central in the lives of members and bounces back and forth to one another. The Word reverberates or bounces around, as in a canyon.”

This reverberation matters, especially if daily private Bible reading and serious study become less common (no matter how much we encourage it).

Let’s remember: the development of a morning “quiet time” of individual Scripture reading, though a wonderful blessing, is a recent phenomenon. Only in the past few hundred years is it the case that (1) Christians have been literate enough to read Scripture on their own and (2) Christians have access to a personal copy of the Bible. In earlier eras, Christians learned Scripture through memorization, through the hearing of Scripture in church services, and through repetition and prayer and song.

The Question for Church Leaders

So, pastors and song leaders, ask yourself: If you knew the only engagement most of your people will have with the Bible this week will be the Scriptures you steward in the Sunday service, how might that influence your choices?

Does it change the way you read the Bible? The length of your Bible readings? The psalms you recite? Does it change the songs you pick, so you look past the radio hits for songs and hymns that are drenched in Scriptural quotes and echoes? Does it change your sermon, so you ensure you’re exposing your congregation to the Word from the beginning to the end of your teaching? Does it change your view of Bible study in smaller groups and Sunday School classes?

If you’re the chef and people have joined the table ready to eat, and if you know that throughout the week, most of your people are merely snacking on bite-sized portions of God’s Word (if that!) via an app or brief devotional, then Sunday is the feast. Give them steak, not cotton candy. This is the time for protein.

The Challenge Before Us

I don’t think we should do away with high expectations or refrain from exhorting believers to personal Bible study. Over the years, I’ve devoted significant energy to the development of a curriculum that helps people read and understand the Bible. I’ve sat on the translation committee for the Christian Standard Bible. I’ve developed devotional resources for private use with the goal of getting us more and more into the Bible so that the Bible will get more and more into us. I pray God will use all these tools for the development of his people.

But Brad is right about the challenge ahead. If the next generation is more likely to resemble (at least functionally) previous generations of believers who didn’t regularly engage with the Bible personally, then we do well to ensure that the next generation, like those past, hear God’s Word in gathered worship and learn the basics of the Bible in community with trusted teachers, through catechesis and classes, through memorization and songs that echo biblical truth.

This isn’t the time to chastise young people for not reading enough. However much we might grieve the double literacy loss, scolding will not solve it. It’s also not the time to dumb down worship services as an accommodation to literacy loss. That path would reduce Scriptural exposure even more.

Instead, we need renewed imaginations as we retrieve ideas from past church leaders who brought the Scriptures to people and as we look for new ways of increasing Scriptural exposure and engagement in an era of double literacy loss.

T. Wax

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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