The Fate of Reading in a Post-modern World
Not long ago, I was honored to be a guest as the Wycliffe staff celebrated the completion of 12 New Testament and full Bible translations. We praised God for his faithfulness and honored many who have spent many years of faithful devotion to seeing God’s Word spread in tangible and powerful ways. I heard of the efforts of Wycliffe and others to give to certain language groups their own written language, where only an oral language exists. Much of the work of Wycliffe today is in creating literacy, so that people will be prepared to receive the Bible in their own languages. The Lord is working in amazing ways through the faithfulness of His disciples in bringing God’s Word to so many millions of people who do not have the Bible in their own language. As Christians God’s Word is central and foundational to all that we believe and do. In the infallible Word, we have God’s special revelation to us, given by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
Yet our modern & postmodern Western world today is quickly moving away from reading and literature, even within the Christian church. As terrific ministries such as Wycliffe work in third world countries to promote literacy, literature and reading with a focus on God’s Word, our Western world is quickly moving away from literature to image. What does this mean for us as Christians? How does this effect the work of the Holy Spirit through His infallible Word in our lives? Are we the same?
I have just recently been re-reading the book The Gutenberg Elegies: the fate of reading in an electronic age, by Sven Birkerts. He is a literature professor and author. This is one of the most penetrating books on our modern culture and our world written from a non-Christian perspective, though he at times uses Christian and religious language to refer to the issues that he is addressing. He begins the book with his own observations working with university students (many of whom are literature majors). He observes how difficult a time these students have in interacting and absorbing good literature. They could read and understand the books, but they just didn’t “get it.” After spending some time questioning his students and listening to them, he writes, “And what emerged was this: that they were not, with a few exceptions, readers–never had been; that they had always occupied themselves with music, TV, and videos; that they had difficulty slowing down enough to concentrate on prose of any density; that they had problems with what they thought of as archaic diction, with allusions, with vocabulary that seemed “pretentious”; that they were especially uncomfortable with indirect or interior passages, indeed with any deviations from straight plot; and that they were put off by ironic tone because it flaunted superiority and made them feel that they were missing something. The list is partial.” The book explores what it means to be human in a print/literature based society and what the modern age is giving us in a visual/information based society. We can see what we have gained, but what have we lost? Are we the same? At the end of the book he writes this,
“My core fear is that we are, as a culture, as a species, becoming shallower;
that we have turned from depth–from the Judeo-Christian premise of unfathomable
mystery–and are adapting ourselves to the ersatz security of a vast lateral
connectedness. That we are giving up on wisdom, the struggle for which has for millennia been central to the very idea of culture, and that we are pledging instead to a faith in the web. What is our idea, or ideal, of wisdom these days? Who represents it? Who even invokes it? Our postmodern culture is a vast fabric of competing isms; we are leaderless and subject to the terrors, masked as the freedoms, of an absolute relativism. It would be wrong to lay all the blame at the feet of new technology, but more wrong to ignore the great transformative impact of new technological systems–to act as if it’s all just business as usual. There is finally, a tremendous difference between communication in the instrumental sense and communion in the affective, the soul-oriented sense…The devil no longer moves about on cloven hooves, reeking of brimstone. He is an affable, efficient fellow. He claims to want to help us all along to a brighter, easier future, and his sales pitch is very smooth.”
I recommend this book to you. The implications of the thesis of this book is profound to us as Christians. We must, each one of us, struggle with what it means to live faithful Christian lives within our modern world. The technologies that make our lives so much easier, have profound effects on our sensibilities and how we perceive the world and God. What we feed our minds, ultimately will come back to shape our thinking. Even the form that we receive information profoundly affects our ability to perceive wisdom and truth. Neil Postman’s books Technopoly and Amusing Ourselves to Death also examine the modern world that we live in and the sensibilities that they engender in us. How will you respond?
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