Christians are a people of the book, a people whose lives are formed and shaped by their encounters and interactions with a God whose works have been manifested in the words that bear witness to them. The early Christians understood this, which is partly why they paired the transmission of the Scriptures with their evangelistic zeal. The number of manuscripts we have of the Bible from that era far exceeds any other books, in part because Christians cared so deeply about getting the Word out that they eagerly got the words that bear witness to Jesus out as well.
We live in the paradoxical world, though, where the volume of books is matched only by that of the handwringing about whether anyone is reading them. The explosion in books may actually have little to do with the internet. Richard Nash points out that between the 1980s and 2010 the number of books published annually jumped from 80,000 to 328,259 (a surprisingly precise figure). And while worries about reading are not a recent phenomenon—Rudolph Flesch’s influential Why Johnny Can’t Read was published back in 1955—things haven’t much improved since then. The average reading level for students in high school is just barely above the fifth grade. Students may be reading as much, but they’re obviously not reading as well as they used to. The same study found that between 1907 and 2012 the complexity level of books assigned in high school plummeted.1 Even if we read more as a culture we do not read as well.
But a people whose curriculums are shot through with Shakespeare will have more tools to deeply understand the world than those who are assigned The Hunger Games, however enjoyable they might be or well they might be written. The plays can be tough reading and the pleasures and joys deferred until a re-reading (or, in some cases, a re-re-reading). And the work required to understand them is considerably greater than that which contemporary fiction demands of us, if only because of the gap between Shakespeare’s time and ours. We should struggle through books like Shakespeare because the sort of understanding about the world that we need often doesn’t come on a first read of it, but on a third or fourth. Confronting a text whose meaning is initially obscure to us and being impelled to press onward, to work and think and wrestle, gives us the sort of discipline and training that genuine wisdom demands.
As we move into a world where people can no longer read deeply or well, Christians will be in a territory we have charted once before but have long forgotten. We may be a people of the book, but we are not a people who thinks that book’s meaning is easily or quickly grasped. The perspicuity of Scripture, or the idea that Scripture’s meaning would be clear to anyone, never entailed that it could be grasped on a first reading. And we even have a Bible verse to prove the case. 2 Peter 3:16 notes that “[Paul’s] letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort.” In a world that struggles to understand Shakespeare, we have Biblical reasons to think we will do no better with the Apostle.
Yet it is not simply reading that is imperiled. A culture where reading is in decline will be a culture where inquiry and learning struggle as well, and the possibility of genuine and meaningful dialogue with those who we disagree will erode too. There is a fundamental connection between how we take in the world around us and sort through it internally and how we participate in conversations with those around us. As our culture reads more poorly, it will speak more poorly and respond more impatiently and less charitably.
Perhaps no part of Scripture is as insistent on the value of words to the Christian life as the Gospel According to John. The book opens with the magisterial identification of Jesus and the logos, the “Word,” a term that is as difficult to understand as any in Scripture. Yet throughout the Gospel, John highlights the value of the words that Jesus says and implicitly underscores the unique importance of the words he is writing that communicate them. In John 6, a controversial passage in recent church history, Jesus points out that the Spirit is the one who gives life, and that “the words that I have spoken to [the disciples] are spirit and life” (John 6:63b). Jesus qualified his famous line that “the truth will set you free” with the condition that it will happen “If you abide in [his] word” (John 8:31). In John 15, the symmetry of Christ abiding in us and us abiding in him is disrupted by the asymmetry of us abiding in Christ and Christ’s words abiding in us as the premise for power in prayer. Those words, interestingly, conspicuously stand in the very spot in the story where every other Gospel records Jesus instituting the Lord’s Supper. And in closing the Gospel, John himself point toward the truthfulness of his written testimony and its limitedness: “the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus (John 21:24-25).
There are two metaphors for what happens in reading a text like Scripture: on the one hand, we take it into ourselves and make it a part of us. The words abide in us, make their home in us, rearranging our thoughts and reframing how we see things. On the other hand, we enter into a world that the words create. There is a certain self-forgetfulness that happens in reading, particularly when we read fiction or read books that we struggle to understand. This is true of reading Scripture, too: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” is not a sentence that has anything to do with us, at least not immediately. Only by entering the universe John points to with his words can we properly come to understand them.
On both metaphors, though, how we read a text significantly affects how it changes us. There is no substitute for slow, unhurried lingering over the words of a book—abiding, we might say—to come to grips with its subtleties, its nuances, and its depth. When we marinate ourselves in a text, we begin to think thoughts after the author—for good or ill. James Gray, an evangelical theologian whose career spanned the 19th and 20th centuries, once commended reading the same book of the Bible over and over again to master it (or rather, to have it master us) instead of simply reading through the whole thing.5 When Fred Sanders reminded us of the passage, one writer–my brother– humorously decided to test out the thesis by doing the same with Ralph Waldo Emerson, and spent his time thinking Emersonly about the world. Emerson isn’t the writer I’d commend starting with, but he makes the point well: words will change us, but only if we give them the time and space to do their work within us.
Abiding in a text, though, and allowing words to abide in us demands an attentiveness and care that we seem to increasingly struggle with. When we return again and again to a text, we may eventually get bored with it—but in doing so, we place ourselves in a situation where we can notice what we have not noticed before. By exhausting what we have to say about a text, we reach the point where we can open ourselves to something it might have to say to us. Continue reading