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.
What happens when we read Scripture?
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.
Mercy for the Doubters
In his poem Milton, William Blake writes that John Milton comes down from heaven:
To cast off the idiot Questioner, who is always questioning
But never capable of answering, who sits with a sly grin
Silent plotting when to question, like a thief in a cave;
Who publishes doubt and calls it knowledge.
Those are strong but still timely words. Christians have often done a poor job of being hospitable toward those whose faith is not very sturdy. The Biblical exhortation to “have mercy toward those who doubt” is there precisely because we Christians are tempted to do otherwise. But many young people struggling with their faith have been inclined not merely to have their doubts, but let the world know about them too. The reasons are understandable: doubt can be isolating, and it is comforting to hear a sympathetic voice. But they can also draw a crowd, particularly when they are mixed in with a form of doing something “new” and “different.”
Yet lingering in our reading actually forestalls doubt by reframing our desires away from the momentary experience of uncertainty toward the permanent good of understanding. Reading as I’ve described above is simply one form that inquiry takes: it is not something separate from questioning, but itself is a part of it. Anyone can ask a question: children are more adept at the practice than many adults, often to their parents’ chagrin. But to experience the fundamental form of questioning goes much deeper and demands much more from us. Questioning is aimed not at information to nullify or quench our desires, but at an understanding that will deepen them. Questioning is a form of life that involves a searching, a seeking out, a hunt for an unknown good. And when the understanding comes upon us, it creates a sense of wonder and awe that only deepens our desires and renews our searching. Doubt is a kind of negation, an unwillingness to accept what is before us. But questioning is a way of entering into it, searching it out, and working to understand it.
Reading a text doesn’t preclude an experience of uncertainty, then. If anything, close reading helps us learn how to survive uncertainty and deepens our faith and hope that the meaning will eventually become clear to us. Consider the two disciples walking on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24. They can not understand their story of the events of Jesus’ death—their “text,” if you will—and so Jesus comes along and explains it to them by expanding the horizon they had put it in and reframing the events in light of the Old Testament. He shows how the story points toward himself, that is, while signaling that their mistake is bound up in their unbelief.
The parallel passage in Acts makes a similar point. An Ethiopian eunuch is reading Isaiah, and Philip is sent to help him. The eunuch confesses his own understanding, on grounds that he cannot unless someone guides him. His is not the experience of Pilate, who asks a question and does not stick around for the answer. He is searching, examining and probing the text for a way through. And as he comes up against his own inability to find one, Philip is sent to point out the way.
In both stories, the meaning does not emerge only from their rereadings. They are directed to it: it comes from outside of them. They do not read alone, but with those who know the paths of the texts and know how to help them navigate them. But their searching prepares them for that moment of understanding. In their reading of the world and the text, they learn both what they can see and what they can’t and need to be able to.
All deep reading, then, must ultimately become an act of faith seeking understanding. It is not enough to maintain a cool, detached skepticism from a work if we want to properly see how it works. We must allow ourselves to get inside the text, and it to get inside us—a process that demands trust. Such an act may be for the mature, and will not always be rewarded. We may find ourselves with an author whose commitments and disagreements are so different from our own that they cannot be rescued or saved. But that can only be discovered after the process has already begun, after the commitment to work to understand is underway. There is no true reading that does not ultimately undermine a posture of doubt, for there is no true reading that stops with only questioning and never seeking an answer.
What happens when our minds are formed in the shallows?
I suggested above that a world that does not read deeply will struggle to speak reasonably with each other. That claim deserves more attention, as it is not intuitively obvious. If my hypothesis that deep reading demands trust gets anywhere near the truth, it would provide one reason why a world of shallow readers would also be a world of combative and reactive interlocutors. When our posture is one of skepticism or defensiveness toward what we read, our tone in response will be as well. Winsomely and cheerfully defending the truths of Christianity means charitably reading those who oppose us.
The paradox of this is that the very promise the internet made for intellectually minded Christians is the one that it necessarily cannot fulfill, at least not for very long. As someone who began his public career by organizing the first conference for Christian bloggers back in 2004, I know well the triumphalism of the “new media” and the possibilities for improved and expanded dialogue with those we disagreed with inherent in it. Those possibilities may have come to pass in some small corners (like this one!), but more often than not the speed and anonymity of the internet brought out the least charitable and most polarizing aspects of our world. And that was among a body of people whose first movements in this world didn’t have screens in front of them. Those who are children now will struggle even more than we, unless they are fed a steady diet of books,
Part of the problem is simply the volume of information that we now are bombarded with on a daily basis. Between our emails, social networks, and advertising, our attention is often pulled in a hundred directions simultaneously. Such inundation makes the sort of patient, slow, single-minded concentration that careful and close reading demands more difficult. Even when our minds are receiving helpful or true information, the demands of brevity and accessibility form our ways of thinking to make deep access unlikely.
Minds formed in the shallows, though, will struggle to grasp deep arguments that see beyond clichés or talking points. And that creates a sense of distrust and cynicism, as people feel like the point of talking is simply to repeat what’s already been said rather than to truly exchange reasons for our positions. Think of the way the gay marriage debate has gone: a variety of very effective clichés of both the progressive and conservative variety have obscured the traditional Biblical account. To properly understand the breadth and depth of the Bible’s teaching about human sexuality takes reading and wrestling with the entire text. Ripping a few bits out to “make a point” isn’t reading, (“Romans 1!” “Shellfish!”) any more than repeating clichés is thinking. Yet if we are not taught to read well, to sit with a difficult argument or plod through a complex and sometimes unsatisfying novel, we will lack the sort of patience that serious and substantial reason-giving for our positions demands.
If we are not practiced at momentarily accepting or adopting another’s commitments—as any reader must do—we shall find ourselves struggling to imagine why others think as they do. Even if they think wrongly, getting “inside their head” and seeing things from their point of view is a time-consuming process that demands careful, charitable, and attentive listening. The skill of understanding someone and where they are coming from can be learned anywhere. But given the microcosm of the world that books can represent, it can be particularly honed through reading and dialoguing about them. The more carefully and charitably we read, the more we open ourselves to the possibility of the habit catching on everywhere else in our lives.
The possibility of exchanging reasons, then, of genuinely and truly persuading each other will be imperiled if our culture of literacy continues to erode. It takes a well-formed mind to internalize a book, to sort through it and grasp not simply the ideas it proposes but the questions it is answering, and the presuppositions beneath those questions that make them problems for the view. It’s that sort of understanding that comes through reading and rereading, through making a home inside a text with those who know it better than we. And it is precisely that sort of reading that is increasingly in short supply.
Read Less. Read Better.
How we read is only a facet of how we live: it is an important facet, but the virtues and vices we build in our intellectual life are simply virtues and vices. When technology writer Paul Miller left the internet for a year, he found the same vices he had attributed to being online cropping up in his life anyway. Whether the internet simply revealed who he was or whether it magnified and exacerbated it, Miller does not say. But we make a million decisions online, take a thousand of tiny steps per day, each of which reflexively shapes our character and our lives. We are formed through living, for good and for ill.
Which is why there are few more countercultural tendencies we can cultivate as Christians than to read less but read better, to saturate our lives with the space to allow thoughts to bubble up in us, to pause and wait and notice and attend to all that God has made. Our late modern world is a frantic place, driven by what Augustine called the “libido dominandi,” the lust for power. Whether more money, more fame, or a better status for doing good, we are a people who have gone mad for more and are hurrying to arrive there before it is all taken away.
There can be no deep reading as long as we are people who hurry, whose eyes glaze over the text to say that we have read the book at our next social gathering. And for Christians, there can be no permanent hurry, either. To hurry is to deny the reality of God’s providence and to seize control over our lives. The urgent task of evangelizing the world is one done within the ordered pattern of rest and the peaceful repose of trust that God is the one who saves. The false hurry that so many of us (this author included) are dominated by is not a recognition of the importance of this life, but a denial of eternity. For as George MacDonald once put it, “Of all things, time is the cheapest.”
1 “Complexity” is not entirely an arbitrary metric. While I think the study’s decision to quantify it makes sense given their purposes, a quick perusal of the lists of books assigned in high schools in 1907 and those assigned today clearly illuminates how far standards have fallen.
Additional note by the author: I wrote this two years ago for a major apologetics magazine, who declined it. I had forgotten about it until very recently; it still needs a good deal of editing, but I leave it here for now. For my most robust statement on the nature and value of inquiry, I refer readers to The End of Our Exploring.