A recent magazine article deplored the rise of a-literacy. Not illiteracy, where people have never learned to read, but a-literacy, where people can read but choose not to. Yes, they read for study, or work-related matters, or read bits and pieces online or in magazines etc., but they don't REALLY read.
Even graduates don't read in their down-time. Today's emphasis is so much on the visual — on watching movies, u-tube clips and the like — so is the art of using words being lost?
The Reformation – and the printing press
On October 31st, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation was celebrated. The Reformation began just after the printing press had first been developed and printed books became available. As a result, the ability to read was increasingly sought after, soon became widespread. Reading was no longer the preserve of an educated elite.
Once reading had spread to the masses, and books were printed in their own languages, Western civilisation became dependent on the printed media. Pictures or drawings or diagrams were very rare in any printed material, which was painstakingly developed using type-set; i.e. each letter of each word had to be set in a frame.
As printing became more technologically advanced, so too did reading materials and a vast outpouring of books, especially in the 20th century, became available world-wide. And with the advent of radio, words were pre-eminent on the air-waves and on the printed page.
Text has given way to the visual
Now that's changed. Pictures are dominant — and words become subservient to the pictures, as captions or as sub-titles. Our digital age increasingly reduces words to sound-bites and abbreviations.
Does this matter?
Some say this lack of sustained reading means people don't read to develop their thinking, so that the art of argument and debate is being lost. Or the rich vocabulary that someone naturally acquires, just through reading, is no longer happening.
How will this affect the church?
There are implications here for Christians — and for the church. Christians are known as a people of the Book. The written Bible has provided much of the moral, linguistic and social capital of Western society for hundreds of years. Before the age of printing the Bible was painstakingly copied by orders of monks, and carried throughout Europe, wherever the monks went and established their monasteries. These copied Bibles informed the teaching of the church, and were the basis for its liturgies, miracle plays etc.
The Bible in the family home
Having the Bible as a cornerstone of society was even more pronounced after the Reformation. The Bible was often the only book a family might possess, and it was read daily in many Protestant homes. That practice continued until more or less half way through the 20th century, and families now find it very difficult to keep a regular time together for Bible reading and prayer — we certainly struggled with it as a family!
A more fragmented society, households with both parents working, family members keeping different hours, means that sharing around a printed Bible together is not as common. It's even less likely to be sharing around a screen together — every one now has their own device and watches what they want. Churches too that rely on the teaching of Scripture are less common; screens, video clips, presentations, music often rely on the visual, with words as an accompaniment.
How will people be formed in their faith, without the Bible?
This change in society, and in Christian circles, will have far-reaching consequences. We are still living through this major development and the outcomes are not yet apparent.
At the moment, all we can do is ask the questions — will people be properly discipled in their Christian faith if the Bible is not read and taught? How will people be able to think and develop a sound Christian apologetic if their reading is too spasmodic and fragmented? Will there be a counter-cultural development — i.e. physical books will come to the fore again as people relish the feel of the printed page, and the opportunity to sit with a book rather than a screen? Should we as a church be dependent on the printed version of the Word?
Church people have often feared major changes in society — we either embrace them wholeheartedly without thinking, withdraw from them entirely, or adapt and incorporate them as a tool, keeping such developments subservient to our main agendas. I saw a motto once at a seminar, 'An unchanging Gospel in a changing world.' Maybe that sums it up.
And, there is the reminder that the Lord is Lord of his church — through all the changes and developments that come in each era.
Liz Hay is fortunate to have the time to read in her quiet mountain village home. She still delights in the immense satisfaction of completing a good book, and particularly enjoys memoirs and biographies. She notes with some satisfaction that some independent bookshops in New Zealand are bucking the trend of losing out to online books and movies.