In Defense of Reading

Every now and then I run into someone who, upon finding out that I am a literacy researcher, patiently explains to me that with computers and the Internet, books will soon be things of the past and teaching reading will be about as valuable as teaching cursive. One of the Christian high schools in my area has recently considered whether to shut down the library and replace it with a media center.

Are they right? Should we brace for an illiterate culture with chaos and anarchy stemming from a misguided attempt to supplant words with images? Should we hunker down like modern-day medieval monks and vainly try to preserve written texts for some future post-apocalyptic generation that might need them? Should we embrace the coming of the age of image, throw out all our books, and begin making pictograph versions of the Bible? Should we explore the possibilities of multimodal communication (and maybe work on a graphic novel version of the Bible)? And what sort of texts (if any) should we teach?

Or to put it another way, in the age of the image, why should Christians care about reading?

If we go back to article 2 of the Belgic Confession, we remember that God gives us two types of revelation—general revelation and special revelation. The term “special revelation” refers to the Bible, the inspired word of God that we claim as Holy Scripture. God might have given us the Bible in lots of forms, but he chose to give us words arranged in sentences, arranged in episodes, arranged in books, grouped together into a single magnificent narrative. So Christians do not have the option of saying “I don’t read much.” Our clearest way of understanding God comes in the form of a book. And any adaptation that we do of that book—such as making it into a movie or a graphic novel—requires us to make interpretive decisions that by their nature direct us toward the views of those doing the adaptation.

You might point out that all this proves is that we ought to read the Bible. So perhaps religion classes in Christian schools ought to use the Bible, but there is no reason for another other class to study any other book. Websites might do as well, or movies, or whatever. Why do we privilege the book so much?

I would argue that our need to discover God through the Bible has other implications. First, we are told in Hebrews 11: 1 that faith is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (rsv). We believe in a God we cannot see. Our faith depends on being able to believe in that which we cannot see. That requires something basic to reading, the ability to imagine. If that word makes you think I am suggesting the God is imaginary, maybe you would be more comfortable with the term coined by John Schultz, “seeing-in-the-mind.” When we read an ordinary book, if we are good readers, we are constantly transforming the marks on the page into images in our minds. This is true whether the book gives us concrete images through description, such as Plato’s analogy of the cave, or C. S. Lewis’s description of the Narnian wood that Lucy stumbles into, but also true if we are reading about more abstract concepts, such as the economic notion of supply and demand. Reading develops our ability to believe in that which we cannot see with our eyes.

But there is another way we come to understand God. The term “general revelation” refers to the way God is revealed in creation. The cycle of death and rebirth in the seasons echoes the death and rebirth of Christ. We see the power of the Creator in the thunderstorm and the hurricane, but also his benevolence and love in harvest time. As recorded in Luke 19:37–40:

When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen:

“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”

“Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”

Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!”

“I tell you,” he replied, “If they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.”

When we talk about general revelation, we also include the imitative creative works done by God’s human children, such as creating buildings, paintings, sculpture, music, drama, photography, sport, movies, dance, scholarship, and cooking. General revelation also includes books. Because of the notion of common grace, we understand that even God’s children who do not know God can still have insight into the way God’s world works, and that if we read with discernment; we can discover things about him through what we read. Of course, we can also discover God in lots of other ways; as Christians, we might legitimately ally ourselves with any number of positions—image ascendant, word superior, or multimodal. But the earlier point about special revelation argues that there are particular advantages for a Christian in learning to read. In addition, we have available in book form the struggles of humans to understand creation and how to best live in it going back many centuries. There is value in students continuing to wrestle with that which is contained in traditional text-only books.

Several decades ago, the world of educational research was undergoing an important shift. In the wake of perceived deficiencies in the literacy rate in the United States, there was renewed effort in secondary schools to improve each student’s ability to read by requiring that reading skills be taught in all subjects. This was mainly accomplished by teaching education students an array of generic methods to teach reading—all with fascinating acronyms like KWL, DRTA, CRITICS, and others. But soon researchers noticed that in addition to the pushback from educators in different subject areas arguing that teaching reading was the English teacher’s job, these new methods did not always improve reading comprehension within those subject areas.

Tim and Cindy Shanahan, Bruce VanSledright, Elizabeth Moje, Tamara Jetton, and others began to look closely at this problem. Shanahan and Shanahan began doing interviews with experts in various disciplines in which those experts were asked to read a professional article or book and then describe what they were thinking as they read. They contrasted these interviews with similar interviews of novices reading in the same field. They began to discover that different disciplines do not only engage different subject matter, but they actually read, think, and approach problems very differently.

Let me give you a simplified idea of what these experts learned.

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