Book-Free Zones

    If you've ever met someone who never learned to read, you know they behave a lot like Jeremy Spreitzer. If Jeremy wants to know the latest news, he turns on the TV. If he can't avoid checking the contents of one of his graduate school textbooks, he buys the audio book. A grad student who can't read? Well, the truth is, Jeremy can read, very well. He just doesn't want to. In shutting himself off in a book-free zone, Jeremy represents a disturbing new trend: the large group of Americans who are a-literates. That is, people who know how to read, but prefer not to. According to the Washington Post, ten years ago more than half of all Americans read at least thirty minutes every day. Today, only forty-five percent do. Even those who read on the Internet are mainly scanning for information; they're not really comprehending what they're reading, says researcher William Albert. In grocery stores, products now feature colors, shapes, and icons instead of words. The same with video games for kids. And instead of reading classic stories, kids watch the Disney version on videotape. This is bad news for Christianity. In his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, TV critic Neil Postman says the printed word demands thoughtful analysis, sustained attention, and active imagination. This is not the case with television, video games, and webzines. They encourage a short attention span, disjointed thinking, and purely emotional responses -- which shapes the way people think. So how does this affect Christianity? Most religions teach that the way to contact the divine is through mystical visions, emotional experiences, and practices like Eastern-style meditation. Judaism and Christianity, however, stand alone in their insistence on the primacy of language. Postman says that, as a young man, he read the Ten Commandments, and was struck by the words: "You shall not make for yourself any graven image." He said he realized that the idea of a universal deity couldn't be expressed in images but only in words. As Postman puts it, "The God of the Jews was to exist in the Word and through the Word, an unprecedented conception requiring the highest order of abstract thinking." This is the God we worship -- a God known principally through his Word. It's why missionaries spent decades learning and translating native languages, equipping people of all nations to read God's Word. But here in the West, we're in danger of coming full circle: The new visual media created by modern technology may actually undermine literacy, leading us back to an image-based culture. And then we risk losing our cultural heritage -- including the ability to understand the Scriptures. We can fight this trend by making sure we make time to read ourselves and by insisting that our children turn off the TV and read good books. Visit BreakPoint Online for a list of books we recommend for summer reading at . And if you know someone like Jeremy Spreitzer, who hates to read, give him a copy of the Bible -- and not on audio tape! Put the bookmark at John 1:1, where it says: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." For further reference: Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. Viking Press, 1986. Weeks, Linton. "Aliteracy: Read All About It, or Maybe Not; Millions of Americans Who Can Read Choose Not To." Washington Post, 14 May 2001.


Chuck Colson


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