What Kind of Literacy?

Schools and businesses are constantly hyping the use of computers. It's become fashionable to think computers will inspire a new level of literacy. Well, they will-but not in the classical sense. In the last few years, computer science has moved from static images to the use of full color, moving images that rival anything you see on television or at the movies. It's all very impressive, but the trend doesn't bode well for the written word. Coming on top of television, video, and Nintendo, computer visualization is sure to hasten our shift from a culture built on words to one based on images. And that may well reverse a trend started and nurtured for centuries by Christianity. Since the Reformation, Christianity has been a powerful force for literacy, rooted in a practical need to teach people to read so they could read the Bible for themselves. Respect for the written word soon extended to all forms of literature. But this traditional respect for literacy is being challenged today by the rise of electronic media. What can Christians do to stave off the onslaught? The first and most important step is to make sure we are literate ourselves-and that our children are, too. Gene Edward Veith's book Reading Between the Lines is a useful guide to great Christian literature. The easiest place to start is with contemporary Christian authors. Read Walker Percy's book Lost in the Cosmos for a zany parody of self-help books. Read Annie Dillard for her stark descriptions of contemporary life from a Christian perspective. Immerse yourself in Walter Wangerin's devotions based on nature. Enjoy the richly textured prose of Frederick Buechner. But don't stop with contemporary writers. Dip back a few decades and read the science fiction of C. S. Lewis, if you haven't already. Sample the fantasy of J. R. R. Tolkein; the detective books of Dorothy Sayers; the romances of George MacDonald. Going back a little further, remember that most writers up to our own century were Christians. Books by Robert Louis Stevenson, for example, clearly reflect a Christian worldview. You may have read Kidnapped or Treasure Island as a child, but try them again today and you will appreciate them all the more. The Count of Monte Cristo, with its complex themes of revenge and forgiveness, is another book generally read by children much too young to appreciate it. And if you know The Swiss Family Robinson only in the Disney version, try reading the original. It is rich in Christian piety. Once you've come this far, you'll have the tools to tackle the older Christian classics: authors like John Donne, John Milton, and Dante. The poetic language of a Paradise Lost may be difficult at first, but stay with it and you will be richly rewarded. Educators may debate what children need most as they enter the twenty-first century: verbal literacy, visual literacy, or computer literacy. But the best gift you can give yourself and your children is Christian literacy.  


Chuck Colson



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