What America Can't Read

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken October 22, 2006

By almost any objective measure, literary reading is on the decline. I refer not to total illiteracy (although that too is a problem in many rural, urban, and immigrant communities), but to a decline in the ability of Americans who have a complete formal education to read texts of any complexity with real comprehension.

The 2005 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) concluded that the vast majority of college graduates are not proficient readers. “It's appalling—it's really astounding,” said American Library Association President Michael Gorman [Washington Post, 12/25/2005]. According to some estimates, less than one third of all college graduates have the ability to read and understand a text that demands deep thought or careful interpretation. Furthermore, this represents a sharp decline in reading ability over the last decade, from nearly sixty percent to only thirty.

Similar results were reported in the 2004 “Reading at Risk” survey sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). According to NEA Chairman Dana Gioia, this situation represents a national crisis. He says, “Reading develops a capacity for focused attention and imaginative growth that enriches both private and public life. The decline in reading among every segment of the adult population reflects a general collapse in advanced literacy. To lose this human capacity—and all the diverse benefits it fosters—impoverishes both cultural and civic life” [as reported in the News Room on the NEA website].

The reason for all this literary illiteracy is not hard to guess. We are living in an accelerated culture of perpetual distraction, the multimedia age of the sound bite and the instant message. Our unprecedented global connectivity gives us an immediate interchange of massive amounts of information. However, most of this information comes in small packages. Everything seems to be getting shorter—articles, paragraphs, sentences, even words. For a reader who is used to rapidly scanning short emails or clicking through news headlines on the Internet, a long text that demands sustained thought can quickly become a source of boredom, impatience, or frustration.

Not surprisingly, biblical illiteracy is also a growing problem, both in terms of the total number of Bible readers and the number of people who read the Bible with any frequency (especially people in their 20's). The plague of biblical illiteracy is wasting away Christian preaching, Christian publishing, and Christian discipleship. Although to my knowledge there is no research to prove any causal connection, the two problems of literary illiteracy and biblical illiteracy may well be related. Readers who are ill-equipped to read anything long or difficult will have little patience with a book as big as the Bible. And a general lack of interest in reading the Bible—which traditionally has been one of the world's strongest motivations for rising literacy rates—may also hinder people from gaining the literary proficiency that was once commonplace in higher education.

In some respects, a decline in literary reading poses little threat to the church, where literacy has never been a prerequisite for understanding the gospel. In fact, most of the early Christians were unable to read the Bible for themselves. Literacy was a social benefit that only the educated elite were privileged to enjoy. In those days communication generally took place through the spoken rather than the written word. Nevertheless, people could still hear the Bible read in the public worship of the church. They could also understand the Bible. Although the Old and New Testaments contain many deep truths about God, the basic plan of salvation is something even the simplest person can understand. Christianity is not intellectually elitist.

Nevertheless, it still needs to be said that reading the Bible for full comprehension requires a higher level of proficiency than bare literacy. To begin with, the Bible is a long book, and people need to have the confidence to read it in full. Furthermore, nearly all of the literature in the Bible has a rich depth of complexity. The biblical writers are rarely ever content to say only one thing at a time; more typically they invest their stories, poems, histories, epistles, and other literary forms with layers of meaning that require careful scrutiny and quiet reflection for full understanding. The Bible both demands and rewards our best reading and thinking.

Today there is a strong temptation for churches to follow the cultural trend and reduce reading, teaching, and preaching of the Bible to the lowest level. Now that we are living in the Information Age, people say, we need to keep things as simple as possible. This means preaching shorter sermons, preferably ones that are based on Bible translations written at a third-grade reading level (if indeed sermons are based on the Bible at all).

Don't misunderstand me. I have nothing to say in favor of complexity for its own sake. Bible teaching should be as clear and as simple as it can be and still get the point across to the audience. However, the human mind was made with the capacity for literary comprehension, and the Bible was written with this in mind. The biblical authors were men like Solomon, who “taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care” (Eccles. 12:9), or Luke, who undertook “to compile a narrative” and “to write an orderly account” that would give people “certainty concerning the things” that they had been taught (Luke 1:1-4).

Even at a time when deep thought is devalued, when literary literacy is on the decline, and the thought life of our culture is thus diminished, the soul is still longing for a rich reading experience that expands the mind to its full potential while at the same time touching the heart. Let the church be one place where this kind of reading is still done.

©2018 Tenth Presbyterian Church.

Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in its entirety or in unaltered excerpts, as long as you do not charge a fee. For Internet posting, please use only unaltered excerpts (not the content in its entirety) and provide a hyperlink to this page. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Tenth Presbyterian Church.

Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By Phil Ryken. ©2018 Tenth Presbyterian Church. Website: tenth.org