Editorial: 'Reading at Risk' Means Preaching at Risk

Gregory E. Reynolds

Ordained Servant: February 2006

Preaching and Reading

Also in this issue

Especially the Preaching of the Word

Last month I mentioned that I would attend a lecture by David Seaman entitled "Electronic Books, Digital Readers, and the Future of America's Libraries," at the Boston Athen...um. Dr. Seaman is the executive director of the Digital Library Federation. Prior to this he was the founding director of the Electronic Text Center of the University of Virginia Library. In his quest to help make the world's greatest academic libraries more accessible to everyone, Seaman is perhaps, and understandably so, too optimistic about the future of the book. I found his presentation to be a healthy antidote to my own growing pessimism. There is evidence that obscure, limited subscription, special interest journals are getting wide exposure through the powerful search engines of Google and the like. Furthermore, archived special collections that have barely seen the light of day will become widely available. But, of course, the fact that books sales are up, and obscure texts are getting thousands of Google hits, doesn't answer the question of what people are doing with these books and texts.

"Reading at Risk" Signals a Cultural Crisis

Introducing a report at the New York Public Library in 2004 entitled "Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America," Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), warned: "This report documents a national crisis ... The concerned citizen in search of good news about American literary culture will study the pages of this report in vain." Most disturbing is that the already alarming rate of decline in "literary" reading (novels, short stories, poetry, plays) since the last report in 1994 has increased. The report says that "at the current rate of loss literary reading as a leisure activity will virtually disappear in half a century."

Did you hear that "VIRTUALLY DISAPPEAR"? There is an unintended pun in that phrase. The rapidity of decline coincides with the "cumulative presence and availability" of "an enormous array of electronic media." The "virtual" competition is very real. Gioia says of reading in general:

Reading a book requires a degree of active attention and engagement. Indeed reading itself is a progressive skill that depends on years of education and practice. By contrast, most electronic media such as television, recordings, and radio make fewer demands on their audiences, and indeed often require no more than passive participation. Even interactive electronic media, such as video games and the Internet, foster short attention spans and accelerated gratification.

While oral has a rich immediacy that is not to be dismissed, and electronic media offer the considerable advantages of diversity and access, print culture affords irreplaceable forms of focused attention and contemplation that make complex communications and insights possible. To lose such intellectual capability-and the many sorts of human continuity it allows-would constitute a vast cultural impoverishment.

Here is a brief summary of the bad news. For the first time in modern history fewer than half of all adults read literature, as defined by the report. Between 1982 and 2002 literary readers declined by ten per cent. In the last decade the rate has nearly tripled. Twenty million potential readers have been lost. Gioia observes that "Reading develops a capacity for focused attention and imaginative growth that enriches both private and public life. The decline of reading in 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." More alarming still is that the rate of decline in the youngest age group (18 to 24) was fifty-five percent greater than that of the total adult population.

While illiteracy is a problem everyone would lament, aliteracy goes almost unnoticed because it is so subtly pervasive. An aliterate is someone who can read, but chooses not to. While the number of books published and purchased increases, the quality of reading is in rapid decline. Kylene Beers, professor of reading at the University of Houston, distinguishes between two types of reading: efferent and aesthetic. Efferent is from the Latin efferre, to carry out or away. It is reading which has a useful purpose. Aesthetic reading is reading for the pure pleasure of immersing oneself in the world created by the artful words of a good writer.[1] In my opinion all worthwhile reading-which includes non-fiction as well as literature-is a combination of both the efferent and the aesthetic. Such worthwhile reading slows us down, cultivates thoughtfulness, counteracting the all-at-once electronic frenzy of the modern world. Being "connected" is so often actually being disconnected from the things, and most importantly the people, that really matter.

Gioia's warning may have largely fallen on deaf ears, but our ears as Christian leaders must not be deaf to this alarm. Here is the substance of that alarm. It is not the quantity of books but the quality of what is being read and how it is being read that counts. The very act of reading has a significant effect on our development as human beings. If reading is holding its own in any area it is in the ephemeral reading of newspapers and blogs from which little of value is taken away.

We would do well to read and heed literary critic Sven Birkerts's book. The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (1994), is a convincing apology for the written, printed and read word. As the electronic media spread our sensibilities over the surfaces of life and culture, the "vast lateral connectedness," and thus rob us of the interiorizing strength of reading and writing, the human presence is seriously diminished. Depth is replaced with shallowness. "Our postmodern culture is a vast fabric of competing isms; we are leaderless and subject to the terrors, masked as freedoms, of an absolute relativism."[2]

How Does "Reading at Risk" Affect the Church?

How does this affect church officers? We are a people of the Book, and, therefore, of books. Our forefathers labored hard to cultivate literacy in order for people to read the Bible. Reading the Bible in turn created a hunger for good reading. Now if a reversal of that pattern is taking place the church is in significant trouble. This is already painfully evident. From simplistic Power Point sermon outlines to the shallow sentimentality of much modern worship song the "dumbing" down is inundating us like a cultural tsunami.

Birkerts notes perceptively for someone raised in a non-religious Midwestern family that churches, temples, and ashrams are "places that have traditionally served as repositories of the sacred. Whatever else they may be, our religions are grand stories that make a place for us."[3] Birkerts believes that the church is one of the last outposts, and therefore hopes, for preserving literacy. Our hopes, as Christian leaders, should be considerably more profound and definite. The church is called to preserve a message, which is true for all people, in all places, and in all times. Paul writes to a new generation of preachers, when he tells Timothy: "I write so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth. And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifested in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen by angels, preached among the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up in glory."[4]

Recently, as we were setting up our book table at our new mission work in Dover, New Hampshire, I was reminded of the importance of literacy and reading in the planting and development of churches. The very act of reading is directly related to the centrality of the preaching of God's Word. The ministry of the Word is at the center, not the end, of the historic Reformed liturgies, for very good reason. The liturgy we use in our congregation is like a chiasm[5], one of the most common literary structures in the Bible. For example, confession of sin and assurance of pardon in the approach to the Lord complement the Lord's Supper at the conclusion. The ministry of the Word is at the center. Word-centered worship is also God and Christ-centered, because so is the Bible. As I have said, the reading and preaching of Scripture has historically been the motivation for literacy among Christians. Now we witness a dramatic decline in worthwhile reading, but we wonder why we hear "I didn't get anything out of the sermon." Assuming the preaching is good, we answer, You need to put something into the act of listening in order to get anything out of preaching. But unless people are trained in worthwhile reading they will be less capable of taking anything meaningful, which is to say useful and beautiful, away with them.

I cannot tell you how Christians are doing, measured against the bad news of the NEA report, because the report does not give us that data. My suspicion is that we are faring better than average because of the high quality of some Christian education. Notice I said "some." I did so because some Christian education is also below the standard of public education. But more important is the fact that the church in America has a nasty penchant for mimicking the worst aspects of our culture, even when it thinks it isn't, or worse when it mistakes its imitation for being "spiritual." Eschewing the value of a liberal education and the cultivation of intellect would be a case in point. In any case, while the church may have reason to be more hopeful than the culture in general, the NEA report ought to temper our optimism.

Literacy is important to Christians not just for reading the Bible. That is where we begin, but it must not be where we end. As Calvin observed, we see the world through the spectacles of Scripture. A good education gives us entrance into the conversation of the ages of recorded history, the intelligent world in which the Lord has situated us. Then we come full circle to a richer understanding of God's Word as a word relevant in all ages and cultures.

Many, even in our circles, are succumbing to the plea to keep all writing at an eighth grade level of literacy. We must not give in to this. If this editor is ever required to lower the reading level of this journal to that standard he will be resigning posthaste. We must cultivate thoughtfulness and intellectual inquisitiveness, especially among the young. We must give them something to reach for, a worthwhile standard to attain. This is not to say we are to be pedantic and purposely obscure. Preaching in particular must be understood by all in the congregation, but all must engage in the challenging task of hearing.

Good readers make thoughtful listeners who bring something to the business of hearing sermons, and thus take something significant away with them into the life of the family, the church, and the community. What I am ultimately pleading for is a kind of efferent listening, which can only be cultivated through the same kind of worthwhile reading. Oral and written communication go hand in hand.

The Reformation conception of preaching is stated lucidly in the Second Helvetic Confession: "The preaching of the word of God is the word of God." Our Lord, the incarnate Word, has identified the preaching of His ordained spokesmen with His Word: "He who hears you hears Me" (Luke 10:16). Romans 10:14 should be translated as the American Standard Version has it: "And how shall they believe in Him whom they have not heard?" as opposed to "Him of whom they have not heard?"[6] Thus it is "the preached Word rather than the written Word" which is the primary means of grace.[7] Christ is immediately present as the true Speaker in the preaching moment. "The implication is that Christ speaks in the gospel proclamation."[8] So Calvin comments on the same passage: "This is a remarkable passage with regard to the efficacy of preaching..."[9] Preaching is not speaking about Christ, but is Christ speaking. Nothing less than this is at stake in "Reading at Risk."

Lose a generation of good readers and you lose a generation of good listeners. What can we do? Sounding the alarm is only the beginning of a solution. We should encourage a disciplined use of passive and interactive electronic media. What must follow is a concerted effort by church leaders and parents to cultivate the best reading of a wide range of the best literature. We should encourage reading aloud and discussion of what is read. We must encourage sermon discussion. We must get the young hooked on the joys of deep reading. We must also help train a generation of preachers who know how to communicate the text of Scripture in a winsome, interesting, and spiritually captivating way. Then there is hope that the next generation of the church will fall in love with God's Word. Stay tuned.


1. Linton Weeks, "The No-Book Report: Skim It and Weep." Washington Post (May 14, 2001), C1.

2. Sven Birkerts, The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (Winchester, MA: Faber and Faber, Inc., 1994), 228.

3. Ibid., 196, 197.

4. 1 Tim. 3:15, 16.

5. Greek chiasmus means cross piece, or placing crosswise, a literary pattern shaped like an arrow with complementary points centering on the main point.

6. David H. Schuringa, "The Preaching of the Word As a Means of Grace: The Views of Herman Hoeksema and R. B. Kuiper." Th. M. thesis (Calvin Theological Seminary, 1985), 18-22. Later in chapter III (34-43) a convincing case for the grammatical correctness of this translation is made.

7. Ibid., 33.

8. Ibid., 43.

9. Ibid., 44; John Calvin, Epistle to the Romans, Vol. 19 of Calvin's Commentaries, 22 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979), 398.

Ordained Servant, February 2006.

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Ordained Servant: February 2006

Preaching and Reading

Also in this issue

Especially the Preaching of the Word

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