Monday, August 08, 2005

On Reading

Reading, a dying art....
(from Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death, p26)
" must be able to tell from the tone of the language what is the author's attitude towards the subject and towards the reader. You must, in other words, know the difference between a joke and an argument. And in judgeing the quality of an argument, you must be able to do several things at once, including delaying a verdict until the entire argument in finished, holding in mind questions until you have determined where, when or if the text answers them, and bringing to bear on the text all of your relevant experience as a counterargument to what is being proposed. You must also be able to withhold those parts of your knowledge and experience whichm, in fact, do not have a bearing on the argument...."
In the age of TV we are rapidly losing the ability to read well, and so Christian Bible study suffers. Where once an ordinary audience could listen to complex political exposition for 3 hours, with 3 hours response and further counter-response.

Today we say that 20 minutes of exposition is considered too long to listen for. Indeed most sermons of 20 minutes probably only contain a few moments of expositional argument concerning the truth, the rest being humour and stories meant for entertainment and cultural engagement (neither of which is necessarily unimportant).

The internet makes us read again. Or rather, Scan-Read. We read occasional words. Occasional paragraphs. And request short tabloid sentences. Not long complex arguments.

Sinclair Ferguson's edition of Puritan John Owen's work (from 400 years ago), edits sentences that once had 5-6 clauses or more. Today we struggle with one. Its no wonder we can't read the Bible. Its no wonder we are losing the knowledge of God.

...and even when we do read we fail to truly read. We fail to follow argument and authors intent. And so we read the Bible allegorically about ourselves and our lives. We find ourselves unable to bring relevant information to the text, and unable to hold back irrelevant information. We fail to follow the argument - prefering to select favourite phrases out of context to make us smile. We fail to hear God speak the wonderful things he seeks to reveal to us.

Hearing the voice of God is not merely about being able to engage the brain in reading. Revelation from God is a work of the Holy Spirit. But the chief medium remains the written word. This is God's means. We must learn to read, and listen, again, so that we can again hear from God.


  1. I agree wholeheartedly with what you are saying. And yet, and yet... I think we can overemphasise Bible reading. The Bible was not given to us as a book to be read as individuals, sitting on the train with it on our knees, but as a proclamation to the church - something primarily to be proclaimed and heard, rather than something just to be read.

    Our personal reading of "the Word of God written" should always be secondary to this corporate proclamation of the Gospel in Word and Sacrament - the Word of God proclaimed - as this in particular is where we can expect most fully to encounter the Word of God incarnate, who is of course the subject of the written and proclaimed Word.

    Peter Jensen puts it very well in his book The Revelation of God, when he says, "Since the advent of printing and literacy it has become common for the Bible to be read by individuals. This obscures the corporate significance of Scripture as the instrument by which Christ rules his church."

    (For more on what Jensen has to say on this, see the post on my own blog from last year: Individualising Scripture).

    PS - like your blog, btw. Am also a long-time fan of

  2. Absolutely. Jensen's book is incredibly helpful. Reading that a few years ago was formational for me.

    Reading, study and proclamation all required.

  3. Perhaps my attempt to read Jensen proves the point: I had several attempts before I made it through, and then it was because I forced myself to read slowly with pencil in hand underlining his points as I went. (Whereupon I do concur that it was excellent.) Then again, I manage to get through Owen, Vanhoozer, Piper, and others without similar problem, so perhaps it's a question of clarity of reasoning ;-) It amazed me how few of my 1st year class mates could follow a logically deductive argument (or spot a fallacy) when I (as a mathmo) took a philosophy module in logic. I'm sure the decline in reading has a lot to do with it. And I'm also sure that my parents' strict restriction of our television viewing in childhood has a lot to do with our family's appetite for books.

  4. I'm finding Owen quite hard work, but very rewarding. Very worth the effort, but quite a shock to the system when you've been brought up on a much lighter diet of books.

  5. Ah, I confess I read The Glory of Christ in the BOT Puritan paperback abridged edition (most excellent) - but I was still in an attempt on Death of Death when I had to leave my books behind in England ('scuse, I'm off to mourn the prospect of a year without my library).