Sunday, October 21, 2007

Reading Between the Lines, Chapter 1. The Word and the Image: The Importance of Reading

Here Veith is concerned about the difference between word and image. He claims that Christians (and I quite agree with him) will always need to be people of the word (and Word), and they must be readers, because that is the way God most personally revealed Himself to us.

People of the Book

So Christianity insists on the role of language. Language is the medium for a relationship. The Bible is how God speaks to us, and then we speak back to God in prayer. Jesus Christ Himself is the living Word of God. The Holy Spirit always works in tandem with the Word of God, speaking to the souls of men. An oral tradition only will almost always make for errors and difficulties in theology (even in addition to our sinful nature - Adrian). The idea of universal literacy is a direct result of the Reformation plus Gutenberg.

Reading and writing allows us to avoid reinventing the wheel: we can build on the ideas of others. "People of the Book" refers to Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Veith claims that "reading has shaped our civilization more than almost any other factor."

Electronically Graven Images

Veith says that the new image-based media is attacking reading, and that the information technologies, ironically, might well subvert the science that made them possible, since science depends on reading. However, even more serious are the doubts that a society divorced from reading will even be able sustain the flowering of biblical faith. He mentions Neil Postman, as above. He then quotes Postman in his book Teaching as a Conserving Activity, in which Postman compares reading with TV watching.

Postman foresees a future in which we have "people who are 'in touch with their feelings,' who are spontaneous and musical, and who live in an existential world of immediate experience but who, at the same time, cannot 'think' in the way we customarily use that word. In other words, people whose state of mind is somewhat analogous to that of a modern-day baboon."

We can see this affecting politics already, in the substitution of "sound-bites" for sustained debate of issues. In religion, the abandonment of propositional thinking rather excludes faith.

Postman claims that every great religious leader has never given people what they wanted, but what they needed. He then claims that TV is not well-suited to giving people what they need, since it's too easy to turn it off.

The Importance of Reading

Veith says that, actually, TV and radio can be effective mediums for communicating the gospel, and therefore that Christians should be involved with them. However, there are difficulties with such media.

Veith distinguishes between illiteracy, the inability to read, and aliteracy, which is choosing not to read even if one knows how. He claims that those who have the influence are the readers, and that therefore, if Christians remain true to their heritage, their influence will be as it once was.


Jessica said...

What, then, do you make of the fact that the Gospels are based at least in part on oral tradition, and that the vast majority of early Christians were unable to read or write?

Anonymous said...

I'd like to hear what you have to say to Jessica's question. It's an interesting point.

Adrian C. Keister said...

Reply to Jessica.

I would make of this: that God has been very good to us, not only in preserving His Word in such good condition over the centuries (mostly in the form of very careful scribes and copyists), but also in enabling Gutenberg to invent the printing press and, with the resulting proliferation of books, the corresponding proliferation of reading.

The oral tradition has a number of benefits: long attention spans, extraordinarily good memory, and perhaps a few others that I am missing. One benefit denied to the oral tradition, however, is highly accurate preservation, which is what we have in writing. I, personally, wish the oral tradition was a bit stronger than it is now, and perhaps early America with its fixation on print, went a bit far in that direction.

However, both are, to my mind, superior to image-based communication, at least in terms of communicating truth.

If there are other directions you'd like me to take, please let me know.