Why reading is dying

I was listening to Michael Hyatt’s podcast a couple of days ago. He was discussing a recent article from Newsweek about the ways in which our increased reliance on electronically-mediated communication is changing our brains. You can listen to the episode here.

As I listened it brought to mind Nicholas Carr’s 2008 Atlantic article, “Is Google making us stupid?” and his subsequent book, The ShallowsThese two articles make a common claim: electronic communication is fundamentally changing the way in which our brains work.

Reading is, for many Americans, an essential job skill. We read more than we ever have. However, we read in a fundamentally different (and more shallow) way than before. The internet, social media, and email have combined to acclimate us to a superficial type of reading that essentially involves scanning to find pieces of information within a body of words. It’s an atomistic reading–it’s goal is simply to pick out what we need to know from a sea of modifiers and extraneous verbiage.

The reading of good books, ones that communicate complex ideas rather than packets of information, seems to have fallen on hard times. We buy more books than ever, yet we read them less and what we do read is essentially “dumbed down” for us. I don’t think this is a good thing for society. It surely is either the result of our cultural impoverishment or will be a contributing factor to it.

It’s an especially disturbing trend for the Christian Church. Christianity espouses a theological lens through which to view existence. That lens is the constructed on the basis of revelation rather than the product of some neutral secular reasoning that exists in the naked public square. For Christians revelation comes principally in the person of Jesus Christ, God made flesh, who is witnessed to in the Holy Scriptures. Moreover, those Scriptures are themselves a revelation of God to His people. Beyond this, we see testimony to God in nature.

When the church loses its capacity to read, to read and reflect on the Scriptures, trouble is sure to follow–and has.

Prior my sabbatical, I was beginning to notice in myself much of what Carr lamented in his article. I was struggling to read. It sounds silly, but it was difficult to sit down and spend an hour to read something that would require focused reading, critical engagement, and reflection. As someone whose context for ministry is the academy, this is not a good thing.

A week into my sabbatical and now almost completely disconnected from electronic communication, I am finding that my desire to read and my ability to read is bouncing back.

I’m more than a hundred pages into a book on Radical Orthodoxy, a theological movement that appropriates the insights of continental philosophy to engage with Augustine and other pre-modern Church Fathers to construct a post-secular theology. It’s pretty heady. Guess what? I’m loving it.

A big part of making the change was stepping back from social media and limiting my time online. You might want to check out the disciplines (habits) that Michael Hyatt lists for keeping your sanity in a technological society:

  1. The discipline of rest.
  2. The discipline of reflection.
  3. The discipline of reading.
  4. The discipline of relationships.
  5. The discipline of recreation.

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