Whitefield Academy Blog
The Reformation of Reading
In his 1520 book on the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, Martin Luther compared the church in the Middle Ages to Israel exiled in Babylon. One of Luther’s criticisms of the Catholic Church that he thought furthered this metaphorical captivity was that they did not translate the Bible into common languages or teach common people to read it. He translated the New Testament into German and encouraged the teaching of literacy to all children, a fairly radical idea at the time. The Reformation movement he started lead to a large increase in literacy rates throughout Europe, the benefits of which we continue to enjoy today.
The Truth About Literacy
In this month’s First Things magazine, Mark Bauerlein writes in an article titled “Reading is Believing” that today we suffer not so much from illiteracy as alliteracy. The vast majority of people in the developed world can read, but few actually read books, and few seem able to read well. In a recent survey, one-third of college freshman said they did not read for pleasure at all, and SAT scores for reading are at their lowest levels in forty years.
Literacy and God’s Word
According to Bauerlein, our poverty of literacy is not only bad for our culture and economy, but it is also to our spiritual detriment. In the Apostle Paul’s words, “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” We believe God’s words have been given to us in a book. Much of God’s word can be understood with little effort, but the Bible as a whole is large and complex, and it yields great rewards from sustained attention and study. The imagery and metaphors found in the prophets and biblical poetry are not obvious, and scholars have spent their lives discovering new insights in the Bible. People who do not normally spend time reading will find it difficult to sit down and read the Bible, forgoing the spiritual benefit that Luther hoped would become common with increased literacy. Parents who desire their children to grow in faith should note the importance of reading well in relation to gaining Biblical wisdom and should do what they can to be sure their children are taught to read well.
Literacy and Schools
There are many reasons that reading has fallen out of practice in modern life. Our public schools have not done a strong job of cultivating the skill of reading and directing children to books of quality and significance. Many of the classics once considered important for literate people to read are rarely read in US high schools, and students are often assigned books intended for younger children. Children who attend classical Christian schools like Whitefield Academy will benefit greatly from these schools’ careful selection of great books to develop their abilities and love for literature.
Literacy and Facebook
Another reason for our literary decline is that we are so distracted by a multitude of digital entertainments vying for our attention. Facebook and other social media apps are easier to engage with than the printed page. They are carefully designed to hook users in and assuage the feeling of boredom. More and more people feel a real sense of compulsion or addiction to their smartphones and social media apps. Of course, smartphones and social media are not inherently evil technologies, and if used carefully they can give us easier access to good things to read and connect us with our friends. But we should recognize that their use can change the way we spend our time and how we shape our minds. When these technologies distract us from the printed word, and the word of God in particular, they represent an ironic “captivity” analogous to the one Luther wrote against in the sixteenth century, where a society with a literacy rate many times that of Luther’s day and more books than Luther could imagine finds itself unable to read God’s word.
Literacy vs. Faith
Today we often think of passing down our knowledge to our children as a separate category from passing down our faith. But Martin Luther and other Protestant reformers saw being able to read the Bible as one of the most important reasons to teach children to read and to read well. Beyond that, reading great books is an enjoyable experience, once we’ve done the hard work of devoting our attention to it over other entertaining distractions. If you’re looking to turn off the social media distractions and tune in to a good book, October 31st of this year marks the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation. In honor of that, you might want pick up a book on Martin Luther. Carl Trueman, who has written, “to be tired of Luther is to be tired of life,” has helpful lists of books about and written by the reformer. Modeling behaviors that we value to our children is one of the most powerful ways to encourage them to also value those behaviors, something important to remember when we sit down in the family room tonight to the blue lights of our phones.