by Denny Burk
The Associated Press reported Aug. 21 that one in four adults did not read a single book last year, according to a new poll. "Of those who did read," the story said, "women and older people were most avid, and religious works and popular fiction were the top choices."
I wondered, though, if the stats were correct. I would have thought there to be more non-readers. The headline could have read, "3 out of 4 people read a book last year," which would have seemed like good news. But I suspect the number of people who read a book last year would be far less if we eliminated those who read only dime-store novel fiction.
In any case, we would do well to note this cultural phenomenon as it bears directly on the fortunes of the gospel in our culture. Christianity is a book-religion. That is, all of its revelation about God's redemptive work in Christ is mediated to us in letters on a page. We don't have photographs, telephone lines through time, or a living oral tradition. We have the Scriptures. Apart from them, we have no saving knowledge of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Because Christianity is a religion of the Book, where it spreads so too does a concern for literacy. That is why when Christianity expands its borders, it is often accompanied by the building of schools and other institutions of learning. Where literacy dies, so does a knowledge of and a love for the Bible. Does it not make sense to interpret a decline in reading as a trend that works against the gospel?
I believe the pervasive and invasive entertainment culture (TV, Internet, movies, etc.) smothers serious thinking and the reading of entire books. Americans by and large don't read serious books because they are entertaining themselves to death. There simply isn't time to read the Bible, much less books on theology or doctrine. Besides that, when you are conditioned to be in a constant state of being entertained, reading non-fiction becomes a chore and a bore.
Our hearts tend to fixate on vanity. It will be that way until the great day of our Lord's return. If we would be faithful to Christ, we would be conscientiously doing everything we can to work against these currents in the culture and within our own hearts. It may mean throwing our televisions away. It may mean spending less time on the Internet-perhaps even reading fewer blogs. Whatever it takes, it's worth it to redeem the time and to discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness (Eph. 5:16; 1 Tim. 4:7-8).
Because of my own sinful, disordered priorities, here's a prayer from Psalm 119 that I have to pray often. Maybe you will too:
"Incline my heart to Thy testimonies,
And not to dishonest gain.
Turn away my eyes from looking at vanity,
And revive me in Thy ways.
Establish Thy word to Thy servant,
As that which produces reverence for Thee" (vv. 36-38).
I have a hunch this is exactly the kind of prayer the Lord likes to answer.
Denny Burk is assistant professor of New Testament at Criswell College in Dallas, Texas.
(Editor's note: Watch for a response next month from a writer who questions whether Christians are necessarily "a people of the Book.")