Christianity,  Culture

Literacy & the Gospel: Did you read a book last year?

The Associated Press reports that one in four adults did not read a single book last year.

“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 it 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. 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 less blogs. Whatever it takes, it’s worth it to redeem the time and to discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness (Ephesians 5:16; 1 Timothy 4:7-8).

Because of my own sinful, disordered priorities, here’s a prayer from Psalm that I have to pray often. Maybe you will too:

36 Incline my heart to Thy testimonies,
And not to dishonest gain.
37 Turn away my eyes from looking at vanity,
And revive me in Thy ways.
38 Establish Thy word to Thy servant,
As that which produces reverence for Thee.
– Psalm 119:38

I have a hunch this is exactly the kind of prayer the Lord likes to answer.


  • Ben

    Denny says:
    “That is, all of its revelation about God’s redemptive work in Christ is mediated to us in letters on a page.”

    This reflects a weak pneumatology. My hope is that you misspoke, but I believe it is the Spirit that reminds us of all things Christ taught (John 14:26). It seems to me that sola scripture needs to be appropriately tempered by a robust pneumatology as indicated by John 5:38-40.

    My larger point is that perhaps your statement reflects a non-essential in Christian life rather than an essential. I encourage you to re-evaluate the strength of your statement. Otherwise, to what end do we receive the Spirit?

  • dennyrburk


    I did not misspeak. I do not believe that the canon of authoritative revelation is still open. The canon is closed. The Spirit work is to illuminate the revelation that has already been given, not to give new revelation.

    I think you have misinterpreted John 14:26, where Jesus says, “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you.” It’s important to remember who the “you” is at this point in the narrative. It’s not “you” the reader; it’s Jesus’ disciples minus Judas. Jesus is making a promise to lead his apostles into all truth and to help them to remember his teachings after he is gone. The Holy Spirit enabled the apostles to give an authoritative witness to Jesus after he ascended.

    Because Jesus made this promise to the apostles, that is one reason why we put so much stock in the Holy Spirit inspired writings of the apostles (a.k.a., the New Testament).

    A strong pneumatology leads to a high view of scripture.


  • Ray Van Neste

    A good word Denny. In one of my classes I take a bulk of the time to argue repeatedly that the life of the mind is an aspect of Christian discipleship. C. S. Lewis’ essay “Learning in War Time” is an excellent piece in this vein.
    Following the cultural trend you mention, it is no wonder that biblical literacy in the church is also plummetting. Often people explain their lack of Bible reading to me by saying, Well. I just don’t read.”

  • Ben


    Perhaps Jesus as speaking locally in John 14:26 and not generically, though either is debatable. What does not seem to be debatable is that Peter preached the coming of the Spirit all believers in Acts 2. It seems you are arguing that this is a different sort of Spirit than what the apostles received, since you seem to argue that it does not “remind of all things” in the same fashion. Am I reading you right?

    Ultimately, the pneumatology you espouse speaks to a Spirit who is constrained by what came before – i.e., a closed authoritative canon. (The nature of scriptural canon is a different discussion, if you ask me, one which we will not solve, no matter how much we debate.)

    My pneumatology gives more weight to the idea that the Spirit blows where it pleases (John 3:8), unfettered by what comes before. This does not mean (as you seem to imply) that I have a not as “high view of scripture.” I suppose if one argues my view of scripture is necessarily “lower”, I could similarly argue a pneumatological view similar to the original post is “lower”. Then we would be locked into a debate on the value of scripture vs spirit, which would not be fruitful.

    I would also solicit feedback on the John 5:38-40 passage.

    I wonder if rejection of my position is the product of epistemic anxiety over what it would mean if we gave room for a more authoritative Spirit.

    As a thought experiment, which I’m not specifically trying to tie to my discussion of pneumatology, what would happen if all the Bibles were burned? Is such a thing even conceivable? If not, what mechanism would prevent it? Would the authoritative word of God cease to exist if all the “letters on a page” are destroyed?

    * Scripture is not authoritative
    * Reading is not important
    * Canon is still open

  • Matthew


    I also think the true number of nonreaders is much higher than reported here. Postman made some valid points. Our culture consumes far greater amounts of image-based media than text-based. I wonder if in the near future, churches won’t have to find creative ways to get men reading literature so that they have practice in reading thoughtful material at all. I have heard the complaint that the church caters to women, not men. But how are we to teach men when they don’t ever read critically?

  • Luke Britt


    I’ve been trying to think more internationally lately since God will draw people from all nations unto himself and I have begun to think about the limitations that some countries have for what we Americans see as healthy bible study and sound doctrine. You know me personally and know that I have a high view of Scripture, but my question is, what of those who have no bible or who have one book or one passage as some of the early church had? How do we deal with revelation concerning these brothers?

    I see myself preaching and teaching overseas and I often ask myself this question. I will be teaching pastors who share a bible among the group, who have no way to reproduce, and also have no way for their congregations to obtain copies of the Scriptures. How, in this context, are we to view revelation? The Spirit can use other means to bring repentance and faith, right?

  • bj

    “At least three and one-half billion (60%) of the world’s 6.1 billion people are oral communicators. At least one-fourth of the world’s population (1,525,383,804 people) are primary oral communicators — illiterates. Primary oral communicators cannot read or write. And, at least fifty percent (50%) of those who live in the United States are oral communicators and cannot perform literate tasks well enough to function as literates. Oral communicators are likely the largest unevangelized population segment in the USA … Over sixty percent (60%) of Islamic women are either illiterate or functionally illiterate, as is Africa south of the Sahara. At least seventy percent (70%) of the worlds least reached and unevangelized peoples are oral communicators.”
    Even though many people of the world cannot read at a sufficient level to comprehend the written words of the Bible and some cannot read at all, believers have a responsibility to share the Word. This issue goes behind an American or Western challenge of decline in reading.
    For more information, please see this website:

  • Ben

    Excellent points and questions, Luke and bj!

    I would argue that scriptural understandings are necessarily authoritative in Christian discipleship and teaching, but scripture cannot terminate on itself as authority. Scripture must always terminate on Christ (John 5:38-40), who does the work of the Father (John 5:19), and of whom we are reminded by the Spirit (John 14:26). The entire Trinity is eternally involved.

    Those who are illiterate (or who have had their scripture forcibly removed from their possession) still have access to the Spirit, through faith in the Son, who convicts and saves, though the Gospel must still be preached.

  • bj

    “This issue goes behind an American or Western challenge of decline in reading.” That was supposed to be “This issue goes beyond an American or Western challenge …”
    And I claim to be literate! 🙂

  • Mason Beecroft

    The Holy Scriptures testify to Christ. The work of the Holy Spirit is to create and sustain faith in Christ. The Holy Scriptures are a means by which the Holy Spirit creates faith as they are proclaimed and read. The Holy Spirit uses the Word of the Gospel in its various forms (written, oral, sacramental) to accomplish this end. The Holy Spirit is constrained to Jesus Christ and the testimony we have received in Holy Scripture. Our testimony about Christ, however, is not limited to the book.

  • BrianW

    The written Word is obviously important, but the gospel is not in jeopardy in any way because of illiteracy. The gospel is the “message” irrespective of the form (as stated above). We 21st Century Westerners forget that the saints have been more illiterate than literate throughout Christian history. Yet, as Stephen Neill’s work on Christian missions shows, missionary work has been fruitful irrespective of the literacy of the evangelized culture. I also find it interesting that some tout literacy as this essential means of evangelization when the scriptures don’t even hint at it.

  • Luke Britt

    Ben #9:

    If the gospel is preached and we receive our gospel from the Scriptures then its authority is present in our gospel proclamation which is then applied by the power of the Holy Spirit to the hearts of our hearers.

    Would this not then be a communication of “the text on the page”?

    I think this may solve our problem with illiterates and those who have no physical copy of the text.

  • Danny McDonald

    “Whatever it takes, it’s worth it to redeem the time and to discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness (Ephesians 5:16; 1 Timothy 4:7-8).”

    Thank you, Denny for your post. I’ve been convicted in the past year of how I redeem my time, and one thing I’ve been purposeful in doing is reading. I can’t say how valuable and rewarding it’s been. Thank you, again, for this post!

  • Mike Rodgers

    In the last issue of D Magazine’s publication, CEO, is an interview of the CEO of a Dallas company. They asked him about the books he reads to which he responded, “I don’t read books but on my nightstand are 30 magazines which I power read.” I’m not sure what “power reading” means but it sounds like there is a lot of testosterone is involved. Now this guy is very bright and has made a small fortune. However, I’m afraid he is pretty typical of most in our society. Magazines are useful to keep people informed but usually do not inspire the thoughtful reflection that is needed for the safegaurding of both Christian doctrine and American democracy.

    One last thing–I ran across a great quotation this week by Bacon: reading makes a full man, conversation a ready man, and writing an exact man.

    Great site,


  • Judd


    My comment is late but it is interesting that women and elderly are leading in reading. I think this says a great deal about men.


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