Karen Swallow Prior teaches English at Liberty University and is the author of On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books (Brazos, 2018).
Christianity is a religion of the Word. Christians are a “People of the Book.” These distinctives have defined the Christian faith from the beginning, even before the age of print that brought us books. As we enter what many are calling a post-literate age, pastors can help remind people that the essence of the Christian faith centers on the Word (and words).
From the carving of the Ten Commandments to the writing of the Torah to the copying and distribution of letters in the early church, God’s plan was for his people to read. However, as the way we read in this digital age changes, so too the character of the church will change. How will those reading habits affect the way we interact with the Bible? How will the way people read the Bible alter the church body?
A Unique Relationship with Words
Long before the printing press and widespread literacy, God was cultivating a relationship with his chosen people focused on the written word. The words God carved into stone at Mount Sinai included a caution against images, setting up a peculiar word-based relationship with his followers that contrasted starkly with the image-worshiping pagan nations surrounding the Israelites (an observation made by Neil Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death).
This trend continues through church history, according to David Lyle Jeffrey in People of the Book. Medieval paintings frequently depict Mary, other biblical figures, and church fathers holding the Bible. Such images, even—or especially—when anachronistic (bound books did not exist when Mary bore Christ), symbolize the centrality of reading to Christian faithfulness and point out the concrete, tangible nature of the Word. In many of these paintings, the subject is depicted with a finger inserted into the book’s pages, suggesting active reading and reflecting how Thomas needed to put his fingers into Christ’s body in order to know and believe. God’s Word, both written and incarnate, beckons us to come close and engage in a tactile relationship.
Despite the centrality of the written word from the beginning of God’s revelation, many generations of believers were unable to read the Bible for themselves. Before the Reformation, biblical words passed through priests, supplemented by images depicted in stained glass windows and in itinerate drama troupes performing biblical stories. These symbols offered rich beauty, but images alone cannot convey the abstractions of doctrine. Thus in the pre-literate age preceding the Reformation, the Bible was delivered and understood only in pieces.
The Reformation’s focus on reading and the resulting age of literacy it birthed were, in some ways, the culmination of the logocentrism that runs through the Bible and God’s relationship with creation. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” from John 1:1, is a direct echo of Genesis 1, when God created the world through his words. While the “word of the Lord” refers to all the ways God reveals himself, whether spoken (Gen. 1), in a vision (Gen. 15:1), or written (Exod. 24:12; 2 Tim. 3:16), his word is always logical, linear, and coherent. Likewise, the key feature of a literate age is cultivation, not only of the ability to read but of the propensity to think in a logical, linear, coherent fashion.
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Source: Christianity Today