Consider Turning a Page

August 14, 2020

It’s convenient. You see it everywhere. People aren’t reading print books; they are reading electronic books—looking at words on screens, whether on a cell phone, a tablet, or an e-reader.

Should that raise a question for a Christian—for the person who believes that God inspired a book?

In the late 1960s, Marshall McLuhan wrote Understanding Media. His basic idea? “The medium is the message.” McLuhan argued that the medium used to communicate has a profound impact on the way those who interacted with the medium think and act. It wasn’t just that the content conveyed shaped the way media consumers thought and acted—the medium itself comes with an impact.

Nicholas Carr drew on that idea in The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (New York: Norton, 2011). Carr makes the case that immersion in electronic media might well be changing the way we think and read. He offers a personal example by way of illustration:

“I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I feel it most strongly when I’m reading. I used to find it easy to immerse myself in a book or a lengthy article . . . . That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration starts to drift after a page or two” (The Shallows, 5).

He mentions others he knows—competent scholars and professionals—who have similar confessions (7).

A colleague observed: “I now have almost totally lost the ability to read and absorb a longish article.” One university faculty member commented that his thinking had taken on a “staccato” quality, perhaps reflecting the way he skims and scans what he reads, concluding, “I can’t read War and Peace anymore. I’ve lost the ability to do that. Even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb.”

Carr points out that “a page of online text viewed [on] a screen may seem similar to a page of printed text;” but it’s not (90).

The shift from paper to screen doesn’t just change the way we navigate a piece of writing. It also influences the degree of attention we devote to it and the depth of our immersion in it (90).

In her book on reading, Words Onscreen (New York: Oxford, 2015), Naomi Baron explains about “continuous reading” or “deep reading.” In contrast to the skimming and browsing that is all too typical of e-reading, she notes that in deep reading the brain functions differently. Although she would admit there are some times when reading words onscreen might be appropriate, her fundamental concern is that with the advent of all kinds of opportunities to read onscreen, the ability to read well and to comprehend what is read is greatly diminished.

Are there implications for those of us who privilege Scripture? Who understand it as a unique, captured-in-book-form, communication from God? There just might be.

The convenience of having ready access to an e-Bible might be subtly undermining our “deep reading” of Scripture. Rather than immersing ourselves in the epistles and long narratives of the Bible, we end up only dipping into texts.

The ease with which we can search and find any chapter or verse, any passage we vaguely recall, might actually fight against our coming to know the Scriptures well. Rather than learning how the Bible flows together as we come to see how one book fits with another, we content ourselves with simply knowing how to search and find.

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