Veith helps readers cultivate good literary taste and to make informed choices by understanding how the major genres of literature communicate.
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About the Author
Gene Edward Veith (PhD, University of Kansas) provost and professor of literature emeritus at Patrick Henry College. He previously worked as the culture editor of World magazine. Veith and his wife, Jackquelyn, have three grown children and seven grandchildren.
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THE WORD AND THE IMAGE: The Importance of Reading
Will reading become obsolete? Some people think that with the Wexplosion of video technology, the age of the book is almost over. Television monitors, fed by cable networks and video recorders, dominate our culture today. Our fads and fashions, politics and morals, entertainment and leisure time are all shaped and controlled by what ever is transmitted on the diode screen. As electronic communication develops at an astonishing rate, who is to say that such arcane skills as reading and writing can or even need to survive?
One thing, however, is certain: Reading can never die out among Christians. This is because the whole Christian revelation centers around a Book. God chose to reveal Himself to us in the most personal way through His Word — the Bible. The word Bible is simply the Greek word for "the Book." Indeed the Bible is the primal Book, the most ancient of all literary texts and the source of all literacy. Reading the Bible tends to lead to reading other books, and thus to some important habits of mind.
PEOPLE OF THE BOOK
The centrality of the Bible means that the very act of reading can have spiritual significance. Whereas other religions may stress visions, experiences, or even the silence of meditation as the way to achieve contact with the divine, Christianity insists on the role of language.
Language is the basis for all communication and so lies at the heart of any personal relationship. We can never know anyone intimately by simply being in that person's presence. We need to have a conversation in order to share our thoughts and our personalities. By the same token, we need a conversation with God — two-way communication through language — in order to know Him on a personal basis. Just as human beings address God by means of language through prayer, God addresses human beings by means of language in the pages of Scripture. Prayer and Bible reading are central to a personal relationship with God. Christians have to be, in some sense, readers.
Creation itself was accomplished by God's Word (Hebrews 11:3), and Jesus Christ Himself is none other than the living Word of God (John 1:1). The Word of the gospel, the good news that Jesus died for sinners and offers them eternal life, is a message in human language which calls people to salvation. "Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ" (Romans 10:17). God's Word is written down in the pages of the Bible. Human beings, inspired by the Holy Spirit, have recorded what God has revealed about Himself and His acts in history. In the Bible, God reveals His relation ship to us, setting forth the law by which we should live and the gospel of forgiveness through Christ. As we read the Bible, God addresses us in the most intimate way, as one Person speaking to another.
When we read the Bible, we are not simply learning doctrines or studying history — although we are doing those things. "The word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart" (Hebrews 4:12). As we read the Bible, all of the senses of "The Word of God" come together — God's creative power, His judgment, Jesus Christ, and proclamation of the gospel — and are imprinted in our minds and souls. In the Word, the Holy Spirit is at work.
Certainly the Word of the gospel can be proclaimed orally and not in writing alone. In church we hear the Word of God preached, and even in casual witnessing, the Word of God is being shared. In cultures that lack Bibles or people who know how to read them, the church has managed to survive through the oral proclamation of the Word, although often with many errors and difficulties. Still, the priority that God places on language and the idea that God's Word is personally accessible to us in a book has meant that Christians have always valued reading and writing.
Even when books were rare and expensive, having to be copied out by hand, so that common people remained uneducated, at least the priests had to know how to read. The Reformation was providentially accompanied by the invention of the printing press, enabling books to be cheaply mass-produced. This meant that the Bible could be put into the hands of every Christian. Every Christian, therefore, needed to learn how to read. Universal literacy, taken for granted today, was a direct result of the Reformation's reemphasis upon the centrality of Bible reading, not only for theologians but for the spiritual life of every Christian.
Missionaries to nonliterate cultures often begin by mastering the people's language and giving them a system of writing. They then trans late the Bible and teach the people how to read it in their own language. The Word of God begins to transform its readers. Once people know how to read the Bible, of course, they can read anything. Tribes go on to dis cover modern health care and the need for social change, just as the Reformation Christians, empowered by Bible reading, went on to develop scientific technology, economic growth, and democratic institutions.
When ideas and experiences can be written down, they are, in effect, stored permanently. People are no longer bound by their own limited insights and experiences, but they can draw on those of other people as well. Instead of continually starting over again, people can build upon what others have discovered and have written down. Technological, economic, and social progress become possible. The impact of writing can be seen plainly by comparing nonliteratecultures, many of which still exist on the Stone Age level, with those that have had the gift of writing. Nonliterate peoples tend to exist in static, unchanging societies, whereas literate societies tend toward rapid change and technological growth.
Christians, along with Jews and Moslems, are considered "people of the Book." Such reverence for reading and writing has profoundly shaped even our secular society. Certainly, non-Biblical cultures have made great use of writing, but this was almost always reserved for the elite. The religious idea that everyone should learn how to read in order to study the Bible (a view implicit in the Hebrew bar mitzvah and carried out in the Reformation school systems) would have radical consequences in the West. Universal education has led to the breaking of class systems, the ability of individual citizens to exercise political power, and a great pooling of minds that would result in the technological achievements of the last four hundred years. It is no exaggeration to say that reading has shaped our civilization more than almost any other factor and that a major impetus to reading has been the Bible.
ELECTRONICALLY GRAVEN IMAGES
Reading has been essential to our civilization, yet today its centrality is under attack by the new electronic media. If reading has had vast social and intellectual repercussions, we should wonder about the repercussions of the new media. Can democratic institutions survive without a literate — that is, a reading — populace, or will the new modes of thinking lend themselves to new forms of totalitarianism? Can educational and intellectual progress continue if visual imagery supplants reading, or will the new information technologies, ironically, subvert the scientific thinking that created them, resulting in anti-intellectual ism and mass ignorance?
Such issues are critical for the culture as a whole, but they are especially urgent for the church. Is it possible for Biblical faith to flourish in a society that no longer values reading, or will the newly dominant images lead to new manifestations of the most primitive paganism? Ever since the Old Testament, graven images have tempted God's people to abandon the true God and His Word. Today the images are graven by electrons on cathode ray tubes.
Neil Postman is a media scholar and one of the most astute social critics of our time. His writings focus, with great sophistication, on how different forms of communication shape people's thinking and culture. Postman says that he first discovered the connection between media and culture in the Bible: "In studying the Bible as a young man, I found intimations of the idea that forms of media favor particular kinds of content and therefore are capable of taking command of a culture." He found this concept in the Ten Commandments: "You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth" (Exodus 20:4 RSV).
I wondered then, as so many others have, as to why the God of these people would have included instructions on how they were to symbolize, or not symbolize, their experience. It is a strange injunction to include as part of an ethical system unless its author assumed a connection between forms of human communication and the quality of a culture. We may hazard a guess that a people who are being asked to embrace an abstract, universal deity would be rendered unfit to do so by the habit of drawing pictures or making statues or depicting their ideas in any concrete, iconographic forms. The God of the Jews was to exist in the Word and through the Word, an unprecedented conception requiring the highest order of abstract thinking. Iconography thus became blasphemy so that a new kind of God could enter a culture. People like ourselves who are in the process of converting their culture from word-centered to image centered might profit by reflecting on this Mosaic injunction.
According to Postman, "word-centered" people think in a completely different mode from "image-centered" people. His distinction is especially important for Christians, for whom the "Mosaic injunction" is eternally valid.
In an important book on education, Postman explores the differences between the mental processes involved in reading and those involved in television watching. Reading demands sustained concentration, whereas television promotes a very short attention span. Reading involves (and teaches) logical reasoning, whereas television involves (and teaches) purely emotional responses. Reading promotes continuity, the gradual accumulation of knowledge, and sustained exploration of ideas. Television, on the other hand, fosters fragmentation, anti-intellectualism, and immediate gratification.
Postman does not criticize the content of television — the typical worries about "sex and violence" or the need for quality programming. Rather, the problem is in the properties of the form itself. Language is cognitive, appealing to the mind; images are affective, appealing to the emotions.
This difference between symbols that demand conceptualization and reflection and symbols that evoke feeling has many implications, one of the most important being that the content of the TV curriculum is irrefutable. You can dislike it, but you cannot disagree with it.... There is no way to show that the feelings evoked by the imagery of a McDonald's commercial are false, or indeed, true. Such words as true and false come out of a different universe of symbolism altogether. Propositions are true or false. Pictures are not.
Postman goes on to connect the newly emerging dominance of electronic images over words to habits of mind that are having monumental social consequences: to the undermining of authority, the loss of a sense of history, hostility to science, pleasure-centeredness, and the emergence of new values based on instant gratification and the need to be continually entertained. The new media direct us "to search for time-compressed experience, short-term relationships, present-oriented accomplishment, simple and immediate solutions. Thus, the teaching of the media curriculum must lead inevitably to a disbelief in long-term planning, in deferred gratification, in the relevance of tradition, and in the need for confronting complexity." The social acceptance of sexual immorality, the soaring divorce rates, and the pathology of drug abuse may well be related to this pursuit of instant pleasure at all costs.
And yet, human beings — made as we are for higher purposes can scarcely live this way. The untrammeled emotionalism, the isolation, and the fragmentation of mind encouraged by the new information environment lead to mental illness, suicide, and emotional col lapse. "Articulate language," on the other hand, according to Postman, "is our chief weapon against mental disturbance." If the trends he sees continue to develop, Postman foresees a future in which we have "people who are 'in touch with their feelings,' who are spontaneous and musical, and who live in an existential world of immediate experience but who, at the same time, cannot 'think' in the way we customarily use that word. In other words, people whose state of mind is somewhat analogous to that of a modern-day baboon."
The impact of the TV mentality on politics is already clearly evident. Rational, sustained debate of issues has been replaced by "sound bites" — brief "media events" that can play on the evening news. Political campaigns are managed by "image consultants," and candidates are chosen for their charisma and the way they appear on TV rather than for their ideas and policies. American democracy was the creation of a word-centered culture and a literate populace. Whether the traditions of freedom and democracy can be sustained without that basis is questionable. An easily manipulated population that cares mostly for its own amusement may be more ready for tyranny (which can keep the masses happy with "bread and circuses") than for the arduous responsibilities of self-government.
The impact of the new mentality upon religion is even more significant. The appeal of the New Age movement with its almost comical irrationalism is evidence that categories such as true or false, rev elation or superstition, have become irrelevant for many people. The sophisticated and affluent pay large sums of money to hear the wisdom of ancient Egyptian warriors or extra-terrestrial aliens purportedly taking over the bodies of the "channelers." Well-educated socialites plan their lives by horoscopes. Trendy movie stars solve their problems by means of magical crystals. How can anyone believe such things? If people stop thinking about religion in propositional terms (part of the heritage of "the Word"), abandoning truth or falsehood as religious categories, then belief hardly enters into it. Even among Christians today, religious discussions often focus upon "what I like" rather than "what is true." Those whose main concern is self-gratification search in exactly the same way for religious gratification.
Of course, Christians know that there is nothing "new" in the New Age movement, which the Bible terms demon possession, divination, and idolatry. The New Age movement is simply the paganism of the Old Age. Such primitive and oppressive superstitions squelched human progress for millennia. Ironically, our advanced technology is resulting in a new primitivism, in which the gains of thousands of years of civilization are glibly rejected by a post-literate culture that closely resembles preliterate ones. Even infanticide, a commonplace practice of pagan societies, has become socially acceptable in the form of abortion on demand. As Scripture warns, graven images can lead to pagan ism of the most horrific kind.
And yet, evangelicals too have been seduced by the electrical graven images of television and the kind of spirituality that it encourages. In his study of contemporary "TV ministries," Postman is remarkably charitable towards television evangelists, but he shows how the medium itself inevitably distorts the Christian message:
On television, religion, like everything else, is presented, quite simply and without apology, as an entertainment. Everything that makes religion an historic, profound, and sacred human activity is stripped away; there is no ritual, no dogma, no tradition, no the ology, and above all, no sense of spiritual transcendence. On these shows, the preacher is tops. God comes out as second banana.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Reading Between the Lines"
Copyright © 1990 Gene Edward Veith, Jr..
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 The Word and the Image: The Importance of Reading 17
2 Vicarious Experience and Vicarious Sin: The Importance of Criticism 27
The Forms of Literature
3 Nonfiction: The Art of Truth-Telling 49
4 Fiction: The Art of Story-Telling 59
5 Poetry: The Art of Singing 79
The Modes of Literature
6 Tragedy and Comedy: The Literature of Damnation and Salvation 101
7 Realism: Literature as a Mirror 117
8 Fantasy: Literature as a Lamp 129
The Traditions of Literature
9 The Middle Ages and the Reformation: The Literature of Belief 151
10 The Enlightenment and Romanticism: The Literature of Nature and the Self 169
11 Modernism and Postmodernism: The Literature of Consciousness and Self-Consciousness 191
12 The Makers of Literature: Writers, Publishers, and Readers 215
Appendix: A Reading List 227
Scripture Index 249
General Index 251
What People are Saying About This
“Reading Between the Lines is thoroughly enjoyable and thoroughly literatea magnificent blending of history, literature, and theology that will be welcomed by professionals and laity alike.”
Wayne Martindale, Professor of English, Wheaton College; author, Beyond the Shadowlands: C. S. Lewis on Heaven and Hell
“What a superb resource this is! It resonates with profound perceptions of how good literature works to enrich and illuminate us. Dr. Veith proves himself once again to be a knowledgeable guide through the landscape of the written word.”
Luci Shaw, author, God in the Dark and Polishing the Petoskey Stone
“Veith has written on important topics with his usual clarity, good sense, organizing ability, and comprehensiveness. The scope of this project is impressive.”
Leland Ryken,Emeritus Professor of English, Wheaton College
“Veith makes it clear that the joys of reading can be deep joys of the type which can enliven our souls. This book should raise significantly the cultural level of evangelicalism.”
Edward E. Ericson Jr., Professor Emeritus of English, Calvin College