Evangelism, Writing, and Illiteracy: Four Reasons Americans Don’t Read
This is the first of a two-part series on evangelism, reading, and writing. In this article I examine the American reading culture. In the next article I will talk about how that should affect our evangelism and writing.
Donald Trump speaks to the reading level of a fourth-grader. Mike Huckabee – who just dropped out of the presidential race – speaks at the tenth-grade level. And George Washington, in his farewell address, wouldn’t even be understood by most college students, as he communicated with graduate-level language!
Why is the literacy level of Americans declining? Christians, of all people, should be most interested in this question, because we have a message to communicate to society. The research is clear: American literacy is decreasing, and it is time that we realized that. But before we consider ‘why,’ let’s review reading in America’s past.
Reading in the Past
In the 1500s, the Protestant Reformation surged through Europe, partly because of the printing press. This new invention made books common, and they were widely read. In the 1700s, as the American Constitution was debated, several politicians wrote the Federalist Papers. Though written at the 17th-grade reading level (yes, graduate level), these papers were widely read and debated by the average citizens. Even in the 1800s, I remember reading of two pastors who continued a theological debate through written pamphlets. These pamphlets were readily purchased by the townsfolk.
That was a time when society was built on Christian values. This does not mean all, or even the majority, of people were Christians. But in the Christian worldview, the written word is important. Literacy is valued, because the Bible is God’s written revelation, and because knowledge and wisdom can be transmitted through writing.
Reading in the Present
23% of Americans didn’t even read one book in 2014 – physical or electronic. Half of adults don’t read five books a year. As I ponder the evidence, I see four reasons that America’s reading culture is declining.
#1 – We live in the age of information overload. Gone are the days when an Abraham Lincoln will walk six miles to borrow a book. Instead, we are overwhelmed by the knowledge available to us. In the past, people were respected for what they knew – now, anyone can know anything. Of course, we still respect knowledgeable people, but not because they have access to privileged information. Rather, they had the motivation to pursue and master that information.
Consequently, today’s valued skill is not knowing much, but not being sidetracked by useless knowledge. While the ancients gobbled up their limited knowledge, moderns try to disregard anything less than essential. This means that only good writing even stands a chance of being read.
In the past, we valued knowledge. Now, we value organization of knowledge. It is not what you know, but finding what you need to know, that is important. This means that in the past, people read because they could; today we read because we must.
#2 – Media shortens our attention span. The barrage of knowledge in the information age is changing our minds. Communicators, needing an advantage in the battle for mind-space, make their messages simpler, shorter, and easier to understand…consequently dumbing us down. We think in terms of twitter, not tomes. That is why Time Magazine reported that ‘You Now Have a Shorter Attention Span Than a Goldfish,’ clocking in at an impressive 8.25 seconds.
I have no problem reading for hours on end. I’ve even stayed up all night reading. But many people that I talk to don’t read, because they say they can’t.
#3 – Many people are apathetic about knowledge. Reading culture thrives when people value knowledge. But as I have noted, secularization makes men practical atheists, and an atheistic culture only values present pleasures. Two thousand years ago, the apostle Paul knew that the motto of the atheist is simple – “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die!”
In light of this, it should be no surprise that the books that succeed in today’s world are not the ones that impart knowledge but pleasure – even if it be immoral. To take three examples from the New York Times Bestsellers list – on the fiction list, the impious 50 Shades of Grey has sold 125 million copies, while The Hunger Games trilogy has sold over 65 million. In contrast, the nonfiction American Sniper – which at least says something about the real, non-fantasy world of today – sold only 1.2 million copies. Successful books today are not filled with wisdom, but worldliness.
#4 – Illiteracy is on the rise. The numbers are flabbergasting. Only half the population can make sense of a bus schedule. 32 million can’t read. 14% have a literacy level ‘below basic.’ In prisons, 70% of inmates can’t read above a 4th-grade level. 3 out of 4 people on welfare can’t read. And despite all the schemes of politicians to improve the education system, America’s illiteracy levels have not improved for 10 years.
I said earlier that Christians should be interested in this change in our society. In fact, we should be more concerned about it than anyone else. Why? Because God communicates to us through the written word of the Bible.
This is exactly what the famous ‘Old Deluder Act’ of 1647 noted. In promoting schools for reading and writing, the Massachusetts lawmakers noted that it is “…one chief project of that old deluder, Satan, to keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures, as in former times by keeping them in an unknown tongue, so in these latter times by persuading from the use of tongues…”
Join me next week as I consider several strategies for evangelism in a post-literate society. I will also describe how our writing should be influenced by these statistics. For those who are curious, this article is written at an 8.7 grade reading level. And feel free to comment on what you think is contributing to America’s declining literacy!
 1 Corinthians 15:32