Wednesday, July 2, 2008

What's the big deal about books?

Amidst debates about the government's "Reading First" programs and standards of literacy, sometimes we might wonder why books are so important in the first place. If children are technologically savvy, what's wrong with books going the way of the early abacus?

Neil Postman, 20th-century cultural analyst and educator, has defined the main problem with this idea. In Amusing Ourselves to Death, he talks about the "peculiarity" of God's second commandment, which tells the Israelites not to make graven images. He says:

"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” (p.9).
Postman asks us to reconsider viewing ‘screens’ as a form of education. He proposes that proficient literacy builds a stronger individual and develops a culture able to understand an abstract, triune God.

Teaching a child to read C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia and think about God is a better use of time than encouraging a child to watch the movie version. The child who can’t read the book cannot read the Bible either and only has personal experience as a filter for his or her worldview instead of the wealth of knowledge developed through history and expressed in literature.

Images can both reflect and change a culture--Bambi and Sex and the City are prime examples. But do they equip the culture to intelligently understand the teachings of the church and to unwaveringly obey a God whose thoughts are higher than our thoughts?

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