Growing up I recall Saturdays where I would literally watch TV all day. I can still hear my parent’s warnings that always seemed to ring hollow: “All that TV is going to rot your brain!” Little did they know what a whiz I would become at useless TV trivia games. Kidding aside, it turns out that they were partly right, and partly wrong.
In a 2009 study conducted by the Children’s Digital Media Centre, UCLA distinguished professor Patricia Greenfield concluded that visual media like TV and video games actually helped students develop information processing and multi-tasking skills, important for a multitude of tasks where one needs to monitor multiple streams of information. These skills are also important for children growing up in a digital age. Like it or not, our kids need to learn to manage the increased load of information that today’s average person is expected to digest. But before you go releasing yourself or your kids to simply plop down in front of a screen, Greenfield offers this warning.
“No one medium is good for everything. If we want to develop a variety of skills, we need a balanced media diet. Each medium has costs and benefits [emphasis mine] in terms of what skill each develops.”
So, my parents were only partly right. It turns out TV watching was somewhat beneficial, but Greenfield warns that while visual media can benefit the brain’s ability to process information, what it does not produce is the development of reflection, analysis and imagination, all of which grow through…you guessed it… reading. She states:
“Studies show that reading develops imagination, induction, reflection and critical thinking, as well as vocabulary.”
General Illiteracy leads to Biblical Illiteracy:
Greenfield’s findings present a real concern for the church given our increasingly visually based culture. Illiteracy has always been a problem in Western history, but historically that was due to lack of access to education; which is why the church lead the charge in bringing open education to the masses. We could not be a people of “The Book” after all if the population was illiterate.
Today however, we see a new situation. Illiteracy is a rising problem not due to lack of education, but simply because our society is moving away from print. According to the Canadian Literacy and Learning Network,
- 42% of Canadian adults between the ages of 16 and 65 have low literacy skills.
- 55% of working age adults in Canada are estimated to have less than adequate literacy skills.
- and 88% of adults over the age of 65 appear to be in this situation.
As society, including our schools move further and further away from text based to visual based learning, [interactive media ‘Smart Boards’ now standard in the classroom] the Christian church faces a challenge to remain a people of the text. But even more concerning is that in moving away from text based learning we are steadily losing the kinds of critical thinking skills needed in order to grapple with the subjects of truth and knowledge that the Gospel addresses. In other words, it isn’t just that we are failing to read our Bibles, but as ‘non-readers’ we are losing the capacity to even think and reflect upon the kinds of truth that the Bible communicates.
Consider this just with regard to our ability to concentrate. According to recent reports by the National Centre for Biotechnology Information, the U.S. National Library of Medicine and the Associated Press, the average attention span in 2013 was 8 seconds. (Yes, I said “seconds”) Consider how this mental situation will impacts us spiritually, especially in the light of what God’s word teaches us about feeding our souls.
Blessed is the one … who meditates on his law day and night. (Psalm 1:2)
Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long. (Psalm 119:97)
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think [i.e. continually] about such things. (Phil. 4:8)
When you consider the enormity of the truth presented in the gospel of Jesus Christ, while simple enough to be grasped by a child, its life changing implications and reality cannot be understood apart from thoughtful and critical reflection. Consider this in the light of Paul’s command in Romans 12:2:
“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
Too often we slip into viewing spiritual transformation as purely God’s work: “Let go and let God” we like to say. Such truisms typically fail to say all that must be said, leading us into error. Yes, it is by the power of his Holy Spirit that God refines us to become more like Jesus, but it is also his Spirit who leads us to actually take the necessary steps of living like Jesus, and this is intensely practical.
In this case, Paul’s command it clear: spiritual transformation comes through the renewing of our minds according to God’s truth contained in the Bible, which is something we must commit ourselves and our efforts toward, but we cannot do so in 8 second sound bites. Careful and thoughtful study of the Scripture is essential to growing as a Christian, but we cannot do even that if we don’t possess the ability to focus, reflect, analyze and think critically.
This doesn’t mean that we must all become great scholars. God doesn’t grant us all the same intellects, but what intellect he gives us he expects us to steward well, and reflective, analytical and critical thought is something that every person with a healthy mind can develop. And one of the best and historically tested means of developing those mental skills is reading.
Simply put, the kind of thinking needed for Christian flourishing cannot come without reading. Christian churches and families in Canada would do well to consider this especially when it comes to educating our children. Putting good books into our children’s hands is one of the greatest gifts we can give them, even more than Ipod’s or DS’s. This should include not only the Bible and Bible stories, but also good literature that will help them grow their ability to think and imagine.
Let’s Get Practical:
This of course needs to begin with every responsible Christian. We cannot teach our children to live that which we do not. To be frank, Christians need to read more. Our ability to dwell and reflect and meditate upon God’s truth requires a mind that is conditioned for dwelling, reflecting and meditating, and that is a mind nourished through books.
What is more, reading fosters the ability to focus and concentrate our minds on complex subjects or extended arguments, an essential skill needed in order to learn in pretty much any environment, not the least important of which is the typical Sunday sermon.
When it comes to parenting, from the start we need to create an environment in our homes conducive to reading. It may come more naturally to some than others, but every child should be given the tools to maximize their reading skills. Books with pictures are fine too since static pictures still foster imagination more than video.
Whatever tactic you use, make reading a priority and consider it as much a spiritual discipline as anything else. We are after all called to “love the Lord our God with all of our…mind” (cf. Matt. 22:37). To quote Charles Malik:
“If it is the will of the Holy Spirit that we attend to the soul, certainly it is not his will that we neglect the mind.”
Why not start the new year by committing your mind to God’s use by strengthening it to become a healthy receptacle for his life transforming truth through the discipline of reading?
 Stuart Wolpert, Is technology producing a decline in critical thinking and analysis?, UCLA Newsroom, January 26, 2009, accessed at http://newsroom.ucla.edu/portal/ucla/is-technology-producing-a-decline-79127.aspx on April 29, 2013
 http://www.statisticbrain.com/attention-span-statistics/ Accessed online: January 10, 2014.
 Charles Malik, “The Two Tasks”, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 23/4 (December 1980), p. 295.