Here, Reinke asks whether smart phones and social media are actually making us smarter — that is, what are these tools doing to our literacy? Reinke cites a nonscientific survey that he conducted with 8,000 Christians via various social media outlets regarding their reading habits. While the results of this study are interesting, and I would be happy to grant may indicate some troubling trends, I think it’s overly simplistic to conclude that “as a result of their phones and social media… it is becoming increasingly difficult for substantial percentage of young Christians to read books” (81).
This may or may not be the case. But there are at least two questionable things in this analysis. The first is that this is all self-reported data. Reinke notes that only half of those surveyed thought that their phones and social media had any affect on their reading habits. But self-reporting is a notoriously fraught venture. We all have better or worse views of ourselves depending on lots of things. The other thing to note is that correlation does not prove causation. There could be any number of other (and more significant) factors at work in our society and culture that are actually causing our slide into illiteracy (or alliteracy — the tendency to skim, especially digital texts). And to be clear, Reinke is careful to frame the survey as nonscientific, but I don’t find the survey to be a particularly strong or helpful argument — just an interesting anecdote.
Next, Reinke cites a study by Ackerman and Goldsmith, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, comparing the difference in reading comprehension that emerges between paper and electronic reading. The study noted that a difference in comprehension emerged when no time limit was given to the participants. Reinke summarizes and quotes the findings: “The takeaway in the study was simple and yet profound: poor digital reading was not the result of the medium, ‘but rather of a failure of self-knowledge and self-control: we don’t realize that digital comprehension may take just as much time as reading a book.'” (84) I think this gets things exactly right. Where people develop poor habits, I am wary of assigning cause or blame to the technology and/or mediums. The cause and blame should be laid squarely at the feet of people. The responsibility of people is to be self-aware and to practice self-control. This is the nature of living in the world God made.
Imagine living in the Garden of Eden as Adam or Eve. They find lush, juicy strawberries one day. Do strawberries teach and condition Adam and Eve to expect immediate sweetness from everything? I suppose it could. But as they experience the world God made, they will find that there are many different flavors, some vibrant, some subtle. Some are immediate, some are slow. If Adam develops a “jet ski” mentality, that merely skims over creation in search of the easy and accessible, this is not the fault of sweet strawberries. This would be a failure of self-knowledge and self-control, a failure to read and rule the world rightly.
Reinke notes that despite the various lures to embrace triviality and skimming, early returns do indicate that Christians are using their phones to read more Bible. The implications for Christians and societies formed around the Bible have been and continue to be monumental. Reinke argues that Christians are called to cultivate a “covenantal concentration” based on a continual reading, meditation, and deep re-reading of the varying and challenging texts found in Scripture. To the extent that the modern world has embraced alliteracy, the Christian church is called to a counterculture of literacy, because central to her calling, “solid expositional preaching is essentially a model of healthy, slow reading” (89). Reinke rightly closes with the charge: “Our challenge is to use social media in the service of serious reading.”
As I’ve noted previously, I’m generally appreciative of Reinke’s analysis and cautions. Though on the whole, I would wish for a full chapter developing this final charge. There are a number of folks pointing out various weaknesses and pitfalls available to users of this modern technology, and most conscientious Christians know about these pitfalls because the Holy Spirit convicts them. But I really do believe we could do with a heavy dose of Holy Spirit exploitation of these modern technologies. How can social media and smart phones be ruled by wise and faithful and courageous men and women? How can they be harnessed to produce their maximum fruitfulness for individuals, families, churches, and the kingdom?
Reinke notes that he has become a more voracious reader through connecting with readers and authors online. And I suspect that more of this kind of encouragement is needed. Can we cheer one another on as we read the Bible? Can we share “good reads”? What about tasty quotations? What about book reviews? What about audio books? Do we have opportunities to redeem our time while sitting in traffic, while riding the bus, while walking to school? Do we have more opportunities, more possibilities for education, for Christian discipleship, for reading and thinking deeply? I would say so.
But Ackerman and Goldsmith are right. This requires self-awareness and self-control. The medium is a gift, a tool, a piece of semi-tamed nature to be received with thanksgiving, ruled with wisdom, and cultivated for the good of our neighbor and the glory of God.