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TLDR: God’s truth in a post-literate world

Posted by M.Ferris on

Probably a dozen years ago, I received a review copy of a book called Goodbye Gutenberg that purported to be the future of communicating ideas. The book claimed that the future would not be one of reliance on words and letters so much as a combination of picture and symbols that would replace the “old” system of letters, words, and sentences. I didn’t find the book compelling, and in hindsight, I wonder if it was partly due to being raised on a diet predominantly of print for teaching and learning. We certainly had movies and in grade school, those were the days of film strips and vinyl records. But for the bulk of learning, it was textbooks. And for hundreds of years prior to this, it was print on page that was the substance of pedagogy.

What I think Goodbye Gutenberg got wrong was to assume that the style of book it represented would carry this new way of teaching, yet convey the same ideas as before. But Neil Postman, the prophet of media, foresaw all of this and wrote about it with rueful warning. He opined, “a medium contains an ideological bias. And it is a fierce competition, as only ideological competition can be. It is not merely a matter of tool against tool – the alphabet attacking ideographic writing, the printing press attacking the illuminated manuscript, the photograph attacking the art of painting, television attacking the printed word. When media make war against each other, it is a case of world-views in collision.” [1] The nature of ideas communicable by pictures differs from those communicable by print. A picture is worth a thousand words only when you’re assembling IKEA furniture or the like. But pictures cannot convey the subtlety and nuance of abstract ideas. Concepts of doctrine such as atonement, redemption, propitiation, justification are difficult if not impossible to fully expand and develop except through words, and in fact, lots of them.

The title of this post is a common Internet acronym meaning, “too long, didn’t read.” There’s certainly a lot of dross online that is not worth reading, but I wonder as well whether the online preference for the visual over the lexical has made people less likely to tolerate the latter. If we become accustomed to the visual presentation of everything, even abstract ideas, we are less likely to read than to watch. I’ve often clicked on a news story only to be shown a video. This is no doubt a response to what content providers think readers (or viewers) want. It is bowing to the post-literate world. It’s not that people can no longer read, it’s that their preference is to not read for long stretches. This is post-literacy. As an example, there has been a notable decline in long-form journalism at major newspapers across the country. Web sites can track a lot of data points on their users such as how long a person stays on a page or whether focus moves to a different tab in the browser. I don’t doubt this shift to more visual content is in response to that data.

Online readers, then, have gotten used to wanting ideas in bite-sized portions. The truths of Scripture are not presented this way. The original manuscripts didn’t contain chapter and verse divisions, so even when we excerpt portions of Scripture, they are just that: excerpts of a larger narrative or presentation of God’s truth. Scripture is grasped by repeated passes through the text, and by reading deliberatively. These texts are often long. Consider the sacrifice of Isaac, introduced in Genesis 22. A ram is substituted for Isaac, and when we come to Leviticus, we see substitutionary atonement in the opening chapters of the book. Both of these of course picture the Lord Jesus Christ in his sacrificial death. In other words, the thread of a truth quite often runs through many books in both testaments. Reading widely and deeply in God’s word is the only way to learn what God has put there.  The practical illiteracy of Christians when it comes to the Bible is sadly common. Is the TLDR mentality in part responsible for this?

If you are struggling with your reading of Scripture, the prescription may be oxymoronic: read more. Marinating in Scripture will cause you to want to understand more, to know more, and your enjoyment of God will deepen. The primary means of our knowledge of who God is, what he has done, and what he will do comes through the written word of God. The online world may manifest a preference for image over words, but Christians can’t go along with that in the service of God’s truth. If any should not answer “Too long, didn’t read” it should be followers of Christ.

[1] Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York, Vintage Books, 1993), p 16.