I’ve been tracking youth reading habits and test scores for a long time, but I’ve never asked this question: What becomes of a faith that places a book at the center of worship if the rising generation doesn’t read? I don’t mean illiteracy. The problem is what reading researchers call a-literacy—being able to read but not wanting to.
This is not an exaggeration. The 2012 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts found that only half of eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds read a book in leisure hours in the preceding twelve months. The same lack of interest shows up in the annual CIRP Freshman Survey, a large questionnaire administered to undergraduates a short time into their college career. Recently, it tallied one-third of college freshmen racking up zero (!) hours of “reading for pleasure” during an average week in the previous year. Another one-quarter of them did less than one hour—at most, seven or eight minutes a day. And these are four-year college students pursuing a bachelor’s degree, not vocational and two-year college students.
When they do read, they don’t do it very well. Currently, just a bit more than one-third (37 percent) of twelfth-graders on the National Assessment of Educational Progress reach “proficiency” in reading, while SAT reading results in 2015 were the lowest in more than forty years. On last year’s ACT exam, fully 56 percent of test-takers fell short of “college readiness” in reading, which means that they had only a 50 percent chance of earning a B in a basic civics class.
Before I came to First Things in the summer of 2014, these results meant the same thing to me that they did to other concerned observers. They are an economic and civic calamity. In writing about them, I cited a 2004 College Board report that stated that “remedying deficiencies in writing may cost American firms as much as $3.1 billion annually” (good writing skills are correlated with strong reading habits), along with a National Association of Manufacturers survey that had more than one-quarter of manufacturers (29 percent) place “inadequate reading/writing/communication skills” among “the most serious skill deficiencies in your current employees” (take a look at the daunting manuals and catalogs in a car repair shop).
As for civics, I collected statements like Peggy Noonan’s Wall Street Journal column on the decay of reading among the political class, subtitled “What ails American democracy? Too much information and too little thought.” The “young of politics and journalism . . . have received most of what they know about political history through screens,” she remarked. It seems that “they have seen the movie and not read the book. They have heard the sound bite but not read the speech.”
All true, yes, productivity and citizenship are casualties of a nonreading population. But every night some of the First Things staff gather for prayers in the townhouse that Fr. Richard John Neuhaus occupied for thirty years in Manhattan. We sing the Magnificat, recite a psalm or two, and read a passage from the Gospels before finishing with a litany. Fr. Larry Bailey and the others underscore what I didn’t realize in all my years as a blundering atheist: how much Christian faith depends upon the text. You’ve got to be a habitual reader.
Low reading rates and scores can’t help but damage the churches. It’s not only that young people don’t read the Bible as much as they should. It’s that they don’t read much of anything, so on those occasions when they are called to pay attention to a Bible passage, they take in only the bare information. Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead—got it. Judas sold him out, then killed himself—message received. The full truth of the written word escapes them.
Let me give an example. Right at the beginning of the Book of Acts, we have one of those amusing moments of human expectation that present the disciples in all their endearing weakness. Jesus appears to them a final time, promising, “Before many days you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” They follow with a natural question: “Is this it? Is it happening now?”
Those aren’t their exact words, of course. They say, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”—a logical query in light of Jesus’s (and John’s) announcements from the beginning of his ministry. The Crucifixion looked like a catastrophe, his Resurrection a final triumph. They have witnessed more than we can conceive, but their eyes are still too worldly. Now’s the time, they assume, right?
That’s when Jesus recalls them back to faith: “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority.”
You don’t have to be a strong reader to take the practical lesson. If Acts 1:4–8 were the daily reading in the Mass and the priest explained how we should absorb Jesus’s statement, you could leave the church with a sure catechism. Do not set a schedule for God. Do not assume that your time scheme has any bearing on providence.
But in the process, the human significance of this critical exchange would contract to an injunction alone. The full context would be forgotten. The Passion has transpired! In a moment the disciples shall witness the Ascension. Every second of his presence counts as a fresh inauguration of human history. This is his final direct communication. It can’t be merely a curt rebuke of misguided followers, though our two-thousand-year advantage tempts us to smile at their naive anticipation of the kingdom tomorrow morning or afternoon.
A Christian with a readerly sensibility looks at the same passage and does something else, too. He tries to experience it. Luke, the author of Acts, doesn’t provide very much. His phrases record miraculous tidings, but the prose is flat and objective. “To whom he showed himself alive . . . many infallible proofs . . . speaking of things pertaining to the kingdom of God . . . commanded them that they should not depart from Jerusalem.” It’s a recapitulation, not a description. The nonreader hears it as that alone, as fact. To him, the present scene stands pretty much by itself. The words don’t activate his imagination. They fill in slots of information. He doesn’t have the disposition that converts words on a page into flesh-and-blood situations.
Regular readers, on the other hand, visualize setting, “hear” dialogue, “see” faces, “think” and “feel” what characters think and feel. They are attuned to depths and implications and ironies that aren’t stated outright. They recall previous events. They read these verses with a larger context in their heads, a silent condition that blares out from every word. It is this: The disciples have seen God, and nothing can go on as before.
In other words, experienced readers put themselves in the position of Peter and the rest. They hear the question “Will you restore . . .” as much more than an error. It is erroneous, yes, but it’s also unavoidable. God has promised a new day, and he has proven it with his risen life. How can the disciples believe that the whole world in its ordinary political doings isn’t going to be transformed? The Resurrection has happened! It isn’t possible for the disciples to continue with their daily lives now that the teacher has returned from the dead. They confuse the nature of this new kingdom, of course, but how could this lightning bolt from the heavens not cloud their sense? They strive to assimilate the new meaning of History, Time, and Death, and so they resort to familiar circumstances: Jesus brings a new politics and power, a restoration of the worldly kingdom . . . The meaning of this miracle, which has swept everything into an uncertain fate, is now unequivocal, or so they think.
The experienced reader speculates in just this way. He appreciates the full force of the conversation. In his hands, the disciples’ query “Is it now?” rises into a personal challenge every believer faces. It is the temptation posed by the Incarnation. When God becomes man, he lures us into forgetting his absolute otherness. In their inquisitiveness, the disciples merely voice the ordinary desire for a clear sign, a worldly object, a concrete meaning that makes infinitude easier to absorb. Their mistake is God’s warning to us. Do not flee the trepidation that a finite consciousness undergoes in the presence of the eternal.
Before the Reformation, most Christians were illiterate, but they grew up in a culture that inspired them with daily prayer, Communion, and stories of the saints. Their imaginations were primed to hear in Jesus’s precautions both the rule to follow—don’t be too curious about when and where—and the human temptation to keep asking. Young Americans today are a-literate, not illiterate. Their imaginations are weak, not least because the media they consume supply all the sights and sounds that the mind must create when all it has is words on a page. They only heed the rule, not the longing. Emerson, despite his infidelity, got it right when he proclaimed the merits of “creative reading as well as creative writing.” But it only comes with practice: “When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion.”