Saturday, September 21, 2019

What to Do When Truth and Unity Collide

I hate disunity. There is nothing more soul killing than being at odds with the very people with whom I ought to have the most profound unity. I hate it. That’s probably why Ephesians 2 is one of my favorite chapters of the Bible.[1][AM1]  Christ himself has made peace through the blood of the cross. He is himself our peace “and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility” (2:14). He has created the church to be one—not dozens or hundreds—his one body reconciled through his blood shed for his church on the cross (2:15–16).

As much as we long for unity, however, Satan is hell-bent on destroying that unity. He does this by disturbing the gospel, by insinuating corruptions into the message. This is the entire history of the church in a nutshell: one [AM2] challenge to the gospel after another.

By Heresies Oppressed
In 1866, one stalwart Anglican vicar, Samuel Stone, ministering in the baddest part of town in London, planted his flag for the church’s unity on the authority of the Bible. John Colenso, an Anglican bishop in Africa, had begun teaching that the Bible contained truth but was not the infallible, inerrant, God-breathed revelation of the redemptive purpose of God in Christ. This was too much for gospel-loving Stone.[2]

Though he was an unimportant, nobody vicar, serving in an unprestigious part of London, he did what he could. He wrote a hymn, “The Church’s One Foundation.” Stone knew his Bible and he knew when and where to plant his flag. He knew that when men tamper with the meaning of the Bible, they will soon enough be tampering with its central figure, Jesus Christ. Stone knew that without Jesus there could be no salvation for sinners in his flock—and he cared deeply about his flock.

The story is told that Stone came upon several young toughs trying to hurt a little girl in his congregation.[AM3]  Stone, who had been a championship athlete in his university days, rolled up the sleeves of his clerical robe and punched the stuffing out of the boys. In another fashion, Stone rolled up his poetic sleeves and wrote a hymn to inflict blows on the Enemy of the gospel and his minions. But the hymn is not finally controversy centered; it is a glorious celebration of the unity of the invisible church: “Elect from every nation, yet one o’er all the earth.” By the enemies of the gospel the beleaguered church he so much loved was “sore oppressed, by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed.” Not only did Stone know there was a serious problem, he knew the solution, “Yet saints their watch are keeping.”[3]

Pastors equipping their flocks to keep watch, to be vigilant in the pew, to search the Scripture as they listen is the only solution. Knowledge of the Bible’s message as codified in confessions of faith is the great bulwark protecting the unity of what the church believes and preaches.

The Justifiable Slap
There truly is a war on, and the church must never lay down its arms when the gospel is under attack. The Enemy does not want us to realize that it’s a counterfeit of unity that gives the Enemy a place at the table. This side of the church’s heavenly rest, enemies of the gospel will [AM4] insist on a place at the table, all in the name of unity, but it’s a cheap charade of unity. Where there is a discrepancy between the visible unity of the church and the truth of the gospel, the church must always find its unity, not around the name of a denomination or an individual minister, but around the pure doctrine of the gospel.

Though there are sad examples of churches splitting over paint colors, many of the church’s divisions down through the centuries have been the result of faithful pastors and theologians holding the gospel line against the encroaching error of the enemies of the gospel. It is in the heat of these controversies that the church’s greatest creeds and confessions have been forged. Without men standing for the unity of the truth, rolling up their sleeves and entering the fray of controversy, there would be no pure gospel message left.

One particular gospel-destroying challenge to the church’s unity was confronted by the Council of Nicaea in the fourth century. This disturber of unity wasn’t [AM5] the color of the carpet. Ministers were denying the deity of Christ.

According to tradition (or legend), St. Nicholas got worked up listening to Arius blaspheme Jesus, saying that Christ is not the Son of God, the only Savior of sinners. Fed up with the blasphemy, St. Nicholas rose to his feet and slapped Arius across the mouth.[4]

Indiscreet as that may have been, out of the heat and blows of that conflict came the glorious credo, the Nicene Creed: “I believe . . . in one Lord Jesus Christ . . . God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.” Where would the church be without this confession? Where would the unity of the gospel be without this glorious truth?

Why does this matter? For Reformer Ulrich Zwingli it mattered because there is no salvation outside the atoning sacrifice and imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ. “Who seeks or points out another door errs,” wrote Zwingli, “yes, he is a murderer of souls and a thief.”[5] Put it like that, and a slap on the mouth doesn’t sound so out of place after all.

Unity of Truth
Historically, men who champion the drift away from the confession are often the same ones who are quick to declare all who disagree with them as schismatics disturbing the unity of the church. But doesn’t it seem more logical that the divisive ones are those who want their individual interpretations, their pages of criticisms of the confession, to become the new articles of faith?
Loyalty to an individual (1 Cor. 1:12–13), to a celebrity preacher or a particularly learned one, may prove to be more of a setup for unity faking than for real oneness. Like artificial additives in your favorite meal, artificial unity is never good for the genuine unity of the body. Loyalty to an individual, sooner or later, erodes the church’s larger unity around the pure doctrine of the gospel summarized in a confession of faith.

Some will always become [AM6] enamored with new ideas, with new discoveries that lead to new ways of reading books of the Bible, with reconciling the Bible with science or modern psychology, and then they will set to work recasting the confession of faith in the image of the latest discoveries. The [AM7] Enemy wants this to flourish, so he will help to shape the argument in ways conducive to his object of corrupting and disturbing gospel unity. With careful handling from behind the scenes, the argument will proceed with the enticing wording [AM8] of preferring a biblical theology to a systematic theology.[AM9] 

A convincing-sounding assertion. Who doesn’t want to come down on the side of biblical theology? Though it seems to be an effective construction for taking the high ground in the discussion, there’s a nagging problem. Men who use this argument are more than hinting that they no longer think biblical and confessional theology agree. Bear-baiting the confession and the Bible may be evidence that a minister no longer really believes the system of theology he once vowed he believed.

Here’s how this may sound. In one minister’s preaching, the doctrine of imputed righteousness was so increasingly absent that an elder finally asked him if he still believed the doctrine. “Well, imputation is not a biblical term,” he replied. “I want a biblical theology, not a systematic one.[AM10]  Presumably many ministers who might make this kind of argument will, nevertheless, still believe in and use the word Trinity, which is also not a biblical term but one used in systematic theology. Wouldn’t it make sense to go all the way and stop using the word Trinity? The selective application of this argument may reveal that, at the end of the day, what is at issue is not simply a preference for biblical language over confessional. Rhetoric can work well as a smokescreen. [AM11] [DB12] 

The gospel has been handed down to us in words, words that have been carefully defined and codified in our confessions of faith. When the plain meaning of those words gets toyed with, there’s probably a reason. Saints keeping watch will sit up and listen when they hear this kind of doublespeak. Judging from the Enemy’s schemes, the gospel is likely in the crosshairs. Hence, it is only “by being vigilant in our confession, [that] we can protect the church’s unity.”[6]

A Stream with No Banks
One ruinous counterfeit being substituted for the pure doctrine of the gospel and eroding unity may sound particularly appealing to families with kids. “Covenant faithfulness is the way to salvation, for the ‘doers of the law will be justified’ at the final judgment.[AM13]  As with all error, there is a miniscule kernel of truth here (a stopped clock is right twice a day). However appealing it may sound, point to our covenant faithfulness rather than to the steadfast faithfulness of the Savior, and all that remains is a counterfeit of the gospel. An attempt to swallow this kernel will [AM14] demand a theological Heimlich maneuver to prevent death by choking.

Ministers who say these things to their congregations hasten to tack on that this faithfulness is all done in union with Christ. Then they hasten back to what seems to have become the main thing. I’m inclined to think that when we hear confusing messages like this, we’ve just heard the fine print. However vigorous the large-print affirmations of orthodoxy are, as with politicians and journalists, [AM15] it’s the fine print that reveals what someone really believes.

Although a message of salvation by covenant faithfulness erodes grace[AM16] , advocates of this latest version of law-creep insist that their teaching is in the broad stream of the reformational confession of faith to which they still claim to ascribe. But to say that the way to salvation is by any degree of law-keeping faithfulness is nothing short of a reinvention of justification in the bland image of works righteousness—Rome without the bells and smells. If the banks of the confessional stream were this wide, we’d be looking at another worldwide flood, a confession with no boundaries at all.

Though I may be accused of being too meat-headed to grasp the intricate theological nuances, there’s one nuance I do understand: what a message like this produces in the flock. It will nudge hearers back into the default mode of looking to their “covenant faithfulness,” to their performance, to their obedience for their acceptance before God. Any teaching that does this will inevitably diminish in our minds and hearts the glories of the finished work of Christ in our place and will proportionately lessen our love and gratitude to Jesus for all that he has fully accomplished for us.

Favorite Sound Bites

Meanwhile, others attribute to Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits and mastermind of a movement designed to stamp out Reformation Christianity, the curiously similar admonition, “Use human means as though divine ones didn’t exist, and divine means as though there were no human ones.”[8] Good luck trying to find the original source on either of these, but in your search you will discover, as I did, that these variously attributed lines are also favorites among some Mormons, even some Muslims—strange theological bedfellows, indeed.

I’m bewildered and saddened by ministers whose favorite quotations—whether from the Bible or church history—seem calculated to invite confusion about justification as a one-time act of God. The flock is in grave danger when its ministers discover a man-centered sounding nugget and then use it as authority to normalize their theological shift and to convince their flocks that their adjustments ought to be accepted as new articles of faith—grave danger, indeed.

How much worse when men misuse Scriptural proof texts to cast doubt on the freeness of gospel grace. Shakespeare must have observed this strategy among some of the clergy in his day:[AM17] 
In religion,
What damned error but some sober brow
Will bless it and approve it with a text[?][9]
What’s more, the Bard knew that even
The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.
An evil soul producing holy witness
Is like a villain with a smiling cheek,
A goodly apple rotten at the heart.
O what a goodly outside falsehood hath.[10]

Making large-print affirmations of doctrinal orthodoxy will always sound goodly on the outside; that’s what they’re meant to do. But what a preacher believes is always in the fine print, and we can be sure the fine print will always be backed up with a proof text.

Blessing confessional errors with proof texts never promotes the doctrinal unity of the church. Rather, these deviations and methods create a “perpetual guerrilla warfare within the church,”[11] waged to lend credibility to the latest confessional departure.

Unity about Forgiveness
An example of a corruption of the gospel insinuating itself into conservative Christianity that I referenced earlier is such a torpedo to the gospel that it requires further consideration here. “Justification—whatever else it is—is the forgiveness of sins. It is perfectly obvious that there is such a thing as temporary forgiveness because the Bible says there is. . . . Temporary forgiveness is a biblical datum.” [AM18] It takes little imagination to hear ministers in post-Reformation Amsterdam or Geneva saying similar things about justification.

However confidently asserted, this twenty-first-century minister’s statement that the Bible teaches temporary forgiveness is not shared by a single reformational confession of faith. I doubt Luther would have thought a doctrine of temporary forgiveness was anything like entering the gates of paradise, as he referred to his conversion. Imagine Luther’s glee at the discovery: “At last, I get it. Whatever else justification is, it is forgiveness, but only temporary forgiveness. O the joy! My burden is lifted—sort of, at least for the moment.” Temporary forgiveness would be more like having your head smashed in the gates of paradise as they clanged shut.

Or imagine a hymn of praise to God about temporary forgiveness. The cry of the five bleeding wounds of the Savior in Charles Wesley’s hymn would [AM19] sound more like this: “Sort of forgive,’ they cry, sort of forgive,’ they cry; ‘Maybe not let that sort of ransomed sinner die.’” I can’t imagine a doctrine of temporary forgiveness warming anyone’s heart to praise.

Not only does it make for ridiculously bad hymn poetry, such a declaration is devastating to the central doctrine of justification by faith alone; if justification is about forgiveness of sins and the Bible teaches that you can be justified and have forgiveness of sins—and then lose or forfeit it—the entire structure of reformational theology crumbles.

It is precisely here that the confessional standards help Christians in every generation to continue to believe what the Bible teaches and what the wisdom of our theological forebears taught and believed about the gospel. In the Westminster Confession of Faith there is zero room for temporary forgiveness, a justification that can be had and then forfeited. “God did, from all eternity, decree to justify the elect, and Christ did, in the fullness of time, die for their sins and rise again for their justification. . . . God doth continue to forgive the sins of those that are justified”[AM20]  (WCF 11.4–5, emphasis mine).

All the persuasive rhetoric to the contrary, what is a confessional datum on the irrevocability of forgiveness is so because it is a biblical datum: [AM21] “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). The entire gospel depends on the faithfulness of God to do what he promised. It is the character of God himself that is at stake. God is unchangeable and so are his gifts. If forgiveness is changeable, then God himself is changeable. The central doctrine of justification is about something the immutable God has ordained and already accomplished, as Puritan Stephen Charnock so richly elucidates:

What comfort would it be to pray to a God that, like the chameleon, changed colors every day, every moment? The immutability of God is a strong ground of consolation, and encourages hope and confidence. While we have Him for our God, we have His immutability, as well as any other perfection of His nature. Let us also desire those things which are nearest to Him in this perfection: the righteousness of Christ that shall never wear out; and the grace of the Spirit, that shall never burn out.[12]

The ground of all comfort and confidence for sinners is that the immutable God justifies sinners based on the righteousness of his Son. He forgives my sins based on zero fitness in me, and he continues to forgive them based on zero fitness in me. He freely justifies sinners, as the Westminster divines put it, “for Christ’s sake alone. . . . Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and His righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification” (WCF 11.1–2). The apostle Paul declares without equivocation that “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Rom. 11:29). Whatever else that means, it clearly has to mean that the justifying gift of forgiveness of sins is irrevocable too. In fact, “God does continue to forgive the sins of those that are justified.”[13]

I, for one, am counting precisely on this fact: the permanence and irrevocability of the forgiveness of my sins in the good news of Jesus Christ. Tamper with forgiveness and all that remains is abysmally bad news.

Confessing Our Unity
Whether from the various faces of law-creep or from the enervating error of temporary forgiveness, “by being vigilant in our confession of faith we can protect the unity that the Spirit has given us.”[14]
Everyone has their theological boundaries; some are in the right place and protect the gospel from errors, while others remove the ancient boundary stones and broaden the stream so as to enfold the latest new ideas and errors. “To talk theology at all is to talk boundaries and always has been.”[15] The great danger in the church, however, is when we ignore the boundaries, when we arrogate our opinions over the enduring bulwarks of the gospel, and when we stop openly and honestly acknowledging and submitting to confessional boundaries.

The church will enjoy unity, walls of hostility broken down, peace and harmony, only insofar as it stands “firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel” (Phil. 1:27). A confession of faith is the “open statement of the truth” (2 Cor. 4:2), so critical to maintaining the unity of the body.

The church of Jesus Christ, the city of God, is a glorious body, made so by its Head and Savior, Jesus Christ. Though the church is beset by corruptions of the gospel in every generation, the church’s unshakeable foundation truly is Jesus Christ her Lord. We can take comfort that
Soon the night of weeping
Shall be the morn of song.[16]

Alas, when undershepherds set themselves above confessional unity, we should not be surprised when the flock soon has plenty of reasons for weeping, the sheep left defenseless, exposed to the ravages of encircling wolves.

Douglas Bond, author of Grace Works! (And Ways We Think It Doesn't), from which this post is an excerpt, has written numerous books of historical fiction, biography, devotion, and practical theology. He is lyricist for New Reformation Hymns, directs the Oxford Creative Writing Master Class, speaks at churches and conferences, and leads church history tours in Europe. Watch for his forthcoming book God Sings! (And Ways We Think He Ought To). Learn more at

[1] As Ephesians 2:11–22 is one of my favorite passages of Scripture, I have written a hymn on its theme of the unity of the body Christ, included in appendix A.
[2] Erik Routley, Hymns and Human Life (London: John Murray, 1952), 114.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Gene Edward Veith, “Putting St. Nicholas Back in Christmas,” The Lutheran Witness, December 2011,
[5] Ulrich Zwingli, “The Sixty-Seven Articles of Ulrich Zwingli,” in Selected Works of Huldrich Zwingli, ed. Samuel Macauley Jackson (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1901), article 4,
[6] Michael Brown, “Schism and the Local Church,” Tabletalk, May 2011, 25.
[7] Variously attributed to Augustine and by some to Ignatius Loyola, though I was unable to find an original source for the quotation other than in the vast repositories of Christian clichés.
[8] Though usually attributed to Ignatius Loyola, a form of the quotation appears in Spanish Jesuit Balthasar Gracian’s Art of Worldly Wisdom (1637, maxim 251). In 1982, Joseph Jacobs translated the phrase as “Use human means as if there were no divine ones, and divine as if there were no human ones.” See Balthasar Gracian, The Art of Worldly Wisdom, trans. Joseph Jacobs,
[9] William Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice, III.ii.77–79.
[10] Ibid., I.iii.96–100.
[11] Carl R. Trueman, “How Consumer Culture Fuels Change,” Tabletalk, April 2010, 15.
[12] Stephen Charnock, The Existence and Attributes of God (Evansville, IN: Sovereign Grace Book Club, 1958), 143.
[13] Ibid., 11.5.
[14] Brown, “Schism,” 25.
[15] Carl R. Trueman, “Why Do We Draw the Line?” Tabletalk, July 1, 2012, accessed January 20, 2014,
[16] Samuel J. Stone, “The Church’s One Foundation,” Trinity Hymnal (Atlanta: Great Commission, 1990), 347.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

HOW TO LOVE YOUR ENEMIES (And Why It Seems Impossible)

Encircled by gnashing critics, Reformer John Calvin referred to his detractors in 16th century Geneva as "tearing wolves." These were not stuffed kids' toys; they were leaders in the church, leaders in the political life of the community, snarling enemies with power and the will to use it against him.

About men like this, Jesus said, "Love your enemies" (Matt 5:44). Our reaction to the Savior's words depends somewhat on our relational circumstances. When all is well and we are far removed from the dust and grit of battle, Jesus' command feels pretty manageable. There's nothing to it. Loving hypothetical enemies is as easy as singing opera in your car by yourself--until we are confronted with the real article, a flesh-and-blood, teeth-slavering enemy.

It feels like somewhat safer ground when Jesus tells his disciples to love their neighbors (Mark 12:31). That's easy. Not all our neighbors are enemies. In fact, many of our neighbors we sort of like. But, touching a raw nerve, Jesus implied that their neighbor was the Samaritans, the despised dogs living on the wrong side of the border. Deep down, we all know that putting up with our neighbor is worlds apart from loving our neighbor.

So, who is your neighbor today? Who is my neighbor? It's not the kindly soul who bakes chocolate chip cookies for you, or the octogenarian farmer across the way who pitchforks a load of hay from his own field and delivers it, just to be neighborly (true story). It's the neighbor who has leveled his cannons at you, seeks your ruin, and has become your enemy.

Loving our enemies. It's a tall order, a hard saying. There's nothing easy about it. Let me get this straight, we say, you want me to love the people who hate me, who have set out to harm me, who've plotted to bring about my downfall. How am I supposed to love those who discredit me, who disenfranchise me, who spread falsehoods about me?

Have you felt this? Who are your real enemies today, those who drop trouble on you, who bear an angry grudge against you (Psalm 55:3), those who have used their power to lay traps for you? Browse throughout the Psalms and you will recall the psalmist feeling the full weight of abandonment and betrayal from his enemies. Worst of all, some of the psalmists' enemies were once friends, members of his own household, people he had worshiped with, his partners in ministry (Psalms 55:12-14). And Jesus tells us to love these enemies.

Let's not sugar coat things when we say enemies. As a writer, I've been blessed with many readers and reviewers who appreciate what I write, and who kindly let me know that in various ways--including by continuing to read my books. But that's not how everyone responds. I have enemies. Not of the Teddy bear variety. They are critics who feel like tearing wolves with claws and fangs, powerful detractors who use their influence to do harm, who make it their business to extinguish this “faintly burning wick” (Isaiah 42:3).

It is no good saying I love my enemies unless I feel the full weight of their chosen status as genuine enemies. The enemies Jesus calls us not just to put up with, but to love, are the real article, enemies with swords and clubs, and hammer and tongs, and power and the will to use it against us. Enemies whose offences against us are real and costly. These are the enemies you and I are called to forgive and love. Let’s be honest, loving enemies feels impossible.

Only Jesus, tempted in all points like as we are (Heb 4:15), perfectly demonstrated this love for his enemies. Betrayed, bloodied, bludgeoned beyond recognition, and dying in anguish on a Roman gibbet, Jesus prayed to his Father to "forgive them, for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34). I must confess, my response, however, is to cast about for a loophole. Okay, Jesus' enemies may not have known what they were doing, but my enemies know exactly what they're doing.

Have you felt that? Maybe you've lost a job as the result of a witch hunt, your reputation slandered, your career in jeopardy—and your boss knew exactly what he was doing. Or you've been falsely accused of doing something wrong by someone who knows you didn't do it. There's nothing new under the sun; recall the Salem Witch Trials in 1692, at least twenty souls going to their deaths because of false accusations made by neighbors who took concerted and knowing steps to become deadly enemies.

The best of our good works done this side of glory are, as Augustine called them, merely "splendid sins." The accused witches in Salem Village were likely not witches, but they were sinners; they may have all been true Christians, being sanctified, but in need of daily grace for the forgiveness of their sins, and for the mixture of motives in their obedience. So it is for all of us. Our enemies don't know the half. In the dark recesses of our hearts, we're worse than they think. It's not just they who are enemies. We have done what they are doing. Every flirtation with the world aligns me as an enemy of God (James 4:4). Who among us does not have our lingering pet friendships with the world? We are the enemy.

Jesus' supreme expression of love for his enemies, however, is far more personal. If we are true Christians, it was while we were yet sinners and enemies of Christ's that he died for us (Rom 5:10). Jesus, who calls us to love our enemies, supremely did so when he laid down his life for me his enemy, fully to pay the debt of sin I owed for my cosmic offenses against a thrice-holy God.

"Love your enemies." It's far more than a tall order, a hard saying. It's an impossible one. You've tried. I've tried. As an act of will power, or new resolve, love for my enemies is impossible. A few lines after this impossible command, Jesus concluded with an even more impossible one: "You therefore must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matt 5:48).

Wrongly understood, that has to be the most terrifying verse in the Bible. I can't manage ten minutes of perfection, let alone a life that is pronounced perfect as God himself is perfect. We must have an Advocate, a substitute, one who acts vicariously on our behalf and for our eternal perfection. Jesus himself is our righteousness, the one who faultlessly obeyed his Father's will, and imputed his own perfect righteousness to my account (Phil 3:9). Without the imputation of Christ's righteousness, I can no more love my enemies than I can measure up to the perfect holiness of Almighty God. But as I grow in grace and the knowledge of Christ (2 Peter 3:18), and he continues his gracious work of sanctifying me--and using my enemies unwittingly to aid in that sanctification--I come to love him more as he first loved me (I John 4:19) while I was yet his enemy. The God who changes enemies like me into friends and fellow heirs, is at work in me. In Christ, I can do all things through my elder brother who strengthens me (Phil 4:13), even forgive and love the tearing wolves encircling me.

 Join me as I abandon hope in my efforts to love my enemies. Let's press on in the all-powerful strength of Christ today, as we--once intractable enemies ourselves--seek his gracious enabling to do the impossible--love our enemies.

Douglas Bond, author of Grace Works! (And Ways We Think It Doesn't), has written numerous books of historical fiction, biography, devotion, and practical theology. He is lyricist for New Reformation Hymns, directs the Oxford Creative Writing Master Class, speaks at churches and conferences, and leads church history tours in Europe. Watch for his forthcoming book God Sings! (And Ways We Think He Ought To). Learn more at

Monday, September 2, 2019

The Literacy Crisis—The Way Forward? Go Back

60% of American students read below grade level
True confession. I am a slow reader. My wife blows through a book at three times my reading rate. While on a flight once, we found ourselves with only one book (pre E-book world, but more of that in a moment). She was drumming her fingers on the armrest when I was still solidly on the first page. She maintains that she remembers almost nothing of what she reads while I seem to retain much more. She retains more than she thinks; I wish I retained more than I do. Some of this is DNA.

My father had dyslexia and was held back in elementary school for the crime of writing in mirror image and reading too slowly. His writing looked fine to him and it worked better that way with his left hand. He read Scripture every morning with us, one word at a time. I was embarrassed when I had a friend over, but look back on it now, thirteen years after his homegoing, in an entirely different light: he was given the gift of being a slow reader and loved every word of it. He read God’s Word with such affection and appreciation—of every single word. When he was writing his doctoral dissertation, my mother (who reads like a hummingbird hovering over a hibiscus) read his source material out loud to him, he stroking his chin, nodding in thought, and jotting a note down here and there, his mind retaining and processing every word.

Some of this is the way God has made us. But not all. I’ve often told my children and students that the more they watch movies and television and play video games the more it will destroy their creative imagination. Unlike a book where my imagination must be awake and doing its job: creating images, awakening my senses, getting me involved in the story; on the screen, it’s all done for me. I become a passive receptor not an active participant, and my imagination grows dull.

Screen time retards our reading ability. But not only our ability, our interest in reading wanes as a direct result of too much screen time. Recent studies are piling up that indicate there are many disadvantages to spending excessive time on screen, including anxiety, depression, and more serious mental health issues that are being correlated to screen addiction. Studies show that, while Americans check their phones on average seventeen times a day, we are reader fewer and fewer books.

I hate my phone. Some of my best days are when my battery dies early in the day and I don’t bother to plug the thing in. I catch grief later for not replying to a critical email or answering texts or private messages from those I love. But the day was bliss and imminently productive. As a writer I’m forced to spend far more time in front of a screen than I would like. I’d prefer a goose quill or, better yet, a hammer and chisel and a chunk of rock. But that’s not the world I live in. So, I sit here in Iceland where I began this article, awaiting my connecting flight to London typing on my laptop, and staring at these words magically popping up on the screen before my bloodshot eyes.

C. S. Lewis never learned to “drive a typewriter,” as he termed it, because he knew it would destroy his sense of rhythm. He wrote by hand with a dip pen and persuaded his devoted brother Warnie to drive the typewriter for him. But the screen removes us another giant step from the tactile world of the typewriter with its ink ribbon, levers and gadgets, and real paper.

Because I find myself travelling quite a bit, and because I’m a firm believer in travelling light, I do read some books on my phone while flying. But I do so with great frustration. I never quite know where I am in the scope of the argument or story. However unscientific and unsophisticated it sounds, I retain much less when I read on a screen. For a time, I tried memorizing Scripture using my phone, but I discovered a significant barrier to my ability to retain, a barrier that was only broken when I returned to writing down the biblical passage on 3x5 cards. Call me a dinosaur.

I do occasionally read my Bible app on my phone, at the dentists, or while waiting to pick up one of my kids, or while flying. But, there again, it’s with enormous distraction and peril to my ability to retain what I’m reading. One reason is all those pop-up notifications telling me that so-and-so just got a new puppy, or posted a picture of what they’re eating for their anniversary dinner, or of their lost cat. Think where I’d be if I didn’t know these things! My mind is flouncing here and there, assaulted by the chaos of busyness called modern life. I’ve discovered that by putting my phone on airplane mode, I can eliminate the pop-up notifications, but I usually remember this after the fifty-seventh notification has derailed my ability to concentrate.

Visual stimulation distracts me, as does being an extrovert. I like interacting with people, but the older I get, the more the Bond hereditary dyslexia kicks in, and I find myself far more easily distracted. When I’m in a church service where there’s a band and instruments stretching across the stage (yes, they even call it a stage), as I attempt to murmur along with the rest of the folks, I find myself studying the different people singing, swaying, crooning, strumming, and drumming on the stage; the words on the screens (so much for too much screen time again), well, they’re far from the most important part of what we’re supposed to be doing. It may be the sense that something is out of proportion that makes worship leaders keep repeating the words over and over again. Surely vain repetition will help us cut through all the distractions and get at the meaning of the words.

What are ways you and I can help solve the literacy crisis? Unplug your phone. Let it go dead, for long stretches. Sing from real hymnals. Read real books, you know, the kind with paper pages and real letters and words inked on the paper. The tactile activity of reading a real book will slow you down. This is a good thing. As you read real books do so with real pen or real pencil in hand. I jot notes down, yes, with paper and pencil, and sometimes I use 3x5 cards or post-it notes, then organize the ideas I’ve jotted on the notes by moving them around on the desk or table. Sometimes I brainstorm using a white board and erasable markers, adding sketches of characters, or diagramming the progression of thought that I just read.

Read challenging books from dead authors (what am I saying!), and read them slowly. We will descend further and further into the illiteracy abyss the less we are intentionally letting ourselves be shaped by the ideas and stories of the past. Reading old books will make us far more able to discern nonsense when we see it flit across the screen. We gain a vantage point from which we can see our own world more clearly, where it is going, why it is going there, and what we can do to halt the decline. Sometimes listening to the best music from composers living in other places and in other times, uncluttered by the distractions and presuppositions of our world, can aid us in understanding and appreciating challenging literature from the past.

But best of all, have a concerted family time where all devices are shut off and put away and everyone sits in the same room and reads their own copy of the Bible silently (we do this aloud too). We’ve started doing this in our home. Afterwards we talk together about where and what we read, and give a brief summary of what we learned. It’s remarkable how quiet it is, how uncluttered, how together we are—without distractions--and how much of God’s Word we can read and take in without being interrupted by cat videos.

It’s not rocket science, nor is it more information technology or more social media platforms. There’s no app that will solve the literacy crisis. The solution to mounting illiteracy in our new social order is simple. Augustine took the advice of children playing a game. “Take and read! Take and read!” And so must we.

Douglas Bond, author of numerous books of historical fiction, biography, devotion, and practical theology, is lyricist for New Reformation Hymns, directs the Oxford Creative Writing Master Class, and leads church history tours in Europe. Watch for his forthcoming book God Sings! (And Ways We Think He Ought To). Learn more at