Red Faces

Tony Payne

N.B. This article was originally written some time ago for the print edition of the Briefing (#227). On the web and in other contexts, the rules are different, and we look forward to someone writing a piece on web style and comprehension for us!

I've always had mixed feelings about red-letter Bibles. On one hand, I can understand the godly instincts that may have first motivated their production. Christ is, after all, the centre and culmination of God's revelation, and might it not be appropriate to give special honour to his recorded words by highlighting them in some way? On the other hand, as many have pointed out over the years, the practice of printing Christ's words in red has unfortunate consequences—it implies that the rest of the Bible is somehow less important, or less expressive of God's mind. It sets up a contrast between the recorded words of Christ on earth with those that he spoke as God's eternal Word through the prophets and the apostles.

Whatever the pros and cons, it seems that the final arbiter of all things—the marketplace—has decided the issue for us. In the great world of Bible marketing, the red-letter Bible rules. In some versions, it is now almost impossible to avoid red-letter Bibles, largely thanks to our American brothers who are very fond of them, and who largely determine market trends.

Which makes all the more disturbing what I am about to reveal. I am now convinced that red-letter Bibles must not only be opposed—they must be rooted out and destroyed. Bookstores must stop stocking them. Production must cease. We must find everyone we know who has one and urge them to stop reading it at once, for the sake of their spiritual health. What would justify this extraordinary position? Let me explain. It has long been known that the way in which written material is typeset and printed has an effect on its readability.

To take an example, let's reverse the following paragraph out of black.

Reading this paragraph is a considerably more difficult task than those around it. At one level, it stands out from the others as being different and emphatic, but the longer that the paragraph proceeds the more demanding it is on our reading machinery. Our eyes (and brains) have to work harder to identify each letter, and thus each word. And we sometimes have to look twice to see if a sentence has concluded. A few words, like a headline, might be all right in this format, but a whole paragraph becomes difficult, and a whole article would almost be intolerable.

 

It's not simply that it is unpleasant to read a paragraph like the one above; it actually affects the average person's level of comprehension. A study by Colin Wheldon has shown this to be the case 1. A large sample group of readers were given some text to read formatted in different ways, and then were tested on comprehension. For text printed white on black, the results were as follows:

Comprehension Levels
... Good | Fair | Poor
... .. % .... %......%

Text printed black on white ... .70 ... 19..... 11

Text printed white on black ......0 .... 12 ......88

In other words, 89% of the sample group read the normal black-on-white text with an acceptable level of comprehension (good or fair), whereas just 12% managed to do so with the white-on-black text.

The same is true of all sorts of other variables. If blocks of text are set in ALL CAPITALS, THE AVERAGE COMPREHENSION LEVEL PLUMMETS. Similarly, slabs of text are much easier to read in a 'serif' typeface—that's a font which has thick and thin strokes making up each letter, and little terminal strokes or 'serifs'. In fact, if you want to make sure that your newsletter or pamphlet is poorly comprehended by 65% of readers, just set it in something like Helvetica, which is a 'sans serif' font. All of which is terribly interesting, I hear you say, but what has it got to do with red-letter Bibles. Much in every way. The same research reveals that typesetting slabs of text in red (on white paper) has a devastating effect on the readability of the material, and thus on how well most people comprehend it.

Comprehension Levels
... Good | Fair | Poor
... .. % .... %......%

Text printed black on white ... .70 ... 19..... 11

Text printed white on black ......10 ....9...... 81

According to Wheldon's study, to print the words of Christ in red is to ensure that they will be poorly comprehended by 81% of readers! It is difficult indeed to see how this does him honour. To be sure, it makes his words stand out—it's just that it's almost impossible to read and remember them. I trust that little further needs to be said. Out of reverence for the Lord Jesus, we must put a stop to red-letter Bibles. They are rendering his words largely unreadable, thus affecting the spiritual well-being of who knows how many unsuspecting Bible readers. In the interests of Christ's words being read, we must ensure they cease being red.

1. Colin Wheldon, Communicating or just making pretty shapes (Newspaper Advertising Bureau of Australia, 1984)

 

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