Tuesday, 1 November 2011

The challenge of reading

I love reading and always have, that's great but it can make it hard to relate to those for whom it is a chore and something they have very negative feelings about.  I think that there is a educational or literacy divide in our churches.

Predominantly as churches we reach those who have a certain level of literacy and education.  The bible after all is a book, or library of books which all tell one story of God's plan to save his people.  The average church service be it with liturgy or without requires a certain level of literacy to be able to access it, as does a bible study or Christianity Explored, Alpha or Identity course.  That is great for those who can read, yes they may not love it but they do not fear reading.

But what about for those for whom reading is a real struggle.  What if the friend you are talking too is so fearful of their illiteracy that they don't send texts, or even complete a simple one line questionnaire?  How do we share the gospel with such people?  How do we lovingly share the good news of the word of God made flesh?

Many people at this point say just pick a bible with a lower reading age, but that is to miss the point.  For many people with low literacy levels the issue is not readability but fear of reading which is teh result of bad experiences.  They have always felt like failures throughout their school lives because reading has been hard, and their struggle with reading has made so many other things in education and life inaccessible.  Often such people have a huge mental barrier to reading and have become experts at avoiding reading or masking their struggle with literacy so that it is not exposed.

Now imagine how much of a threat doing a bible study seems, or even reading the bible with a friend!  Imagine how difficult coming to church service would be where you are given a bulletin and told information about the groups for the children is in it (to be read), where we sing songs (to be read), where a liturgy may be said (to be read), and the bible is publicly read aloud and we study the bible with constant reference back to the text (to be read and re-read).  Suddenly we begin to see how alien and threatening such an environment may be.

I was chatting about this issue with someone some time ago who simply said well give them a children's bible.  That is not the answer, as well as not helping them with their fear of reading it simply says you are not as able to understand this as everyone else, it will reinforce every fear they have had and every negative experience of school.  It is too simplistic an answer and when you think about it is deeply uncaring.

I don't want to just pose questions, however, I am still thinking this through for myself and haven't reached any conclusions short of that we are inadequately resourced to reach those struggling with literacy, and we have not done much to understand their feelings and overcome their barriers.  But I do want to suggest some possible starting points.

Interestingly the early church would have faced the same issue and they did not compromise on the need to understand the bible, but they used their oral tradition to teach.  Is there some mileage in revisiting these roots?  Take 1 Corinthian 15, so concise that it does not need to be read but can simply be learnt.  Or 2 Timothy 2:11-13 which similarly seems to be an early church creed again so concise that it can be remembered and said together rather than read.  Or similarly 2 Timothy 2:8 where Paul summarises the gospel in a brilliant concise two part phrase "Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David," so easy to learn but so much to talk about and unpack in it.

I also think storying is key!  So much of the bible is narrative; Genesis, large parts of Exodus, parts of Numbers and Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, half of Daniel, the 4 Gospels, Acts.  They are essentially stories yet we sometimes we teach them as propositional truths rather than telling the stories and drawing out the truths as the narratives reveal them.  People love stories hence the popularity of TV Soap operas and other programs which are visual stories and the Bible contains brilliant stories which are made to retell, it contains vivd imagery which is designed to be painted and to stick in the mind.  Or take Psalms which are the jukebox of the Old Testament church designed to be sung and to get into your mind so you keep singing throughout your day and your week.

I haven't got much further in my thinking of this yet, but as I do so I'll blog more on it.  So much great evangelistic work is done with those who are literate and I don't want to decry or devalue that, it is vital.  But I wonder if we have even thought about those alienated by words and how we reach them with the gospel, the great news of Jesus Christ, what resources we need to do so, and how we do church and teach the bible in such a context.

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