Monday, 28 July 2008

How Important is Reading?

Last Monday I watched a documentary on Channel 4 called Can't Read Can't Write. Basically, the series follows a group of adults who can't read or write. For one reason or another they had never picked up the skill, and had gone through life trying to cope without being able to read or write. I can barely even imagine what that must be like - I wouldn't be typing this for a start. But even simple things like shopping or driving become incredibly difficult. It was pretty emotional stuff. Linda is 46 and can't read, but she's desperate to be able to read Shakespeare. Her frustration was hard to watch. But Teresa nearly moved me to tears when, at 58, she managed to read a book for the first time.

But, in a similar vein to some other recent channel 4 documentaries (involving TV chefs, and Phil and Kirsty talking about some tax or other), there's a politcal campaign behind the programme too. How is it that these people have never been taught to read? How must our education system change to help them?

But it got me thinking about preaching and teaching the Bible. The show revealed a statistic I found quite shocking. Over 5 million people have a lower reading ability than a 12 year old - many of them can't read at all. And I guess that number probably excludes a lot more people who struggle with reading but can pass the tests. Anyway, it's a huge number of people.

So over the past week I've been pondering whether the way I preach and teach would exclude people who don't find reading easy? I always try to point people to the text of the Bible, to rub their faces in it as I preach. But if I was speaking to someone who couldn't read it, how would they do? Would the fact I'm even expecting them to read be a barrier?

Linked to that, but slightly more subtle, do I expect people to follow the text to see where I'm going? On Sunday, I was talking my way through Colossians 1v15-23, and looking at the different statements Paul makes about Christ. But how obvious is it when I jump to the next one if the people listening can't follow it themselves? And is it obvious when I'm quoting and when I'm not if people can't see the words I'm using?

This is tricky if you believe that the Bible is the Word of God. When I preach, it isn't from my own authority, but God's. I want people to see that. It's the word of God written down which is infallible, not the words of the preacher. But it's through words that the gospel is passed along. I like this from Luther:
Because heresies threatened the living apostolic message, it had to be recorded in a book to protect it from falsification. Preaching reverses this process of conservation again, allowing the Scriptures of the past to become the tidings of the present... The Gospel has been committed to lifeless paper; fresh words can transform it into glad tidings again.
The written word is crucial. But how important is reading?

I'm pretty sure most of the students I'll be teaching in the next few years will be able to read - it's sort of a requirement. But I still think this is a serious question, otherwise millions of people might be hindered in hearing the gospel.

Can't Read Can't Write is on again tonight, Channel 4, 9pm.


Dave K said...

Reminds me of: It's good that you are thinking about this... although working with students should make it less of a problem.

I'm not very good at communicating with non-book people. Preachers of the past have often been good though. Conservative evangelicals have lost the illustration-laden and immensely practical teaching of our fore-fathers (thinking of Luther and the Puritans among others).

gazleaney said...

Dave, cheers for the link - it's really helpful. I've just written a post about it.

I guess illiteracy would have been more common in the past, and preachers would have had to address it.

Dave K said...


I suppose the other thing that has changed is that in the past pastors served particular parishes or areas. Now we cluster in churches that are often full of people like us. Preachers then start to preach in the way which connects with their core vote, as it were.

Really challenging to think about communication of something so precious as the gospel, to as many people of all types as possible.