Search This Blog

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Why is reading important?

If you type this question into google, this is the website that first comes up:

I'm not sure it's a very good website and most of the reasons cited are somewhat bland and predictable. It is interesting, however, that, according to someone the website quotes, the top reason given for wanting to be able to read is so that people are able to read the bible. Quite an encouraging statistic. But, do we need to be able to read to access the bible? I have been pondering this for some time. I used to help my housemate run a bible study in our house for older teenagers. It was fairly academic, exegetical stuff focused on Ephesians (if you want dense theology there's probably no better place to start and, in hindsight, if you're trying to work with teenagers there is possible no worse one - predestination does rear it's frightful head in the verse few verses after all...) but the girls responding to it really well because they were fairly academic themselves: sixth formers aiming for As and Bs who already knew lots about church and were quite good at finding the right "answers" and dutifully pointing out the verses my housemate and I hinted at. That is not to say that the study wasn't valuable; it was. I loved it and I think the others did too. The bible was exciting and fresh because it was being looked at anew and, gradually, as the weeks went by we really did get to know more about God and explore his character and his purposes for us. 

However, one week, two slightly younger, less confident girls came and I suddenly realised how hard the bible is as a book. It's massive for a start. Longer than the longest Harry Potter by a considerable stretch. Possibly longer even than Richardson's Clarissa, which only the bravest of Literature students have ever dared to take out of the English faculty let along begin to read. (All credit to my beautiful friend Jess at this point who is, I think, the only person I know to accomplish the mammoth task of finishing said book). And it's full of ridiculously difficult obscure words. I am still somewhat scarred by blurring the distinction between a paralytic and paraletic when reading out loud in church at the tender age of 15, and I dread to think of the effects that attempting the foreboding ranks of Jesus's genealogy might have on a small child.

So the bible is a difficult book. Do we need to be able to read to access it? There is part of me - the English Teacher - which cries out yes yes yes. Because reading is beautiful, and the bible is poetic and it's a story and you have to read to be immersed in a story...But do you? Hamish and I discussed this last night - the necessity of reading - and, after covering the bases of being able to read the instructions on a bottle of medicine and applying for a job, we reached an uncomfortable hiatus, which I was reluctant to fill with such an answer as reading is important because you need to get your English GCSE. (Shamefully, it is an answer that I have resorted to many times before with difficult year 11 boys sitting with their heads flopped on a desk). But do you? Do you need an English GCSE? Do you need a job? Do you need to able able to read to partake in society? These sound like utterly ludicrous questions even as I type them because I can hear myself going yes, of course you do. Idiot. But there is part of me that is uncomfortable with it. Literacy is fundamental to being able to function in modern society. (Or at least the society that we have created in 21st Century Britain) That seems to be true. I am heart broken by the comments on our 'Wall of Joy' (please come and sign it sometime; it hangs on the back of our living door and is covered in the scribbles of adults and children as well as an advertisement warning that 'Nicola stinks') which are spelt in ways that do not resemble any word in the English language, or that have backwards 'N's (it seems to be a trend on our estate) all over them. But is that simply the heartbreak of an English teacher with a penchant for grammar? (Interestingly, I just had to look up the word 'penchant' to check it was the one I wanted and was, in my utterly geeky way, overjoyed by the knowledge that it was!) Or a more meaningful kind of heartbreak that desperately believes in education and aspiration and allowing young people to have the highest chances of accessing and enjoying the world around them, knowing - or at least thinking fairly strongly - that reading is integral to that access and enjoyment?

I am so grateful to my first year of university because it was the year in which I fell in love with the bible, but it was not the year in which I fell in love with reading. That love affair was nearly two decades old already, spanning back to the age of torches hidden under duvets in the disillusioned 8 year old belief that my mother wouldn't suspect that I was still engrossed in The Babysitters Club at 2am. Part of why I fell in love with the bible was because - simply - it was a book. I like books. But what if you don't. What is the solution? How are we to wrestle with God's word and get to know him and meditate on the beauty of his law (psalm 119:15-16) if we cannot read what it says? 

The bible is story. And story is an oral tradition not, at least not originally, a written one. I have done no research whatsoever on this and am conscious of my pig ignorance of oral tradition and lack of knowledge about how we moved from speaking to writing but Jesus was a storyteller, not a writer. Yes, he was a student, a Rabbi, one who knew the Torah and understood the scriptures in a way unparalleled, but the way in which he chose to communicate with those around him was through parable. Not always. He did open up the Scriptures and explain God's word to the crowds in the synagogues but, presumably, many (most?) of those that he was speaking to were uneducated and illiterate (Acts 4:13 Peter and John, after all, are "unschooled, ordinary men.") Are we called simply to speak the stories of the bible, then, to those who struggle to understand them because of their poor literacy? Or do we have an obligation to improve literacy in order that they might access the wonder of God's word individually? In order that young people might have lives lived to the full (John 10:10) in this society of our making which assumes a high level of literacy and shoves back to the bottom those who do not have it? How do you teach someone who hates reading to love the bible?

I ask these questions because last night we held a Girls' Group in our flat. One of our regular attendees is from a traveller family and she seems almost, strangely, proud of her poor reading. It is not simply a can't read but a won't read and don't want to learn how to. I long sit down with her and show her the magic of story, to read Jesus' words together and see them come to life and bulge with meaning and significance. I have no idea how to do that. I have no idea how to conquer the barriers of family and upbringing and an attitude so heavily ingrained it seems impossible to change. 

This, however, bizarrely has made me quite excited. Excited because for the first time I start to see how my training as an English teacher might be useful on a council estate but more excited because I have no other option but to ask God for his wisdom. This is one of the central themes in an aforementioned book, "Dreaming with God." Johnson explains that, through Jesus, we have access to the wisdom of the Father: we are no longer servants but friends and everything that the Father has told the Son is available to be made known to us. "I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you." (John 15:15) This is pretty mind blowing and I am not sure how much I dare to believe it: that the whole realm of heaven's mystery is open to us because Jesus has reconciled us to the Father. Is it possible, as Johnson suggests that it is, that "God has a solution for this problem [whatever that problem is]. And [we] have legal access to His realm of ministry. Therefore [we can] seek Him for the answer!" God is able to make a way where there is no human way! God can provide a place on this estate for reading and for a love of God's word. God can teach young people to fall in love with his stories, and with Him, instead of PS3s and iphones. That is an incredible and compelling thought. 

Part of Johnson's argument in his book is that we, as Jesus' followers, are not very good at asking for his wisdom; we do not have because we have not asked yet: "Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete." (John 16:24) I long to be better at asking, at seeking God's kingdom shaped solution to the deeply entrenched social issues of this area trusting that those who seek will find and will be given what they need. (Matthew 6:33 "But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.")

This, in a longwinded way, has taken us far from reading but close to Colossians (which I am still plodding slowly through). On Sunday at church the sermon preached was about asking for God's spirit of wisdom and revelation in order to know Him and His purposes: "I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better." (Ephesians 1:17) I could not help but smile at the way God had so effortless drawn together my ponderings about revelation and asking and provided me with a link to what I had been reading that morning: "For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you. We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light." (Colossians 1:9-12) I love this. And I have been trying to pray like it over the past two days: praying for a new knowledge of God's will - his will for my time, my marriage, this estate - that can only come through the wisdom and understanding of the Spirit. And, this is the exciting bit, praying in order that the work that I do on a day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute level might be meaningful and significant and fruitful and pleasing to him.

I have absolutely no idea how to change the attitudes of young people here. I have absolutely no idea how to make people fall in love with the bible or how to solve problems of low literacy or how to teach parents to read to their children so that they might fall in love with story. But, gloriously, wonderfully, God has the perfect solution to all of those problems, the answers to all of those questions and longings. And we get to ask him what the solution might be. He has hidden the solutions from us that we might be hungry for them and hungry for Him in asking; it is only the hungry who will be fed with the word and those who truly want to see who will have their eyes unblinded. Jesus tells us that he deliberately hides truth within parable so that only those who want to know and are willing to seek will find it: When he said this, he called out, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.” His disciples asked him what this parable meant. He said,“The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables, so that, “‘though seeing, they may not see; though hearing, they may not understand." (Luke 8:8-10) It sounds pretty harsh but perhaps it is necessary for God to put us in a place of needing and wanting and longing to ask in order that we might more desperately seek. 

Reading is important. It is beautiful and necessary. It opens up the realm of God's word and his knowledge and his character. It allows us to access society and function and progress and develop. 

But it is only God's precious revelation - a revelation that Jesus opens up to us and that the Spirit brings us -  that can show the way for that truth to be made known here. 

1 comment:

  1. I've been mulling some of this over. I think part of the answer is going to be in presenting the Gospel in a different way, Jesus didn't write and read with his disciples, he talked and told stories. Songs and music can be important too. Weren't Paul's letters read out in the early church for everyone to listen to?
    The idea that everyone has to read and engage with the Bible for themselves is very much a Reformation idea, we've made ourselves a very cerebral, bookish version of Christianity, especially in churches in university cities such as we've been to, but there can be another way I'm sure. Maybe to get people engaged with Jesus and with God their Father, through stories, testimony, example, love, prayer, then into literacy afterwards?
    Also there are versions of the Bible that are more accessible than others, such as The Message, that might help these kids more than say the NIV/ESV?
    I will keep praying for you and these kids. Stephanie xxx