A while back, I was listening to #TheBriefing and Albert Mohler referenced his article on Biblical Illiteracy. It immediately got my mind stirring and reflecting on a problem beyond what he was pointing out…a generation that has such a low reading level that they struggle to be Biblically literate.
Let me explain what I mean by first giving a little about my background.
I was a High School Literature teacher for six years in an inner-city charter school for at-risk students, then for two years at a small-town high school with some at-risk students and some very well-off students, but most somewhere in between. In my years at the at-risk school, I found very low rates reading levels and a few students who couldn’t read at all (this is in 9th and 10th grade, mind you). I expected a much higher standard in the small-town that has great amounts of community money invested in the student’s education. Though I found very few illiterate students, I found most had very low reading levels as well.
Maybe my expectations for reading levels were too high? I personally went to a private school and was in honors courses. It never occurred to me to not read a novel or story assigned (or at least not attempt to read it and read the cliff notes instead!) However, my husband actually went to the small-town high school I worked at. And years ago, they had to read novels as well. Yes, some students did not do the reading…but it was out of choice.
In my eight years of teaching, most of my students could not read a novel or short story themselves and actually understand it. I’m not talking about high-level novels, I’m talking about basic grade-level stories. When we read stories from our textbooks (classic short stories that are the same that I had in my textbook years ago), most of them scored in the 60-70% range on the book-made quizzes only if I read them the story aloud in class (and coached for the plot points they needed to know for the quiz). Yes, there were a few outliers who did well, but it was very few.
And if they were supposed to read to themselves? Most scored far under 50%. Yes, some of them didn’t read the stories…but most did try and honestly didn’t understand the basic plot. The more dedicated students would read the story and then read online notes from various sites if they felt they didn’t understand it well enough…a great idea, but still showing they didn’t have the comprehension skills needed to figure it out themselves.
And the novels? When I worked at the at-risk school, I either read most of them aloud or had them listen to an audio version as a class. Then when we reached “cliffhangers”, I would assign the chapter as silent reading and most would attempt to read to find out what happened. I always assumed this was recommended and needed because they were at-risk students and behind academically. I was shocked when I found that reading aloud to students was the norm at the small-town school! Hours and hours of class time were wasted reading the story, not discussing it and learning! Even with pauses to explain plot and details, students still had trouble.
And don’t even get me started on the higher-level texts, like Shakespeare, Homer, and Poe!
What does this have to do with biblical literacy? Everything.
In addition to teaching, I also volunteered in youth ministry for over ten years teaching teenage girls. The church I worked at was mostly middle class youth who had high goals academically (almost all went to great colleges, a few on academic scholarships). Most (but not all) of these girls really wanted to learn, but they had serious struggles understanding any Biblical passages beyond basic narrative.
One teenager I talked to explained how she really enjoyed that her phone app could read her Bible passages to her because she couldn’t follow along just reading out of her Bible. This was a student in advanced literature classes who lived in a rather wealthy school district. It’s great that she was daily listening to the word, but she was unable to understand it without having someone else’s tone and emphasis on the words.
In Mohler’s article, he asked…“How many local-church youth programs actually produce substantial Bible knowledge in young people?”
I will say, in one of the youth programs I worked in for years, they did a great job helping students learn Bible knowledge, almost all of that was by preaching and teaching it to them. Sadly, the students were not able to pick up their Bibles and read and learn themselves.
The original point of public schools was to teach literacy in order for the general population to be able to read the Word. As explained by one source , public schools started in the late 1600s with “the goal is to ensure that Puritan children learn to read the Bible and receive basic information about their Calvinist religion.”
Obviously, public schools today have no desire to teach about religion, but even the literacy level needed for students to read their Bible on their own time is just not happening.
I whole-heartedly agree with Mohler’s points in his article…“Churches must recover the centrality and urgency of biblical teaching and preaching, and refuse to sideline the teaching ministry of the preacher.” I’m in a church that does a great job of this and I can’t even put into words how much it has reshaped my view of the Church and who God truly is.
But I think the problem goes even further.
Getting away from my own personal teaching experience, the numbers illustrate the problem even more clearly.
The reading level of the Bible varies by translation (this Cokesbury .pdf is very helpful), but the only English translations available below the 5th grade level are the New International Readers Version (NIrV) and other versions written for children. The translations most commonly preached from in churches (ESV, NASB, NRSV and NKJV) are all rated at an 11th grade reading level.
The most recent data I found (from 2003, but not much has changed in education since then) stated that 14% of adults in the United States read at a “below basic” level and 29% at a “basic” level. That’s 43% of adults that cannot read and comprehend their Bible translations! Many of the faithful adult church members around you may even be in this category.
We are raising up a generation that needs to rely entirely on teaching and preaching and cannot read the Word for themselves. With good teaching, that may not be too terrible. Many concepts in scripture need educated teaching or preaching for the average person to truly understand. But so many in the next generation can’t even understand the basic ideas in a passage. And who will teach them from their own generation in years to come? How can the next generation produce Biblically literate teachers and preachers?
Mohler wrote “Parents are to be the first and most important educators of their own children, diligently teaching them the Word of God. [See Deuteronomy 6:4-9.] Parents cannot franchise their responsibility to the congregation, no matter how faithful and biblical it may be. God assigned parents this non-negotiable responsibility, and children must see their Christian parents as teachers and fellow students of God’s Word.”
So true for Biblical truth! I think this applies to encouraging literacy in general as well. Parents, read to your children (from the Bible and from other texts as well). Encourage them to read things that interest them. The skills they need to read the songs and verses Tolkien wrote in “Lord of the Rings” or Homer’s epics will help them build their literacy and in turn help them be able to work through the poetry of the Bible. The historical books they may enjoy reading will help them have greater context of the Biblical timeline. I could go on and on with examples. Most of all, the general practice of reading and comprehending the words on a page will help them have the discipline and ability to read the Word on their own and strive to understand.
We need to raise up a generation that is not only Biblically literate through the solid Gospel-centered preaching and teaching they have heard, but literate enough to then in turn study and teach Truth to the next generation.