Reading the Bible

How do you receive the word of God when you do not read? This is a strange question to ask in an age of unprecedented literacy, at a time when access to data, texts, and knowledge is constant. No longer need one rely on books taken from the library; you can carry Kindle and have over a thousand books at your fingertips. No longer need you sit at your home computer, you can bring a laptop to thousands of wireless hot spots, or simply carry your Iphone and get internet access almost anywhere. The question I pose is not a question of illiteracy as much as a reality that I have encountered with more and more people who do not like to read or read very poorly. With access to the written word at an all time high, our ability to read seems to be plummeting. It might be that much of the reading that is done is in short little chunks, and that the texts that are read are written poorly in a new sort of e-mail, Facebook shorthand. Many people do not gain pleasure from reading as much as they gain trivial data, from texts which are constructed for functionality rather than beauty.

For some of my students, reading often seems to create pain not joy. In my undergraduate classes, I like to read the Bible aloud with my students. I do this because it was the manner in which the word was received in both ancient Judaism and the early Church, especially prior to the rise of the printing press. Though many ancient Jews and Christians could read, the access to texts was limited for most people due to the extreme cost of books in antiquity and in the Middle Ages. Since the rise of the printing press and universal education, the assumption has been that the Bible could be read by any individual and such a person would profit from such reading. While this might have been the shared principle especially in the Protestant Churches and less so, until recently, amongst Catholics, the ability to read and read with meaning has, since the rise of modernity, nevertheless been assumed on the part of most people who were educated, and by this I do not mean a university education. So whenever I read the Bible with a Church group or a class it is a way of sharing the word of God together, of claiming the common text. It ought to create a shared community of hearers. It does depend, though, on having a shared community of those who want to read, who want to hear, and who understand what they hear.

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What I have found over the last few years, though, is that many people when asked to read a text aloud cannot read well. These people are bright and serious and, it should go without saying, most of them have no trouble reading aloud. But a greater number now stumble over words such as "covenant" or "dominion" not the odd or strange Hebrew name which they have never seen before. The flow of the text is lost as they struggle simply to pronounce words; the cadences of sentences are chopped up into parts. The poetry, the beautiful rhythms of the text, are lost. This is a question of comprehension. How do we enter into discussions of meaning, interpretation, translation and hermeneutics, when basic comprehension is lacking? How do we introduce people to the beauty of God’s word when reading a passage from Isaiah is such an onerous task? If they cannot pronounce words, how can they understand them?

I know that God’s word, God’s grace, can penetrate any heart; I also know that many unschooled people, who were or are indeed illiterate, have entered into a transformative encounter with the text even without being able to read, by listening, by pondering, by memorizing. Hearing the text, as the ancients heard the word of God, can move one to a true encounter with Christ without need of reading. I do not equate literacy with intelligence (and certainly not with wisdom). But one should expect that when education is now readily available, when the Bible is available in numerous translations and media, reading would be like breathing, and the text of the Bible would be alive. Yet, some forty years after Vatican II asked that the word of God be made readily available for the faithful, many do not care that it is available. This is worse than illiteracy. It is the loss of the great gift of knowledge, insight and truth by not picking the ripe, low-hanging fruit that was cultivated by generations of our ancestors who yearned to read, who yearned to have access to the Bible, who yearned to afford books and in many cases could not.

This is not a rant against new media, video games, the education system, the "kids today," or even our culture, rather it is a rant against all of that and more. It is a rant against the failure of imagination and intellectual curiosity that strangely infects us, whose sources I do not claim to understand or to be able to track entirely. This state of affairs cannot be laid at the feet of young people alone, whose attitude to texts in general and the Bible in particular must be laid in large part at the feet of their parents and teachers. It is a state of affairs that troubles me, though, because it has lead to a self-imposed biblical illiteracy by those who find no joy in the written word and so create for themselves a barrier to the truth. If the ignorance of Scriptures is ignorance of Christ, we need to find ways to create once again reverence for the written word so that word made flesh can be found once more in the word of God. Lectio Divina could be a large part of the answer, and for those of us who love to read and who love the Bible preeminently, the best thing we can do is to continue to encourage careful reading and to continue creating opportunities for those around us to read the word of God

 

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