Saturday, February 6, 2010

Literacy and the Christian Faith


First, a note about a source.  My thinking for this post was stimulated by an article from The John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.  If you are interested in general conditions at universities today, this is an excellent source.  In a series of articles there literature professor Thomas F. Bertonneau considers the decline of literacy in our society.  Referring to the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, Bertonneau says:

Most people attended in order to listen to the candidates and evaluate the merits of their contending positions.  The audiences of 1858 could do this largely because their learning was book learning, which inculcates patience and promotes the ability to correlate parts and wholes whether in narrative or argument.

Bertonneau reminds us that for many reasons, we have reverted (that’s my word, and I will stand by it) to a condition of “orality” in which:

All knowledge is personal knowledge; every utterance is subjective and egocentric. Because speech is always connected with specific persons, the idea of objective knowledge apart from an ego remains unknown.

If this all sounds merely theoretical, it is not.  I see it in action almost every Sunday at our church.

This church meets in a location that is surrounded by what was once a middle-class suburb that has been sliding toward what used to be called a ‘slum’ and is now sometimes rather euphemistically called ‘inner city.’  The church has tried to connect with the people in the neighborhood.  Several older teenagers from the area attend, and often sit very near me.

Further explanation:  the minister at our congregation preaches very good sermons as far as logical structure and content are concerned.  I would call his usual style classically deductive, that is, having points that develop a thesis and sub-points that support the main points.  In this regard his sermons share the general structure of the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

Recently I have noticed that during his sermons, the neighborhood teenagers are all busily engaged with their cell phone/texting devices.  One of them has two such devices and is able to send text messages on both the devices at the same time!  (I was a bit amazed and momentarily distracted from the sermon!)

Now, I have two points to make about all this.  First, these teenagers are from a community that is alleged to be plagued by poverty.  It tells us something of what that term has come to mean in our society when teenagers who are ‘poor’ can own and maintain two texting devices!

But the more significant poverty is this:  these teenagers appear to be functionally illiterate.  This is not a condition found only among ‘inner city’ teenagers.

You might think that they are just kids (who we assume don’t like to listen to things like sermons) amusing themselves.  I have to doubt that.  When I was that age, my church friends and I were able to engage ourselves with a sermon.  Even though we were probably typical distracted teenagers, we could and did extract the content of many sermons.  (And since texting devices were not yet invented, that wasn’t a problem.  Also, had we had them, the congregation, and especially our parents, would never have allowed us to use them during a sermon!  Perhaps our church is at fault for seeing this behavior, but not having the ‘guts’ to confront it.)

It is time to wrap this up with a recommendation.  I think ‘youth ministry’ needs to be focused in a different direction.  Typically, the approach is to ‘translate’ the content of the Christian faith into the ‘oral’ culture.  This means, not just that it is unwritten, but that it comes in very small, logically unconnected, subjective bites.

But the Christian faith cannot successfully be ‘translated’ in this way without losing so much of it  as to make it nearly meaningless.  So it seems that a better approach to ‘youth ministry’ would be to use the resources of the church to do what schools are clearly failing to do today, that is, help teenagers become literate.  Yes, I’m saying we should start by teaching teenagers to read (and thus think) in the ways that only functionally literate people can.  This would not only be a good thing in itself, it would also allow people to understand truly the Christian faith, and thus know the Creator and Redeemer of the universe, and all that implies for every human being.

And isn’t that what we are – or should be – trying to do?

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