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Gospel’s advance can’t wait for literacy

RICHMOND. Va. (BP)–Does the spread of the Gospel depend on literacy?

Jesus Christ is the eternal and living Word, after all, as John declares (John 1:1). The timeless message of His saving grace is proclaimed from one generation to the next in the Bible, the written Word of God. Are those who cannot –- or will not –- read the Word on the printed page essentially cut off from the Good News of salvation?

In a thought-provoking piece for Baptist Press (“Literacy and the Gospel,” Aug. 22), Denny Burk, assistant professor of New Testament at Criswell College in Dallas, expressed concern about the decline of literacy among Americans and what that means for Bible-reading. Burk cited a new poll reporting that one in four U.S. adults did not read a single book last year.

“[W]e would do well to note this cultural phenomenon as it bears directly on the fortunes of the Gospel in our culture,” Burk warned. “Christianity is a book-religion. That is, all of its revelation about God’s redemptive work in Christ is mediated to us in letters on a page. We don’t have photographs, telephone lines through time or a living oral tradition. We have the Scriptures. Apart from them, we have no saving knowledge of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Because Christianity is a religion of the book, where it spreads so too does a concern for literacy. That is why when Christianity expands its borders, it is often accompanied by the building of schools and other institutions of learning. Where literacy dies, so does a knowledge of and a love for the Bible.”

Burk posed a key question: “Does it not make sense to interpret a decline in reading as a trend that works against the Gospel?”

Few would dispute the premise that in an ideal world everyone would have high literacy and a good Bible translation to read. It’s also true that many who have those opportunities –- particularly in our own American culture –- don’t use them well, but instead squander their time in activities that don’t count for much.

However, first-century Christians might have been surprised at Burk’s assertion that Christianity is a “book-religion.” Stories about Jesus and His teachings circulated widely by oral means for decades before they were written in the Gospels. Those who believed what they heard were genuinely saved and they formed authentic Christian churches without the benefit of reading a copy of the New Testament. Churches were well-established around the Mediterranean basin before the books of the New Testament were written.

Likewise, given the expense of making scrolls of the Old Testament, few first-century Christians would have had a private copy. Even if people could have afforded their own Old Testament scroll, many could not have read it. Historians estimate that at the time of Jesus, between 3 percent and 20 percent of the populace truly were literate. Even if we take the high estimate, 80 percent of the population would have encountered God’s written revelation by hearing it read rather than reading it for themselves. God graciously encountered them through public reading and oral proclamation, not directly from a written text to their eyes.

This was the case when God led the Israelites out of Egypt. After all, how many of the Hebrew slaves would have been able to read the Law given to Moses? Not many, one would think. But God was able to raise up a distinctive and holy people for His own, despite their very limited literacy and infrequent (or nonexistent) opportunity to read His written revelation. In the case of the Old Testament, God revealed Himself in divine acts, in visions and dreams to prophets and in other ways for hundreds of years before He guided some of that revelation into written form. God has never limited Himself to a book as His only means of making Himself known to man.

The Bible says that the Word of God is “alive and active,” something that cannot be said of mere ink on paper. His Spirit takes the message of God -– whether read from a printed page, faithfully preached or told as an accurate biblical story -– and in His own mysterious way impresses its truth on the listener or reader. The Spirit convicts us and confirms the truth of the proclamation.

These historical realities provide an important perspective as we consider the approximately 4,400 languages in the world that lack even a single translated book of the Bible. Can the speakers of these languages know Christ apart from having the written Bible in their language? Yes, if someone who knows biblical stories will tell them. Those stories are ultimately derived from a written Bible, which, as Burk reminds us, is the ultimate sourcebook of God’s revelation. But given the slow pace of Bible translation, we at the International Mission Board have sought to find ways to make the message of the Bible accessible to people around the world who have no Bible in their language or lack the ability to read it.

In such cultures, speaking of Christianity as a “religion of the book” can erect barriers to evangelism. It can leave nonreaders thinking there is no place for them as a follower of Jesus. Professor David Sills of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary has written about facing just that issue last year on a trip to Peru. He told a group that the Gospel is for all people. Afterward an unschooled woman named Fortunata asked him, “What about me? … Can I go to heaven when I die, too?” Seeing the puzzled look on his face, she clarified, “We have always been told that we could not enter into the kingdom of heaven if we could not read.”

Erecting barriers to world evangelism certainly is not Burk’s intent. He is addressing the U.S. scene and the alarming decline of reading. But we should not overstate the linkage between literacy and Christian faith, because that would misrepresent the historical reality of the Old and New Testament eras. Additionally, it overlooks the experience of IMB missionaries on mission fields. We have seen hundreds of thousands of functionally illiterate people come to faith in Christ -– a faith so genuine that they willingly undergo persecution for it. (Such groups have proven to have the doctrinal basics right, by the way. We’ve checked.)

Furthermore, tying Christian faith inseparably to literacy could undermine Christians’ willingness to meet nonliterate and Bible-less people where they are. We need creative strategies to communicate God’s message in non-print methods such as face-to-face witness, Bible storytelling, radio broadcasts and distribution of audio and video.

Does this imply that Scripture is unimportant? Of course not. It is vital. Does this mean that I am against literacy and education? Not at all. Having earned graduate degrees and taught seminary students –- and having just written a big check for another semester of college tuition for one of my daughters -– I definitely have invested a huge part of my life in education. Like Denny Burk, I celebrate the fact that a desire to understand the Bible has fueled many wonderful efforts to provide education.

But I encourage literate Christians to remember that God has been drawing nonreaders to Himself for thousands of years. Many lived godly lives, obedient to the truth proclaimed orally to them. By God’s grace, we hope to lead millions more to know Christ and live in Him –- even if they have never shown any interest in reading.
Grant Lovejoy is director of Orality Strategies at the Southern Baptist International Mission Board.

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  • Grant Lovejoy