There are several groups identified in the Gospels as being in regular conflict with Jesus. One of which, the “Scribes”, recently became really interesting to me for several reasons. so I started looking into who they were and where they stood in relationship to the various Jewish sects of first century Jewish life. As it turns out, the scribes were probably connected and incorporated into all of the sects. There would have been Pharisaic scribes, Sadducaic scribes and the like. They became experts in both Torah law and the “traditions” which the Pharisees held so dearly to. They also found themselves at the aid of judges, priests, rabbis and many other power players in political and religious life. Both their popularity with the powerful and their connections with the various sects are attributed according to scholars and historians, to one thing: they could read and write.
Reading is taken for granted in most of the western world; at least that seems to be the case in my small corner. Thus we tend to forget that literacy has not always been the norm for the general population of a given society. This is certainly true in the first century: sure some folks could read, but not everybody. Many historians believe that we shouldn’t even assume that the pharisees were literate as many of them could have, and probably did, arrive at their place of authority through verbal repetition and memorization. By the time of the Gospels however, the scribes had apparently wiggled their way into a variety of powerful and important positions because of these simple skills.
This will immediately remind us of the opportunity that is afforded by this basic element of education. Those who read and write aren’t guaranteed more, but they are more adequately equipped to succeed and to defend themselves against certain forms of injustice whether political, economic, religious or other. While we must always be wary of the promises that education is akin to some form of salvation, we don’t have to look much farther back in our own history to see its importance. It wasn’t too long ago that many African slaves were released from the oppression of slavery only to find themselves taken advantage of in the American marketplace; a multifaceted social ill which was in part due to illiteracy.
The predominantly white suburban world that I live in is remarkably literate. The majority of people are taught to read and write while also being afforded the opportunity to further these skills. Yet somehow I find that a lot of young people are able to read; and yet not able to read. People understand the basic symbols of the alphabet and how those symbols can be put together to make words. They understand how those alphabetic symbols should form sounds and how the words can be pronounced with our mouths to produce thoughts and meaning. However, I fear that we are dangerously close to a society in which this is the limit of it all. If that is reading, then most of America’s Kindergartners should be considered proficient enough. However that is not reading any more than hammering is carpentry or strumming is musicianship.
Many want to attribute these problems to the education systems, which may have a role to play, but I’m more inclined to point out other societal factors. I’m not the first person to point out the role that mass media, the internet, cellular technology and social media networks are having on this. Though we as a society can read, we generally choose to no longer do so. We choose Twitter over Twain and Facebook over fiction. Steinbeck and Tolkien, not to mention the Bible, are really too long and arduous in a world of 140 character posts and #hashtags made up of jumbled words. Then we have the inundation with audio and video messages to the point that the idea of reading for information becomes both impractical and old fashioned. Our collective attention spans are shriveling before our eyes and its happening with horrible grammar, spelling and syntax!
This takes me back to the scribes. This isn’t prophecy and I hope to be proven wrong; but I suspect that the next generation(s) will find themselves afforded and/or denied basic opportunities according to their ability to read, use and understand language. Imagine having to read any sort of document that matters when all you’ve done is watch youtube videos and read misspelled tweets. The people that can read, write and articulate their thoughts will have the upper hand in most of life’s most challenging circumstances, especially things pertaining to legal and economic matters. Those who cannot will at best end up working for them.
Because of my investment in this generation this concerns me for a couple of reasons. First, literacy issues pose challenges to discipleship. It’s difficult to promote Biblical literacy when dealing with people that can read, but can’t pay attention to what’s being read. Second, it seems almost inevitable that this will prove to be a justice issue. Those who find themselves on the unfortunate side of literacy will struggle socially, economically and legally. There will be an even further divide between rich and poor, powerful and weak, with the former being given greater opportunity to take advantage of the latter.
What then should our response be? Overhaul the education systems? Abolish media and technology? I’d actually be fine with both of those, but they each pose their respective problems and neither of which are probable; certainly not by me. Somehow we have to encourage people to read. We have to advocate not just for literacy, but for comprehension and the use of language as a necessary skill for living. Our discipleship of young people needs to become contextualized to fit this growing trend while simultaneously be infused with the challenge to actually read the scripture. Many Christians have gone before us in this same endeavor and have succeeded in both raising literacy rates and growing people in the faith; I trust that we will find ourselves following, almost strangely, in their footsteps.