Our Literacy Bias: What it is and how it affects our perception of scripture

I just finished reading an interesting essay titled “Why Everything We Know About the Bible is Wrong” by Robert M. Fowler. I found one of the arguments in the essay so important that I felt I should share it with all of you. According to Fowler, one of the fundamental problems for 21st century Bible readers is the literacy divide between the Bible’s readers and the Bible’s writers. Because we’re a highly literate culture with deeply embedded expectations of written materials, we often misunderstand the purpose of the texts recorded by the Bible’s newly-literate oral cultures.

For example, you probably learned to read when you were young, from people who also learned to read when they were young. You were raised at a time in history when a high percentage of people knew how to read and write. You are deeply embedded in a literate culture. This means that you share some experiences of the written word, and have some fairly consistent expectations of written texts. These experiences and expectations likely include two things:

  1. You have used a textbook in your lifetime, or have read a book in a book club, or you’ve bought a book from a bookstore where there were five or more copies on the bookshelf. You know the experience of reading a “viral” article on a website, and take for granted that the content of that article will be the same for everyone accessing the website. Therefore, you expect certain written works to be uniform in content because you understand and automatically appropriate the outcome of mass production or mass distribution.
  2. You have written a report which required you to quote a source, often with very detailed citations. Therefore, you expect that where there’s a “copy” of a document, there must also be an “original” or source to confirm the accuracy of what you’ve copied. And by the way, because you wrote book reports as a child (and for a growing percentage of people in American society, research papers in college) you place a high value on details and accuracy.

But when it comes to the Bible, have you considered the following?

“In an oral culture, typically no two performances of a story are ever identical. It is taken for granted that the oral storyteller will vary his or language in response to the needs of the moment, responding to the particular time, place and audience.” Fowler, pgs. 6-7

In other words, as a cookie-cutter textbook generation, we expect the Bible’s stories to remain static in overall content. However, the original hearers had no such expectation. In fact, they expected their stories to change with each storytelling event.

“The idea that oral communication was fluid and changeable bewilders and frightens many printed-book-literate people. (‘If it changes, how can we trust it?’) Even when we discover multiple versions of certain stories, we may still insist that there surely must have been an ‘original’ version of these stories. However, that is an attitude that comes from print culture, not an oral culture.” Fowler, pg. 8

Simply put, the desire for an original source document is one that we’ll likely never overcome because we’ve been taught that a “source” must always exist. We assume that in order for the written word to be valid, it must be verifiable, because we were raised in the era of book reports and footnotes. The Bible, however, is a not a term paper written to appease a persnickety professor. Rather, the Bible is a written collection of  generations-old, evolving oral stories as they existed at the time they were written down. Someone chose to record a tiny piece of the evolving oral tales in writing, capturing one solitary moment in the life of the story. Even in cases where the works were copied from other documents, it is probably not proper to wonder where the “source” document is, because the source was the spoken word.

From what I’ve gleaned in the essay written by Fowler and other writers, we erroneously believe that the preservation of God’s Word is the same as preserving each string of words. We also erroneously equate preserving God’s Word with preserving an interpretation of the Word. We spend a lot of time chopping scripture into sound bytes and mining tiny details of our stories, but this is not how ancient storytellers and hearers engaged these stories… We differ in approach because our high level of literacy has made us letter-focused, rather than spirit-focused, when a more faithful use of the text would be to focus on the power of story to bring people together.

12 Comments

  1. sknicholls says:

    Such truer words could not have been spoken. The Bible IS, “Spirit focused. The messages are clear whether we dissect the literal meanings of the words or not.

  2. James says:

    Can you point me to where I can find this essay? I’d like to read the whole content. Thanks.

    1. Crystal says:

      Hi James. Please see the information on this page: http://www.dovebook.com/bookdesc.asp?BookID=63238. Enjoy! 🙂

  3. So true, Crystal. We’re so busy trying to track down that one “source” document so we can say, “told ya'” to other belief systems.

    As you said, Bible stories were oral anecdotes told to various audiences. It was many years after when these anecdotes were supposed to have taken place they were written down. Even then, the written forms were altered over the years.

    And to top it all off, these are story set in a historical context, not pure literal history.

    Thanks for sharing, Crystal. Peace!

    1. Crystal says:

      And to top it all off, these are story set in a historical context, not pure literal history.

      Very true. Thanks for commenting! 🙂

  4. Well said! “…the power of story to bring people together” is the key concept of ALL religious texts. We humans do not – indeed, cannot – exist without community, and religious communities, with their stories and myths (however outrageous) have sustained humans for millennia.

    1. Crystal says:

      Well-said. Thank you, Joanne! 🙂

  5. dinetahray says:

    Nice article! Yep…people forget that most folks in biblical times couldn’t read or write. Thanks for sharing the essay. Peace.

  6. 1kaur says:

    A unique perspective that is not often discussed. I am a Sikh (came into it as an adult) and I have many concerns, mystical questions and philosophical debates about what is written and left out and the multiple variations, even in a writing culture. I think some of the ideas you cited apply nevertheless and are food for thought.

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