How many times have you asked a loved one read the Bible and they tried, and they found it too difficult, and they could not understand what they read? How many times has this caused you frustration? Were you able to help them overcome the difficulties?
Most of us would answer no to the third question because we do not have the abilities to help our loved ones overcome the difficulties associated with reading the Bible. Below are three solutions to help you solve this problem, but in order to solve the problem, we need to understand why the problem is there, and the reason for it being there may surprise you.
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Why is Reading the Bible Difficult?
The average American adult’s reading level is at 7th or 8th grade. The average American schoolchild’s is lower. This has implications for reading and understanding the Bible.
When it comes to the research on reading, there are four categories of readers. Below, these categories are listed in order from lowest to highest skilled:
- Below Basic (14% of American adults are in this category)
- Basic (29% of American adults)
- Intermediate (44% of American adults)
- Proficient (13% of American adults)
In what category does the average American adult’s reading level fall then? It falls mostly within the Intermediate category. This category has indicator skills to explain what a reader who reads at this level should be able to do. They should be able to:
- Understand moderately dense texts
- Make simple inferences
- Determine cause and effect
- Recognize the author’s purpose
One of the biggest signs of our problem is that four out of the five most popular English translations of the Bible (New International Version, King James Version, New King James Version, and English Standard Version) are translated to read in the Intermediate and Proficient ranges meaning they are beyond the grasp of the majority of the American adult population, and even more so for American children. To understand the problem better, let’s understand how reading level works.
Problem # 1: Reading Level
A person’s reading level is the level at which they understand 95% or more of the words they are reading. If that percentage falls below 88%, then according to the research it becomes impossible to comprehend a text. In addition, reading level has indicator skills like those described above. However, the indicators for the Proficient Level (where two out of the five most popular English translations are) require the following skills:
- Reading lengthy, complex, and abstract prose texts.
- Synthesizing information (connecting multiple texts together)
- Making complex inferences
- Integrating multiple pieces of information located in complex documents (such as applying what we learn from our reading to our lives)
The qualitative measures for the proficient category to which only 13% of the population belongs are exactly the types of skills that ideal Bible reading requires which is for us to synthesize information across many books of the Bible (like understanding how the promises made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were fulfilled in our Lord Jesus Christ and the church and applying the words of the Gospel and Epistles to our lives so that we may be transformed in Christ).
So, what is a solution to this problem? Well, for those who are still students, request to know your reading levels from your English teachers if they have not already made that available to you. Then, if it is two or more years below grade level, request to be put into an intensive intervention class. This will help you speed up your growth with your reading levels; you cannot afford to fall behind any further, both spiritually and academically.
Another solution to this first problem is if you are an adult and have struggles reading, you need to go to church. If you have a good priest who is able to communicate the faith in the sermons and other various meetings, you will learn the faith. This is how the earliest Christians lived a life following Christ. 90-95% of the population did not have the ability to read.
Also, churches should invest in those who have been trained as reading teachers and create ministries directed at improving reading among congregants, and they should teach them how to read using the Bible and teach them how to understand the Bible. Churches since the very beginning have invested in social ministries, and believe me, there is none more important than reading. This is not only important for understanding the Bible, but in our country it is necessary to read well in order to do our jobs well and move up in our occupations, even those that do not require a college education. What social ministry could be more important than teaching our congregations how to read well?
Problem # 2: Understanding Genre and Structure of Texts
Another problem is clarity of text structures. We call the Bible a book, but it is really many books. The origin of the word Bible is in the Greek word Biblia which means “books.” In the 5th Century, Christians preachers began referring to the Scriptures (which is also plural) as “the books.” Eventually, the theological understanding of all these books being united led to Christians referring to them as a book, the Holy Book, or Holy Bible.
If one attempts to read the Bible with this understanding that the Bible is a book, and they begin at Genesis, then they will read it as a story, and assume the whole Bible is a story. This will be fine until one reaches Ezra and Nehemiah, but it will definitely become a problem when he or she reaches Job, the Psalms, the Poetic Books, and the Prophecies. These latter books are not stories, but rather they incorporate many different genres. In addition, if we are begin at the New Testament, then thinking we are reading a story will cause us to have difficulties when we reach the Epistles of Paul, the Epistles of the other apostles, and the Revelation because these are different genres as well.
Before reading, we should learn what the different types of genres are and what features are peculiar to each one. For example, Job is a poem; often, people think it is a story, and this will only compound the difficulties of an already profoundly deep (and difficult) book. However, if one acquaints himself or herself with the structure of Hebrew poetry which applies to all the Poetic books and many of the Prophets, then they will suddenly have a better and clearer understanding of this book and the other poetic books.
For example, the main poetic device in Hebrew poetry is parallelism. This is a structural device not limited to the original language in which a poem is written, so for this reason it actually translates into English unlike rhymes and rhythms.
Parallelism comes in three main forms in Hebrew poetry:
Fortunately, in the above mentioned popular translations, the translators have done a good job in formatting the text to keep the parallel lines (usually two lines at a time, sometimes three) together so it will be easy for you to read once you have learned the structures.
When we encounter these structures, it should cause us to slow down and think about what we are reading as is the case with any poetry. Fast reading is not a sin when it comes to stories, but it definitely is when it comes to poetry. The main point of Job, the Psalms, and the Wisdom Books of the Bible is to get us to slow down and think about God’s character, His work in our lives, and our relationship with Him.
So understanding genre, and the peculiar characteristic structures for each one, and thus how to read these genres, will help us understand the Bible better.
Here is an example of each type of parallelism as found in the Book of Job, and an explanation of how understanding the parallelisms helps us understand Job better:
Synonymous Parallelism means that in two or three lines, the first line states a thought and the second line states the same thought in different words. The above mentioned popular translations usually do a good job in keeping the two lines together so it will be easy for you once you have the structures down.
For example, when Job wonders about the value of wisdom he says,
“It cannot be purchased for gold,
Nor can silver be weighed for its price” (Job 28:15).
The idea in both lines is the same, which is: one cannot buy wisdom. Yet, the words are different. This is the first type of parallelism in Hebrew poetry.
Antithetical Parallelism means that in the couplet, the first line states a thought, and the second line(s) states an opposing idea for purposes of contrast and emphasis.
For example, when God appears to Job, Job says to Him:
“I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear,
But now my eye sees You” (Job 42:5).
This contrasts how Job’s life was before, and how it is now that He is actually speaking with God directly. In the whole book he wondered about his situation with no success in understanding why he suffered the things he did, but now God Himself is there to speak with him.
Synthetic Parallelism presents one thought in the first line of the couplet, then expands on and completes that thought in the following line(s).
Right when God appeared to Job, Job says,
“Behold, I am vile;
What shall I answer You?
I lay my hand over my mouth” (Job 40:4).
He begins by pointing out how he is not pure enough to speak with God, then expands the thought to saying he cannot answer, and then completes it by an image of putting his hand over his mouth.
When we understand these structural features of different genres such as parallelism which applies to both the wisdom books of the Bible and the Prophets, then we will begin to understand these books and grow spiritually by reading them.
Problem # 3: Poor Background Knowledge
Even if we raise our reading levels and build good structural knowledge of literary genres, we may be held back by a third problem, which is having adequate background knowledge before reading. It is no secret that Americans hate studying history. I even know non-Americans who are conscious of this fact without having even lived in America. They sense it in their discussions with Americans. I can sympathize with my fellow Americans a bit, even though my degree is in history and I absolutely love the subject. I had good history teachers as I went through middle and high school, but others were not so fortunate.
Unless one gives meaning to the events and shows how they are connected to us, then there is no purpose for history. My 7th grade history teacher often digressed from the assigned work and spoke about how he understood history, and the places he had traveled that tied in to what we were studying. That’s what made it so interesting: the connection. Generally, he had the interest of the whole class. Then, my 11th grade teacher taught us how to think historically and how to understand the people of the past especially their thinking and the reasons for events happening; he was the final catalyst that inspired me to study history in college. Most of his students grasped the depths of history after being in his class even when they did not come to the class interested in the subject, yet most became interested while learning from him, even the most unmotivated of students.
Sadly though, for too many Americans, they are not taught history this way, but they are taught it as only facts and dates. On the other hand, when discussion begins, and meaning becomes clear, rarely will you find anyone bored.
Understanding history is important because the basic concepts of change over time, difference, and development which characterize the proper understanding of history are not readily grasped by most students going through these classes and long afterwards.
Many Christians in America go through this type of education, and when it comes to certain events, they have difficulty understanding why they would happen, and how customs were different, and so on. You cannot understand the Bible if you assume the societies and cultures you are reading about were similar to ours; you will be confused and eventually give up trying to understand the Bible. If you do not give up, then you may significantly misunderstand concepts in the Bible which will negatively affect your spiritual life.
The solution is to simply learn history, and read a lot about the time period in which the Bible was written. Ask your priests or others in the church ministry for spiritual education to direct you to good resources to help you learn.
Below are a couple of examples of how understanding historical context drastically changes how we understand the Scriptures and apply them to our lives.
For the first example, if one reads the Epistle to the Colossians 2:16-23, then they may mistakenly understand that Paul the Apostle is forbidding all types of asceticism and think then that the Orthodox and Catholic churches are out of line. But the reality is he is reacting to a movement not explicitly named in the Bible known as Gnosticism. The Gnostics believed that the body was inherently evil and the soul the only good, so they practiced severe fasting and neglect of the body.
However, the body is inherently good in Christian understanding, so there should not be a neglect of it. Paul, then, is not arguing against fasting and asceticism, but he is arguing against one type, which is solely to deprive the body. Christian fasting, on the other hand, is seen as training for the body and spirit by orienting the will to better focus on God and prayer. Those are two very different types of asceticism. The earliest fasting periods of the church fasted under this latter Christian understanding of training the body, and the earliest monks adopted this at a more pronounced level, but the basic understanding was the same: the body is inherently good, and we must keep it pure by strengthening the will of our spirits over our bodies in order to keep our whole selves pure in Christ. The Gnostics thought contrary to that: the body is inherently evil and one should not take care of it. The historical context makes things clear, and the spiritual application becomes very different when we understand things correctly.
The next example also deals with Gnosticism; again, this movement began in the mid-first century and continued for more than three hundred years in the early church across Asia, Europe, and Africa. John the Apostle referred to them as “They went out from us, but they were not of us” (1 John 2:19). Yet, I have actually had discussions with Christians, those who believe in “once saved, always saved, unless you fall away, then you were never really saved,” who quoted this verse to show that the Apostle was writing about all Christians’ salvation here. Yet, John the Apostle was writing this epistle partially against Gnosticism which is why he highlights the humanity of our Lord Jesus Christ at the beginning of the epistle. Here he is not referring to any and all Christians who apparently were not saved and fell away, but to those Gnostics who appeared to have been Christians yet never were. Again, the lack of historical context will lead to a wrong understanding of the Scriptures and a wrong application of the Scriptures to our spiritual lives and preaching.
The Ultimate Solution
Now the situation may not be as grim as you may be feeling for one very simple reason: the church has always had teachers. Teachers are those whose art it is to explain and make things comprehensible. Our Christian ancestors, for the most part, did not have the ability to read until recently. Literacy in the Roman Empire ranged from 5% to 10%, and in some regions reached up to 20%. Yet, people believed in our Lord Jesus Christ because if they were in the church and were close to their pastor priests, then they learned the faith. Then, they discussed what they learned as they sat with their families at the table, when they worked in their fields, when they walked home, and when they were with their friends. For that reason, people lived lives truly following our Lord Jesus Christ.
And actually, the fact that at the heart of the faith is a collection of Books, this led to a desire among many believers to learn to read and then study the Bible. This caused a rise in literacy among the (formerly) illiterate people. This pattern began since at least the 4th century. Languages that had no alphabet, no writing system, and no reason to have one, had alphabets and writing systems invented for them in order to bring the message of the Gospel to them in their own languages. This first began with Mesrob Mashtots of the Armenians in the early 4th century, then with Ulfilas the Arian Bishop of the Goths, then with the Ge’ez language of the Ethiopians through Frumentius (Abuna Salama) their bishop, and the Cyrillic alphabet of Cyril and Methodius the missionaries to the Slavs (which brought literacy to many Slavic languages). So, Biblical literacy brought literacy in general to many peoples, tribes, tongues, and nations.
However, today, we do not always go to church, and thus we lose access to the best way of learning the faith, which is through the people God called to the ministry and their teaching His Word to us. So then, we have reading left, and if we do not read the Bible, and if we do not have the ability to read it, then we have no way of being grounded in the faith.
Indeed, in our post-industrial, digital, workaholic civilization, if we do not have the ability to read effectively (and for the most part, we don’t), then we will not have a foundation in the faith.
What will we do as priests, as those involved in the service, as congregations, as communities, and as families to address this problem? Teaching our congregations how to read is truly the most important ministry we can engage in in the 21st century.
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