Because life is a series of edits

Why Johnny Can’t Write (Part 1)

In Education, Westminster, Young Ones on February 25, 2010 at 8:43 pm

As alluded to in my previous post, I recently experienced a rather depressing "perfect storm" of grading, research, and melancholy that gave me pause as to what in the world I'm doing (or trying to do) in the field of Christian education. A colleague of mine at the middle school level put it well on his blog:

"Some recent observations have caused me to worry about what and how kids are reading, writing, and thinking:

1. The English teachers at our school have been noticing a
gradual loss of reading and writing skills in the last five years. While the “above-average” students still exist in good numbers, there
seems to be more students with “very-low” reading competency.

2. My colleagues and I on the 7th grade team have noticed more
students each year who are struggling with vocabulary and reading
comprehension skills, so that even in math, they struggle with
understanding the questions asked of them.

3. Everywhere you look outside of the classroom, students are
reading a lot, but it’s mostly text messages, instant messages, emails,
teen-related blogs and websites. Teens are often seen viewing screens
yet are very rarely seen reading a book. (Some are calling this
generation of kids the “children of the screen.”)

I agree with his observations and, after spending last weekend reading 50 papers about my New Testament students' study of their own churches (hardly an overly technical writing assignment), I can confirm the reduction of general reading (and writing) competency of freshmen teenagers. Granted, the entertainment value of papers like these is certainly worth something, but let me suggest a more serious significance from a different angle – a more theological and eternal angle.

My specific concern is this: it's not just that kids struggle to write in general; in terms of reading, interpreting, and understanding the Bible, they just have little to write about at all.

In our last Bible department meeting, our staff walked through an excellent article entitled "The Problem of Evangelical Biblical Illiteracy: A View from the Classroom." In the piece, author David R. Nienhuis laments the fact that despite 84% of Americans consider the Bible "very" or "somewhat important" in helping them make decisions in life, recent Gallup polls tell us that only half can name even one of the four Gospels. Nienhuis quotes religion journalist David Gibson in saying that the Bible is "America's favorite unopened text."

"As a professor of New Testament studies at Seattle Pacific University, I [Nienhuis] know this reality only too well. I often begin my survey of the Christian Scriptures course by asking students to take a short biblical literacy quiz, including questions of the sort mentioned above. The vast majority of my students – around 95% of them – are Christians, and half of them typically score just over 50 percent, a failing grade."

Nienhuis continues:

"Most revealing in my mind is the fact that my students are generally unable to sequence major stories and events from the biblical metanarrative. Only 23% were able to order four key events from Israel's history. These students may know isolated Bible trivia (84% knew, for instance, that Jesus was born in Bethlehem), but their struggle to locate key stories, and their general inability to place those stories in the Bible's larger plotline, betrays a serious lack of intimacy with the text – even though a full 86% of them identified the Bible as their primary source for knowledge about God and faith."

Stephen Prothero, in his book Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know – and Doesn't, talks about three major shifts that have occurred since the evangelistic Second Great Awakening of the first half of the 19th century. Prothero argues that there has been a shift 1) from learning to feeling, 2) from the Bible to Jesus, and (most importantly) the shift 3) from theology to morality.

I see aspects of each of these shifts on a daily basis in my classroom. Most kids walk into my New Testament class expecting it to feel "fun like youth group" (don't get me started), trusting more their own relativistic answers to the question "What would Jesus do?" than the more concrete answers to "What does the Bible teach?", and proof-texting away complex situations and issues with overly simplistic (and usually out-of-context) applications of biblical verses they quote. I know, I know: they're just teenagers, sure, but it would be a whole lot easier to forgive them their folly if it wasn't for the ugly arrogance that so often clears a path for their misinformed hermeneutics (both of which they have learned well from our mile-wide, inch-deep evangelical churches).

The reality in all this is that Scripture memory done apart from Story breeds fundamentalist legalism. A majority of my own students think they know the Bible inside and out because they were made to memorize random verses in their childhood; the problem is that they have absolutely no idea how any of what they learned fits together (nor why it matters that it does). I agree with Nienhuis when he posits, "I do not see how a person trained to quote texts out of context can truly be called biblically literate."

I don't either, but for brevity's sake, I'll save the rest of my thoughts for my next post.

  1. Hmm…interesting thoughts, and I’ll be looking forward to future posts. Although, I must admit, what you wrote about wasn’t what I expected based upon the title. Will those be harmonized as I read on, or did I miss something?

  2. The disconnect between kids and literacy is, as most thing, directly tracked back to the amount of real time parents are spending with children. This difference is everywhere. Bible school, regular school, Sunday school, and certainly on the Internet. But more terrifying, I think, is the disconnect between what a person knows and what a person thinks that they know. Especially when it comes to something as important as knowledge of the bible.

  3. I’m getting there, Nick. Hang with me.
    Well said, Lindsay. Thanks for the comment.

  4. You have expressed something I’ve been trying to say! Thank you. This issue of Biblical literacy is a passion of Ben’s, so I bet you guys would enjoy talking about how this translates to the college level.

  5. Great post, Craig. I’m wondering if you have ideas about how to combat biblical story illiteracy, or recommended resources for parents.

  6. Jess, you and Ben book the trip and come on over and we’ll chat. Seriously, tell Ben that I hope he is indeed as passionate about the story of the Bible as the Scripture memory of it. That’s great.
    Haley, I’ll be glad to share from our successes and failures on this, but it’s about two posts out (and honestly, probably about ten days away with baseball starting up next week). Thanks for the motivation/commission.

  7. As one who helps kids memorize random verses (Kevin and I are AWANA leaders), I’m anxious to read more on this and learn how I can help the kids—especially my own—make the connections to the larger Story.
    And thanks for the excerpts from the kids’ papers in your earlier post. What a (sad) hoot.

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