Sunday, August 27, 2017

A Different Package

Yonatan Zunger is a former Distinguished Engineer at Google, a product of Stanford and a very smart guy, so it’s a little surprising to find him making spectacularly unrealistic generalizations like this one: “Anyone can learn how to write code.”

The context of the comment is unimportant and would take way too long to explain, but having spent a significant portion of the last 20 years troubleshooting other people’s rather sad attempts at writing code — or even at manipulating existing code — I almost laughed out loud when I read it.

Still, we should probably cut Mr. Zunger some slack and assume he didn’t mean to make such an absurd and utterly unsupportable claim.

The Delusions of the Intelligentsia

Let’s stipulate that even though Mr. Zunger made no attempt to limit the scope of the word “anyone”, he didn’t intend to include children afflicted with Down Syndrome, Xitsonga tribesmen or even Western-educated midwits. What he almost surely meant to say was that anyone bright enough, university-educated enough and experienced enough to land a job in Silicon Valley can learn how to write code, or something along those lines.

But even that statement would be wildly untrue.

It’s the sort of assumption that could only be made by someone who takes for granted his own abilities, education and success, and who assumes that the rest of the population either operates exactly as he does, or could be trained to perform just like top-flight software engineers with the right education and incentives. It’s an assumption that simply cannot be supported from experience.

But it makes me wonder if I’m ever as blind to others around me as Mr. Zunger. It’s not impossible.

Anyone Can Study the Bible

Bible study comes easily to me. That in itself doesn’t mean I’m any good at it, of course, but it does mean I’m highly motivated and intensely interested. I’d almost surely be studying the Bible for my own enjoyment and understanding even if I didn’t have an outlet for my writing just because I want to know what things mean. Further, I’m working with a reasonable IQ, a decent education, years of experience with the Bible, a big pile of reference works and commentaries and the wealth of the Internet at my disposal in my search for meaning. There’s no excuse not to use them.

So when people tell me they can’t read the Bible or understand what they find there, I tend to instinctively respond just like Yonatan Zunger: “Anyone can study the Bible.” And of course the rather snotty unstated corollary to that is “… and you all should, or else you’re not very spiritual.”

Perhaps my statement is as ignorant as his.

Take Care How You Hear

The Bible was not written only for middling Western intellects in the new millennium. It was not written to be parsed only by scholars with Greek and Hebrew dictionaries and concordances open in front of them. It was not written to be understood only by those with IQs a couple of standard deviations above average. It was written for everyone.

And it was written to be read aloud.

I notice Jesus never said, “Be careful how you translate”, “Be careful how you interpret” or even “Be careful how you study”, though bad scholarship is to be avoided and bad study habits deplored. In fact, the vast majority of his avid audience probably couldn’t read, and most of those that could wouldn’t have had access to the sacred Hebrew scriptures or even the more common Greek translation of the Old Testament in any case.

No, he said, “Take care then how you hear, for to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he thinks that he has will be taken away.”

Hey, anyone can listen, right?

How Can I?

Now, I’m oversimplifying, of course. Hearing the word of God on its own is sometimes enough to change a life, and even a few words of truth can be tremendously beneficial. But there is an awful lot in the Bible that requires explanation. We usually need some outside help. When Philip asked the Ethiopian eunuch whether he understood the book of Isaiah he was reading, the man quite sensibly responded, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” — and then even more sensibly invited Philip into his chariot to serve as a guide.

But that process of being guided involves listening too, doesn’t it. And asking questions, and listening to the answers, and asking a few more.

Literacy and Learning

In fact, not everyone can learn how to study the Bible or read the hundreds of thousands of Christian books floating around. There are roughly a billion illiterate adults in the world, approximately 26% of its population. Two-thirds of these are women. Even in the U.S., 14% of the population can’t read. 32 million American adults are functionally illiterate. An even greater number read laboriously, and will never get the pleasure from reading that you or I do. Some very intelligent overachievers I know hardly read at all. We’re not going to be able to change that, and there’s no reason we need to.

This is complicated by the reality that not everyone will come right out and tell you they have trouble reading and understanding the Bible. Many are embarrassed by their own failures of comprehension. True story: I’ve been giving books to an unsaved friend for years that it seems were never read much past the first chapter or two. It took me forever to figure out that it’s not necessarily lack of interest, it’s a difficulty with reading and processing text; a difficulty I’ve never experienced.

Further, we cannot forget that in our multicultural societies many people who come into our churches are processing what they hear in a second language. Is it realistic to expect them to be good at reading in English as well? And yet, if they don’t get used to the wording of English Bibles, how do they talk about what they are learning with their fellow believers who don’t speak their native language?

Disciples, Not Seminary Graduates

In fact, most people don’t grow in the knowledge of God by sitting at home with a book on their lap or staring at a screen in front of them. They grow by talking it out, and then living it out. If I really want to help people to mature as believers, I can’t afford to assume they will necessarily learn and grow the same way I do. The command, after all, is to “make disciples”, not seminary graduates.

Paul told Timothy, “Devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture.” Even today, that might be the only way some people in our church services will hear significant consecutive portions of the Bible. (A proof text here and there does not really count, and I’m pretty sure it’s not what Paul had in mind.)

Now, sure, there are also audiobooks, podcasts and YouTube (at least until Google starts censoring Christian video). More important though, there is hospitality. There’s nothing better we can do with our time than get together and talk about the things of God and the word of God and apply it personally. And wouldn’t it be great if more of our church meetings allowed for the sort of interaction the Lord Jesus had with both his disciples and his Jewish audiences? Probably not going to happen, but it should.

The next time I see somebody I love who is not growing in the faith as quickly as I would like, before I conclude that they just don’t care about the things of God as much as I do, I’m going to try getting them their spiritual food in a different package.

It might well be that the traditional black, leather-bound package isn’t getting the job done.

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