Why Literacy Still Matters

Posted on: 
June 4, 2021

Theoretical Backdrop

From the mouth or the hand, a word. Transient, bursting with meaning, bound for the ear or the eye, a word—and a whole, rich string of them. Human speech in any language is a beautiful, fragile thing. Words may be transmitted orally and preserved in audio recordings. They may be transmitted manually/visually (sign language), and preserved in video recordings.

Words can also be preserved in writing (code) and retrieved by decoding—what we know as reading. Just for a minute, let’s think about the layers of communicating via code: At the center, you have the concept that’s going to be talked about—maybe a chair. And you have a picture in your mind of that concept—but no one can read your mind. So you embed this picture in a word—chair, silla, chaise, noho . . . (English, Spanish, French, Hawaiian).

So far, this is about talking. But if we encase that word in code (c-h-a-i-r, 椅子, כִּסֵא . . . ) (English, Chinese, Hebrew), it can be stored almost indefinitely. And at some point—at any point, as long as the paper and ink stay intact (or concrete, whatever medium is used)—it can be retrieved, word for word, by another literate speaker of the same language. Unless prevented by language shift, it can then divulge its original concept through all those layers.

As an aside, this process of storing and divulging meaning can even go a step further: Morse code encodes, in sound, a visual code, transmitting the sound and hence the word. But since Morse code is primarily a binary system (dots and dashes), you can transmit it through clicks or lights or knitting, which consists of two basic stitches: knit (the bump is made on the front of the “cloth”) and purl (the bump is made on the back of the “cloth”).

Historical Backdrop

The media for recording orthographic codes are extensive: clay and stylus; slate and chalk; scroll, quill, and ink; printing press, paper, movable type, forms, and ink; e-device, keyboard, screen, internet . . . The Gutenberg printing press (and later the internet), ushered in amazing changes. Suddenly, the encoded word could be replicated at high speed, certainly compared to copying by hand.

Not quite a century after the invention of the Gutenberg press, the Protestant reformation was under way. Hard on the heels of the Protestant reformation came the Enlightenment. Was it because of the Gutenberg press—and the distribution networks for the newly affordable books and pamphlets?

Reading has become a staple of religious life in the West (hymn books, Bibles, prayer books) and many credit that, at least, to the Gutenberg press. But reading has been a key part of Judeo-Christian tradition from the time of Moses—at least for those in leadership. I would therefore submit that the greatest religious contribution of the printing press was not books—or even the Bible. Remember, the church had the entire Bible long before the printing press, as well as a number of other books. There were entire religious communities dedicated to copying Scripture. The greatest contribution of the printing press was books—especially the Bible—for the masses, not merely the wealthy.

Now, we find ourselves in the 21st century. Print seems to have passed its zenith. Its power is waning, at best—and maybe disappearing entirely. Or is it? The discussion is on-going, with fierce proponents of the lasting power of print on one hand and harbingers of its imminent demise on the other. What we do know without a doubt is that technology has enabled not only printed copies of God’s Word but Jesus films, audio Bibles, Bible apps, and who knows what more. We also know that these oral media still rely, at certain points, on writing.

The Literacy/Orality Debate in Bible Translation & Church-Planting

Why Move Toward Orality—Or Not

Clearly, God intends His Word for all people—but must it be written? Some languages aren’t written at all. Some people are literate—but literacy isn’t their “heart medium.” (I mean, if we’re going to talk about heart language we can probably talk about heart medium, too, right?) Would it be more effective in some situations to use only oral forms of the Word of God?

Worth noting: the medium that carries the word that carries the concept does have an impact on how we receive and interact with that word—and the concept it carries. There’s something impartial and precise about what Ong refers to as the “[technologized] word.” There’s something relational and intimate about the spoken word. Which medium better conveys the concepts of the Word of God? Which adjectives describe the Word of God? It is both impartial and precise, relational and intimate. God gave it in both spoken and written medium.

Here’s another consideration: style. If I read college textbooks aloud, and you listen to the recordings on Audible, it’s a very literate style of word—carried in an oral medium. If you tell me knock-knock jokes and I write them down, it’s a very oral style of word—carried in a literate medium. All things being equal, it’s pretty hard to argue for literacy or orality as the preferred carrier unless you’re lumping it in with literate/oral style and literate/oral context.

Why Move Toward Literacy

I’ve heard, as an argument for literacy (and made it myself) that the written Word is more permanent than the spoken word. In some sense, that’s true. Check out the dead sea scrolls. But in the end, no word is permanent. Dementia sets in; story tellers die; rulers require certain tweaks to the narrative. Life, memory, and tradition are incredibly fragile. Coffee spills on homework; plumbing leaks (right above the bookshelf); libraries are torched; stone inscriptions are buried or bombed, entire languages die. The written word and the technology that holds it are too fragile for comfort.

I can’t make the argument for literacy solely on the basis of “what is least fragile.” But I know God Himself has preserved His Word in writing. He gave it in writing and speech. He disseminated it in writing and speech. Across languages and cultures, we access it in writing and speech. But He preserved it in writing.

Seriously—who speaks Biblical Hebrew or Koine Greek as a language of daily life anymore? And yet we are still translating the Bible from those languages, and checking translations against them, because God stored His word in written Biblical Hebrew, written Aramaic, written Koine Greek. If God (who is all-knowing and all-powerful) chose writing to preserve His Word, we could hardly make a sounder choice than to prioritize literacy as a key part of our Scripture access and engagement strategy.

Objections to Literacy

Don’t oral cultures and literate cultures actually process information differently?

It’s commonly accepted (by those with experience in oral & literate cultures) that oral-culture processing and literate-culture processing are distinct from one another. Having no experience, myself, I will defer to their judgment. But I would have a couple questions before I felt ready to draw conclusions:

1. Is difference in oral-culture processing vs. literate-culture processing biologically / ecologically conditioned?

2. Does the human brain simply interact differently with speech and print in every culture, across demographics? If so, removing either medium would naturally create a mono-systemic processing unit. We would be looking at a difference that’s very similar to the difference between monolingual mental processing and bilingual mental processing.

Is literacy really that important to the people of God?

Here are a few key passages that show the importance of literacy as it relates to the use of Scripture among God’s people:

    Exodus 31:18 God wrote the Ten Commandments on tablets of stone.
  • Exodus 34:27a “Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Write these words.’”
  • Deuteronomy 17:18-20 The king was to write a copy of God’s law for himself and read it all his days.
  • Deuteronomy 31:10-13 The Israelites were commanded to read the law every seven years.
  • Nehemiah 8; 9:3; 13:1 These verses show how the Word of God brought revival when the Israelites it. They read the Law and reformed their ways.
  • Matthew 12:3, 12:5, 19:4,21:42, 22:31; Mark 2:25, 12:10, 12:26; Luke 6:3, 10:26 Jesus said many times in the gospels, “Have you not read?”
  • Colossians 4:15-16; I Thessalonians 5:27-28; 1 Timothy 4:12-14 Paul saw the importance of literacy in the church.
  • Revelation 1:3 “Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written in it; for the time is near.”

Surely, you’re not saying people have to be literate to become/stay disciples of Jesus?

Absolutely not. No more than I’m saying that boys with low socioeconomic status (who’ve already been held back a grade) can’t succeed at school. But it’s only right to acknowledge that they are more at risk for poor academic outcomes in the long run than middle- or upper-class girls who are right on schedule. Similarly, it’s only right to acknowledge the extra difficulties a believer/church faces when they are not able to read God’s Word for themselves.


—A. O., literacy coach

  • “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” Romans 10:17
  • “Repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. And you are witness of these things.” Luke 24:47, 48
  • “Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations.” Matthew 28:19
  • “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Genesis 12:3
  • “That the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, and of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ through the Gospel.” Ephesians 3:6
  • “That they all may be one; as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You, that they also may be one in Us; that the world may believe that You sent Me.” John 17:21
  • “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations’?” Mark 11:17
  • “Ask of me, and I will give You the nations for Your inheritance.” Psalm 2:8
  • “Behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes.” Revelation 7:9
  • “Finally, brethren, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may run swiftly and be glorified.” 2 Thessalonians 3:1
  • “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” 2 Timothy 3:16
  • “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” Psalm 119:105
  • “As cold water to a weary soul, so is good news from a far country.” Proverbs 25:25
  • “More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb.” Psalm 19:10
  • “All the ends of the world shall remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations shall worship before You.” Psalm 22:27
  • “Truly, as I live, all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the LORD.” Numbers 14:21
  • “Declare His glory among the nations, His wonders among all peoples. For the LORD is great and greatly to be praised; He is to be feared above all gods.” Psalm 96:3, 4
  • “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.” Habakkuk 2:14
  • “That all the peoples of the earth may know that the Lord is God; there is no other.” 1 Kings 8:60
  • “For from the rising of the sun, even to its going down, My name shall be great among the Gentiles; in every place incense shall be offered to My name, and a pure offering; for My name shall be great among the nations.” Malachi 1:11
  • “All nations whom You have made shall come and worship before You, O Lord, and shall glorify Your name.” Psalm 86:9
  • “For as the earth brings forth its bud, as the garden causes the things that are sown in it to spring forth, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth before all the nations.” Isaiah 61:11
  • "Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!" Psalm 46:10
  • "This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth." 1 Timothy 2:3, 4
  • "You are worthy. . .; for You were slain, and have redeemed us to God by Your blood out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and have made us kings and priests to our God." Revelation 5:9, 10