How well do most Christians know the difference between what the Bible says and our commentary on what the Bible says? When we teach and preach, are we clearly drawing distinctions between the text itself and our expansion on the text?
Every Tuesday evening around 7:00, four Deaf men and one Deaf woman come by our home for a Bible study. These five people have been Christians for varying lengths of time ranging from months to years. Like most local Deaf residents, they are functionally illiterate, using print only when necessary; even then, reading is an awkward, unnatural process.
I’m discipling them and teaching them how to share their limited Bible knowledge with others. They’ve all been attending church for years yet know very little about the Bible, something I’ll explain later. We spend our evenings learning stories and narratives from the Bible, then discussing those passages in order to draw out understanding. Many of the most basic stories from the Bible are unknown to this group, so I get to pull the material out of my English Bible, translate it into Ecuadorian sign, and then teach them the story. My goal is to teach them what the Bible says, then (after they’ve got that part down) discuss with them what the Bible means.
Each week I tell them the story or passage we will be discussing. I sign it from start to finish without interruption or breaks. At the end, I ask the group to re-tell the story to me or to each other as way of checking comprehension; some of them use slightly different signs, which can be confusing, so we’ve got to double-check. As well, I’m not working in my first language here (or second or third), so there’s alway the possibility that I could miscommunicate something. On top of all that, this re-telling is a tool for helping them remember what was said. After all, when they leave the gathering they’ll need to recall the story without printed reminders.
So each week, I ask them, “What did I just say? Tell me the story as I’ve told it to you.”
They can’t do it.
I’ve spent a few weeks trying to figure out why they can’t. After some discussions with them, and after having visited their usual Sunday church, I think I’ve got it.
When their preacher/teacher presents, for example, the creation narrative, he does not sign it straight from the text, unaltered. Instead, it goes something like this:
“And so God spoke – simply spoke – and there was light. Glorious, beautiful light as only He could create! It shone everywhere and was unique and beautiful! Divine beauty that does not fade! Glorious perfection that never fails! Afterwards, He created all other things in all their perfection. God made the angels, and the demons. He made all things, and said that it was all perfect because no one had sinned yet. After He made man and woman in His image, God placed in a a beautiful garden simply because He loved them. God put them in Eden and gave them fruits to eat, but they disobeyed Him by eating the apple….”
When I told the creation narrative to this group, I did my dead-level best to follow the text. The group responded: “You left out a lot of stuff. What about the demons and Lucifer? Why did you use the words ‘very good’ instead of ‘perfect’?”
When I asked them to tell the story back to me, they cut out large chunks of it and replaced those sections with commentary on the passage, observations and notes and trivia they had picked up over the years from other teachers. We spent a good 90 minutes trying to get them to go all the way back through the story without commentary.
Their grasp of the basic facts of the Bible text is of supreme importance for me. As I’ve already pointed out, they cannot read well and thus can’t go home and look over the chapters for reminders. As far as they’re concerned, my signing of the story is as close as they will get to the actual text of the story. Their usual Bible teacher has a different priority, though. He would rather teach a single verse and spend the bulk of his time expounding and extemporizing. In my opinion, this particular style emphasizes the opinions of the teacher over the actual message contained in the pages of the scriptures.
It’s different here, with the relative illiteracy, than it is in the US. My people can only rely on what their preacher tells them. Tell me, you pastors and Bible teachers in the States: am I wrong here? Am I hypercritical of this other pastor who wants his people to see all sorts of meaning in the text and in the process, fails to expose them to the text itself?