The Catholic Thing
Put Not Your Faith in Books Print E-mail
By Robert Royal   
Monday, 08 August 2011

Over the weekend, I finished reading the Book of Nehemiah, the last of the Biblical books dealing with early history (yes, I know of Tobit, Esther, Judith – which are a different kettle of fish, as well as I and II Maccabees, which deal with a later period – all of which I’ll be getting to, as Pope Benedict has suggested we do, on my vacation, which begins today). Every few years around the beginning of Lent, I start out with Genesis and slowly, over months, refresh my memory of sacred history – made much easier now, for those of us called to frequent travel, by the Kindle.

It’s an unusual experience, not least because the books are so different. The first five, the Pentateuch, run so deep that you sometimes feel you must have been distracted before and never really read them at all. And why expect anything different reading the texts that tell us about the very Creation and sacred history of the human race – two inexhaustible subjects?

But the more “historical” history books – Joshua to Nehemiah – are no less intriguing. It’s taken me years just to grasp a little of how the political and military dimensions mesh with the spiritual: a tale of hope and promise thwarted by sin and lack of trust, sometimes leading to repentance and return, but also to perdition. And then the whole cycle repeats. That strikes close to home.

The Second Vatican Council abandoned the old Catholic worry about lay people reading Scripture and falling into Protestantism and “private interpretation.” Today, the Church actually encourages reading the Bible. It’s good to have put an end to the old fear, but perhaps the new attitude is overly optimistic.

When people today come up against the great difficulties in reading the text, which are inevitable, I suspect they mostly give up, or end up with any number of misconceptions, as 2 Peter deplores in people who, even back then, misread difficult passages in St. Paul. At the time of the Reformation, within a few decades of Luther scholars say, there arose over 250 different interpretations of the Eucharist.

What earlier Church authorities meant by “private interpretation” has not much been alleviated by what we flatter ourselves in thinking has become near universal literacy in the modern world.

All this has something to do with natural limits. Alan Jacobs, an evangelical professor of literature, has written a wise and illuminating essay about apparently natural limits as to how many people can actually read a serious book. He discusses secular texts, but from clear and painful experience, it’s a small percentage even among college students, and remains largely unaffected by the availability of books and schooling.

Such empirical truths grate against our democratic hope that everyone is capable of deep book learning, and even of college-level academic work. Jacobs demonstrates that this is an illusion. People may still be quite intelligent, productive, and wise in a variety of ways, to say nothing of profoundly charitable and holy. The belief that those who can read difficult texts are somehow better people is another illusion. If it weren’t, professors of literature would by that fact be exemplary people, which, sadly, we know is not the case.

In any event, few of us are really capable of reading serious books. And this presents a challenge to the Church that usually goes unacknowledged and unaddressed. The Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8) who is reading Isaiah and is asked by St. Phillip if he understands it, truly and humbly says: how can I unless someone explains it to me? But he was already from a social elite, a court official capable of understanding books.

Higher government spending then or now, all the No Child Left Behind programs, will not do much more than assure that the small percentage of us capable of reading complex texts will have the opportunity to do so.

The Church used to understand, more realistically in my view, that most people need more varied guidance to understand faith and morals. The old Baltimore Catechism is ridiculed by progressive today, but it served a definite purpose – and well. It offered people basic principles, not complete answers even to the questions it addressed. But it planted seeds that would grow larger as people lived out those principles in their adult lives.

One of the weaknesses of the Protestant emphasis on sola Scriptura is that it relies on Biblical books to the virtual neglect of everything else – tradition, history, community, sacrament, prayer, non-textual forms of teaching, the inculcation of virtue and meaning by example (e.g., lives of saints). That essentially assigns all non-readers, which is to say the vast majority of the human race, or all those who had books unavailable to them for much of history, to a very shadowy status.

I’ll continue my Bible reading on vacation. As a reader of The Catholic Thing, you doubtless do your own deep reading. But we also do well to remember that the Church today is not primarily suffering from a lack of Bible reading. Important as that is – as is the engagement of Augustine, Aquinas, and many others – it’s stumbling much more from a lack of other means of conveying the faith to those who don’t discover, or put their faith in books.

Reaching those people, in a culture quite effective in multiple ways of teaching them other creeds, is perhaps the most burning question for the Church today.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.


The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.


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Comments (6)Add Comment
written by Grump, August 08, 2011
Regarding Jacobs' essay and the decline of reading, this observation speaks volumes:

"In 1882, fifth graders read these authors in their Appleton School Reader: William Shakespeare, Henry Thoreau, George Washington, Sir Walter Scott, Mark Twain, Benjamin Franklin, Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Bunyan, Daniel Webster, Samuel Johnson, Lewis Carroll, Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and others like them. In 1995, a student teacher of fifth graders in Minneapolis wrote to the local newspaper, ‘I was told children are not to be expected to spell the following words correctly: back, big, call, came, can, day, did, dog, down, get, good, have, he, home, if, in, is, it, like, little, man, morning, mother, my, night, off, out, over, people, play, ran, said, saw, she, some, soon, their, them, there, time, two, too, up, us, very, water, we, went, where, when, will, would, etc. Is this nuts?' "

Famed educator John Taylor Gatto wrote:

"According to the Connecticut census of 1840, only one citizen out of every 579 was illiterate and you probably don't want to know, not really, what people in those days considered literate; it's too embarrassing. Popular novels of the period give a clue: ‘Last of the Mohicans', published in 1826, sold so well that a contemporary equivalent would have to move 10 million copies to match it. If you pick up an uncut version you find yourself in a dense thicket of philosophy, history, culture, manners, politics, geography, analysis of human motives and actions, all conveyed in data-rich periodic sentences so formidable only a determined and well-educated reader can handle it nowadays. Yet in 1818 we were a small-farm nation without colleges or universities to speak of. Could those simple folk have had more complex minds than our own?"
written by Other Joe, August 08, 2011
As we contemplate our latest weekly mass shooting, it should be arising in our collective consciousness that the fruits of the progressive project are satanic - regardless of the stated good intentions. It does not seem to be arising, because the descriptive faculty of our common language is so debased. And anyway, that’s my reality, not yours. Once I am the judge of what constitutes reality, morality, and even history, there are as many potential protestant sects as there are readers of the bible. The reformation set the table for our man-centered, radical individualism (not to mention the culture of self-expression). How many have died in the name of Me?
written by senex, August 08, 2011
To Grump:
In 1818 people did not have TV, internet chatter, video games, movies and the like. People 'read' for enjoyment, in search of the wonder of the human mind. And then they thought, and sometimes wrote-letters, essays and books.
written by Joseph Zenteno, August 08, 2011
What version of the Bible do your read? Don't the footnotes take care of interpretation problems?
written by Achilles, August 08, 2011
Dr. Royal, Thank you for a very nice and informative essay. I have long known that for all intents and purposes, most public school teachers are illiterate (of course depending on how you define literacy). I suspect that the issue is much less about how we are born than how we are raised. Deep reading is only one surface activity of contemplation and Plato alerted us to its very real and potential dangers in the Phaedrus. I also suspect that our present methods of teaching children to read are very much akin to the shadows on the back of Plato’s cave. To draw conclusions from error will yield error and although I enjoyed the Jacob’s essay, I hardly find his statements conclusive. Thanks again Achilles
written by Grump, August 08, 2011
Senex, good points, and supportive of my implied premise that we've been dumbed down to the point where the back of a cereal box substitutes for Shakespeare.

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