A Nation of Functional Illiterates?

The United States of America perceives itself as the most literate nation on earth. We have great pride, justified pride, in our education system. Opportunities for learning in America far outdistance most of the rest of the world.

Yet, according to projections from a survey taken by the United States Office of Education, America is a nation of functional illiterates.

When we say a man can read, we mean he can read well enough to understand what he reads. The survey indicates 42 million Americans cannot read the classified ads and determine if there is a job they are qualified to hold. Thirty-nine million Americans cannot read well enough to locate their Social Security deductions on their paycheck stubs.

When we say a man has been taught arithmetic, we mean he can use the basics of his instruction to add, subtract, multiply and divide. The Office of Education survey indicates 48 million Americans cannot figure the correct change they should receive from a store purchase. Eighty-six million Americans cannot calculate the gasoline mileage of their cars.

Those figures are based solely on studies with adults. The literacy which we claim is simply not functioning in our lives.

Let's look at another survey. Of those adults questioned, 60% indicate they attend some type of religious service at least once a month. Of those who attend service, and the figures vary slightly, but more than two-thirds and as many as three-fourths believe: (a) the Bible is God's Word, (b) Jesus is who he claimed to be, (c) the miracles really happened, and (d) they claim a personal religious experience with God.

Do those beliefs translate into a functional faith? Or, as with education, are many of us functionally faithless?

Saint Paul wrote a newsletter, a love letter, to Christian friends living in the strategic city of Philippi. Near the end of the letter, he told his readers he had found the secret of a functional faith, of a faith that works in all circumstances of life.

“I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want,” Paul said.

The word “secret” comes from a word which means to shut the mouth. The idea is of silence imposed by initiation into mysterious religious rites. St. Paul said it was as if it had been shrouded in ritual and deliberately kept from understanding.

“I know how to get along in prosperity,” he said. That was easy. He had been born to a prosperous family. But writing to the Philippians, he was writing from prison. How can you have a faith which functions behind bars, or in captivity?

“I know how to get along when I am well fed,” St. Paul said. Most of us could. But if you were so weak from hunger, that you couldn't raise your arms to feed yourself even if you had food — how would your faith function?

“I am not in want,” St. Paul said, “but that is not the reason I am grateful. I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I find myself. The veil of mystery has been removed and here is the secret: I can do everything through Jesus who gives me his strength!”

What did St. Paul mean? Simply this: the tougher the circumstances, the closer he was to Jesus. His closeness to Jesus constituted his riches. Whatever he lacked was more than made up for in that extra closeness to Jesus Christ.

Are you content? Not self-sufficient, but content? Whether you are full or hungry, whether things go your way or go against you, are you content? Regardless of what you claim to believe about Jesus, there is a secret to having that faith function in your life. Draw close to Jesus. Let Jesus draw you closer to Himself. That's the secret.

(David Sisler's newspaper column, Not For Sunday Only, is in its 13th year of weekly publication. For reprint permission, or to subscribe, contact Mr. Sisler at david@mirkids.com.)

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