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Where Would Civilization Be Without Christianity? The Gift of Literacy

In many parts of the world, the birth of literacy coincides with the arrival of Christian missionaries.
1999This article is part of CT's digital archives. Subscribers have access to all current and past issues, dating back to 1956.

It would hardly be too much to say that literary culture in Europe, much of Africa and the Americas is inseparable from the culturally transformative power of Christianity. Two thousand years ago, textually preserved literacy and literature were substantially unknown beyond certain Mediterranean and Oriental cultures. Learning spread slowly. Chinese textual culture of the first century B.C. was largely restricted to matters of bureaucracy (politics and economics) and ancestral legend. Only a tiny elite, the chu-tzu, mastered and recapitulated fragments of pertinent oral tradition in textual form. In the Mediterranean and contiguous Middle East, this pattern was varied and enriched by the appearance of epic narrative (Homer), philosophical reflection (Plato, Aristotle), and religious drama (Euripides, Aeschylus, Sophocles) of the Greeks. The Romans were scions of their Greek stock but more managerial; under the administrative demands of empire, text-based literacy broadened somewhat. Then came the Christians.

What marks the emergence of Christian influence in literature is the appearance and dissemination of the Gospels themselves—not as an elite but as a popular and vernacular body of texts. In the eventful koine reportage of the Gospels, the breathless countercultural story in Acts, and the multicultural apostolic letters of the New Testament there emerges a counterliterature: it was no longer ethnocentric and was concerned not with statecraft or elite entertainment, but with the transformation of ordinary lives.

It is to the Great Commission itself that we owe the myriad cultural transformations effected by the Bible. In most of Europe, as in Africa, South America, and in many other parts of the world, the birth of ...

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