Recently much of the country was captivated by a six-year-old girl who became the youngest speller to aspire to the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Of course, not everyone was impressed. Some predictably rolled their eyes. Most of these did so because they can’t spell and were embarrassed that a six-year-old could show them up in so basic a skill. Others, however, were more principled in their disdain. Social utilitarians and educational radicals have long been railing against spelling as a bygone skill rendered irrelevant by modern spell-checking software and social ambivalence toward correct spelling. An especially powerful argument, it seems, is the widely circulated paragraph below that proves that people don’t require perfect spelling to read successfully:
Aoccdrnig to rscheearch by the Lngiusiitc Dptanmeret at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a total mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.
The paragraph doesn’t really prove that spelling doesn’t matter, technically, but rather that sloppy typing can be overcome. Nonetheless, it does demonstrate the remarkable capacity of the human brain to sift letters to get to the words and ideas represented by them.
But utilitarianism and cerebral agility aside, one wonders whether basic skills like spelling, grammar, and syntax are really all that important to a minister of the Gospel. And my answer is a resounding “Yes.” Here’s why:
(1) People who can’t spell rarely have a substantial vocabulary. That’s because they don’t see phonetic connections between words and cannot classify those words according to roots and patterns of human language. Furthermore, since they live with the unsettling fear that they will misuse words, they tend to drab and lazy words. None of this is good for a Gospel minister.
(2) People who cannot spell well can rarely read well or write well. And if my 15 years of teaching research and writing have taught me anything, it is this: people who cannot write well can rarely speak well. This is because language has structure and texture, and one must master these in order to communicate effectively. And since the principal skill requisite of the Gospel minister is the ability to teach (1 Tim 3:2), it behooves him to become a specialist relative to these subordinate skills.
(3) Even though expiring spelling skills have rendered poor spelling more acceptable in the modern world, society still expects educators and civic leaders to know how to spell. That’s because correct spelling inspires confidence that such figures have something to say, something to contribute to the profession they occupy—something to offer to me that I don’t already have. Whether this is right or wrong, the practical fact remains that a pastor will find it hard to attract church members who can spell, write, and speak better than he.
(4) More philosophically (you can skip this one if you want to), the reductionist approach to language is, I think, symptomatic of a non-foundationalist model of life that partitions it into distinct and even hermetically sealed compartments that do not affect each other: God is concerned only with our worship and ethics, but is ambivalent toward our participation in other spheres of life such as language, aesthetics, industry, economics, or politics. But this is untrue. He rules every sphere of life and implores us as our King to do everything to his glory and with a perpetual cognizance of his watchful eye on us (1 Cor 10:31; Col 3:23; etc.)
Much of American education has yielded to the tug of utilitarian and other reductionist approaches to the disciplines they teach. This has wreaked havoc on society in general, I think, but especially on ministerial preparation. My advice to aspiring pastors? Learn to spell, read, write, and speak. In short, cultivate the ability to teach.