The meaning of the term ‘biblical literacy’, which tends to focus on the decline of Bible reading and knowledge in the West, is often taken for granted, but it has recently been helpfully contested in Katie Edwards (ed), Rethinking Biblical Literacy. This collection of nine essays suggests that biblical literacy is evidenced in all sorts of places, including political discourse, pop music, and comedy.
In short, these authors challenge a narrow view of biblical literacy through the book’s implicit argument: The widespread (and widely reported) claim that biblical literacy is in decline is probably mistaken (or misguided) because (1) biblical literacy should account for more than rote Bible knowledge since (2) cultural appropriations of the Bible (especially in popular media) indicate and depend upon familiarity with biblical motifs or tropes.
Towards Constructing a Definition
One helpful way to think about biblical literacy is to put it in relation to another term, biblical reception. Thus, on the about page of this project the terms are defined in relationship to one another:
Biblical Literacy & Reception: how the Bible (its texts, stories, motifs) are taken up, retold, and interpreted (i.e., reception) and the knowledge and competence such reception conveys or produces (i.e., literacy).
So biblical literacy might be defined as the knowledge and competence conveyed or produced by the reception of the Bible’s texts, stories, or motifs. Note, too, that multiple ‘literacies’ might be conveyed or produced, i.e., we should be wary about restricting ‘knowledge and competence’ too much.
Bible Literacy vs. Biblical Literacy
Given my definition of biblical literacy, I suggest that the narrower (traditional) conception be termed bible literacy since it usually denotes a more straightforward reception of the Bible, biblical reception as imprint but not echo. The adjective biblical extends further, including imprints as well as distant echoes.
In the next few posts, I invite a number of experts to weigh in, push back, or construct their own definitions.
Joshua Mann is Research Fellow in Biblical Literacy and Digital Theology at CODEC Research Centre, Durham University, and manages the Big Bible Project.