Coming to Terms: Biblical Literacy (4) – David Ford

Coming to Terms: Biblical Literacy (4) – David Ford

An interdisciplinary discussion on the subject of ‘the Bible’, or in our case ‘biblical literacy’, will result to some degree in misunderstanding and disagreement. I suspect that part of this is due to each scholar’s discipline and their views of the Bible. Thus an anthropologist (James Bielo) and a biblical studies scholar (James Crossley) will use different methods and language to describe a similar phenomenon, such as the social function of reading, quoting or alluding to the Bible in a particular setting.

It is important that scholars communicate across boundaries however, for although they may be misunderstood, in that process lies the potential for their ideas to be refined or re-presented. So although the three earlier posts have helpfully begun to explore our definitions of biblical literacy I would like to comment on what lies behind some of what is being proposed.

Two different starting points should be highlighted. First, biblical literacy, can be understood as the skills required to (de)code the Bible or biblical tropes and images found in a particular (con)text. This assumes that there is such a thing as ‘the Bible’ which can be (de)coded and that some (de)codings are better than others. In this way a judgment can be made regarding the level of biblical literacy evidenced in a certain community. This lends itself to Josh Mann’s description of “Bible literacy” and reflects the direction Pete Phillips may be traveling in.

An alternative starting point is to think of biblical literacy as something socially constructed. Different communities may adapt/use/invoke different Bibles (or biblical tropes) to suit different aims. To this way of thinking, there is no normative or good biblical literacy but different communities exhibit different types literacies. This view discourages the type of evaluative judgment exhibited in the first and in its place asks: Who benefits from this definition? Whose ideology is most closely tied to it? And what factors led to its prominence? Perhaps James Crossley’s description of biblical literacy is closest to this starting point.

These two alternative positions are not unique to this subject and they have parallels in literary theory, philosophy, sociology and other disciplines. However, the polarity with which I have described them is not reflective of the real world. The first option allows for contextual and ideological influences to shape a community’s biblical literacy, and the second requires limits to be made upon what is considered ‘biblical’ literacy, and so an evaluative framework must be imposed.

Therefore in practice the two starting points are not as diverse as first indicated. Nonetheless, to my mind, confusion would be lessened if scholars not only provided a definition of biblical literacy to which they were working, but also whether their epistemology is more positivist (as seen in starting point one) or more constructivist (as seen in starting point two). Moreover, because in both cases the scholar, as an author, is in a position of power a willingness to reflexively self-identify in their work would be positive. In this way scholars may (dis)agree but the chances of misunderstanding are lessened.

To that end, I am an early career researcher with a particular interest in contemporary Bible reading practices. I have an interdisciplinary background (sociology, literary theory, theology, biblical studies and various others) and have trained in an evangelical theology college and a state university. I describe myself as a critical realist, am a practicing Christian, work for CODEC and am often keen to find the common ground rather than take a more polemical stance.

Dr David Ford is a Postdoctoral Research Assistant at the CODEC Research Centre for Digital Theology, Durham University. His PhD (University of Chester) focused on nonreligious men’s readings of the Bible, and he is currently developing a project on millennials’ digital engagement with the Bible.

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