What is Biblical Literacy? The answer is, on one level, quite simple: biblical literacy is whatever you think it is. If we want to define it in quasi-Protestant terms of a detailed knowledge of the biblical texts, the content of its stories, ability to recite sayings word-for-word, and so on (what Joshua Mann labels ‘Bible literacy’), then that is something that can be assessed. If we want to define it in terms of what people assume the Bible means, irrespective of whether it matches up with the details of biblical passages, then that is something that likewise can be assessed. Or, again, if we want to look at how biblical or quasi-biblical idioms have an afterlife of their own in retail, journalism, pop music, sport etc., then that too.
No doubt overlaps can be found across these different questions but none of them are necessarily in conflict with one another and one approach is not inherently superior, you really believe, for instance, that acceptance of free-floating KJV idioms is The Truth. Put crudely, each asks their own questions and seeks different answers. Each will have their own subject-specific difficulties, problems, and qualifications, whether about how we deal with surveys and statistics, influence and innovation, or intention and audience perceptions. It is at this level that critique is most useful, rather than assuming one approach is inherently better than the other.
My own interests have been in explaining what the Bible is understood to mean in English political discourse over the past decades and why. There are dominant clichés about the Bible that are regularly assumed by politicians or political activists which have subtly changed over the past forty years and, I would argue, such changes are part of broader cultural, social, political, and economic changes (in particular the shift towards neoliberal economics), while the Bible continually functions as a source of political authority. That is a literacy of sorts, irrespective of whether we personally approve or not. Indeed, it seems that this sort of biblical literacy involves either vague generalities like the Bible/Jesus/Easter/Christmas is the originator of liberal democracy or a handful of repeated texts like the Good Samaritan or Render unto Caesar, which serve roughly the same function. It is notable that, say, Psalm 137.9 or Revelation 17.16, are not discussed at any length. I am also interested in proliferation of KJV idioms and how the Bible is perpetuated in the context of so-called free-market economics. This raises plenty of questions about what sort of Bible we might be dealing with in the decades to come. It might survive in phrases and through idioms but will anyone notice?
I have not spent much time at all on ‘Bible literacy’ and this is merely due to constraints of time and sometimes unpredictable directions interests can take. Happily for me, hard work is being (and has been) carried out in the Big Bible Project. But perhaps here is where crossing over of questions could be of help to each other. If tendencies in changes in ‘Bible literacy’ can be established, then what sorts of historical, cultural and ideological reasons help explain such changes? Are broader cultural assumptions about what the Bible ‘really means’ related to changes in ‘Bible literacy’? And why are some biblical stories remembered and some forgotten?
James Crossley is Professor of Bible, Society and Politics at St Mary’s University, Twickenham. His two most recent books are Harnessing Chaos: The Bible in English Political Discourse since 1968 (London and New York: T&T Clark/Bloombsury, 2014) and Jesus and the Chaos of History: Redirecting the Life of the Historical Jesus (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).