Coming to Terms: Biblical Literacy (3) – Pete Phillips

Coming to Terms: Biblical Literacy (3) – Pete Phillips

This is the first part of a two part post on my current thoughts on Biblical Literacy:

The new format for BigBible has opened with an interesting conversation about Biblical Literacy. So far, Josh Mann has queried whether there is a thing called Bible Literacy in addition to Biblical Literacy. In response, James Crossley, perhaps subconsciously channeling the spirit of Sheffield, has argued that Biblical Literacy is “whatever you think it is.” When I was doing my PhD at Sheffield, David Clines and Stephen Moore were saying much the same about biblical determinacy – the reader determined the meaning of the text, not the author. In fact, since the whole interpretative process is in the hands of the reader, we might as well agree with Roland Barthes in talking of the death of the author.

James’ discussion proposes different exemplary clusters of questions about biblical literacy: afterlives of the Bible in “retail, journalism, pop music, sport, etc.”; his own exploration of the ongoing biblical influence in political discourse; and explorations about what the Bible ‘really means’. These clusters are not meant to be exclusive – just a few ideas.

These clusters, though, are interesting to me in that they remind me of classic academic areas of biblical study: reception history, ideological criticism, and biblical hermeneutics. Are we collapsing everything into Biblical Literacy now and forgetting these other categories of research? Is Biblical Literacy a kind of catch-all phrase which covers them all, or is it something slightly different? I certainly don’t think it is whatever you think it is and writers like Gerd Theissen (The Bible and Contemporary Culture) and Richard Bauckham (The Bible and Mission), from different viewpoints on the role of the Bible in contemporary culture, make similar points.

Jonathan Roberts (at the beginning of the Oxford Handbook of the Reception History of the Bible) argues that bible reception is “every single act or word of interpretation of that book” and that reception history is the academic discipline of “collating shards of that infinite wealth” and “giving them a narrative frame.” Chris Rowland, summarising Reception History in Paula Gooder’s Searching for Meaning (p.111ff.), talks of Gadamer’s exploration of Wirkungsgeschichte – the exploration of the text as an effective agent influencing culture in some way or other (“Impact History”?). Reception History, then, is precisely what we find in Katie Edwards’ edited volume Rethinking Biblical Literacy. In picking up strands of bible reception in Lost, Eddie Izzard, Madonna, graffiti artists, the Simpsons and the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the various authors are engaging in classic reception history – pulling these glittering shards into a narrative about the presence and importance of the Bible in contemporary culture. If they turn this round and ask what effect the use of the Bible has on the host culture, then we might see that as Wirkungsgeschichte. As such, I see that work not so much a discussion of biblical literacy per se, but rather of bible reception and reception history, as defined by Jonathan Roberts.

Likewise, much that James seems to propose about the role of the bible in political discourse and its power within society fits well into traditional discussion of ideological criticism as outlined by scholars like Gottwald, Weems, Schussler-Fiorenza, Myers, Belo, Aichele, Pippin, Sugitharajah, Segovia, Rowland and others. In his introduction to “Political readings of Scripture” in The Cambridge Companion to Biblical Interpretation, Tim Gorringe reminds us of the extensive history of interplay between political discourse and the Bible, critically undermind by “the neo-Marcionitism” of van Harnack and others, but resurrected in the political exegesis of the late 20th century (p.67f). Of course, there are different foci of ideological criticism and different directions of travel between text and world – the ideology of the text, the ideology of those transmitting the text, the ideology of societies which embrace the text in different ways and enact their readings of the text in response to their specific contexts, religious ideology, and the ideology of the church. Indeed, it might even be the case that Roberts would want to include all of this under the concept of reception history and Gadamer would certainly include it within Wirkungsgeschichte – seeing James pulling together politico-ideological biblical shards into a narrative of politicians of different hues flirting with a ‘decaffeinated’ text.

On the other hand, hermeneutics is a much bigger and broader concept. This is the science of biblical interpretation and there are libraries full of books, and academic courses a-plenty devoted to it. Hermeneutics has its own categorisation of approaches and methodologies; philosophical forebears overlooking the work of scholars forging new ideologies by the day, it would seem. So, Paula Gooder’s collection of different approaches in Searching the Scriptures provides a good overview of some of the less exotic forms.

These three – reception history, ideological criticism and biblical hermeneutics – are part of the panoply of great methodologies of biblical criticism, along with historical critical methodologies (text, source, form, redaction) and the increasingly popular narrative criticisms and postmodern approaches. But they are pretty well defined with their own lists of scholars, exemplar texts and methodologies. I am not so sure you could say that any of them could be “whatever you think it is.”

So, why does James, and those working in the milieu of Sheffield’s new institute, see Biblical Literacy as a catch-all term. Is this an attempt to reframe the debate about methodologies and approaches? There are so many. It is without doubt that the fragmentation of the discipline(s) around the Bible needs to be reviewed. But rather than replace the mass of micro-theories with something with clarity and definition, James’ words could be read as saying “anything goes” – let’s clear the decks completely and put nothing back in place. I’m sure that’s a misreading.

Rather than becoming a methodological catch-all and taking over from these distinct methodologies, I think biblical literacy, though, starts somewhere smaller, more basic. Biblical literacy begins by asking whether people can read the bible; and, if they can, do they; and, if they do, what do they make of it? (broadly addressed in Máire Byrne and Iona Hine’s essays in Rethinking Biblical Literacy; in Louise Lawrence’s Word on the Street; in Andrew Village’s The Bible and Lay People; and, popularly, in Eugene Petersen’s Eat This Book among many others).

So, Gerd Theissen draws attention to this experiential, ordinary hermeneutic (The Bible and Contemporary Culture, p.x):

But…hermeneutics is often far removed from real-life reading of the Bible. It doesn’t touch on the situations in which men and women actually read and try – and, sometimes, fail – to make sense of the Bible every day. It is these everyday, practical situations that I have especially in mind in what follows…

Of course, in the next part of this post, I will suggest that Biblical Literacy goes much, much further than this but for now I want to hold it there. This is why the National Biblical Literacy survey asked how many people read the Bible today. It’s not a theological question at all. It’s a sociological question, a statistical question, an ethnographical question, equivalent to asking how many people read the Mirror, read Shakespeare, read Welsh.

Bible reception, and literacy arguments in general, point out that ‘reading’ isn’t everything. Immersion in a cultural milieu is as important for absorption of a “text” (being it “left wing British news”, “Shakespeare” or “Welsh”). People can hear the text, see the text, watch a film of the text, gaze at a painting of the text, or run their hands across a Braille script of the text. Lady Gaga, Eddie Izzard, Tracey Emin and Darren Aronofsky can mediate the Bible to us in their art, and retailers sound the depths of our memories with persuasive biblical images.

But for me, we have already rushed on from the first important steps:

  • Who is reading this text for themselves?
  • Who is engaging with it face to face, as it were.
  • How are they engaging with it, through what media.
  • What impact is that text having on their lives.

Biblical literacy has to mean something less than “whatever you want it to mean.” It has to explore that basic, initial and ongoing interaction between people and a text broadly known as ‘the Bible’. That’s where it starts. But, of course, it is certainly not where it ends…

Part II coming soon…

Dr Pete Phillips is Director of the CODEC Research Centre for Digital Theology at Durham University. His research interests include New Testament (esp. Johannine Literature), Postmodern Interpretation, Digital Culture, Biblical Literacy, Being Human in a Digital Age, and Digital Humanities.

One Response to Coming to Terms: Biblical Literacy (3) – Pete Phillips

  1. Hello Dr. Phillips,
    I was at the Sheffield Conference and found it so fascinating that I went on to complete a Master’s Degree in Theology (New Testament Studies) with Catrin H. Williams at the University of Bangor. My dissertation centred around how themes from the Johannine Prologue were played out (literally!) in the dramatic techniques used in the trial before Pilate.
    Following many years as an R.E teacher in secondary schools and then as Course Director of the PGCE in R.E. at the University of Wales, Trinity St. David, I am now the Subject Officer for GCSE Religious Studies at the Welsh Examination Board (WJEC). Having recently writte(and had accredited)two new GCSE specifications(for Wales and for England)that contain more reference to biblical texts than has been ‘popular’ for many a decade,I am interested in beginning research into some aspect of so-called ‘biblical literacy’.
    I am still thinking through some possible areas, but just wanted to make contact and say how interesting I found your article.
    Best wishes,
    Lynda Maddock

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