Posted by: aboutalbion | February 9, 2014

Biblical literacy

The ‘Sunday’ programme [BBC radio 4] this morning had a feature on biblical literacy arising from a [UK] Bible Society survey that indicated the ‘nativity story’ was only recognized as a Bible story by around seventy per cent of the under (age) sixteen respondents.

The argument of the Bible Society in its new ‘pass it on’ campaign is that biblical literacy is necessary to fully understand our English-speaking language and literature as well as the more general European visual arts and music.

My own view is that biblical literacy is important, but that it is not as simple as continuing to read the Bible uncritically.

In past centuries, when the Bible was read uncritically, scores of serviceable sentences were appropriated from the Bible into the culture of common people and are in common use to this day.  Sentences such as “the labourer is worthy of his hire” and “and now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity” spring to mind, and there are very many others.  These and other numerous appropriations from the Bible have added to the stock of wisdom sayings of the English-speaking people.

However, the assumption of the Bible Society that Christianity is self-evidently good, and more generally that organised religion is self-evidently good, and in particular (in the UK) that faith schools are self-evidently good needs to be critically examined.

I consider that Hector Avalos [Iowa State University Professor] has raised two pertinent issues related to these assumptions.

First, the three Abrahamic monotheisms of ‘the west’ have sacred texts each of which enshrines intolerance.  This follows from each divinity revealing himself [and the texts are strongly masculine] to be the only divinity [not just the best of a bunch of divinities] and demanding exclusive worship.  In this contested situation, Avalos poses a pertinent question about representations of the texts of either the Torah, or the New Testament, or the Koran.  In particular, he suggests that any linguistic formulation claiming to be representative of these sacred texts that omits to refer to intolerance is in fact a misrepresentation.  I think that includes the wayside pulpit outside a church that I often pass which claims to be “open to God and open to all”.

Second, reinterpretation of the sacred texts occurs in our time because of the divinely-sponsored intolerance mentioned above and because our culture is so far removed from the culture of the writers of the original texts.  In this searching situation, reinterpretation enables a modern religious scholar to adjust the meaning of a text to fit the modern situation.  Avalos endorses Krister Stendahl‘s ‘puzzling insight’ [published in 1970] that organised religious activity “is affirmed and achieved by discontinuity.  Authority is affirmed and relevance asserted by reinterpretation.”  Stendahl’s insight leads to the observation that ‘a text can and should mean whatever a faith community needs it to mean to keep that text or the [religious] community alive”.  So Avalos asks, ‘Why bother finding out what a text meant if we are allowed to reinterpret it anyway?”

To my way of thinking, Avalos’ observations mean that questions about biblical literacy (in general) and biblical studies (in particular) need quite careful thought.

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Responses

  1. Thank you for your comments about my views of biblical illiteracy. I agree with most of what you said, but I would like to issue a clarification to this statement: “Avalos endorses Krister Stendahl‘s ‘puzzling insight’ [published in 1970] that organised religious activity ‘is affirmed and achieved by discontinuity.'” I actually do not endorse Stendahl’s statement. I quoted it only to show the type of justification that is often given for reinterpretation, but I clearly critique and disavow it on ethical grounds. A better phrasing would be “Avalos challenges Krister Stendahl’s statement…” As an aside, Stendahl was my professor in New Testament.


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