Biblical Literacy and Preaching (Part 5)

10 May

Introduction

The issues raised by the various contributors to the book Rethinking Biblical Literacy become important to this discussion at this point in the study. The overarching point made by the various authors is this: that many Christians today (for a wide variety of reasons) continue to demonstrate negative reactions to the portrayal of the Bible in popular media.

This can be seen by the many and varied reactions by Christians to films such as Noah and Exodus, charging that they weren’t “biblically accurate.” Christians also picketed movie theaters protesting The Last Temptation of Christ. Some were displeased at the use of Scripture in television shows like Lost, or The Simpsons; and finally, many Christians are offended by comedians who poke fun at the Bible in their routines–such as Eddie Izzard’s spin on Noah’s Ark, George Carlin’s mocking of the use of the Bible in American courtrooms, or Ricky Gervais’s observations on the creation story in Genesis, and so on.

Redefining “Biblical Literacy”

However, to react in such a negative way completely misses another important point raised in the book: that biblical literacy, while it may be changing from a literacy-based view to that of a media- or visually-based engagement, has not entirely disappeared from public consciousness. Thus, rather than merely reacting negatively every time they feel the Bible is misrepresented or mocked, Christians should actually be happy that the Bible still plays a part in society, regardless of the form in which it takes!

This  observation, in turn, becomes a completely new avenue by which to engage both with the biblical text and contemporary society. Far from being a bad thing, we should embrace and explore these new cultural appropriations of Scripture, for a variety of reasons.

The reality is, quite interesting, however: many recent movies and television shows (for example Noah, Year One, Exodus, Lost, The Simpsons) reveal the fact that Hollywood ,for one, is still very much interested in utilizing the Bible as a means of entertainment.

The fact remains that there are both implicit and explicit references, as well as clear use of the Scriptures, within all of those media forms. Moreover, comedians such as Ricky Gervais, Rhod Gilbert, George Carlin, Eddie Izzard and others utilize elements of Scripture within many of their comedy routines. This reality leads to two observations:

  1. There still are certain levels of biblical literacy within society. For example, current movie and television screenwriters have to assume that the viewers of such media will in fact recognize the allusion or reference; if they do not, it may well engender discussion and further research.[1]
  2. These new forms of biblical literacy are not necessarily based on reading the text. Simply because it is different than preferred literacy- and academically-based notions, does not mean that it is not a real literacy. Hine points out, for example, that there are other “real literacies” of the Bible beyond simply studying and reading of it, as a written text. She maintains that “wherever the Bible appears in popular culture, or culture more broadly, somebody is using it knowingly or it would not be there to spot, and if it was not going to be spotted it would be less meaningful.”[2] Televisions shows such as The Simpsons, for example, make consistent use of such means of allusion to the Bible (whether direct or indirect), as well as biblical concepts; the writers simply expect the viewer to make the connection.

Biblical Literacy Within the Wider Society

This point involves a major issue at this stage in the discussion. As an illustration of how this functions, witness for example the conclusions reached by a 2010 survey commissioned by the Centre for Biblical Literacy and Communication in Durham, UK. The CBLC survey operates on the traditional assumption that Bible reading is the preferred solution for what the report refers to as the “malady” of biblical illiteracy affecting society today.[3] The study concluded that when compared to its presentation in the popular media, “the Bible is not the Bible when it is entertaining, it seems…Non-textual bibles are downplayed. As not-written and not-read, they are not counted.”[4]

Other cultural representations and appropriations of the biblical text in media are oftentimes discounted as illegitimate sources of content, since they do not involve received, or traditional, readings of the text. Hine points out that this represents the hegemonic literary academic point of view that “is accompanied at times by a form of cultural philistinism…because it places high value on written literacy to the neglect of other forms, sometimes with a political edge.”[5]

Despite this traditional view of text-based literacy, however, these cultural representations and appropriations of the text can often serve to host new and interesting ways in which to engage traditional views of the Scriptures. Many times they subvert or undermine issues the text raises but does not address, and can oftentimes challenge or outright debunk traditional, received readings of the Scriptures.[6]

Biblical Scholarship and New Forms of Literacy

Although potentially disturbing to those who continue to hold traditional readings of the text, such cultural representations of the Bible can accomplish at least two purposes, the first of which concerns the teaching of the Scripture in academic circles. For biblical scholars the questions become: should we bring various cultural representations and appropriations of the biblical text into the world of biblical scholarship? Should it be considered on the same level as academic exegesis?

Blyth argues that biblical scholars definitely should, for the following reason:

If biblical scholars are serious about fostering a continued enthusiasm for the biblical traditions among fellow scholars, students and other interested readers, it is imperative that we do indeed ‘dare’ to bring popular culture into the conversation as a new and infinitely valuable way of knowing these ancient texts. In doing so, we might stand a chance of keeping the Bible alive as the essential piece of our “cultural luggage” that it unquestionably is.[7]

The point raised by Blyth here is that rather than serving as antagonistic role (as in perhaps Newbigin’s “Christ versus culture” model), the Bible can be viewed instead as participating in the conversation via its representation within popular culture. Blyth further maintains that

Through their various media, cultural texts—such as film, song, advertising, fiction and the visual arts—can serve as accessible and ubiquitous conduits through which individuals might meaningfully engage with the Bible, finding within them elucidations, validations, comments or critiques of the biblical material that they reference.[8]

Second, engaging Scripture in discussion with contemporary cultural texts also serves to accomplish another significant aim: to show that there is the possibility of the biblical texts being open to multiple, rather than received monologic readings. On this point, Blyth states:

Intentionally or not, such cultural representations can draw our attention to the biblical text in novel ways, offering new depths, possibilities, tensions, problems and contradictions that may not always be apparent even to the more seasoned and biblically literate reader.[9]

Models for Engagement

In this connection, Blyth provides a helpful model of ways in which to engage with both Scripture and its cultural appropriation. In order to make use of both she suggests that one ask five questions:

  1. “Are the biblical traditions being parodied, condoned or critiqued within their new cultural location?”
  2. “How might the reader react to them within this location?”
  3. “Do these biblical traditions serve as possible symbols or signifiers for a wider narrative theme or concern within the biblical text?”
  4. Can allusions to the biblical text within the cultural representation serve to confront current hegemonic social systems?
  5. Can the cultural representation serve as a sort of “hermeneutical lens” on the biblical traditions that invite new critiques (cultural, feminist etc.) of these ancient texts from the reader?[10]

To these five helpful questions, Meredith adds two more that could be asked of the cultural appropriation of biblical materials.

  1. What levels of biblical literacy of the audience or viewers of the media is assumed by the cultural representation in question?
  2. Does the cultural representation serve to debunk, undermine or question the authority of the Bible in received tradition?[11]

Therefore, rather than simply reacting negatively to the ways in which the Scripture is being culturally appropriated, such an approach to both text and culture can provide a new means of engagement with both.

Implications for Preaching

This study has suggested that the calls for increased biblical literacy within Western society need to be evaluated critically by analyzing more closely the various stakeholders involved in the discussion. Upon closer examination, the four identifiable voices in question were seen to have certain vested interests and identifiable agendas related to keeping the discussion to the forefront. In terms of preachers and the question of biblical literacy, two implications raised by this study can be noted.

  1. Preachers calling for higher levels of biblical literacy need to re-examine the motives driving such entreaties. As noted in earlier posts, there simply is not an automatic connection between knowledge of the Scripture and being somehow a “better Christian” as opposed to those “terrible Christians” who do not read or know their Bibles (as Stetzer and others would have it). For example, the Gospels give abundant testimony to those “experts in the Torah” who knew the Scriptures inside and out, yet missed the Messiah on their own doorstep. The very ones who arguably knew the Hebrew Scriptures the best were among those calling for Jesus’ execution. Moreover, almost every single current (or former) church leader could give numerous examples of church members who know their Bibles extremely well, and yet behave in very un-Christlike ways toward others, both within and without the church building. Church leaders and denominations must re-evaluate the connection between biblical literacy and Christian maturity, and furthermore examine their motives behind continual appeals for Christians simply to read their Bibles as the automatic avenue toward Christ-likeness.
  2. Beyond examining the connection between the text and discipleship, preachers should additionally evaluate various theological agendas behind calls for increased biblical literacy. The automatic connection between Scripture reading and discipleship may be, as pointed out earlier, driven by biblicism or even bibliolatry.

Biblicism and Bibliolatry

Despite what a lot of Christians may believe, the reality is that the Bible is not a “magic book” that automatically changes its readers, simply based on some inherent power within its printed words. Perhaps positively, on the one hand, conservative evangelicals are concerned to maintain a high view of biblical inspiration, inerrancy and authority. This consequently leads to a correspondingly high view of the place of the sermon in the worship service, and preaching is often viewed as the hub around which the entire weekly service revolves. There is also a corresponding concern to maintain high levels of biblical literacy among conservative evangelical congregations, and thus expository preaching is viewed as the most effective ways to achieve this goal.[12]

Negatively, however, on the other hand, there is first of all the very real danger that conservatives, in their attempts to uphold inerrancy and authority of Scripture, may fall victim to biblicism—the worship of the Bible itself rather than God. Lundblad points out that the position  that demands an inerrant and literal view of Scripture can lead to almost a worship of the book itself as somehow “magical” that “comes alive” when it is read and preached. For those who teach and preach, she says, should “not worship the Bible but God who is beyond the Bible…Many inside the church are still captive to the temptation to worship the book itself…The book itself becomes an object of worship, replacing the worship of God.”[13]

Such a view of Scripture may also reinforce a modernist, Enlightenment communication model of preaching: an unbroken line between a truth-telling God, the Scriptures, the interpreter and finally the sermon itself if the text possesses some sort of “magical” power to transform lives.

Moreover, there exists the very real the possibility that if too much attention is concentrated upon the words of Scripture itself, biblicism can lead to bibliolatry, which can foster an idolatrous attitude toward the Bible. Barr believes that such a move makes “the text itself eclipse the subject it is primarily concerned to proclaim. This becomes a bibliolatry, and stands in tension with—is actually a denial of—scripture itself. Thus, to put it somewhat paradoxically, to concentrate too much attention on scripture is actually ‘unscriptural.’”[14]

Biblicism and bibliolatry in turn can also lead to the possibility of conservative preachers interpreting the Bible through the lens of a particular theological grid or hermeneutical commitments based upon their doctrine of Scripture. An infallible and inerrant text that can be interpreted via “approved” exegetical methods can also lead to the formulation of unquestioned dogma. Lundblad warns of this possibility:

Just as there is a problem with worshipping the words themselves, so, too, there can be a problem with a controlling metaphor that frames the words with our own formulations. The Bible is often messy, confusing, confounding, and contradictory. There is always a danger that we will insist on shaping the Bible in our own image.[15]

Brueggemann refers to such a move as a “creedal scholasticism” that, rather than allowing the text to speak ironically ends up silencing the voice of the text by not allowing the God of the Bible to “leak out” beyond what is considered “good orthodox doctrine.”[16]

Conclusion

At this point, it may be helpful to return to the point made by the various contributors to the work Rethinking Biblical Literacy. Preachers and church leadership should understand that cultural adaptations of the Bible, while perhaps potentially offensive to received views of the text, should be viewed instead as an encouragement that the Bible still remains a part of the cultural language.

As noted above, rather than simply reacting in horror or anger that the Bible is somehow being abused or maligned in its various cultural adaptations, such new ways of reading the Scriptures actually provide both the means and a basis for ongoing discussion. Blyth points out, for example, that “the study of a contemporary cultural appropriation of biblical material can stimulate new engagements with the biblical material for scholars, students and other interested readers alike.”[17]

What does all this mean? One major implication is this: that currently there exists a pressing need for a re-examination, and possible redefinition of, the concept of “biblical literacy.” Statistics are abundantly clear that from a strictly content-basis alone, while on the one hand people’s knowledge about the contents and teachings of the Bible may be at an all-time low, on the other hand such a definition of literacy involves essentially “using the Bible as background information.”

Moreover, it also restricts literacy to a text-based model rather than a visual or some other approach to the Bible. What is also abundantly clear is that the concept of “literacy” today involves a much different understanding the text in terms of images or other forms of media that are increasingly seen as being just as valid as a text-based literate approach. Furthermore, such forms of literacy may even be more effective in terms of challenging received understandings of both literacy and the Bible.

It is all too easy simply to react negatively to these cultural representations and appropriations of biblical materials, as for example: Christians who picketed theaters showing The Last Temptation of Christ; the Catholic Church’s censuring of Madonna’s “Girl Gone Wild Video”; or internecine squabbling about alleged biblical inconsistencies in movies like Exodus and Noah. Instead of these knee-jerk reactions, perhaps Christians could adopt a different approach to the situation.

Rather than being merely offended, perhaps instead, take a step back and attempt (as objectively as is possible) to assess the ways in which the text is being used, and understood by the particular cultural appropriation. As noted earlier, asking the series of questions listed above when assessing the cultural appropriation of a biblical text or concept can certainly help. Such a model may well bring about a new engagement with both the culture and the biblical material. The bottom line is this: Any view of the Scripture that challenges the hegemony of received interpretations should be viewed as a positive; and furthermore, the various cultural adaptations of the text provide just such an opportunity for preachers who have ears to hear it, eyes to see it and the open-mindedness to embrace new possibilities.

Footnotes

[1] For example, the television show Lost spawned many online forums that discussed the use of Scripture and biblical references and allusions scattered throughout the entire series.

[2] Hine, Iona. “The Quest for Biblical Literacy: Curricula, Culture and Case Studies.” In Rethinking Biblical Literacy. Edwards, Katie, ed. London: Bloomsbury (2015): 64.

[3] Meredith, “A Big Room for Poo,” 192.

[4] Ibid., 192.

[5] Hine, “The Quest for Biblical Literacy,” 65.

[6] Meredith, “A Big Room for Poo,” 207.

[7] Blyth, Caroline. “Lisbeth and Leviticus: Biblical Literacy and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” In Rethinking Biblical Literacy. Edwards, Katie, ed. London: Bloomsbury (2015): 183.

[8] Ibid., 167.

[9] Ibid., 167.

[10] Ibid., 169.

[11] Meredith, “A Big Room for Poo,” 207.

[12] MacArthur, for example, maintains: “The special attention of evangelicalism given to the inerrancy of Scripture in recent years carries with it a mandate to emphasize the expository method of preaching the Scriptures. The existence of God and His nature requires the conclusion that He has communicated accurately and that an adequate exegetical process to determine His meaning is required. The Christian commission to preach God’s Word involves the transmitting of that meaning to an audience, a weighty responsibility. A belief in inerrancy thus requires, most important of all, exegetical preaching and does not have to do primarily with the homiletical form of the message.” (“The Mandate of Biblical Inerrancy,” 3).

[13]Lundblad, Barbara L. “Biblical Preaching in Babel.” Currents in Theology and Mission Number 30 Volume 4 (August 2003): 247.

[14]Barr, William R. “Preaching: A Theological View.” Lexington Theological Quarterly Volume 16 Number 4 (October 1981): 118.

[15]Lundblad, “Biblical Preaching in Babel,” 247.

[16] Brueggemann, Walter. “The Preacher, the Text, and the People.” Review and Expositor 102 (Summer 2005): 495.

[17] Blyth, “Lisbeth and Leviticus,” 168.

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