You may have also seen Dr Katie Edwards piece in The Times on Saturday exploring Biblical Literacy - sadly the link is behind a paywall. Katie believes that the 'ubiquitous" presence of the Bible in contemporary society means that biblical literacy is on the increase. Personally I think these are cultural echoes rather than evidence of biblical literacy. I am hoping I can write a piece of The Conversation sometime this week to make this point a little more clearly. If not, it will be on here.
Sadly, no hints from The Conversation that they are interested in the pitch but...I thought it would be good to come back to this since there have been some developments.
First of all, the article appeared on Saturday without any reference to the work which I had put together offering a different slant. The article included some very critical comments about the Church of England and it's "intellectual snobbery"; on Rowan Williams "persistently bemoan[ing] the scourge of Bible illiteracy that we are all apparently experiencing". Indeed, this "pandemic" is hitting academics, teachers and public figures such as Joan Bakewell and Andrew Motion. Instead Dr Edwards wants to assert that it is in the cultural arena, amidst the lyrics of hip-hop stars, Eddie Izzard and "pop culture" that the Bible is alive and well. Indeed, the article is a kind of advertisement for the book which is being published in February on this very issue, Rethinking Biblical Literacy.
I think Katie is setting up a whole army of straw men to knock down. The Church of England and its leadership is an easy target in contemporary society. An iconoclast in the grand tradition of Sheffield Biblical Studies (I did my PhD there and so I am aware of the tradition), Katie sets her aim to shoot across the bow of institutional Christianity - it's good fodder for the sensationalist press. I just dont think it matches the reality of this area of research where the Church of England has not been a major contributor. In fact, all of those cultural allusions and echoes of which Katie makes so much, are more likely to have been secured within the British psyche because of the work of the Church of England, because of the Book of Common Prayer, because of Cranmer's obsession with the Bible, further reinforced by the Evangelical Revival springing from the Church of England. I'm not an Anglican, but I think this is a sensationalist pot-shot rather than a valid critique of intellectual snobbery on their part.
Katie's final sentence is interesting: "Yes, the Bible matters for us all, not only Christians, because the Bible is used in contemporary culture to address the big social questions of our time." I'm not sure that I, or anyone else, would disagree with this. However, I would argue that what Katie is talking about is not biblical literacy. Literacy is about reading, about direct engagement with the text of the Bible, or about an awareness of the contents of that text. I'm not sure that those teaching English Literacy would be content with people recognising apples in the street - they would want them to be able to read the word "apple" as well.
Bad example perhaps.
But what Katie is correctly arguing is that biblical imagery, phraseology, motifs are part and parcel of English speaking social identity and cultural heritage. This is of huge benefit to those of us trying to engage people in the task of biblical literacy because they already know some of the basic building blocks. It's easier to teach biblical Greek if people know the Greek alphabet already! But, that's not to say that knowing that Greek letters are used as symobls in Mathematics means you know some Greek.
Those of us who are researching biblical literacy, rather than the intertextual and intersocial echoes of the bible in contemporary society, know that there is a problem with Bible illiteracy. And it is not the Church of England who are beating this drum on their own, nor indeed are they at all conspicuous in this argument. It is the professors of English Literature departments in the USA who wrote the Fairfax Reports almost a decade ago; the Bible Societies who have produced report after report on the decline; the Evangelical Alliance's Biblefresh project which queried the church's own lack of biblical literacy again based on the hard statistical evidence of decline.
It is true that more work needs to be done. CODEC needs to repeat the National Biblical Literacy Survey we carried out in 2008/9. We need to have a steady stream of comparative data to test the anecdotal assumption that biblical literacy is on the decline. We need a thorough look at what we actual mean by biblical literacy (and Katie is providing one side of that examination - I'm hoping to provide another).
But, in the meantime, we do need to be careful to ensure we are actually speaking about the same kind of thing - in the end Biblical literacy is about reading the Bible, engaging with the Bible. I remain convinced that the use of the Bible by the popstars is NOT about addressing the big social issues of the day but about subverting the biblical record and playing upon cultural echoes - certainly that seems to have been the obvious tactic of the Director of the recent Noah film, based more on apocryphal traditions of the Watchers than on the Biblical text about Noah - the Director set out to make the most unbiblical film of all time!
I have now been given the text of the online version of the article which does include some of the stuff I wrote in response to Katie's article and so, for the record, here it is. But I can see this going on for a while...
And lo, Lady Gaga’s Judas begat Kanye West’s Yeezus, and Kanye West’s Yeezus begat Lily Allen’s Sheezus, and together they went forth and offended the Church mightily.
Something like that. Study after study has shown that biblical literacy is on the wane, reduced to a casual plaything of the film and music industries.
Or is it? A new book tries to explode the Church of England’s “intellectual snobbery” about biblical references in popular culture and argue that the stories are reaching a wider audience than ever before.
Katie Edwards, lecturer in The Bible in Contemporary Culture at the University of Sheffield, claims that the prevailing pessimism about young people’s familiarity with chapter and verse is a nonsense.
She said: “The Church of England has a lot of questions to answer in this respect. Its leaders, including Rowan Williams [the former Archbishop of Canterbury], persistently bemoan the scourge of Bible illiteracy that we are all apparently experiencing.
“Worse still, it isn’t actually only the Church of England that seems to view biblical illiteracy as a pandemic — it is also academics, teachers and public figures, for example Joan Bakewell and the former poet laureate Andrew Motion, who assume that biblical literacy is in widespread decline.”
In Rethinking Biblical Literacy, due to be published in the spring, Dr Edwards talks to scholars who contend that scripture is flourishing as vigorously as ever — just not where you would expect. From Eddie Izzard’s riff on the flood story from Genesis — “I want an ark, with a big room for poo” — to echoes of Leviticus in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the academics claim that pop culture gives young people a new and complex way to engage with the Bible.
Dr Edwards, who calls Jesus “the biggest celebrity of them all”, said: “Jesus imagery is very common in hip-hop videos, and Mary Magdalene and Mary, mother of Jesus, can be used in haute couture fashion — see the Jean Paul Gaultier Spring 2007 collection, which was inspired by the biblical Marys.”
Partly to prove her point, and partly, one suspects, to wind up critics, Dr Edwards commissioned the graffiti artist Kid Acne to spray a hip-hop nativity on the side of a Sheffield school for the city’s Festival of the Mind.
“At the heart of a lot of these discussions , I think, is intellectual snobbery,” Dr Edwards said. “Yes, the Bible matters for us all, not only Christians, but not because I think that to be considered ‘truly educated’ or ‘sufficiently cultured’ you should be familiar with certain cultural products like the KJV Bible [King James Version, 1611], as Michael Gove and various public figures suggested during [its] 2011 anniversary, but because the Bible is used in contemporary culture to address the big social questions of our time.”
Studies suggest that the way people consume the Bible is changing. A national survey carried out in 2008 by the University of Durham’s Centre for Biblical Literacy and Communication found that two out of five people knew the story of the Good Samaritan, while only a fifth could tell the researchers anything about Abraham.
On the other hand, half the respondents had seen the 1956 film The Ten Commandments and a quarter had seen Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.
Peter Phillips, the centre’s director, said that biblical references in film and music were “cultural echoes” and different from grappling with scripture first-hand.
“A colleague pointed out to me that he hears people every day using phrases from the book of Ecclesiastes, but without knowing that such a text even exists,” he said. “There have now been over ten surveys from both Christian and secular projects which point to a decline in biblical literacy in both the UK and the USA.
“All of the reports point to a statistical decline in biblical knowledge both within the Church and in society in general. Not one report has argued for an increase in knowledge - not even from those with a vested interest in saying biblical literacy is on the increase.”