Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Biblical illiteracy

I recently purchased the King James Bible on audiobook (60 CDs! complete with attractive and convenient carrying case!), and since then my in-car time has been all about getting cozy with The Word.

It's for work, of course, or mostly for work: I know the Bible decently well, but it's been a long while since I read it in any systematic way, and I've never read the KJV except piecemeal. But naturally, the audiobook isn't intended for scholars, and as a result it's ridiculously cheap: I got the complete set from Amazon for just over $30--or exactly the same price as the audiobook of Hilary Mantel's novel Wolf Hall.

The comments on Amazon make the target market for this product clear, while also revealing some depressing things about twenty-first-century Bible reading and biblical literacy. Quite a lot of the reviewers describe the King James version as the "authentic" text of the Bible or "God's word in the original." (One or two people claim that the KJV is "the best and most accurate" translation of the Bible, which at least identifies the text as a translation--though without doing much to establish the commenters' own credibility.)

Now, I'm delighted that there are so many people out there listening to, and presumably a much larger number reading, the King James Bible. But I'm not so thrilled about the ignorant, ahistorical, unliterary, and arguably un-spiritual way in which they seem to be doing it.

The King James Bible is lovely, and its translations of various stories--and, more generally, its prose rhythms--have had tremendous influence on the literature of the entire English-speaking world. And goodness knows I'm all for exposing more people to the syntax and diction of Early Modern English. But it is not the best or most accurate translation of the Bible, much less God's Word in the Original, and to imagine that its Olde Timey language makes it more spiritually authentic is to confuse aesthetic effects for divine ones--and that is fundamentally un-Protestant.

But then, contemporary Protestantism is pretty un-Protestant, isn't it? And as someone who is deeply intellectually invested in the Reformation, I think that's a scandal. I'll stick with issues of biblical engagement for now, though obviously there are others (Jesus's face on the side of a building, anyone?). Most of my self-identified Christian students do not know the Bible. I don't live in the Bible Belt, so I lack a certain kind of evangelical student, but I do have students who are very active in their churches, who occasionally make arguments based on "what the Bible teaches," and who not only have not read the entire Bible, but who barely know its major stories; I've gotten blank looks when I mention Moses in the bullrushes, or the parable of the prodigal son.

Let me be clear: I'm very happy to live in a secular society, and I don't sit around bemoaning the average student's lack of biblical literacy; the ability to catch a passing biblical reference is nice, but not essential (that's what footnotes are for--and when a work's engagement with the Bible really matters, I give my students the relevant biblical passage; in certain classes, I've made the KJV itself a required text).

But the average Protestant--and I mean the average, church-going Protestant, someone who claims his religion as an important part of his identity--does not appear to be reading the Bible himself. He relies upon other people to tell him what the Good Book "says," and from what I can tell, many if not most nondenominational church services don't even present the text of the Bible in any systematic or thorough way. These days, ironically, a Catholic who attends church every Sunday is likelier to know the Bible than many Protestants who do the same.

That leaves the Bible in a strange limbo: continually touted as the Word of God, but removed from the intellectual and spiritual traditions that made meaning out of it.

And though I'm both a Catholic and a secularist myself, this breaks my heart.

11 comments:

Susan said...

What a lovely post. And I think you have nailed the way so many modern protestants experience the Bible as a series of proof texts, cut off from surrounding context.

FLG said...

"Quite a lot of the reviewers describe the King James version as the "authentic" text of the Bible or "God's word in the original.""

I'm reminded of:
"If English was good enough for Jesus, then it’s good enough for Texas schoolchildren."

ElwoodCity, Ph.D. said...

Ironic, since it was not being able to read the bible that started all the protest in the first place, eh?

meg said...

AV-olatry, as David Norton calls it, is a plague -- although not quite the pestilence that is the King James Only movement.

The notion of correct doctrine, which Prot churches seem to be just as invested in as the Cath churches, leads to putting the word of authority figures ahead of the word of THE authority figure (ie, God as known through scripture).

In my Bible as Lit class, I have a question on an early quiz that shouldn't be a trick question but is: Why do A&E get turfed out of Eden? If they say anything about fruit -- much less apples, which don't appear in Genesis! -- BZZZZZT. (That sound isn't quite a cattle prod, but it is the sound of a warning shot flying over a student bow.)

Dr. Virago said...

"And though I'm both a Catholic and a secularist myself, this breaks my heart."

I might have said the *exact* same thing. It's truly weird, isn't it, when the Catholics seem to have been more influenced by the Reformation than Protestants (or, well, the Counter-Reformation, anyway)? Most American Protestants -- and especially the non-denominational mega-church kinds -- are Protestant in name only (PINOs?).

And Susan's description above sounds exactly like the complaints once lobbed at Catholics. Talk about the world turned upside-down!

And it's especially disheartening when certain kinds of Protestant Christians throw around the phrase "Bible-based" without a whole lot of Bible to go with it.

Of course, I sometimes have the opposite problem -- especially when teaching something like medieval drama -- where a student will dismiss the text as "getting it wrong" because whatever it does/says isn't in the Bible, but in interpretative or devotional tradition. But that's a rant for another day.

Flavia said...

Meg:

This hits the nail on the head for me:

The notion of correct doctrine, which Prot churches seem to be just as invested in as the Cath churches, leads to putting the word of authority figures ahead of the word of THE authority figure (ie, God as known through scripture).

It seems to me that most Protestants (probably most believers of all stripes, actually) are moving gradually away from a Bible-based faith and toward the position that the only thing that matters is their own, private relationship with God.

I don't have any particular problem with that kind of religiosity, except when it's accompanied by the insistence that everything they've independently decided is true about God IS in the Bible--and is, moreover, binding for everyone else. Then I cry foul.

If the Bible really is your alpha and omega, read the damn thing. Wrestle with its complications and contradictions. Maybe even learn some Greek and some Hebrew to see whether what you think the text says in a particular place actually is what it says.

And if you're not prepared to do those things--or at least to approach the text with real humility and spiritual openness to what you might find there--then you don't get to wave the book around and claim that everything you believe and everything people need to know is "in the Bible."

meg said...

I'm with you 100% on this, Flav.

My Bible as Lit class is generally about 1/3 devout Protestants, 1/3 religious ignoramuses, and 1/3 other. The first group go through some very trying times as they slowly come to terms with the fact that some of their doctrine, which they thought was scriptural, in fact is not. That lip service to the Bible is my great weapon, though; occasionally they'll get upset about something said in class, but they can't point it at me or other students because the offending ideas are right there on the page.

Flavia said...

Oh, and Dr. V: love the PINO acronym. May start using it.

Evey said...

it seems like the good old U.S. constitution suffers similarly. lots of blustery claims with very little actual knowledge or sense of wonder (i'd argue the constitution should inspire wonder and even humility too). i do believe The Onion features jokes about this fairly regularly.

and but dude, you had me at "Olde Timey."

Renaissance Girl said...

"If the Bible really is your alpha and omega, read the damn thing. Wrestle with its complications and contradictions. Maybe even learn some Greek and some Hebrew to see whether what you think the text says in a particular place actually is what it says."

Yeah. What she said. And, I would add, let it be okay that there ARE complications and contradictions, without which there wouldn't be a Judeochristian tradition in the first place. Because unchallenging texts get, as it were, Left Behind.

anumma.com said...

(A biblical studies prof, coming late to the party, blows Flavia and her readers a kiss and adds his +1. Also, the students should take some serious history, but actually reading the Bible will probably convince them of that, anyway.)