Growing an Audience
If biblical scholars want to continue to have relevance (and stay employed) we have to start talking more about why people should care about the Bible, not relying on the fact that they historically have. We need to quit depending on religious institutions (or maybe religious radio) to cultivate a “tradition” that we can expertly correct. We need to speak more about why the Bible matters to us, what we think it has to offer beyond “background.”
By Julia M. O’Brien
Professor of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament,
Lancaster Theological Seminary, Lancaster, PA (USA)
In a July 2009 essay, Philip Davies pointed to the irony inherent in biblical scholarship: our work challenges what a lot of people believe about the Bible, even as our livelihood depends on them continuing to care about it.
As he points out, the institutions that have historically promoted interest in the Bible are foundering (at least in the U.S. and Europe). Compared to 20 years ago, fewer people go to church, even fewer know basic Bible stories, and still fewer “traditional” interpretations of Bible stories. Every year in the mainline seminary in which I teach, I encounter more aspiring pastors who have never heard of Daniel or the allegorical reading of Song of Songs. If I want to challenge a traditional interpretation, I have to teach it first. My colleague in New Testament doesn’t face quite the same level of biblical illiteracy: he can still count on most people having strong opinions about Jesus. But even he reports that students’ knowledge derives far more from pop culture and pop religion than from the Gospels.
Teachers aren’t the only ones facing this environment. So too are those who publish books about the Bible. In a culture where the Bible has lost its traditional hold, what words about the Bible will sell?
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about popular publishing on the Bible—the titles that make it into chain bookstores and on the New York Times bestseller lists. And I’ve concluded that almost all take one of these angles:
1. Support religious beliefs still in circulation by explaining them in contemporary terms. Some are straight biblical application (The Purpose Driven Life). Some claim to challenge religious tradition while actually remaining fairly orthodox (The Shack). Still others provide fresh takes on theological claims like atonement, often supported by historical arguments (Borg and Crossan).
2. Hit the biblical convictions still in circulation really, really hard. This approach tries to convince readers that foundational biblical claims rest on shaky historical grounds. Still think Jesus was single? That Moses was a real person? That the Israelites took Canaan in a lightning raid? That the Bible you hold in your hands is a faithful translation of the original? Read this book for the real story! (Bart Ehrman; Dan Brown; The Red Tent).
3. Argue the civic merits of biblical/religious literacy. This approach chronicles the myriad reasons that good citizens should know Bible content, whether or not they are personally religious. Biblical literacy is necessary for appreciating great works of art and Romantic poetry, as well as grasping the foundations of Western legal codes. And, since Christianity, Judaism, and Islam continue to be major forces in the world, a well-informed person needs insight into foundational documents like the Quran and the Bible (Stephen Prothero).
4. Help preserve and popularize the ways in which religious traditions once read. Although this approach has been less commercially successful than the first two, it does appeal to people who are interested in learning about traditional readings without having to go to church or synagogue to do so. Midrash is presented as fascinating folk-tale and as insight into “Jewish” interpretation; the diverse reading strategies of the church fathers provide a platform for postmodern, reader-centered readings of Scripture (James Kugel).
5. Chronicle the adventures of secular people encountering the Bible for the first time. These books aren’t written by biblical scholars but their opposite: the novice trying out the Bible. They follow a standard formula in which the skeptic becomes a (little bit of a) believer, surprised to find that the Bible’s not as bad as expected (The Year of Living Biblically; The Good Book).
There are other approaches, some that I’m sure readers of The Bible and Interpretation will name. But it seems to me that those writing (and publishing) for the “the public” assume that the only thing that matters about the Bible is (1) whether it stands up to historical scrutiny and (2) how it shapes individual faith and/or larger societies.
What I don’t find is any popular treatment of what most interests me about the Bible: how it shares with other literature the ability to invite reflection on the human conditions. I use the plural of “conditions” because I’m not interested in resurrecting an old Bible as Literature approach in which intellectuals of a particular social class, gender, and sexual orientation claim to speak for all people. Rather, I’m interested in how the Bible, like novels, helps illumine the particularities of humans and their societies. On my website, I’ve launched Reading the Bible as an Adult as an attempt to do this kind of reading (http://juliamobrien.net).
I don’t know if my project will find a readership. I don’t know if it’s the right way to spark the conversation I want to have. But I do believe that if biblical scholars want to continue to have relevance (and stay employed) we have to start talking more about why people should care about the Bible, not relying on the fact that they historically have. We need to quit depending on religious institutions (or maybe religious radio) to cultivate a “tradition” that we can expertly correct. We need to speak more about why the Bible matters to us, what we think it has to offer beyond “background.” For my part, I’ll be attempting to help people see that the Bible matters as literature and as a window into the particularities of human living.