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Mark Noll

Anthropologists Discover the Bible

Cross-cultural studies of “biblicism.”

Preparations are already well underway for numerous events planned next year to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the King James or Authorized Version of the Bible. Compared to celebrations a century ago, the current round will probably be muted, at least somewhat. In 1911, leading public figures of all kinds competed vigorously to outdo each other in praising this translation for its beneficial impact on the English-speaking world. The word came from the White House when William Howard Taft declared that the KJV was "the Bible of our American forefathers. Its classic English has given shape to American literature. Its spirit has influenced American ideals in life and laws and government." The day after President Taft released this statement, The New York Times editorialized that, while it probably was time to move on to newer translations, nonetheless the then 300-year-old version still deserved to be considered "the bud of the herb of civilization, the spring of a new day, the trumpet of a prophecy."[1]

Similar encomia about the positive influence of the KJV showered down from all sides, and not only from religious sources. The general-circulation Century Magazine, for example, hailed the KJV as "the text-book of a race of world-wide relations and influence … not only a great work of literature but a historical document of greater importance in the national life of the English-speaking peoples than Magna Carta … this great textbook of English faith, speech, and morals."[2]

Among the most extravagant voices praising the KJV was former president Theodore Roosevelt. As he saw it, "No other book of any kind ever written in English—perhaps no other book ever written in any other tongue—has ever so affected the whole life of a people as this authorized version of the Scriptures has affected the life of the English-speaking peoples."[3]

This time around, in 2011, praise for the KJV will doubtless reflect circumstances that are considerably different from what prevailed in 1911—many more translations actively in use, much more powerful media competing for public attention, much greater religious (and anti-religious) pluralism in society as a whole. But we will in all likelihood continue to hear a great deal about the "influence," "effects," or "impact" of Scripture.

Precisely such talk is the spur that recently brought into being the intriguing collection of essays edited by James Bielo, a visiting professor of anthropology at Miami University in Ohio, and gathered under the title The Social Life of Scriptures: Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Biblicism.[4]The premise of the book is well-stated by one of its contributors: Although "the Bible is often said to be the most influential book in history, … how and why the Bible has had such influence is as yet rather poorly understood." The authors realize, of course, that much theological discourse has addressed the question of influence. They, by contrast, are suggesting that "the social and psychological processes affecting the way these texts are perceived, understood, and deployed have not been much investigated."

The effort to assess those processes deserves serious consideration even from—maybe especially from—Christian believers who insist that more than just these processes are in play when humans turn to the Book.

Although valid criticisms can be made of some of what appears in The Social Life of Scriptures, its appearance reflects three positive developments. First is the work of Vincent Wimbush, the editor of the series at Rutgers University Press, Signifying (on) Scriptures, in which this volume appears. Wimbush has been a pioneer in addressing the semiotics, social uses, and political effects of the Bible, especially as the editor of a landmark collection of essays published in 2001, African Americans and the Bible: Sacred Text and Social Textures.

Second is the association of several of the book's authors with a relatively new movement called "the anthropology of Christianity." As exemplified best in a book series under that name from the University of California Press, the effort tries to study the world's newer expressions of Christianity with the same empathy and non-judgmental curiosity that anthropologists have historically brought to their examination of primal or indigenous religions. Joel Robbins, who edits the California series, has demonstrated the potential of this approach with his own book on a newer Christian community in Papua New Guinea and defended it in a number of programmatic statements.[5]

This new domain of anthropological study reflects a third factor behind The Social Life of Scriptures, this one ideological. After the foundations were laid by Frazer, Durkheim, and Malinowski, anthropologists long accepted the myth of scientific objectivity as their guiding principle for studying "primitive" societies—while at the same time proceeding as if the Christian heritage of the West was an intellectual and moral incubus to be subverted as a routine matter of course. Self-consciousness about the fraudulence of this posture (never adequate even in terms of the evolution of anthropology as a discipline) has grown gradually, with a major boost from the work of Mary Douglas, who used her Catholic faith to heighten anthropological acumen, and with a host of more recent figures who have subjected the scientistic myths of inevitable secularization to withering scrutiny.

The payoff from these promising developments is apparent in the self-conscious striving for ideological neutrality that marks the essays in Bielo's book. So we are treated in its pages to careful scrutiny of homilies preached by Catholic charismatics and Catholic church loyalists in Guatemala, Bible memorization by Rastafarian Brethren in Jamaica, complaints of Nigerian Anglicans about the American Episcopal Church, the complex relationship between text and charisma in a Southern California Vineyard fellowship, the marketing of Thomas Nelson's Revolve rendition of the New Testament, aimed at teen-aged girls, and the ebb and flow of a weekly Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod men's Bible study in Lansing, Michigan.

What these essays do not provide is conclusive religious or ideological assessment—either of how Scripture works as God's life-transforming Word or how it functions as just another artfully constructed totem propping up patriarchal hegemony.

What they do provide is a great deal of intriguing information and a number of valuable questions. Along with—to be sure— a few simple mistakes (like the assertion that defenders of complementarian gender roles "simply ignore" passages like Galatians 3:28 that are favored by egalitarians) and a little academic huffing and puffing (e.g., "The Bible, as an authoritative text, an icon, or what is more likely, as a powerful piece of the symbolic capital of the evangelical community, will be part of multiple imaginaries in Mesoamerica"). But the instructive pluses far outweigh the distracting minuses.

Thus, among the rural Maya in Guatemala, it turns out that lay catechists who have attended classes led by Madre Chin, a Filipino nun who represents the Catholic chain of command, preach sermons more closely resembling the ideal of an exegetical evangelical sermon than the free-form efforts of Catholic charismatics.

In Jamaica, some Rastafarian Brethren have memorized an immense store of KJV texts that they then "cite-up" in a charged public ritual to attack alcohol, dance halls, and animal protein, as well as to discover more references to Africa and Ethiopia than conventional interpreters usually find.

Nigerian bishops who protest against the American Episcopalian acceptance of homosexuality as legitimate turn out to be exercising "a subversive strategy of subaltern agency that negotiates its own authority, through a process of iterative 'unpicking' and incommensurable, insurgent rethinking."

In the Southern California Vineyard fellowship, influence in the assembly comes from using the Scriptures, but in a way that is 'sensed' … intuited or felt" rather than "induced or decoded" from the biblical passages themselves.

The marketing team that produced Revolve for Thomas Nelson was all female and included no professionally trained theologians, but the result has been a significant increase in the number of teenaged girls in evangelical homes who are actively reading the New Testament.

The study of Missouri Synod Lutherans in Lansing comes closest simply to translating into anthropologese what participants in such studies have long understood in other terms: "the group's interpretive conduct is structured by the ideological principle of textuality. God through 'His Word' can be counted on never to lie, misdirect, or distort His purposes with conflicting messages."

Christian believers of every sort have almost always spoken of the Bible as divine revelation in human form. The best classical teaching on Scripture has insisted that the divinity, the humanity, and the inseparable intertwining of divinity and humanity are crucial for understanding and appropriating Scripture.

Those, therefore, who do believe that the Bible is divine revelation, but who are also willing to study its operation in quotidian real-life situations, should welcome books like The Social Life of Scriptures. They do not answer questions about how to interpret individual passages or the whole of the biblical narrative. Neither do they adjudicate among better or worse ways of putting the Bible to use.

They do, however, make it possible when speaking of the influence of Scripture to move from the romantic and the abstract to the concrete and the particular. Those of us who are already lining up for the 2011 celebration of the KJV should read and heed.

Mark Noll is Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author most recently of The New Shape of World Christianity: How American Experience Reflects Global Faith (InterVarsity Press).

1. The New York Times, April 27, 1911, p. 8.

2. The Century Magazine, Vol. 82, No. 1 (May 1911), pp. 148-49.

3. Theodore Roosevelt, "The Bible and the Life of the People," in Realizable Ideals (Books for Libraries, 1969 [orig. 1911]), p. 69.

4. "Biblicism" is not used disparagingly here, but as a word trying to encompass beliefs about the Bible, strategies of interpreting the Bible, ways of putting biblical words to use, and treatment of Bibles as physical objects.

5. Joel Robbins, Becoming Sinners: Christianity and Moral Torment in a Papua New Guinea Society (Univ. of California Press, 2004); "The Anthropology of Christianity," special issue of Religion, Vol. 33 (2003).

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