In a recent piece for CNN’s religion blog, “Actually, that’s not in the Bible,” John Blake examines the ubiquity of “phantom scripture” in American Christian communities. By “phantom scripture” he means ideas, teachings, and passages that sound like they belong in the Bible–e.g., “This too shall pass,” “God helps those who help themselves,” “Spare the rod, spoil the child,” or the notion that it was Satan (rather than a serpent) who tempted Eve in the Garden–but which, upon “close” (i.e., scholarly) examination, are in fact not there at all. A mild deconstruction of Blake’s discussion, I hope to suggest, opens up important pedagogical insights.
By way of getting at such insights, consider a somewhat parallel example. In my undergraduate “introduction to religion” course, students watched a documentary about the “Purity Balls” movement popular among some contemporary American evangelicals (typically expressed in elaborate, celebratory, yearly rituals in which young girls pledge to abstain from sexual intercourse until marriage and fathers pledge to “cover” their daughters with protection and care). In the course of this documentary, one participant explained that, because “Do Not Have Sex Before Marriage” is one of the 10 Commandments, and is important to God, it should be important to us.
Biblical scholars, Blake tells us, are typically quick to dismiss such innovative exegetical accounts. “It is a great Protestant tradition,” he writes, “for anyone – milkmaid, cobbler, or innkeeper – to be able to pick up the Bible and read for herself. No need for a highly trained scholar or cleric to walk a lay person through the text…. You can see this manifest today in living room Bible studies across North America where lovely Christian people, with no training whatsoever, drink decaf, eat brownies and ask each other, ‘What does this text mean to you?’… Not only do they get the interpretation wrong, but very often end up quoting verses that really aren’t there.”
My problem with this line of reasoning is that both scholarly and popular/religious understandings of the Bible are the discursive products of particular knowledge-creating strategies. For both traditions, “the Bible” represents a hermeneutically constructed imaginary. What’s in your Bible? That will depend greatly upon the interpretive strategies you employ. If that strategy is embedded within the academic discipline of biblical studies, your interpretive moves are likely to be constrained by demands for historical and linguistic evidence. If it derives from the Protestant religious culture Blake describes, then your Bible might say just about anything, and chances are it will speak to your deepest interests and concerns. Of course, academically generated imaginaries (which I personally prefer and professionally rely upon) have a great deal to offer, for instance, if we wish to understand what biblical stories might have meant to those who told them and heard them within their original historical context. Still, I would resist the move from “the academic study of religion offers a kind of knowledge” to “it offers the only kind of knowledge,” a move which Blake’s discussion tacitly naturalizes and obscures.
The pedagogical insights I promised? There are at least two. To begin with, the conclusions we reach are mightily shaped by the knowledge-making strategies we select and the interpretive traditions to which we belong, and thus it’s crucial to be aware of when and upon what grounds we’re making methodological decisions. Secondly, that an intellectual endeavor of social import such as the academic study of religion has both much to offer intellectually as well as significant epistemic and even existential limitations, and thus should be neither accepted without question nor rejected out of hand, may prove to be one of the better insights we might pass on, as much that undergrads will encounter in life will fall along similar evaluative lines.