Biblical Literates

The following post by Russell McCutcheon, reflecting on the role of scholars in Religious Studies, is reposted from the Culture on the Edge blog. That was the headline of a Huffington Post article yesterday, referring to an op-ed piece in the Des Moines Register, co-authored by three Iowa scholars of religion, all with specialties in biblical studies. The newspaper article they wrote opened by stating:

One of the authors, Robert Cargill, is quoted in the Huffington Post article as follows:

When it comes to the study of religion, many professors have a vested interest in their object of study–whether pro or con (and whatever more nuanced shades of grey separate those two positions). As such, they often see their role as informing the so-called religious participants about what their texts–and we must not forget that the texts are theirs not ours–really mean. While the temptation is particularly compelling, it seems, in places where the scholars themselves live (settings in which decisions over our modern lives are sometimes steeped in references to this or that ancient, apparently authoritative document–a process not dissimilar to how Constitutional Law also works, no? But I digress…), it is not difficult to find scholars of religion telling people in seemingly far flung places on the globe what their texts really mean as well. That the people who, understandably, feel some ownership over these texts–along with the interpretive traditions that they use to make sense of them and the social worlds they seek to legitimze through their readings of them–are rather perturbed by such scholarly interventions is, of course, hardly surprising.

(Aside: for some reason I have trouble imagining a scholar of religion telling ritual participants how to do their rituals the proper way–“When you hold the wafer, Father, make sure you hold it up high. No, no, higher.” No, this, we’d likely all agree, would be downright inappropriate, no doubt a violation of some scholarly ethics code one of our professional associations came up with. Do no harm, and all that. But when it comes to reading their texts, texts that are central to the ritual life of these communities, we seem compelled to go in search of their real meaning and then report it back to the people in question. Remnants of our philosophically idealist penchant in the field, perhaps?)

But the switch we’re modeling here at Culture on the Edge, to studying identifying practices rather than interpreting the meaning of such practices’ products, frees us of from feeling like we need to compete with those who write and use these texts; then, we no longer interpret the texts but, instead, we study the techniques used to make just some texts worth talking about, worth copying and recopying, worth paying attention to (or ignoring) in the first place. For, by offering our reading of what the text really means (which we authorize by portraying it as something other than but one more interpretation) and by using how we read them to set the standards for what counts as biblical literacy for other people, we make evident that we’re in a contest with who knows how many others who equally think they’ve figured out its just-as-obvious meaning to them–something they’re able to do with considerably less student loan debt than us. Entering a dialogue with such interlocutors, in an effort to get to the bottom of the text’s actual meaning, and thus its proper uses, therefore seems to me not the ideal position for scholars of religion who come neither to praise nor condemn the people whom they happen to study.

That’s why this op-ed strikes me not as bold or courageous but as missing the point of what a scholar of religion ought to be doing, suggesting to me that we probably should spend more time working on our own methodological and theoretical literacy, rather than worrying over spreading the good news of biblical literacy.

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