An Introduction to Studying the Bible in Culture

Students reading the Bible and eating pizza in a seminar room.

Prof. Newton reflects on his approach to teaching the Bible in a public university. Study religion and find out about the Bible in Culture here on the blog over the next few days.

A couple of weeks ago on The Religious Studies Project, Prof. Aaron Hughes and Andie Alexander ’12 reflected on the proposition of “Thinking with Jonathan Z. Smith.” As has been discussed on this blog and in the broader religious studies blogosphere, Smith has greatly influenced how late 20th and early 21st  century scholars in the field have conceptualized teaching, research, and service in the very institutional spaces that house where we scholars create our datum, “religion.”

"For the self-conscious student of religion, no datum possesses intrinsic interest. It is of value only insofar as it can serve as exemplary gratis of some fundamental issue in the imagination of religion." Jonathan Z. Smith, Imagining Religion (1982), atop a picture of Smith.

I mention Smith’s legacy of service because his leadership as the 2008 president of the Society of Biblical Literature marks an important moment in my own professionalization. The Annual Meeting in Boston was my first experience at a national gathering of the kind. Smith’s presidential address on “Religion and Bible” helped me articulate the kind of biblical studies scholarship I wanted to pursue in my PhD work with then recently-elected 2009 SBL Vice President and 2010 President, Vincent Wimbush. Wimbush’s presidential address, “Interpreters—Enslaving/Enslaved/Runagate,” would help me carve out a niche for thinking about a broader anthropology of scriptures.

With the 2019 annual meetings having just passed, I have been thinking about the specific service role of guild president, for despite all of the pomp and circumstance, it is very much an advisory opportunity for those who know how to take advantage of it. Much like the student advisor role or the curriculum developer—both of which Smith had given thought—the president can orient the scholar’s perspective on the field of study.

"While there is a staggering amount of data, phenomena, of human experiences and expressions that might be characterized [as religious], there is no data for religion. Religion is solely the creation of the scholar's study. It is created for the scholar's analytic purposes by his imaginative acts of comparison and generalization. Religion has no existence apart from the academy (Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jamestown). Jonathan Z. Smith quote.

So when I heard Hughes and Alexander remark about the difficulty of teaching Smith at the undergraduate level given the “traditional ways of reading and thinking about religion” in the modern academy, I began to reflect on my own pedagogy and what ways Smith’s insights may be lurking in my study here at Manly Hall. One way for me to think about this is to consider my approach to the Introduction to New Testament course, which I taught for the first time here at UA last fall.

The classic dilemma for undergraduate biblical studies courses is often a question of scope. How much of a testament (let alone, the canon) can one fit in? How do you expose students to enough of the requisite histories so that they can have the conversations that we think befit higher criticism? As common as these questions are, I think they fall back into that unfortunate presumption that there is something that must be taught. And while this impetus makes sense in a catechismal setting, the arch-learning outcome in my particular setting is to get students curious about what has happened around the New Testament.

There’s plenty about which the scholar of religion may raise questions, but for the biblical scholar, Smith encouraged a turn toward the study of “applications and traditions.” He framed this as a middle ground between the “archaeology of origins and formations” and the “ethnography of contemporary usage.”

Since coming to Alabama, I have taken Smith to be getting at something that I call a study of the Bible in culture (much like the Department’s own take on the study of religion in culture). This is to say that we can take the  “Bible” as a proxy for human interaction and social formation. It’s yet another chance to pay attention to what humans are up to.

Simply put, my job as a teacher is to get students to geek out over the stuff people do in the Bible—as an artifact, as a text, and as a social world. And given the way student advising plays a major role in teaching and even research around Manly Hall, I was kind of surprised by how much these efforts extended past my study and my classroom. So over the next few days, I’m going to share about what the study of the Bible in Culture has looked like for me at the University of Alabama.