Brian Malley is the author of How the Bible Works: An Anthropological Study of Evangelical Biblicism (AltaMira, 2004), and a key player in the midst of some innovative new anthropological studies examining Bible-reading communities. In a recent article, “Understanding the Bible’s Influence,” Malley discusses the dynamics of evangelical Christian Bible-reading. In particular, he explains how issues that may not even appear in the content of the Bible are explained by evangelical Christians in terms of “what the Bible says on the matter.” By utilizing the broader concept of “God’s word,” many evangelical Christians are able to pronounce on what the Bible says about even entirely novel issues, such as global warming or stem-cell research. Malley observes that this concept of “God’s word” becomes “a placeholder in a community’s authoritative discourse” including but not limited to the actual content of the Bible.
At the core of Biblicism is a fundamental tension between the relatively fixed text of the Bible and the ever-changing demands of authoritative discourse. In my lifetime I have seen, among evangelical Christians, a new emphasis on environmental awareness, on physical fitness, on community formation, and changes in gender ideology. All of these changes reflected trends in the larger cultural environment, but all were incorporated into evangelical Christians’ authoritative discourse by being expounded from the Bible, as what the Bible had always said.
– Brian Malley, “Understanding the Bible’s Influence,” pages 194-204 in James S. Bielo, ed., The Social Life of Scriptures: Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Biblicism (Rutgers, 2009), 202-203.
This focus on the ideological and material social circumstances of the community of readers represents a refreshing change from the focus on the text and consequently on maintaining an inherent textual polyvalency – which represents the usual critical approach to the same phenomenon within contemporary biblical studies. If the community of readers is generative of the most important trends in biblical interpretation, then that community of readers may well be recognized as the Bible’s main author. Such a shift thus requires a focus towards the whole social matrix in which this “author” is embedded.
The ethnographic studies contained in The Social Life of Scriptures examine a range of reading communities, including charismatic Northern Ireland Christians, Rastafarians, evangelical Christians from a Tzotzil-speaking Mayan village, readers of the evangelical magazine (or “Biblezine”) Revolve, and Anglicans dealing with potential schism over the inclusion/exclusion of LBGT clergy.
What I would really like to see from this interesting group of anthropologists is an ethnographic study of biblical scholars. I suspect that very similar questions arise in respect of some of the recent trends visible in biblical studies. Why is there, for example, a current trend in New Testament studies to read the texts as subversive of empire? why are many biblical scholars currently concerned to establish a deeply ecological concern within either the Hebrew Bible and New Testament or both? Are their “symptomatic” readings really picking up on “excluded voices” neglected in the text, or is this reading phenomenon more productively approached as a refraction of contemporary voices and concerns passed through the pages of the Bible – a text which the vast majority of biblical scholars today consider to be “authoritative” in some manner? I wonder if Malley’s observations above would hold for these communities of Bible-readers, too. William Bartley, for one, would believe they do:
The method of contemporary theologians can often be reduced to three rather simple steps: (1) Run through the Bible picking out profound ideas about certain contemporary problems. (2) Run through contemporary secular literature picking out superficialities concerning these same problems. (3) Match the two in a book, thus providing an easy demonstration of the superiority of the Bible and the Christian tradition to contemporary secular culture….Much of the appeal, as well as the apparent novelty and profundity, of theological commentary depends on its talent for bestriding two horses at once—sometimes even when they are galloping in opposite directions.
– William Bartley, The Retreat to Commitment (2nd edn.; Open Court, 1984), 52.