Abraham, “Review Essay: Biblicism, Reception History, and the Social Sciences”

March 4, 2012

Abraham, Ibrahim (2011) “Review Essay: Biblicism, Reception History, and the Social Sciences” Relegere: Studies in Religion and Reception 1(2):xx-xxx [Advanced Copy, Specific page numbers not yet available]

Article Excerpt: “The works from anthropologist James S. Bielo, an ethnographic monograph of an Evangelical small group Bible study in Michigan and an edited collection, released within a few months of each other, focus and develop the study of “Biblicism.” Abidingly an anthropological undertaking pioneered, in part, by Brian Malley’s earlier ethnography, How The Bible Works, these studies and the broader emerging field offer interesting parallels, insights and divergences when considered alongside somewhat similar developments in the analysis of scripture and society within, in particular, reception history. In his essay comparing processes of exegetical and pastoral authority amongst mainline and charismatic Catholics in Guatamala, Eric Hoenes del Pinal gives us a nice definition of Biblicism as a question of “the ways that social actors construct certain understandings of and relationships to sacred text, and how those understandings and relationships order their religious practices”. As this sandwiching of scripture between the recognition of social agency and the broader process of religious practices suggests, the biblical text is not where the analysis begins or ends.

The social scientific studies presented here are particularly relevant in an interdisciplinary light given recent debates around the practice of recep- tion history within biblical studies. A rather loose term for comparative analyses of diverse understandings and uses of biblical texts in diverse cultures and eras, the manner in which reception history has been carried out to date within biblical studies is exemplified by collections such as John F. A. Sawyer’s, which gives us the Bible in Calvin’s Geneva and the Bible in Barnum & Bailey’s circus. Roland Boer sees within the loosely defined discipline a Bourdieusian distinction between scientific/theological biblical exegesis carried out in the academy that seeks—under appropriate supervision—to uncover an original or authoritative meaning of the text, and the explanation and analysis of comparatively deviant (ab)uses of the text. To cite examples from the two texts under review here, the distinction Boer sees as foundational to reception history would be between the exegeses of the “strange guild” of biblical scholars and scholar-priests in secular and ecclesial academia on the one hand, and the exegeses of the small Evangelical Bible study group that meets for breakfast in a Michigan restaurant featured in Bielo’s monograph  and the exegetical dialogue between anthropolo- gist John Pulis and his interlocutor Bongo (a mango farmer and Rastafarian “bredren”) featured in a chapter of Bielo’s edited collection on the other hand. In a response to Boer’s criticism, Christopher Heard denies any claim that reception history, as a loosely defined discipline, asserts “ideological primacy to singular textual meanings,” but doesn’t quite get to the nub of Boer’s complaint that the very existence of a subdiscipline of biblical scholarship called “reception history” implies that there is a form of biblical studies that is not reception history. There is an echo, then, of Adorno’s act of distinction within twentieth-century music; that which he certified “serious” was suitable for scholarly engagement and philosophical reflection, while that which he proclaimed “popular”—the mass-produced products circulated amongst a browbeaten proletariat—was suitable only for sociological explanation . . . ”

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