The Bible in the Modern World

  • David J. A. Clines
  • Jan 1, 1998
  • Series: Volume 1 - 1998

David J. A. Clines. The Bible in the Modern World. The Biblical Seminar, 51. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997. 116 pp. Paperback. $17.95.

For the last several years David Clines, Professor of Biblical Studies at the University of Sheffield, has championed approaches to studying the Bible that challenge more traditional methods. Recently he has argued for multiple readings of the text and has contended that interpretations are driven, whether consciously or not, by ideological interests. Even the text itself, he believes, reflects its own socioeconomic and gender biases.

This publication of the Didsbury Lectures given in 1993 at the Nazarene Theological College in Manchester echo these same convictions. The book's four chapters (the four lectures) are entitled “The Bible and the Academy”, “The Bible and Culture” (here Clines means `high culture' - i.e., in literature and the arts), “The Bible and the Public”, and “The Bible and the Church”. It closes with a substantial bibliography (pp. 102-9) and several indices.

The first chapter lays the theoretical groundwork for what follows. Clines charts, and then supports, the shift in interpretative interests within academic circles from the author and the text to the reader. He is committed to investigating, even celebrating, the reception of the biblical text. This reception would involve understanding the Bible as well as evaluating its content and ideology. This chapter closes with suggestions for stimulating the necessary sensibilities and capacities of students for interpretive pluralism in the classroom.

The next three chapters attempt to gauge the knowledge of the Bible in, its use by, and impact on different audiences. The data was collected by the author himself and by students in his “Bible and the Modern World” classes at the University. Within both `high culture' and the general populace at large what is found is some basic acquaintance with the biblical material and a certain level of respect for the Bible as a cultural artifact.

The last chapter of the book, however, moves beyond discussing the finds of the several surveys and many interviews - all very interesting and broad ranging! - to judgments on the Bible itself. Clines once more propounds the inescapable reality of a plurality of interpretations, which leads him to question the nature of the Bible's authority. He would hold that the concept of authority is best served when it is defined in terms of its impact (function), rather than by what he considers is a misplaced conception of what it might be in its essence (ontology). The author closes by attempting to demonstrate, from still another angle, the problematic nature of the Bible. He does this first by turning to the Exodus narrative, which he says is unrelated to the material of Genesis 37-50 and shows that God might be “undoing the damage done to the Hebrew people by engineering their descent into Egypt in the first place” (p. 99). He then mentions the election of Israel as the chosen people, which he believes is to be appraised today as nationalism.

This book is vintage Clines: creative, witty, and thought-provoking. For those familiar with his recent writings and research none of the theoretical (and theological) positions are new or surprising. Indeed, the lectures apparently offered the author the opportunity to repackage his arguments and garner new data from different sources. Clines has vividly demonstrated the rich and variegated phenomena of the reading of the Bible in modern society (in this case, England in the 1990's).

To begin with, what struck this reviewer was the sense that Clines seemed to be working very hard to diminish the authority of the Bible through information from the `people on the street' and literary theory. One can only wonder how this was received at the theological college where these lectures were given.

Second, it seems self-contradictory to say that plurality in interpretations is the order of the day as readers create meanings in accordance with their agendas, while at the same time chastising those who might want to limit interpretive options in some way. After all, might not this be a stance which follows particular interests as well? Would not even Clines want us to get the point of his book (why, though, must we interpret it in a manner consistent with his authorial intent?). One is left wondering how to evaluate the very phenomena he describes - i.e., what readings can be said to be “good” or “appropriate”? Are readers left with the unresolvable situation of competing interpretive communities? What parameters, if any, might the text itself suggest? Or, must there be an appeal to a transcendent value (such as the liberating potentialities of specific readings?)? These, of course, are standard questions that are posed to the perspective that plurality in and of itself is a virtue. Yet, things are never so neat... except perhaps in university departments and academic publications. I would hazard the guess that Clines recognizes the problem but would simply respond that this is how he views interpretive realities. Perhaps his goal in the lectures was simply to make his listeners (and now his readers) aware of this pluralism.

Even for those who hold to a different view of the nature and authority of the Bible and who might take issue with some of this book's generalizations and cursory treatment of that text, this will be a stimulating read. On the one hand, one is left with the challenge of articulating in more comprehensive and careful terms the character of the Bible's impact and enduring power. On the other hand, there remains the philosophical and methodological quandary of sorting out and evaluating interpretations of the Bible in a way that might be faithful to its nature, academically coherent and honest, and pastorally pertinent and enriching.

M. Daniel Carroll R.