“Relevant” is a popular word. It appears in adverts, corporate jargon and cultural criticism alike. It’s particularly popular in discussions of two of the topics I work on: Shakespeare and the Bible. In the last few days I’ve read several adverts for “relevant” Shakespeare material, and a church leader who declares that they “relevantly share the Gospel”. My instinct is to carp about the sloppy use of language here, and point out that “relevant” has traditionally been followed by “to”: it’s rather meaningless to say something is relevant without explaining how it is relevant to something else. The word has been co-opted into a vague expression of approval with hints of being up-to-date. But I think there’s something more going on here, a slippage of meaning in much talk about both Shakespeare and the Bible which the free-floating term “relevant” expresses quite precisely and neatly.
“Relevant”, in the contexts in which I hear it, usually gestures towards connecting ideas or texts from the past with people in the present. Lecturers explaining the work of John Milton might be encouraged to use relevant examples to help students grasp the topic better, and preachers might produce an analogy which impresses the relevance of a particular Biblical passage on their audience. But this still leaves the question: relevant to what? This notion of relevance seems to imagine it is some abstract quality, an aspect which some ideas (Facebook, car keys, mothers-in-law) possess, and which others (As You Like It, medieval manuscripts, the Passion narratives) lack. In order to enable people to connect with the latter things, you need to use the former. It’s a rather instrumental view of things. And I think the real problem is that it doesn’t take the modern world seriously enough.
Without specifying how or to what, “relevance” lumps the fascinating complexity of modern culture together and assumes that it can be hacked by a sufficiently relevant thing. It sees the intricate, messy, fluctuating reality around us, and figures this isn’t serious enough to engage with on its own terms. “Modern people” (whoever they might be) will all respond to a single quality, though that quality must arise from their own environment or they won’t understand it. The Biblical critic James Barr took apart this idea in a superb passage back in the early 1970s (though his use of “man” will be jarring for a lot of readers)
This brings us however to the question of the relevance of the Bible to modern man. In what sense is it relevant, or how does it become relevant?… In principle the Bible is an ancient book and no sleight of hand of interpretation will make it become anything else. Attempts to assure us that things in the Bible are ‘exactly the same’ as our situation of today are misguided. Paradoxically, it is only as we learn how different the Bible is, how far away from our normal experience (including our experience as twentieth-century Christians who read their Bibles!) that it can have its full effect upon us.
He insists that “relevant” reading, when it occurs, is a result of not collapsing either the ancient or modern contexts into simplistic messages which the text can encompass:
More fundamentally, it must be doubted whether the main task of interpretation is to drag the texts out of their ancient setting and make them applicable to the modern world. Rather, the Bible, the product of men in their situations in the past, feeds and illuminates the understanding of modern men in their modern situation. The Bible does not ‘apply’ directly to the modern situation, or commonly it does not; it builds and enriches the faith in which the modern man is able to see more clearly his own situation and judge his actions in it more properly.
It’s a quietly radical suggestion: that we should not be looking for ways in which Shakespeare or the Bible “apply” to modern culture. The equivalent might be a director or literary critic who rushes to see recent political intrigue or celebrity culture mirrored in a Shakespeare play, and fastens on these images to persuade people that Shakespeare is relevant. This surely flattens both the cultural situation which gave rise to the plays, and the richness of our lives and culture today. The interpretations which result seem unlikely to do justice to either, especially if all that they allow as “relevant” is the reflection of images from the surface of one era in another.
I was co-running a Shakespeare workshop for school students the other week, and we were exploring the ways in which we might perform the induction from The Taming of the Shrew for a modern audience. One student explained that her group wanted to recast the passage via images from reality TV: “We’ll do it Geordie Shore style, Made In Chelsea, The Only Way Is Essex.” She paused before going on and asked me considerately “Do you know what those are, sir?” She appreciated the messiness and complexity of modern culture, the way it’s made up of various kinds of knowledge and experience, and didn’t assume that two people living in the same county in the same year would be reached by the same touch of “relevance”.
 There has been brilliant critical work on the term in Shakespeare Studies – Alan Sinfield on “Shakespeare-plus-relevance” and Emma Smith on “performing relevance/relevant performance” are both worth looking up.