This week I’ve been wallowing in irrelevance. Nothing new there, then. But teaching a course on literature and popular culture has brought me up again with the issue of “relevance”. I’ve written about it before, with reference to Shakespeare and the Bible, and my confusion over what it means to say that either are taught in a “relevant” way. (Relevant to what? And how?) But I’d like to have another think about the stress on presenting the Bible in a “relevant” manner. It’s a preoccupation which we see a lot in Anglo-American Christianity, and one which I think needs rethinking. I’m no fan of obscurity for its own sake, nor am I going to demand that the Bible must not be interpreted or cannot be engaged with creatively. Quite the opposite. I think the language of “relevance” currently gives a rather thin and ineffective account of what goes on when people listen to the Bible.
This framing tends to suggest that it is the job of the translator, or preacher, or evangelist, to present the material in a way which connects with the concerns of the audience. That might be rendering it from one language to another, or it might involve some more creative, yet still faithful, interpretation. It could be explanation, or dramatisation, or quotation. The intermediary seeks to transmit a version of the Bible which is “relevant” to those who have not yet had access to it.
The issue here, I think, is that this leaves little for the hearers to do. The difficult work has been taken care of by the preacher, and the Bible verse has been given to them in a digestible form. But this bears little resemblance to what we know about people’s engagement with texts. They are not abstract messages to be implanted in the listener’s ears in a one-way process of transmission. Rather, people make meaning in a dialogue with texts, producing their own understandings of the material.
A helpful parallel might be made with teaching. Educational research has codified and theorised what many teachers will tell you from classroom experience: you cannot teach someone by giving them information, passing over your understanding so that they can simply accept it. They have to make their own knowledge through their own engagement. Teaching is not transmitting the right message on the right wavelength to be picked up and stored, it is creating the conditions under which a productive encounter between the listener and the material can take place. The same might be said, with even greater emphasis, of preaching and evangelism: the speaker cannot transmit their understanding. They can invite other people into the space where they found the Bible speaking to them. It’s an insight which sits very comfortably alongside a high degree of reverence and respect for the Bible itself. Those whose encounter with Scripture has been transformative may instinctively appreciate the difficulty of transferring that experience verbally and simply to another person via a slogan or a quotation.
It also underestimates, I think, the range of things the Biblical material can do. If the Bible is to serve as a repository of case studies, or a compendium of accurate statements, then there is little problem with a straightforward “relevance” approach. There are situations in the modern world which need to be correlated with the appropriate passage, and the relevant material must be presented. But if we also regard the Bible as a source of symbols, of resources for personal reflection, of images and narratives within which we can explore possibilities, then relevance becomes too thin. I’m not sure that reading a Psalm is usually about finding a fact to agree with, or an inspiring quotation to keep us going. Nor do we read the Gospels or Genesis mostly to find a narrative which fits our current personal problems. They often confront us with different stories, or with images which call us out of ourselves, if only for a brief period.
Reciting the Psalms as a devotional practice often involves speaking words which are clearly and deliberately not our own. We put other words in our mouths, and our own speech may taste differently afterwards. (The high level of disciplined “performance” involved in choral singing or chanting the Bible – which is not to everyone’s taste or edification – reflects on some level an awareness of all Bible reading as “performance”, the standing aside from one’s own self to voice someone else’s.) In fact the Psalms do not always avoid a certain level of repetition and similarity in emotional tone. If we were looking for just a bunch of good points, well made, we might feel the Psalter stretched a little material a long way. Relevance would reduce it all to a few choice sayings which would connect with people’s lives in a much more direct way.
In fact, why do we need four Gospels, if we’re interested in producing a suitably relevant message? There are plenty of harmonies in Christian history which boil down what seem to be the necessary points into one story. But they haven’t generally satisfied the range of the Church’s needs. The texture of Scripture, its resistances and strangenesses, has been a vital part of Christians’ engagement with the Bible. Relevance sounds as if it is looking for answers, where the depth and drama of the Bible might prompt us to ask different questions. It can certainly give us a glimpse of entirely new human possibilities, and present us with visions which do not make literal or practical sense. What vision worth having does?
So a thicker and more helpful idea of relevance would need to take into account the ways people find things “relevant”. They may relate to a poem as presenting a sharp moral insight, or a sympathetic vision, or a tangle of symbols which are nonetheless fraught with implications. They might define themselves against a character in a narrative, or recognise their own wishes fulfilled disastrously in that character’s life. They might enter imaginatively into the symbolic system of a supernatural vision, finding images which don’t instruct them what to do, but which they can meditate upon. They might find the most obscure and illogical passages of the prophets stick awkwardly in their memory, giving them no guidance with everyday life, but drawing them gradually into an unfamiliar mind’s way of thinking.
After all, these are precisely the sort of engagements people are having with the most immediate and popular culture. Comics, horror films and Young Adult Fiction are all hugely “relevant”, if sales figures are anything to go by. No-one has to expend enormous time and energy on re-presenting these images and narratives in ways which young people find meaningful and symbolically rich. And there’s very little that obviously relevant in them. People don’t read Batman because they’re worried about the level of street crime. Nor is Arkham Asylum a meaningful intervention in the problems of mental health provision.
They might read The Hunger Games and find it in a warning about reality TV. But – as my seminar groups have demonstrated – they might also see the novel as revealing in metaphorical shape the dynamics which are already going on in our culture. Or they might identify with Katniss’ struggle against the demands that she mediatise her developing sexual life if she wants to escape physical violence. Or they might ponder the repeated imagery of bread and its sharing. People’s engagement with these texts – all of them hugely popular and none of them relevant – point up the problems of thinking about the Bible as something which can be made “relevant”.