A recent article in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society caught my eye, titled Literacy and Biblical Knowledge: The Victorian Age and Our Own by Timothy T Larson. Dr Larson argues, as shown by the main title, that the poverty of modern society’s biblical knowledge places them at a disadvantage in understanding literature and not just literature which contain overtly biblical themes or references. Unfortunately, as indicated by the subtitle, he gets into comparing modern day with an ideal, for him at least, epoch of biblical literacy and the article descends into a lamentation that we are not living in 19th century Victorian times, where even the atheists were raised on the Bible.
The idea that one era is different than another is trivially true. Mourning that we should go back to some era is irrelevant and unhelpful; much less that it should have a place as an academic analysis. The lamenting in this article sometimes descends even further into a snipe hunt where things today are cherry picked to show that today just does not measure up to Victorian times, the point of which is not how poverty-stricken our literacy is, but how we (Christians) were so much more accepted in those times. Seriously, this is your time. If you wish that you were born some other time, what have you to offer to today? “Let’s go live some other place in some other century”? Is his office filled with students waiting to get in that time machine?
I wanted to key on one of Dr Larson’s cherry picks: The Beverly Hillbillies. He writes,
“A running joke throughout the series is that these hillbillies have scant formal education, do not read, fail to appreciate or even understand high culture, and are usually literally illiterate. This … is signaled by a display of biblical knowledge. The hillbillies often use the word ‘victuals’, for example, which has an archaic ring in contemporary speech, but sounds natural to them because it is used throughout the King James Version of the Bible. In a non-sequitur, the biblical vocabulary indicates the hillbillies are ignorant or unsophisticated. Likewise, the two male members of the family are named Jedidiah and Jethro.” (JETS, vol52, no3, p527)
Having watched The Beverly Hillbillies pretty much its whole run, it seems to me that Dr Larson misrepresents what is going on in order to make his point. First to mention is that the point of The Beverly Hillbillies is that these “unsophisticated” hillbillies are smarter and better people than the “high culture” that surrounds them. Yeah, we all laughed at the “cement pond” or the “double barrel slingshot” but in every show they are the heroes. Every show some sophisticate tries to take them to the cleaners and every show the hillbillies outwit him. How is that show a negative towards the hillbillies? In fact it is very typical of the anti-intellectual yahooism which is part and parcel of the American mythos. Also, it fits right in with the anti-intellectualism of American fundamentalism/evangelicalism. It is the exact opposite of what Dr Larson presents it as. If he is accurate in saying the hillbillies represent biblical knowledge, the show does not disparage biblical knowledge but presents it as a wiser way to live.
As to the vocabulary, I do not know how Dr Larson figures out what “sounds natural” to fictional characters or how he knows that the fictional characters spent so much time reading the King James Version of the Bible. (I remember them talking about “vittles” I don’t remember the “victuals” thing. I understand that vittles is short for victuals, but why get into a word they don’t use?) The vocabulary does not evoke the Bible so much as the hillbilly. Perhaps this proves Dr Larson’s point that I, a modern day guy, am ignorant of biblical knowledge (is he saying that I have to read KJV to be intelligent?), but the fictional characters have to act their fictional parts. The stereotypical hillbilly has an archaic sounding name and uses archaic sounding language. Writing a 60s sitcom, while harder than it looks, is not rocket science. Grab some stereotypical people and put them in a “fish out of water” position.
I agree with Dr Larson’s thesis that biblical illiteracy as a social phenomenon impoverishes the society to understanding its classical literature. I also see that trying to “engage the culture” is a concern for all Christians. By trying to accomplish both these goals, Dr Larson has written a schizophrenic essay. Pining for some past time does not engage the culture. Neither does it present the “other land” of which we are ambassadors. 19th century Victorian England is just as much “this world” as 21st century America. Further, by cherry picking “cultural” events (ie TV shows and pop songs. I doubt that any of his present students are aware of “We Are The World” much less the Beverly Hillbillies), he distracts from any encouragement to increase biblical knowledge so as to understand classical culture.