The Bible and Americans: Governmentality and Subjectivity

The Pew Research Center posted an article this week, “5 facts about how Americans view the Bible and other religious texts.” I find such studies interesting for a variety of reasons, such as the question about whether Jews read scripture (a loaded term) every week. This question fails to capture the differences in practices between religious traditions in the use of the Bible, although other questions listed in the article do begin to indicate these differences (if one is looking for them).

I find the fifth question telling and consistent with my experiences teaching in classrooms and speaking in local congregations. Biblical literacy is relatively low in the US. People tend to know certain things like those noted in the article: Jesus was born in Bethlehem, Moses led Israel out of slavery in Egypt. Christmas carols and movies help explain these two. But naming all four Gospels or that Job suffered extraordinarily at the hands of God? Not so much (my usual test is to ask if anyone knows where to find the 10 commandments [Exod 20; Deut 5] or if they know the motivation for observing Sabbath [creation in Exodus, the exodus in Deuteronomy]). I find this holds even for those who do read their Bible once a week or have a high view of its authority. Admittedly, addressing these gaps in knowledge is one of the reasons why I teach, and I enjoy helping people learn more about the Bible, whatever their personal views on how to use it.

These gaps do raise questions for me about what role the Bible plays in US religious, social, and political life, especially in terms of shaping conduct. The work of the late French philosopher Michel Foucault on governmentality and subjectivity helps me think these questions and how to answer them. Foucault comes up with the term “governmentality” to help him analyze how conduct is conducted. What governing ideas or rationalities are operative at a certain period in a society that enable certain sets of practices, which individuals then may perform on themselves in order to become particular types of subjects? Foucault’s questions can be adapted to think about the Bible in the US today. When reading the Bible or knowing what it says are less important than affirming it and having it as a means of testing the truth of oneself and others, how has this cultural object become a governing idea itself, one that creates sets of practices people may perform on themselves in order to become subjects of the Bible? This requires research into the ways different religious groups that use the Bible have created these practices. Undertaking it may help illuminate aspects of the study posted by the Pew Research Center that the survey does not address.

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