Many people talk about ‘religious traditions’ as if they were nation states with clear and tightly guarded borders, but of course the borders of a tradition are porous and the objects of tradition have a life of their own. So, like it or not, Scriptures travel into public spaces: they are played in store speakers, used to sell products, exploited by enemies, picked apart by scholars. But they may also be discovered, studied, learned from, even loved by strangers.
Fascinated by the way even the most sacred texts travel outside the space of their ‘tradition,’ the University of Virginia is hosting a graduate student conference on March 30th-31st on the theme of ‘Public Scripture‘ (here’s the call for papers). We’re hoping that many contributors and readers of State of Formation will submit papers and join us to reflect on this phenomenon. To spark your thoughts and to promote our conference, I’ve also decided to write a few posts on this theme.
You may have heard about Mark Pryor, embattled Democratic Senator of Arkansas, who just released an ad promoting his allegiance to the Bible as his ‘North Star.’ It has invited comparisons with this spot by Rick Perry, particularly since both begin with the words ‘I am not ashamed . . .‘ Both publicly confess their Christian faith. But while Perry goes on to offer a list of specific conservative grievances — no prayer in school, the presence of homosexuals in the military — Pryor sticks with generalities: “The Bible teaches us no one has all the answers . . . and neither political party is always right.” Pryor’s ad has produced some sharp reactions among those dismayed by his political calculation that he needs to trumpet his Christian faith to win re-election.
I was particularly struck, however, by Juliet Lapidos’ comments. Noting the recurring phrase ‘I am not ashamed,’ she expressed her secular bewilderment: “The ‘not ashamed’ construction sounds like a straw man to secular audiences. Not ashamed? Who said you should be?”
Part of her puzzlement, I think, can be resolved if we recognize that both men are alluding to a Bible verse much memorized and preached on by evangelical Christians. In Romans 1:16, the apostle Paul says, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” Whether or not Pryor and Perry are consciously quoting the text, their spots tap into a vast reserve of evangelical associations. Pryor and Perry offer themselves as imitators of Paul, fearless in the face of adversity. Perry goes on to conjure up Paul’s picture of a vulnerable Christian minority under the thumb of a malevolent imperial power, by speaking of ‘Obama’s war on religion.’ For Pryor, by contrast, the Bible teaches that ‘no one has all the answers’ — among other things, he may have in mind what Paul says a few verses later, “You who pass judgment on someone else are without excuse” (Romans 2:1). No doubt there are whole books to be written comparing the way Democrats and Republicans use Scripture!
But because neither quotes Paul explicitly, Juliet Lapidos misses the reference. Her puzzled reaction shows how, in these ads, Scriptural language is operating on two registers at once. Pryor and Perry announce their Christian faith to the entire viewing public, but they also send a discrete signal to fellow Christians that we are the real thing. Secular Lapidos doesn’t get the signal, which is presumably also missed by those of other faiths unfamiliar with the New Testament. Well, of course they don’t get it — the message isn’t for them.
All this is possible because Scripture can travel in the most ordinary of clothes, just a few innocuous English words, and because words can be put to multiple uses at the same time.
This is also ‘interfaith dialogue,’ in the sense that these Christian politicians know their audience includes outsiders. It reminds us that, in the real world, interfaith dialogue is not only about sharing stories, texts, or traditions. For better or worse, it’s also about the subtle signals we send and interpret, even unconsciously, communicating to others that ‘I am one of you’ or ‘I am different from you.’