THR Web Features   /   October 5, 2023

Unbiblical Scholarship

The persistent problem of biblical illiteracy in the humanities.

Alan Jacobs

( THR illustration (Shutterstock).)

Timothy Larsen is not an eminent Victorian, but he is an eminent Victorianist. (Full disclosure: he is also my dear friend and former colleague of many years.) One of the chief themes of Larsen’s scholarship is stated most straightforwardly in an essay he published in 2009: “It would be hard to set any limit on the extent to which Victorian culture was shaped by a shared knowledge of the Bible.” Indeed, “There are only two kinds of eminent Victorian authors: the kind who have had a whole book written about their use of Scripture and the kind who are ripe for such attention.”

In a recent issue of the venerable academic journal Modern Language Quarterly, Larsen returns to this theme to discuss, not the Victorians themselves, but those whose profession is to study them. About such scholars Larsen is seriously concerned, and states his concern in forceful italics: “an alarming amount of work done in the field of Victorian studies today… is marred by biblical and theological illiteracy.” He then goes on to illustrate this claim in detail before reminding us that this is but half of the story: “For it is also true that extraordinarily well-informed, well-analyzed, astute work is being done that takes religion seriously and handles it in deft and illuminating ways. If one looks in the right places, it becomes clear that we are witnessing a remarkable revival of religiously informed Victorian studies.” And this is true; yet there is a certain dog-bites-man quality (or ought to be) to the story of scholars taking the trouble to know their subjects well. It is (or ought to be) the “biblical and theological illiteracy” that calls for further commentary.

But before I continue, I must clarify two points. First: The problem I speak of is relevant to almost every work of literature written before 1950 and many written since; it is simply most evident in the Victorian era, which marked the height of biblical literacy, at least in the English-speaking world.

Second: In the same issue of MLQ, Lori Peterson Branch of the University of Iowa has a superb essay on how one might address the complacent, even ostentatious, disdain for religion that’s fairly common among humanities professors. And while her essay is worthy of much reflection also, the failing she identifies is not the one that Larsen is concerned with. Rather, he’s reflecting on Victorianists who understand perfectly well that religion is vital to the writers they study, who believe that it is their duty to have something to say about the subjects’ religious views, but who nevertheless, on this one subject, make error after error. And that phenomenon is worthy of some reflection.

Let’s take one of Larsen’s examples. In 1840 John Stuart Mill wrote a letter in which he mused on the death, at age nineteen, of his brother Henry:

Among the many serious feelings which such an event calls forth, there is always some one which impresses us most, some moral which each person extracts from it for his own more especial guidance; with me that moral is, “Work while it is called to-day; the night cometh in which no man can work.”

Later in the same letter Mill quotes from his contemporary Thomas Carlyle, and that, Larsen plausibly guesses, has led some prominent scholars of Mill to assume that Carlyle is also the source of the above quotation. But: “As most any Victorian (including myriads of children) could have told them, however, it is actually a saying of Jesus Christ as recorded in John’s gospel (John 9:4).”

But unfamiliarity with even quite well-known passages from the Bible is only a part of it. Larsen also documents theological ignorance—e.g., confusing the Immaculate Conception with the Virgin Birth—and a wide range of historical errors, often arising from complete unawareness of the differences among various Christian traditions. For instance, a scholar today may think that a Victorian Protestant who speaks sneeringly of “priests” is condemning Christian ministers in general; but almost certainly he is expressing his contempt for those he would have called Papists.

And—here I go beyond Larsen—errors like this tend to snowball. The first scholar Larsen mentions who attributed Jesus’s words to Thomas Carlyle published his book in 2004; the next one published in 2007. It’s very likely that that second one was relying on what he read in the first. How many other scholars have by now passed the error on? And how many more will do so in the future? Errors, like lies, travel halfway around the world before the truth gets its boots on, as Mark Twain famously said—or not. It is one of the strange habits of scholars to treat their peers’ judgments with the greatest skepticism while remaining completely credulous about supposed facts. Here it might be useful to remember that “Trust but verify” really is a Russian proverb.

One way to verify the source of a passage, or the meaning of a term, is to look it up online, and it may seem strange that so many scholars writing in the Age of Google have failed to pursue even that much verification. But, as Larsen emphasizes, the key point is that they weren’t alone in their failure:

My point is that it takes a village to raise up a culture in which this level of error and ignorance propagates unchallenged and seemingly unnoticed in the pages of publications from our very best scholarly presses. An article, chapter, or book in the field of Victorian studies in which no one has recognized that a saying actually comes not from Carlyle but from Christ according to a canonical gospel (or the like) has often been read before it has found its way into print not only by its scholarly author but also by PhD mentors, colleagues, anonymous peer reviewers, university press editors, and more. It takes a village. Perhaps there is no longer a church in the village, but surely there are still a school and a library?

And a computer with an Internet connection, perhaps.

Some of the errors that result from this common ignorance are certainly minor, but what counts as a minor error, and how may it be distinguished from a major one? Larsen mentions that Sara Lodge—in a book on Edward Lear that Larsen generally admires—refers to the book of “Revelations,” which is one of the most common mistakes that people make about the Bible, and if you think that’s minor I agree with you. (Though I still find it annoying whenever I see it, perhaps because I see it so often. And there is a significant difference between a number of distinct revelations, such as those experienced by Julian of Norwich, and one vast unveiling of the meaning of all history.) But when Lodge says that Goshen is “the fertile land allotted to the Israelites during the plague of darkness”—well, that’s rather like saying that Karl Marx wrote Das Kapital next to a theater where Shakespeare was performing. In Genesis 45 Joseph, who has revealed himself to his brothers, tells them that the Pharaoh of Egypt has given the Land of Goshen to Joseph’s family; the plague of darkness, along with all the other plagues, comes hundreds of years later.

Of course, scholars always make mistakes—a blush comes to my cheek when I think of how many I have made, especially the ones that nobody caught and that therefore remain in print for the world to see—but Larsen’s point is that these mistakes are unusually significant ones, not because religion in general and the Bible in particular are more important than anything else, but rather because for the Victorians these are among the most vital elements of culture and therefore of particular importance to get right.

The question is: How can scholars get it right? This is not an easy question to answer, because Google searches do not always turn up the necessary information. (Still: Scholars should do more Google searches.) Once I was asked to advise students enrolled in a particular program at my university, but did not feel competent to do so because I didn’t know their program’s requirements. When I said so, I was told that I should feel free to ask questions at any time. “But,” I replied, “I don’t know enough to know what questions to ask.” The warning flags didn’t raise themselves. Similarly, people who have never read the Bible, or never read much of it, won’t have the Spider sense that alerts them to a biblical reference or resonance. And in Victorian writing especially, such resonances can turn up anywhere.

In his delightful book Studies in Words, C. S. Lewis points out that in any given historical moment there may well be a single “dominant sense” of a given word—but the dominant sense is not always and everywhere the same:

The dominant sense of any word lies uppermost in our minds. Wherever we meet the word, our natural impulse will be to give it that sense. When this operation results in nonsense, of course, we see our mistake and try over again. But if it makes tolerable sense our tendency is to go merrily on. We are often deceived. In an old author the word may mean something different. I call such senses dangerous senses because they lure us into misreadings.

Something like this happens in scholarship as well. If you’re a Victorianist who knows well the writing of Thomas Carlyle, and a passage in his work seems pretty Carlylean, then your “natural impulse” will be to attribute it to him. But the problem with that approach is that Carlyle’s style is so profoundly shaped by the English Bible that almost anything biblical is likely to sound tolerably Carlylean. Again: the red flags don’t raise themselves.

The problem is very nearly intractable. I almost recommended that scholars who lack the requisite biblical literacy affix a statement to their books and essays along these lines: “I know very little about the Bible and do not intend to learn more. Therefore, in what follows, I will refrain from addressing the Christian and biblical elements in the authors and works I write about.” That would be admirably honest, and would perhaps avoid some of the snowballing errors I mention above; but it commits the scholar to an impossible standard: Christian thought and the biblical text are so woven into Victorian culture that even such a highly scrupulous scholar couldn’t avoid stepping in it. (As it were.)

No, it appears that there is only one real solution. If we can insist—as many (though not enough) graduate programs still do—that students learn languages other than English in order to pursue the study of English writers, then we can also insist that they acquire biblical literacy. Every graduate student in the humanities should be required to take a course in the English Bible, a course that, among other things, requires the memorization and recitation of large chunks of the biblical text. To those who might think such a requirement too onerous, I say only this: At Malvern House Preparatory School, Bertie Wooster—the same Bertie Wooster referred to by his valet Jeeves as “mentally negligible”—won the Scripture Knowledge prize. If Bertie can do it, so can you.