Cultural Capital and Biblical Literacy

E.D. Hirsch is an American author and academic with a particular interest in literacy.  His ideas are currently catching on in the UK among educationalists although I’m sure quite a few teachers will say that they are basic common sense.[1]

His premise is that before we worry about skills, we need a foundation of knowledge. In fact it is that knowledge which will do much of the groundwork of giving children skills. If you want a child to be able to read well, you can put a lot of effort into showing them the skill of reading but what will speed them up is simply knowing stuff.  Words have meaning that draw on history and pre-existing concepts, at its simplest, think about sandwiches and Wellington boots. At a more complex level think about how Biblical/theological terms like scapegoat and atonement show up in literature. You can take a further step and see how those theological terms themselves were rooted in once everyday concepts such as redemption.

Child A will stumble through, reading slowly because whilst they are able to do the phonetic work of sounding out the syllables, the sounds they make will be unrelated and have minimal meaning. Reading will be a chore to them. Child B might stop to google the different words and phrases they come across, they too will be reading slowly. Child C will have all the background knowledge they need to read at pace and engage with the new concepts and ideas that the author is seeking to convey by using those older words and terms. This is known as “cultural capital.” 

Now there are I’m sure a lot of benefits to employing Hirsch’s theory in teaching, especially at primary school level and of course there are risks. Helping children to develop foundational level cultural capital will get them so far but the day comes when you still have to teach the skills. You can give me all the knowledge I need about what a football is, types of boot, the history of different moves that various players have made but I also need to get on the pitch and learn how to connect all that knowledge together. Like any idea that finds its way into education, no doubt knowledge and cultural capital will become over emphasised to an extreme before things swing back the other way, such is the way of life. I suspect though that at the moment an over emphasis is proving helpful as education continues its welcome swing away from the experience of my youth where the approach seemed to be “stick the students vaguely near some books and some maths cards and hope for the best.”

However, my aim isn’t so much to talk about pedagogy for schools here as to think about what all this has to do with Christian discipleship and Biblical literacy. We want people to be able to meditate on God’s Word and to learn from it, hearing God speak to them. We want their engagement with Scripture, reading it, memorising it, hearing it read, listening to sermons, joining in Bible studies to be a blessing and a joy not a burden and a chore. And that requires cultural capital because as you progress through the Bible, you realise that the later books are replete with imagery that is drawn from the earlier ones. Not only that, as you read those early books, you realise that there is a prophetic intentionality so that are lots of foreshadows of things to come.

Take for example, Romans 9 which I’ve been working through recently on the Daily Dose.  In one chapter alone you meet people from Old Testament history like Isaac, Esau and Jacob. Paul also draws heavily on prophetic literature including Jeremiah, Hosea and Malachi.  In fact if you have a problem with Romans 9 and with Paul, you probably have a problem with much of the Old Tstament. However engaging with those Old Testament passages might result in you having less of a problem with Paul and Romans 9 because they will help you get into his mind and thought process.  Constantly the New Testament authors refer us to Psalms and prophecies, constantly the back story of Israel’s history and in particular their rescue from Egypt and Exodus to the promised land looms large. 

So, if we want to be able to better understand and apply the New Testament, then knowing these things help.  I wonder if this means that alongside preaching that gets quickly into application there is a space for simply teaching people Bible knowledge. Sometimes there is a case for sying “the so what will come later.” It certainly means that we should be preaching and doing Bible studies on the Old Testament. I remember our Home Group struggling through Hosea one Autumn but then lighting up with excitement every Sunday as they began to see the references and allusions to that little book as we preached through New Testament passages.

This also shows us how helpful good “Sunday School” programmes can be because they often give children a good grounding in the Bible story.  However, we need to remember that many people will not come into church through that route but come to Jesus later in life. Even those who physically were in Sunday School  may have been emotionally absent at the time.

So can I encourage you to keep reading and keep teaching the Old Testament.  And may I gently suggest that sometimes we don’t need to find the application and lesson in every text, sometimes the lesson and application is the knowledge it gives us to be used at a later date.


[1] See Amazon.co.uk : ed hirsch cultural literacy