The Bible and Lay People: An Empirical Approach to Ordinary Hermeneutics. By Andrew Village


Pp. xv, 190 , Aldershot , Ashgate , 2007 , £50.00 .

Andrew Village's eye-opening book occupies a role in the relatively under-explored area of empirical studies relating to biblical interpretation, and is a welcome addition to Ashgate's ‘Explorations in Practical, Pastoral and Empirical Theology’ series. Village offers a discussion of his own lengthy empirical study of real readers interpreting the Bible. His quantitative methodology consisted of 20 pilot interviews followed by a lengthy questionnaire (over 200 questions) that was completed by 404 people from 11 different Anglican congregations representing a range of Anglican theological positions. Unfortunately, Village does not include a copy of the questionnaire in his book, making it difficult to assess his questions and the responses they elicit. While much of his research measures factors shaping interpretation, Village focuses in on only one passage, Mark 9:14–29, Jesus' healing of an epileptic boy. Consequently many of his findings may well be limited to the idiosyncrasies of this passage and not applicable to the whole of the Bible (he is well aware of this, p. 95).

As Village points out, empirical approaches to biblical interpretation are rare. His aim is to ‘look at a range of interpretative possibilities in relation to a range of extra-biblical variables that might have some predictive capabilities’ (p. 159). The author specifically investigates the variables related to interpretation by ordinary readers. The factors that he found most significant include education, personality type, experience, and charismatic practice (p. 160).

It is interesting to note that while neither age nor gender appear to influence interpretation significantly, education does have a significant influence, shifting readers from literal to more liberal beliefs about the Bible (p. 51). Village points out that if people's ‘last serious engagement’ with the Bible occurs in Sunday School, they may struggle to reconcile the text with their cultural milieu (pp. 160–61).

Village investigates the impact of attitudes and beliefs about the Bible on readers' use of the Bible. The reason that people read the Bible will directly impact what they get out of it (p. 78). Drawing upon reader response theory, Village explores how readers bring together the world of the text with their own world. Literal readers particularly fuse their horizon with that of the text whereas theological education leaves readers stuck in the ‘author horizon’, unable to engage meaningfully with the text (pp. 90–91). More effective education appears to be that which focuses upon the ‘ethics of reading’ while teaching readers not to bend Scripture to fit their context (p. 93).

Village also measures the effect of personality type upon interpretation, using an abbreviated form of Myers-Briggs as a measuring instrument. This includes a consideration of readers' identification with a character in the story (p. 117). Here his findings lead him to argue that a healthy reading of the Bible should allow for a variety of interactions and interpretations. He also considers the importance of interpretative communities, drawing on the work of Stanley Fish, and the relationship between biblical interpretation and readers' view of the experience and role of the Holy Spirit.

The book left me wondering if a qualitative methodology would have served Village's purposes better than a quantitative methodology. Semi-structured interviews, for instance, would have enabled him to probe causal relationships, whereas his quantitative analysis is limited to highlighting related variables (some of them fairly obvious) without being able to speak to the cause-effect spectrum. The author admits that some of his findings are predictable (p. 68).

Yet Village's research moves theological study away from relying upon mere anecdotal evidence about how readers interpret (p. 162). In contrast to the usual academic approaches to biblical interpretation, his study aims to demonstrate ‘how the church actually uses the Bible, rather than how it ought to’ (p. 163). He asserts that the diversity of readings that his study uncovers reflects the diversity of the Body of Christ as well as the diversity of humanity as created by God (p. 165).

Village is right to open up with the strikingly odd contrast between scholarly awareness of the importance of the reader's location and the fact that the academy ‘for all its sophisticated development in biblical scholarship in the last fifty years, remains largely ignorant of what other people do with the Bible’ (p. 2). This study will be a step along the way to remedying that situation. There is much of interest in the conclusions about the relative significance of education and age, and some valuable questions are raised, such as when, referring to child-like readings, he asks ‘Do the virtues of innocence outweigh the dangers of ignorance?’ (p. 91). A study such as this is long overdue, and one may hope that it will be widely pondered by those who work at the theoretical end of biblical studies.