The Semiotics of Relevance: Campaigning for the Bible in Greater Manchester

Article excerpt

Abstract

This is an article about an advertising campaign that ran in the Greater Manchester area, north of England, in May and June 2007, sponsored by the Bible Society of England and Wales, and aimed at stressing the relevance of the Bible to the general public for understanding today's world. One of the Society's assumptions was that the best way to do this was by appearing not- Christian: drawing on semiotic and aesthetic registers that drew from what were understood to be "Cultural" rather than "Church"-based repertoires. The specificities of the case study are explored in some depth, but related also to the wider literatures on Christian approaches to language and secularization theory. [Keywords: Secularism, anthropology of Christianity, public religion, semiotics, religion in England]

For religion to be a positive force for good, it must be rescued not simply from extremism-faith as a means of exclusion; but also from irrelevance-an interesting part of our history but not of our future.

-Tony Blair

A notable shifthas taken place in the debate about God. While there are those who still argue He is dead (Bruce 2002), another contention these days seems to be that He is not great (Hitchens 2007). Indeed, if you want to unsettle a Christian these days, don't say God is dead: say He's irrelevant.

The importance of this point can be seen in England, where I have conducted fieldwork on the Bible Society of England and Wales. Bible Society, as it is generally known, is one of a number of Christian organizations in England that has turned its attention in recent years to stressing the relevance of Christianity-in public life, for people's sense of their "wellbeing," and in many other ways. The Society has deep roots; it was founded in London in 1804 by a group of evangelicals who wanted to provide universal access to the Word of God. These evangelicals were reacting to a perceived desire for Scripture in England, Wales, and throughout the world. They were spurred on by an evangelical impulse, but equally by the expanding horizon of the British empire and advances in printing technology that allowed for greater mass production of texts. Although much has changed in the past 200 years, this goal of provision is still the core of Bible Society's work. But the Society wants to do something more, as expressed in its motto during the course of my research (2006-2009)-that is, "making the Bible heard." Strictly speaking, exactly what one "hears," as staffmight put it, is not the Society's concern. As James Catford, the CEO, told me, only slightly tongue in cheek, "we don't have a position on anything." The Society does not say how to interpret or frame the Word of God-only that the Word of God is worth listening to. Despite this relatively humble take, one of the difficulties staffperceive in making the Bible heard is that, at least in the Society's domestic territories (England and Wales), not many people these days want to hear anything from the Bible whatsoever. More than this, the Society understands there to be a widespread disinterest in (and sometimes even hostility to) Christianity within England, especially when it is made public or, even worse, pushed on those who haven't gone looking for it.2 What they want to counter is the sense that Christianity is irrelevant.

Exactly what makes Christianity or the Bible relevant can, of course, differ greatly. Depending on the time and place, Christianity might be rele vant to someone's life in more instrumental or personally meaningful ways. Within England, for example, many of the best primary and secondary schools are run by the Anglican and Catholic churches. These schools are often over-subscribed, such that priority can be given to applicants who come from the families of practicing Christians, or are willing to commit to attending church. In these cases, Christianity may well be relevant to someone's life even if they are not a Christian. …