Charles Taylor, the Social Imaginary, and the Bible in America

Over the last several months I have been working my way through Carl Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. Between reading his book and regularly writing on the blog here I could not help but find considerable similarity between the rise and triumph of the modern self in American culture and the rise and triumph of modern textual criticism in the American academy.

The other day I was accused of “throwing the kitchen sink” at modern textual criticism for making such a parallel, but I really do think there is something here. There’s apologetic and polemic gold in them there hills. So we’re going on a mining expedition first, to carefully and faithfully extract Trueman’s observations in order to observe how they comport with the current version debate and second, to flesh out my thoughts on this perceived parallel to see if it has any future for our overall argument?

The first Element which lies at the bottom of the modern understanding of self is that of the “social imaginary.” In order to explicate this term, Trueman employs the eminent scholar and philosopher, Charles Taylor. My only experience with Taylor before reading Trueman was through Taylor’s presentations as a prestigious Gifford Lecturer and particularly his work on the moral argument for the existence of God.

Trueman leverages Taylor in defining the social imaginary as,

“I speak of ‘imaginary’ (i) because I am talking about the way ordinary people ‘imagine’ their social surroundings, and this is often not expressive in theoretical terms, it is carried in images, stories, legend, etc. But it is also the case that (ii) theory is often the possession of a small minority, whereas what is interesting in the social imaginary is that it is shared by large groups of people, if not the whole society. Which leads to a third difference: (iii) the social imaginary is that common understanding which makes possible common practices, and a widely shared sense of legitimacy.”

Trueman, Rise, 37.

Trueman summarizes Taylors words as,

“In sum, the social imaginary is the way people think about the world, how they imagine it to be, how they act intuitively in relation to it – though that is emphatically not to make the social imaginary simply into a set of identifiable ideas.”

Trueman, Rise, 37.

The question now is, What is the social imaginary of that large group of people known as the Church in the West and in the USA in particular? Put another way, What serves as the Church’s images, stories, legends etc.? To answer this question we could look to our Church buildings. Some are huge albatrosses just off the interstate and others are diminutive and off the beaten path. Some are quite obviously churches with their steeples and crosses while others have gone for the Walmart look. Then there’s the worship service where worship to God includes lasers, elaborate backdrops, smoke machine and high-wire acts on Easter. At other churches, worship is merely three songs with a piano or guitar for accompaniment, public confession of sin, a reading from Scripture and then the preaching of the word of God.

Then there’s story or “legend” where Moses calls down mighty plagues upon Egypt and speaks with God fact-to-face, or only a boy named David kills a giant who has been a warrior since his youth. Then there’s Jesus who feeds the 5,000 or writes in the dirt in front of the accused woman and her accusers. Of course, there is resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, the most storied miracle of all. These as well shape our ecclesiastical social imaginary or ecclesiastical common understanding.

These are all symbols and images which serve as story and legend for our ecclesiastical social imaginary. All of these things inform our intuition about what church is. And yet, however these symbols, images, and stories make the average church goer intuitively feel about church, that feeling is not made into a “set of identifiable ideas” and emphatically so. Instead, one’s ecclesiastical social imaginary brings about a common understanding or consensus among those who share that intuition and those people end up in Church A rather than Church B in large part because Church B does not share in the same common understanding or consensus. In other words, to each their own.

Pertinent to our discussion here at we ask, “What is the social imaginary of the Church regarding the word of God, Holy Scripture?” According to a 2016 Barna Research released a the results of a survey entitled, The Bible in America. Regarding which definition is the best definition of the Bible as understood by practicing Christians, 38% of teens defined and Bible as the actual word of God and 50% of teens defined the Bible as the inspired word of God. 36% of Millennials view the Bible as the actual word of God and 50% define the Bible as the inspired word of God. Gen-Xers occupy similar territory where 36% regard the Bible as the actual word of God and 46% regard the Bible as the inspired word of God. For Boomers, 39% regard the Bible as the actual word of God and 43% regard the Bible as the inspired word of God. Finally, 38% of Elders regard the Bible as the actual word of God and 37% regard the Bible as the inspired word of God.

Assuming the respondents represented above were speaking of the Bible from which they read i.e., an English translation of the Bible. It seems that most practicing Christians believe their Bible to be either the actual words of God in English or the inspired words of God being without error in English. For vast majority of professing Christians it seems that inspiration extends beyond the original copies to the translation. In this sense, the English version of Scripture is regarded as inspired for a vast majority of practicing Christians. That’s a win, so why do they believe these things about their Bibles? What forms these beliefs in the modern Christian? What forms the social imaginary of these Christians leading them to believe the Bible is the actual words of God or the inspired words of God without error?

It seems two potent answers come to the fore: 1.) the Holy Spirit speaks through the words of God to the people of God thus receiving the words of God as the words of God and not of men, or 2.) an ecclesiastical social imaginary based on consensus or common understanding intuitively derived from the relative images, stories, and legends of a by-gone Christian era clinging to life in a post-Christian era – something like Christian superstition.

Do you think the average Christian could defend from Scripture why they believe their English Bible is the actual or inspired words of God without error? If they could, I wonder how much their defense would sound like the Standard Sacred Text position? I have a hunch that it would sound a lot more like our position than the its-in-the-text-or-apparatus position.

One final note, I wonder what the ecclesiastical social imaginary is for practicing Christian academics, seminarians and professors? Would they score as high as the average practicing Christian in declaring that an English translation is either the actual words of God or the inspired words of God without error? Part of me thinks they wouldn’t, which makes me conclude that the version issue may very well be an academic problem primarily and not a church problem.

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