I call this work material scripture. It means I act like a detective about books. I study books--particularly holy books--very closely, looking for clues contained in their construction about the types of believers who created them and use them. The stories books tell are not just between their covers. Their physical structures, and the histories of their design, publication, and use, also tell us something important. Louis Althusser once said that ideology has a material form, and books--especially Bibles--can be lightning rods for such ideological content.
In other words:
- Specific Bibles are designed in particular ways by publishers, and these designs are intended to accomplish very specific objectives within communties.
- These objectives may be as simple as "buy this book, and not not some other book." More often, however, these objectives are more subtle and complex.
- In fact, specific Bibles are central to creating specific types of readers and reading communities: the Bibles help teach the readers not only what doctrines they should hold, but also what they should believe about non-theological subjects like politics and the economy.
What my work shows is that these influences arise not only in the biblical text itself, but in all sorts of editorial insertions like footnotes, pull-quotes, chapter headings, illustrations, and translational choices. In other words, the design staffs and editorial staffs of Bible publishers function with the same sort of control and power over reading communities that was historically attributed to the Magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church.
The term I use for this influence by editors and publishers is "the covert magisterium," and this was the subject of my doctoral dissertation at Vanderbilt University. The dissertation lays out the theory of this hidden influence, and material scripture is the practice, whereby I use methods combined from theology, biblical exegesis, literary criticism, bibliography studies, and book history to unearth these influences and make them clear. For the past several years, I have been experimenting with and developing the methods of material scripture, becoming a better detective of these hidden magisterial influences.
I serve on the board of trustees for SCRIPT - the Society for Comparative Research in Iconic and Performative Texts. I am closely associated with those working on the Iconic Books project at Syracuse University. I have had a long and fruitful involvement with the Society for Scriptural Reasoning, based at the University of Virginia. I also am a frequent contributor to the Rock and Theology project run by Liturgical Press.
I teach in the department of religion and philosophy at Christian Brothers University in Memphis, Tennessee. I am assistant professor of Catholic Studies, and in addition to this subject I teach courses in American religious history, religion and constitutional law, new religious movements, and Judaism. Since 2011 I have also served on the Adult Formation Committee of the Vicariate for Divine Worship, Spiritual Life, and Catechesis with the Diocese of Memphis.