Case studies in religious literacy
Introduction: what do we mean by religious literacy? What do we mean when we speak of religious literacy? It is clear that we are referring to the need for students to know the meaning of religious vocabulary but it is much more than this. The idea of meaning is embodied in the notion of understanding how a word operates and has significance within a whole language within which it is contextualised. For example, I may know some French words but I may stumble when I seek to put them into a sentence and I may be embarrassed if I do not know their cultural associations or the ‘grammar’ (as used by Jackson following Geertz) of the culture. By knowing the literal meaning of words I do not therefore become culturally literate.Beyond this I may also lack an overall understanding of the worldview within which they operate, a matter of translation. I need to be aware that languages do not simply translate words existent in one culture to another but that there is a different conception of the world involved that is communicated by words within a language in which they sit and have their role. As an example, Claude Lévi-Strauss’ Tristes Tropiques cannot be translated into English as ‘the sad tropics’, which ceases to convey the melancholy association of the meaning of the French word ‘triste’. Bear in mind of course that ‘the melancholy tropics’ doesn’t work either, and that the designation given by a French anthropologist of their condition would not necessarily be recognised by the inhabitants as a description of their condition that resonated with them. He was writing for a sophisticated Western readership in French.