Bielo: Bible study as a social institution

The first selection in my summer research project: James S. Bielo’s Words Upon the Word: An Ethnography of Evangelical Group Bible Study. This summer, inspired by T.M. Luhrmann’s When God Talks Back, I am reviewing several books that provide an academic perspective on North American evangelicals. My goal is to see evangelicals through the eyes of professional academics who have made a point of studying them with academic rigor. Unfortunately, the most commonly heard “academic” opinions about evangelicals are also the least academic — that is, they are formed mostly from unreflective personal experience.

To draw on my own personal experience, which has been confirmed as the experience of many of my friends, my professors who spoke the most about religion at my public university were usually those with the strongest emotions on the subject and the least professional expertise. George Yancey’s Compromising Scholarship: Religious and Political Bias in American Higher Education is an excellent introduction to this phenomenon. (Tom Trevethan reviewed the book for ESN a while back.)

In the modern university model, however, when one wants to learn about a subject, one doesn’t turn to the person with the strongest opinions and the loudest voice. As I proceed with this project, I hope that I’ll not only learn more about evangelicals, but also gain some insights that can help evangelical academics and campus ministers interact with non-evangelicals on campus.

Studying the Bible Study

Bielo’s Words Upon the Word is an ethnography of nineteen Bible study groups at six Protestant churches in Lansing, Michigan, including United Methodist, Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, Vineyard, and Restoration Movement (Church of Christ/Christian Church) congregations. Altogether, Bielo’s fieldwork encompassed 324 separate Bible study meetings over a 19 month period.

Why look at Bible studies? In his Introduction, Bielo wonders why there aren’t more academics studying the institution of the Bible study.

As I demonstrate throughout this book, Bible study contends strongly for being the most consequential form of religious practice to the ever-evolving contours of American Evangelicalism. From a sheer numerical perspective, it is the most prolific type of small group in American society, with more than 30 million American Protestants gathering every week for this distinct purpose. [This statistic is taken from Robert Wuthnow’s Sharing the Journey: Support Groups and America’s New Quest for Community.] As a matter of substance, it provides individuals a unique opportunity to engage in open, reflexive, and critical dialogue. If we are serious about developing the anthropology of Christianity in the United States, we must attend to sites of cultural production and reflection. (3, emphasis added)

Bielo emphasizes the role of Bible studies as social institutions in evangelical churches, which will sound familiar to readers of James Davison Hunter, Andy Crouch, or James K.A. Smith, not merely as events where people “just talk,” but where evangelicals gather intentional to read together and discuss their readings.

Ultimately, this book is about what happens when American Evangelicals gather to read and discuss various texts and the very real impact that this form of social action has on the remainder of their lives. (16)

I’m a few chapters into Words Upon the Word, and I’m very excited about the rest of the book. Next week, I’ll write about Bielo’s reflection on his experience as a non-evangelical academic attending evangelical Bible studies and his decisions on how to address questions like “Are you a Christian?” and “Are you an academic?” with (he hoped) minimal impact on either the Bible study or his research.

What are your thoughts about Bible studies as social institutions? Do you, like Bielo, see them as a defining feature of evangelical Christianity? 

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Micheal Hickerson

The former Associate Director for the Emerging Scholars Network, Micheal lives in Cincinnati with his wife and three children and works as a web manager for a national storage and organization company. He writes about work, vocation, and finding meaning in what you do at No Small Actors.

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