In this final post on James Bielo’s Words Upon the Word: An Ethnography of Evangelical Bible Study, I’m writing about both his final chapter — “Negotiating Self and Others” — and his conclusion. Both are relatively short, and in some ways, they work well together.
Negotiating Self and Others
In this chapter, Bielo uses as his case study a women’s Bible study at the same Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS) church as the men’s group from an earlier chapter. Specifically, Bielo focuses on how the women in this Bible study define themselves and their Lutheranism through dialogue, grounded in their discussions of the Bible.
Based on my observations and analyses of eighteen group meetings, I cannot overstate the attention paid to the theme of denominational identity by the LCMS Women. The marking of textual materials alone was remarkable. The denominational affiliations of Bible commentators, authors, speakers, hymn writers, and Bible translators were constantly inquired about, if not immediately identified (usually by Sandy [the group facilitator]). The words and lives of Lutheran theologians — from Martin Luther to Dietrich Bonhoeffer to Erwin Lutzer — were repeatedly recontextualized to help explain [Beth] Moore’s commentary and biblical texts. 1 Self-deprecating jokes about this preoccupation concluded intense discussions, indexing a keen awareness of how much they talked about “being Lutheran.” (140)
Bielo suggests elsewhere that the LCMS are more aware of denominational distinctions than most other evangelicals, contrasting them with a more typical “nondenominational” Restoration Movement church. In this chapter, Bielo makes the case (briefly) that Lutheranism, throughout its history, has defined itself in opposition to other Christian groups. He goes on to provide several examples of this identity-building from the LCMS Women’s conversations.
The LCMS Women may be more focused on denominational identity than are other evangelicals, but Bielo closes this chapter by raising the question of how evangelicals define their religious identity in a post-denominational age. Without making a firm conclusion, he suggests that it could be within Bible studies where, as we saw in the previous chapter on witnessing, evangelicals have a “backstage” where they can “talk amongst themselves,” as it were.
Bible Study as Preparation for Action
Bielo concludes Words Upon the Word with several suggestions for further research, including the role that facilitators play in Bible studies and the issue of where online discussion spaces will replace or supplement Bible studies. I was particularly interested, however, in the connection between Bible study and action in the world.
The reading that takes place [in a Bible study], as well as the talk surrounding that reading, is not a passive affair. By this I mean that groups do not simply take up their various texts, consider them, and forget their impact until the next meeting or some random, future encounter with the same text. The analysis in the preceding chapters has made it very difficult to maintain such an evaluation of collective reading. Quote the opposite, in fact, the type of reading featured in this book speaks to a dynamic relationship between text and action. The interaction that takes place between Bible study participants and their texts is productive, informing the worldview of these readers and their ways of being and acting in the world. In short, what happens in Bible study does not say in Bible study. (158-9, emphasis added)
This has certainly been my experience. In fact, whether a Bible study is making a difference in people’s lives and behaviors is usually a measurement of whether a particular Bible study is truly effective.
What do you think?
- Do evangelicals still define themselves according to denomination?
- How do you see Bible study’s role in shaping identity and motivating action?
- What research questions do you have about Bible study?
Also in this series: Bible study as a social institution, Answering “Are you a Christian? Are you an academic?”,How do evangelicals read the Bible?, Intimacy in evangelical Bible studies, Textual economies of Bible studies, Bible study as “backstage” for witnessing