Why do evangelical Christians join – and remain in – Bible studies? That’s how I would characterize the basic themes of this and next weeks’ chapters of James S. Bielo’s Words Upon the Word: An Ethnography of Evangelical Group Bible Study, which I have been blogging through as part of my research project on academic perspectives on evangelicals. In chapter 3, “Cultivating Intimacy,” Bielo observes the close relationship between evangelicals’ view of God and their desire for relationships with fellow Christians. Next week, we’ll look at chapter 4, which deals with the role of shared interested in shaping and maintaining Bible study groups.
Do you agree that intimacy is a primary goal for evangelical Bible studies? Have you find Bible studies to be a good support system for evangelicals in the academy?
In this chapter, Bielo focuses on a “Prayer Circle” at a Restoration Movement church in Lansing, which he feels “exemplifies a defining theme of American Evangelicalism: the conceptualization of Christian spirituality as an intimate experience” (74).
For more on this concept, Bielo draws on another scholar whose work I’ll be examining:
Tanya Luhrmann (2004)1 provides an apt description of how Evangelicals imagine the nature of God and spirituality. The defining characteristic at work is intimacy. This God is not distant, mediated by arcane rituals or rote formulas. He is always approachable, forgiving, loving, and desires the best for each person. One should seek to relate, talk, and listen to God everyday and in a frankly everyday manner…In turn, establishing and nurturing a personalized, one-on-one relationship with God is the defining goal of Evangelical spirituality. Having a “relationship with Jesus Christ” is not solely a matter of eternal salvation, it is also the key to best life possible in this world. (75–76, emphasis added)
Speaking to God “in a frankly everyday manner” jumped out at me as a mark of evangelical spirituality. In 2006, Christianity Today published its list of The Top 50 Books That Have Shapped Evangelicals, which included many of the books that you might expect: Mere Christianity, Knowing God, Celebration of Discipline, Evidence That Demands a Verdict, and so on. At number one, however, was a book I had never heard of, even though its author was a former staff member of InterVarsity: Rosalind Rinker’s Prayer: Conversing with God, first published in 1959. Here’s how CT described the influence of Rinker’s classic:
In the 1950s, evangelical prayer was characterized by Elizabethan wouldsts and shouldsts. Prayer meetings were often little more than a series of formal prayer speeches. Then Rosalind Rinker taught us something revolutionary: Prayer is a conversation with God. The idea took hold, sometimes too much (e.g., “Lord, we just really wanna …”). But today evangelicals assume that casual, colloquial, intimate prayer is the most authentic way to pray.
Indeed, the influence of Rinker’s book was so great that it had never occurred to me that conversational prayer was such a recent innovation.
Bielo goes on to observe that evangelicals’s desire for intimacy with God shapes their view of human relationships.
The hallmark of a successful Christian community is one that is open, always willing to share personal thoughts and feelings. One’s Christian family is ideally a safe haven, a place to reveal the utmost private thoughts, triumphs, concerns, and problems without fear of ridicule or exile. This contrasts sharply with what Jody Davie (1995: 25–27)2 calls a “don’t ask, don’t tell” spirituality characteristic of mainline American Protestants in which openness is often muted for the sake of maintaining an air of cohesion and belonging. A widely circulated utterance among Evangelicals, and one I heard often from Prayer Circle members, is that “Christianity is about relationships, not religion.” (76, emphasis added)
I wish I could remember where I first read this insight – it was probably Douglas Sloan’s Faith and Knowledge: Mainline Protestantism and American Higher Education – but the kind of religion that flourishes in the academy is precisely the “don’t ask, don’t tell” spirituality that Bielo cites here – a privatized faith, in evangelical terms. It’s fine to have strong religious beliefs, to attend church (or synagogue, mosque, or temple) on a weekly basis, as long as it doesn’t influence your day-to-day work.
Further, the academy as a whole values detachment, reflection, and skepticism. The intimacy sought by evangelicals runs against the grain of the rest of academy. George Yancey, George Marsden, Mark Noll, James Davison Hunter, and many others have written about the lack of standing of evangelicals within higher education. A major part of this, I believe, has to do with conflicts over values, including the role of intimacy – spiritual intimacy – in one’s daily life.
(Of course, not all evangelicals are equally comfortable with sharing personal thoughts and feelings.)
If this blog post were a Bible study, we would now be entered in the “application” phase of the discussion. Evangelicals seek intimacy with God and with fellow Christians, often through small group Bible studies. Academia has inherited the spiritual values of mainline Protestantism, which don’t value intimacy in the same way. So what should evangelical academics do?
My advice: join a small group Bible study. Evangelicalism seeks intimacy with God and with fellow Christians for good, Biblical reasons, and in the academy, you’ll need the support and prayers of fellow Christians. It could be a Bible study on campus (hey – I know some people who offer those!) or through your local church. In most college towns, there are many churches with strong ties to the local university, such as the ones profiled by Bielo. Next week, I’ll wrote about Bielo’s chapter on “Integrating Participant Interests,” and I’d say that it’s likely to find church-based Bible studies that share common interests with you. (If there isn’t? Then you can always start one.)
What’s been your experience? Do you agree that intimacy is a primary goal for evangelical Bible studies? Have you find Bible studies to be a good support system for evangelicals in the academy?
- “Metakinesis: How God Becomes Intimate in Contemporary U.S. Christianity.” American Anthropologist 106:518–28 ↩
- Women in the Presence: Constructing Community and Seeking Spirituality in Mainline Protestantism. ↩