Bielo: How Do Evangelicals Read the Bible?

Bible Study 2

Despite appearances, this is not my Bible. Yes, I always use Pilot Precise V5 pens, but never for marking in my Bible.

This summer, I’m reading — and blogging about — several books that reflect academic understandings of American evangelicals. The first of these is James S. Bielo’s Words Upon the Word: An Ethnography of Evangelical Group Bible Study. Previously, I wrote about Bielo’s discussion of Bible study as a social institution and how he decided to answer questions of identity about being a Christian and an academic.This week, I’m going to look at the actual act of reading the Bible in a small group Bible study.

At the beginning of this chapter, Bielo summarizes “three general conclusions” about evangelical Bible reading from the work of several other sociologists of religion. The rest of the chapter goes into more detail about evangelical views of Biblical authority and textuality, using transcripts from an LCMS men’s small group as a case study, but I want to focus on these points of academic consensus in this post (and, of course, give you some good reasons to buy Bielo’s book and read it yourself).

Do you agree with Bielo’s summary of the academic consensus? Are these general traits of how evangelicals read the Bible? 

Biblical Literalism as Identity, Not Hermeneutic

This first point is probably the most unexpected.

1. Despite the claim of adherents, literalism does not constitute a hermeneutic method. That is, it is not a self-conscious or tacit means of actually reading and interpreting biblical texts. In his extensive account of Evangelical biblicism, Brian Malley ([How the Bible Works: An Anthropological Study of Evangelical Biblicism] 2004: 92-103) argues that literalism functions primarily as a signifier of theological and religious identity. To identify as a literalist is to claim affiliation with certain Christian traditions (conservative, born-again, Evangelical, fundamentalist) and separate oneself from others (moderate, liberal, mainline, progressive). (49, emphasis added)

I’ve not read Malley’s book, but this take on “literalism” strikes me as largely accurate. In my own experience in leading and participating in Bible studies, evangelicals are quite comfortable with figurative readings of Scripture — in fact, “literal” is often defined as meaning to read according to the genre of the text, so that figurative, metaphorical, and poetic passages of the Bible would be read figuratively, etc. Even LaHaye and Jenkins’ “literal” reading of Revelation in the Left Behind series relies heavily on metaphorical interpretations of the Bible.

Of course, if you’ve ever taken a survey to assess your religious beliefs, the options given by sociologists aren’t exactly designed to allow for theological sophistication. Take the General Social Survey‘s question about the Bible, for example:

Which of these statements comes closest to describing your feelings about the Bible?

  1. The Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally.
  2. The Bible is the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally, word for word.
  3. The Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by men.
All three of those choices are more or less true, even the last one. When I’ve been asked that question in a survey, I see it as shorthand for “How seriously do you take the Bible – very, sort of, or not at all?” So I grit my teeth and claim to take the Bible “literally,” even though I have never once believed I would be given “wings like eagles” or that Paul had a “literal” thorn in his flesh.

“Literalism,” in practice, does have hermeneutic content, however.

Literalism is also informative as an expression of distinctly Western and Protestant language ideologies…In particular, literalism prioritizes referential over performative meaning functions (that is, preference is given to language’s ability to make propositional statements about reality instead of the use of language to create a state of affairs). With this close coupling of language and reality in place, literalism stresses the ability of words to accurately convey inner states of intention, sincerity, and moral character. (Bielo, 49-50)

So then, evangelicals read passages about the resurrection of Christ, for example, as describing something that actually happened, rather than (as another type of Christian might posit) describing an image that will help become the right kind of people.

Reading the Bible for Application…

These next two traits of evangelical Bible study are more straightforward — and they will be familiar to anyone who has taken part in an InterVarsity inductive Bible study.

2. The most widespread form of activity that American Evangelicals perform is an ongoing attempt to apply biblical texts to their everyday lives….[Despite disagreements among scholars about how and why this takes place] they all recognize this process of finding application as the most familiar way that American Evangelicals read the Bible. (50)

Later in the chapter, Bielo describes this as “Biblical relevance”: evangelicals approach the Bible expectingto find something relevant to their lives. It’s also tied closely to Biblical authority, another topic that Bielo discusses in this chapter. If you have ever been trained in InterVarsity’s inductive method, you know the letters OIA, which stand for Observation-Interpretation-Application, the three steps of the inductive method. (And if you have led many OIA-structured Bible studies, you know that it’s often a challenge to keep participants from leaping to A too quickly.)

…and Action

This expectation to apply the Bible is closely related to the third trait:

3. Evangelical assert an extremely close relationship between text and action…the social life of the Bible is not simply a matter of reading and exegesis, but translates to various forms of action in the world. (50)

One part of Bebbington’s famous “quadrilateral” definition of evangelicalism is activism, after all. I have found that evangelicals often have difficulty imagining an application for Scripture other than concrete action. Meditative or devotional use of Scripture can seem a bit off to many evangelicals, and I think one of the reasons that evangelicals struggle with the fine arts is that art doesn’t do anything. (Although, in fact, art does do many things, just not in the same way that a sermon illustration or gospel tract does something.)

Taken together, I wonder if these three traits — literalism as a mark of identity, reading for application, the connection between text and action — go a long way toward explaining the tension between evangelicals and academics that Bielo describes in his previous chapter. We conceive of our identity as belonging to two different “tribes,” even if our individual beliefs and attitudes aren’t really that far apart. Academic readers put off application as long as possible, for the most part, and regard “simple” readings of texts as instructions to be suspect. One might read Benjamin Franklin’s “Way of Wealth” in an American literature course, but never with the intention of actually following its advice. Academia and the evangelical church are both communities centered around texts, with two very different ways of approaching those texts.

Do you agree with Bielo’s summary of the academic consensus? Are these general traits of how evangelicals read the Bible? 


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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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    Matt boedy commented on June 26, 2012 Reply

    A lot of Christian academics going performative. It can do a lot, pardon the pun.

      Micheal Hickerson commented on June 27, 2012 Reply

      Thanks for that word, Matt, including the pun. My own academic training is in literature and writing, and that’s been my experience, too. It would be interesting to examine the various academic concepts that are more accepted by evangelical Christian academics than by evangelicals in general.

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