Why do evangelical Christians join â€“ and remain in â€“ Bible studies? Thatâ€™s how I would characterize the basic themes of this and next weeksâ€™ chapters of James S. Bieloâ€™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, â€œCultivating Intimacy,â€ Bielo observes the close relationship between evangelicalsâ€™ view of God and their desire for relationships with fellow Christians. Next week, weâ€™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 â€œPrayer Circleâ€ at a Restoration Movement church in Lansing, which he feels â€œexemplifies a defining theme of American Evangelicalism: the conceptualization of Christian spirituality as an intimate experienceâ€ (74).
For more on this concept, Bielo draws on another scholar whose work Iâ€™ll be examining:
Tanya Luhrmann (2004)[1. â€œMetakinesis: How God Becomes Intimate in Contemporary U.S. Christianity.â€ American Anthropologist 106:518â€“28] 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 mannerâ€¦In turn, establishing and nurturing a personalized, one-on-one relationship with God is the defining goal of Evangelical spirituality. Having a â€œrelationship with Jesus Christâ€ is not solely a matter of eternal salvation, it is also the key to best life possible in this world. (75â€“76, emphasis added)
Speaking to God â€œin a frankly everyday mannerâ€ 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 Rinkerâ€™s Prayer: Conversing with God, first published in 1959. Hereâ€™s how CT described the influence of Rinkerâ€™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., â€œLord, we just really wanna â€¦â€). But today evangelicals assume that casual, colloquial, intimate prayer is the most authentic way to pray.
Indeed, the influence of Rinkerâ€™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 evangelicalsâ€™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. Oneâ€™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: 25â€“27)[2. Women in the Presence: Constructing Community and Seeking Spirituality in Mainline Protestantism.] calls a â€œdonâ€™t ask, donâ€™t tellâ€ 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 â€œChristianity is about relationships, not religion.â€ (76, emphasis added)
I wish I could remember where I first read this insight â€“ it was probably Douglas Sloanâ€™s Faith and Knowledge: Mainline Protestantism and American Higher Education â€“ but the kind of religion that flourishes in the academy is precisely the â€œdonâ€™t ask, donâ€™t tellâ€ spirituality that Bielo cites here â€“ a privatized faith, in evangelical terms. Itâ€™s fine to have strong religious beliefs, to attend church (or synagogue, mosque, or temple) on a weekly basis, as long as it doesnâ€™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 â€“ spiritual intimacy â€“ in oneâ€™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 â€œapplicationâ€ 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 donâ€™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, youâ€™ll need the support and prayers of fellow Christians. It could be a Bible study on campus (hey â€“ 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, Iâ€™ll wrote about Bieloâ€™s chapter on â€œIntegrating Participant Interests,â€ and Iâ€™d say that itâ€™s likely to find church-based Bible studies that share common interests with you. (If there isnâ€™t? Then you can always start one.)
Whatâ€™s been your experience?Â Do you agree thatÂ intimacyÂ is a primary goal for evangelical Bible studies? Have you find Bible studies to be a good support system for evangelicals in the academy?
About the author:
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.