James Bielo’s Words Upon the Word: An Ethnography of Evangelical Group Bible Study closely observes several Bible studies in Lansing, Michigan. I’ve been reading and blogging about the book this summer as part of my efforts to gain a sense of the academic perspective on evangelical Christians[1. You may have noticed that Bielo capitalizes “Evangelical,” while I don’t. The style of our blog has generally been not to capitalize the word, but I’ve maintained Bielo’s own usage in my quotations.]. In this week’s chapter, titled “Integrating Participant Interests,” Bielo profiles a United Methodist Bible study that has been brought together by a shared love of history. During Bielo’s case study, the group is reading Philip Yancey’s The Jesus I Never Knew, a popular book that attempts to place Jesus in his historical, first century context.
This is a common book for evangelicals to read together. When you think about it, though, isn’t is a bit strange for a Bible study to read anything other than the Bible? Bielo is careful to note that the Bible study members don’t invest Yancey with the same authority as they do the Bible, but he also observes that there is a large “secondary canon” of literature that evangelicals embrace. This canon, in many ways, defines evangelicalism as a movement.[2. Indeed, later in the book, Bielo recounts a story of an evangelical member of a mainline Bible study, who leaves the group over its decision to read something by Deepak Chopra.]
Evangelicals as “Voracious Readers”
Bielo earlier remarked on the fact that evangelical Christians value learning. In this chapter, he returns to that theme to pay more attention to their reading:
Throughout my research with Evangelical Bible study groups I returned to a curious social fact: these Christians are voracious readers with a hunger for all manner of texts. Individuals pride themselves on how well read they are, not just in scripture and scriptural commentary, but also in books such as Yancey’s that use scripture as a springboard into all topics imaginable. Books are central to many of the processes and activities that define Evangelical life, such as attempts at conversion. A favored method of witnessing among Evangelical is to give theology, fictional, and inspirational Christian books to those who are not “saved.” (109, emphasis added)
I had to laugh at that final sentence, because my mother-in-law (who is evangelical) and her brother-in-law (who would likely consider himself “spiritual but not religious”) have been trading books back and forth for several years. Further, I still have the books given to me by my InterVarsity staff worker at the University of Louisville in my earliest days as a Christian, such as The Fight by John White and Darwin on Trial by Philip Johnson. A large part of my relationship with my future mother-in-law was formed through books that she had also read as a young Christian — at one point, I picked up used copies of the same editions of Francis Schaeffer and Ron Sider that she had bought new.
Bielo traces the importance of books in Christianity from Augustine, through the Reformation and 19th-century evangelicals, to their contemporary descendants. He then
offer[s] the concept of “textual economies” to capture the relationship Evangelicals sustain with books other than the Bible. A working definition might read: the differential social capital Christian communities invest in the category of text, individual authors, individual works, and distinct genres. (110-111, emphasis added)
Bielo notes that certain authors, chief among them C.S. Lewis, gain prominence in these textual economies, as do certain specialized genres, such as apocalyptic and romance fiction.
Books, the Local Church, and the Church Universal
These books, however, change the relationship between evangelicals and the church, in two different ways. First, the local church is no longer the center of evangelical theology and education:
Books — such as Yancey’s The Jesus I Never Knew — have become the primary way that Evangelicals learn and reproduce core Christian doctrines, as well as matters of orthopraxy. Instead of relying primarily on their local clergy, lay Evangelicals look to a cadre of published teachers for theological and moral instruction. (111)
Throughout his research, Bielo encounters individual church members whose theology is at odds with their congregation’s, and one can see this, in part, by the books they cite.
While books may decrease evangelicals’ ties to the local church, however, they may serve to strengthen their relationship with the church universal. Bielo sees Candy Gunther Brown’s assessment of 18th- and 19th-century evangelicals as equally applicable to contemporary ones:
The idea of a textual community provided an alternative to viewing the Christian church as centered in the local congregation…Evangelicals used texts to envision themselves as belonging to the church universal, which included Christians from all time periods, countries, and denominations. (The Word in the World: Evangelical Writing, Publishing, and Reading in America, 1789-1880. p. 12)
If I were making a short list of writers who have most influenced contemporary American evangelicals, it would include a Irish Anglican (Lewis), an English Catholic (J.R.R. Tolkien), and a North African small-c catholic (Augustine). Ask evangelicals who, in history, have best exemplified Christ’s teachings, and you’re likely to hear mentioned the names of an Italian monk (Francis of Assisi), an Albanian nun (Mother Teresa), and an African American Baptist (Martin Luther King, Jr.).
As Bielo writes,
Reading the same books has the ability to generate, quite immediately, a shared sense of belonging and Christian identity for individuals who have never met or might otherwise have no binding social ground. (111)
Some questions for further discussion:
- Has this been your experience with reading?
- What books or authors have brought you together with other Christians?
- Do you think that evangelical books have largely replaced the local church as the center for theology education?