I’m currently reading Words Upon the Word by James S. Bielo, an ethnography of evangelical Bible study groups in Lansing, Michigan. Last week, I looked at Bielo’s introduction and the question of Bible study as a cultural institution. This week, I continue with Bielo’s first chapter, in which he describes his methods for selecting and observingÂ the Bible study groups. In the progress of his research, two issues with significances to theÂ Emerging Scholars Network arose. The first: the varieties of meaning behind the word “Christian.”
“Are you a Christian?”
If you have visited many evangelical churches, you’ve likely heard the question “Are you a Christian?” or some close variation. Depending on the context, it can be a tricky question to answer well. As Bielo writes, it’s especially tricky when you are an ethnographer visiting a Bible study in order to observe it for a research project.
How have anthropologists responded to this question? Frankly, the most common approach is silence, an avoidance of how this matter of identify impacted the research. It is a sort of don’t ask-don’t tell policy â€” one that is always conspicuous in its absence. For those that do address the issue, the dominant narrative is hardly surprising. It is somewhat of a truism, at least in the United States, that religious faith can be hard to come by in the academy â€” a fact appearing in exaggerated form among anthropologists….In responding to the question [in a Carnegie Foundation survey] “What is your religion?” anthropologists refused to claim any affiliation at a rate of 65 percent, ten points above the next discipline (philosophy) and more than twice the mean for all others. (Bielo, 30-31, emphasis added)
Bielo, however, doesn’t favor this approach. Instead, he prefers an approach influenced by Brian Howell’s suggestion that a Christian studying Christians is similar to “the feminist studying women, the leftist studying labor unions or the Muslim studying mosques” (32, quoting Howell’s “The Repugnant Cultural Other Speaks Back: Christian Identity as an Ethnographic ‘Standpoint.'”)
The question “Are you a Christian?,” though, means different things in different churches. InterVarsity staff or anyone who navigates between different varieties of Christianity know this, and I was impressed with Bielo’s discussion of “Six Iterations of ‘Are You a Christian?'” in this chapter. Of the six churches in Bielo’s study, three are United Methodist, and the remaining three are Lutheran-Missouri Synod (LCMS), Restoration Movement (Christian Church/Churches of Christ), and Vineyard. [Read more…] about Bielo: Answering “Are you a Christian? Are you an academic?”