This summer, I’m reading â€” and blogging about â€” 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?Â
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 â€” in fact, “literal” is often defined as meaning to read according to theÂ 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 theÂ Left Behind series relies heavily on metaphorical interpretations of the Bible. [Read more…] about Bielo: How Do Evangelicals Read the Bible?