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Mark Noll


Anthropologists Discover the Bible

Cross-cultural studies of “biblicism.”

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The payoff from these promising developments is apparent in the self-conscious striving for ideological neutrality that marks the essays in Bielo's book. So we are treated in its pages to careful scrutiny of homilies preached by Catholic charismatics and Catholic church loyalists in Guatemala, Bible memorization by Rastafarian Brethren in Jamaica, complaints of Nigerian Anglicans about the American Episcopal Church, the complex relationship between text and charisma in a Southern California Vineyard fellowship, the marketing of Thomas Nelson's Revolve rendition of the New Testament, aimed at teen-aged girls, and the ebb and flow of a weekly Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod men's Bible study in Lansing, Michigan.

What these essays do not provide is conclusive religious or ideological assessment—either of how Scripture works as God's life-transforming Word or how it functions as just another artfully constructed totem propping up patriarchal hegemony.

What they do provide is a great deal of intriguing information and a number of valuable questions. Along with—to be sure— a few simple mistakes (like the assertion that defenders of complementarian gender roles "simply ignore" passages like Galatians 3:28 that are favored by egalitarians) and a little academic huffing and puffing (e.g., "The Bible, as an authoritative text, an icon, or what is more likely, as a powerful piece of the symbolic capital of the evangelical community, will be part of multiple imaginaries in Mesoamerica"). But the instructive pluses far outweigh the distracting minuses.

Thus, among the rural Maya in Guatemala, it turns out that lay catechists who have attended classes led by Madre Chin, a Filipino nun who represents the Catholic chain of command, preach sermons more closely resembling the ideal of an exegetical evangelical sermon than the free-form efforts of Catholic charismatics.

In Jamaica, some Rastafarian Brethren have memorized an immense store of KJV texts that they then "cite-up" in a charged public ritual to attack alcohol, dance halls, and animal protein, as well as to discover more references to Africa and Ethiopia than conventional interpreters usually find.

Nigerian bishops who protest against the American Episcopalian acceptance of homosexuality as legitimate turn out to be exercising "a subversive strategy of subaltern agency that negotiates its own authority, through a process of iterative 'unpicking' and incommensurable, insurgent rethinking."

In the Southern California Vineyard fellowship, influence in the assembly comes from using the Scriptures, but in a way that is 'sensed' … intuited or felt" rather than "induced or decoded" from the biblical passages themselves.

The marketing team that produced Revolve for Thomas Nelson was all female and included no professionally trained theologians, but the result has been a significant increase in the number of teenaged girls in evangelical homes who are actively reading the New Testament.

The study of Missouri Synod Lutherans in Lansing comes closest simply to translating into anthropologese what participants in such studies have long understood in other terms: "the group's interpretive conduct is structured by the ideological principle of textuality. God through 'His Word' can be counted on never to lie, misdirect, or distort His purposes with conflicting messages."

Christian believers of every sort have almost always spoken of the Bible as divine revelation in human form. The best classical teaching on Scripture has insisted that the divinity, the humanity, and the inseparable intertwining of divinity and humanity are crucial for understanding and appropriating Scripture.

Those, therefore, who do believe that the Bible is divine revelation, but who are also willing to study its operation in quotidian real-life situations, should welcome books like The Social Life of Scriptures. They do not answer questions about how to interpret individual passages or the whole of the biblical narrative. Neither do they adjudicate among better or worse ways of putting the Bible to use.

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