Lauren Winner

Book Notes

An ethnographer sits in on Bible studies.

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Given the centrality of Bible study to American evangelical life, the relative dearth of scholarly investigation of Bible studies is striking. Anthropologist James Bielo has helped fill this significant lacuna. As an anthropology graduate student, he devoted 19 months to Bible study ethnography, attending 324 Bible study meetings. The Bible study, Bielo argues in his monograph Words upon the Word, is as good a site as any for getting at what really matters to American evangelicals—what they talk about, what they worry about. Unsurprisingly, Bielo finds that Bible studies have many functions beyond increasing participants' biblical knowledge. Evangelicals self-consciously develop intimate relationships with one another in the context of Bible study; studies are also opportunities for evangelicals to discuss and practice evangelism, defining what successful "witnessing" looks like.

One of the most interesting chapters takes us into a Missouri Synod Lutheran women's Bible study. Bielo examines how the women in the group negotiate their religious identity. Inter alia, he notes the women's concern with maintaining and delimiting Lutheran identity. Evangelicals, he finds, devote a lot of energy to defining who they are by explaining who they are not. Bielo's subjects describe new churches "popping up" that, although "fun," are not orderly—by contrast, these Lutheran women understand and appreciate order. The women also criticize churches where a confession of sin is optional—by contrast, the recognition of oneself as a sinner is crucial to the Missouri Synod women's sense of themselves.

Bielo also pays attention to the moments of disagreement among Bible study members—for example, the Lutheran women, discussing Acts 2:18, disagree among themselves about women's ordination. These disagreements are always quite friendly, Bielo says; they never turn into an explosion or derail the Bible study. (The reader can't help but wonder. Never?) Yet they "remind us that the ever-present potential for tension in Bible study can disrupt the progression of predictable narratives."

Lauren Winner is an assistant professor at Duke Divinity School.

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