Evangelical Bible study groups are the most prolific type of small group in American society, with more than 30 million Protestants gathering every week for this distinct purpose, meeting in homes, churches, coffee shops, restaurants, and other public and private venues across the country.
What happens in these groups? How do they help shape the contours of American Evangelical life? While more public forms of political activism have captured popular and scholarly imaginations, it is in group Bible study that Evangelicals reflect on the details of their faith.
Here they become self-conscious religious subjects, sharing the intimate details of life, interrogating beliefs and practices, and articulating their version of Christian identity and culture. In Words upon the Word , James S.
Bielo draws on over nineteen months of ethnographic work with five congregations to better understand why group Bible study matters so much to Evangelicals and for Evangelical culture. Here, historical continuity is constructed through material forms that promise intimacy and direct access to the biblical past.
The main strength of the book is the absence of judgement on behalf of Bielo. While the park generated outcry regarding its application of a tax incentive program, and although creationist worldviews are easy to critique, Bielo does not feel tempted to make normative remarks about the park or its creators.
He invites readers and, perhaps by extension, visitors to the park to imagine how creationists are modern people, like all others. At the same time, he invites creationists to reflect on their own scripture in relation to other Christians and non-Christians. What binds all these people together, he argues, is their engagement with modern entertainment.
This makes creationism very much part of modern consumer capitalism and recreation—not something apart from the profane, but very much part of everyday life. While he describes in full detail the relevance of plausibility and conversion for the creationist creators, he does not comment on whether they have been successful in this. While he acknowledges that the production team has successfully created an embodied fundamentalist gaze, he leaves the question of how effective this has been or could be in terms of conversion to the visitors of the park.
A second strength of the book is the ethnographic details provided, both of the creation of the park and of his fieldwork practice.
The people central to the Ark Encounter project, as well as Bielo himself, are introduced in much detail. The ethnography is humane, insightful, and detailed. Throughout the chapters, a good amount of snippets from fieldwork experiences are presented, tied together in a strong, insightful theoretical framework that gives a clear image of contemporary Christian life in America.
It portrays the twists and turns that the research took, and the methods of research Bielo used. It is a valuable appendix, for two reasons. First, it first gives an additional insight into the world Bielo has been engaged with, and the difficulties and opportunities he faced.
Second, it is an interesting chapter to read for any anthropologists, and especially anthropology students, who want to know in more detail what anthropological research is all about. Throughout the book, Bielo engages with many contemporary debates in both anthropology and religious studies, such as the discussion on public religion; the social life of things; the enchantment of science, play and conversion; history-making and historicity; symbolic power; and the poetics of faith.
He uses these and other theories to paint a picture of the cultural patterns that orchestrate present-day American public religious life.
As such, the book is a much needed contribution to studies of American fundamentalist Christianity, and to the anthropology of fundamentalism. James S.
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