The Bible in America: How the Bible Works

A lot of people don’t get it.  Why does it matter so much in Fundamentalist America what the Bible says?  After all, the Bible, for a lot of people, is just one collection of ancient writings.  Richard Dawkins concluded his Blind Watchmaker, for example, by calling “the Genesis story . . . just the one that happened to have been adopted by one particular tribe of Middle Eastern herders.”  Dawkins has not been the first to make such accusations.  In the 1920s, sociologist Harry E. Barnes derided the Bible as merely “the product of the folkways and mores of the primitive Hebrews. . . and the personal views of religious reformers of all grades from Jesus to Paul.”  It doesn’t make sense to non-fundamentalists to base social policy or even personal ethics on this collection of cranky commandments from ancient sheep-herders.  Deuteronomy just doesn’t fit with today’s lifestyle, some think.

Those hoping to make some sense of the ways Fundamentalist America understands the Bible should take some time with a newish book, Brian Malley’s How the Bible Works.   It is not an attack or expose of fundamentalist foibles.  Rather, it is an ethnographic study of one evangelical community, “Creekside Baptist.”  It is a thoughtful and deeply sympathetic attempt to understand what one group of conservative evangelical Protestants mean when they say “Bible.”  Malley himself is the product of a conservative evangelical Protestant upbringing.  ILYBYGTH readers will likely appreciate his perspective.  He is not out to demonize or lionize the folks he studies.  Rather, he conducted a series of interviews and probed the complicated questions lying at the heart of many conservative Protestants about the Bible and their faith.

In the first section of the book, Malley asks his informants to help him understand labels.  Perhaps most interesting for ILYBYGTH readers, he asks then to explain how they felt about “fundamentalist.”  Here is a taste of some responses:

“the word has gotten such a bad rap, but yes [I consider myself fundamentalist.]  Not in the sense that you hear in the news.  Basically I view those words as being interchangeable—evangelical and fundamentalist.”

Several interviewees said they felt fundamentalist, but that the term had a negative connotation.  For example, in the words of one “middle-aged man”:

“That [‘fundamentalist’] has a more negative connotation to me.  I think of it as a person.  ‘Fundamentalist’ to me today means more of a judging person that has a whole series of rules that they follow and I don’t think that’s right.  I’m not on the other end of the spectrum either, a wild liberal person either.  I guess I don’t live primarily by rules but by principles.  The principles come from the Bible.  But I don’t see myself as what I hear people describing fundamentalist as today.”

Another interviewee, “Stan,” said,

“I don’t like the term because of the connotations that it has.”

            Brian: “Which ones specifically?”

            Stan: “Connotations being I think that if you said that in this country, a fundamentalist would be considered kind of a far-right-wing wacko, and is a way extreme almost to the point of being non-Christian, something other than Christian.  Probably in its true identity, the definition of the word is you believe the fundamentals of Christianity, the basics of Christianity, that term would apply.  But that definition doesn’t apply anymore in this country.”

One young man, “Todd,” offered this explanation:

“Again, ‘fundamentalist’ is another term which I fear has been misunderstood and caricatured and stereotyped widely across modern American culture.  I’m not really familiar with what I consider properly called ‘fundamentalist culture.’  I know a bit of fundamentalist theology, but . . . I think properly understood, especially if you look at historical roots of fundamentalism, it gets down to what are fundamentals of the faith, and I think most fundamentalists and I agree what the fundamentals of the faith are, if you boil it down.”

For these conservative evangelical Protestants, “fundamentalism” had attracted a cluster of unfair meanings.  They generally agreed with what they understood to be fundamentalist theology, but they felt that fundamentalism as a whole had come to include all sorts of other meanings.

But Malley’s main interest in in the ways his respondents felt about the Bible.  Evangelicals, Malley argues, create a many-layered meaning around “Bible.”  One important part of this is what Malley calls “artifactual knowledge.”  Evangelicals know the Bible as a physical thing, a certain kind of book.  As he describes, this kind of knowledge is encouraged among evangelicals.  In the very youngest of children’s groups at Creekside Baptist, two-year-olds are taught to hold a Bible while they sing song such as “Pat the Bible” (to the tune of Did You Ever See a Lassie, or Wheels on the Bus, or Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, etc.).  In the words of one teacher of this two-year-old class, the youngsters should learn that the Bible is a special kind of book.  It is something to be cherished and valued.  It is not something to be treated like other books.

Another fascinating point Malley makes is that his respondents don’t think of the Bible as a certain translation of the original documents.  He held up two versions in some of his interviews, one in Greek and one in English.  He asked his interviewees which one they thought was “the” Bible.  Not only did the folks he talked with say they were both equally “Bible,” they thought the very question was nonsensical.  In other words, for this community at least, “The Bible” does not refer only to one specific translation.  Rather, it is understood to be a collection of texts that has been and will continue to be understood in a variety of languages, in a variety of translations.  Not only that, but folks at Creekside Baptist all agreed that the Bible did not actually have to be a printed book at all.  It could be put onto a website or CD.  It could be printed on enormous sheets or in a tiny pocket edition.  But it could NOT be made into a movie.  Movies could be made ABOUT the Bible, but they would not be the Bible itself.  The Bible was print, but it could be print in a variety of formats, languages, and translations.  As long as the text stayed true to the original meanings, any sort of text could be used to create an authentic Bible.

Malley also argues that his respondents have an interpretive Bible tradition, but not a hermeneutic one.  That is, evangelicals define their intellectual and theological world in large part as an interpretation of Biblical texts.  Scholarship and intellectualism mean, in large part, engaging in interpretation and citation of Biblical texts.  This results in the Bible-centered talk that non-evangelicals often find so baffling.  For example, evangelicals will explain their political opinions on topics such as gay marriage by offering Bible citations.  To evangelicals, those citations act as strong intellectual arguments.  If one can back up opinions on any topic with proper citations, one can carry the argument.  But evangelicals are not trained—outside of academic theologians—to engage in hermeneutic acts with and about their Bibles.  That is, Malley’s respondents did not feel a need to apply special interpretive skills to reading their Bibles.  Respondents consistently referred to reading their Bibles not as an act that required intellectual training, but as an act that required devotion.  The challenge was not to learn a set of keys to make sense of the Bible, but rather to learn an attitude toward reading.

Another topic Malley tangles with is the complex meanings of “literalism.”  Some folks outside of conservative Protestant circles misunderstand the notion of a literal interpretation of the Bible.  For Malley’s informants, as for most conservative Protestants, “literalism” does not mean that every word of the Bible must be taken as the literal truth.  In some places, the Bible clearly speaks figuratively, as when Jesus tells his audience they are the salt of the earth.  For Malley’s informants, the important aspect of literalism is a reading of the Bible that gives authority to the Bible itself.  Instead of taking freedom to interpret passages in ways that make the most sense to readers, the Bible must be read in ways that make the most sense in the context of the Bible itself.  Literalism, in this understanding, is more about authority than anything else.  If a passage was intended to be literal, it must be taken that way, even if that seems to contradict with the reader’s experience or desire.  Generally, when the Bible does not mean for itself to be taken literally, as in Jesus’ parables, it makes that abundantly clear.  Readers do not have the right to assume it is speaking symbolically when it does not clearly say that itself.

Malley points out that there are several layers of Biblical interpretation active at the same time in the evangelical world, broadly considered.  Among evangelical scholars, questions of authority and interpretation receive intense scrutiny.  But among the folks he talked to, there was much wider latitude for traditional, passed-along understandings of “Bible” and its meanings.  As Malley argues, “The evangelical tradition solves this problem by maintaining fairly rigorous standards of exegesis in its scholarship and quietly ignoring those standards in the churches.”

So, for example, Malley’s informants at Creekside Baptist could confidently assure Malley that the Bible was authoritative, even if they could not clearly explain what they meant by that when Malley pressed them.  As one way of testing this principle, Malley pressed people to explain why they regarded only some parts of the Bible as authoritative.  He asked, for example, what respondents thought about passages such as Romans 16:116, repeated in 1 Corinthians 16:20, 2 Corinthians 13:12, and 1 Thessalonians 5:26, in which Christians are instructed to “greet one another with a holy kiss.”  Malley interviewees acknowledged that the instruction was in the Bible.  They agreed that the Bible was authoritative.  And they acknowledged that they did not follow that particular instruction.  When pressed to explain the contradiction, respondents argued that such passages were “cultural” commands, meant to apply to people at the time, but not to them.  Or respondents shrugged.  The important point is that Biblical Christians did not feel this kind of apparent contradiction challenged the authority of the Bible, or their justification in considering the Bible authoritative in their lives.

For those living outside of the tradition of evangelical Protestantism, such apparent paradoxes can seem like proof that a Biblical worldview is non-sensical.  Malley doesn’t try to make that leap.  Rather, he is more interested in understanding and explaining how his respondents themselves understand this seeming contradiction.  He is more interested in exploring the fact that it does not appear to be much of a contradiction at all to them.

If outsiders hope to understand Fundamentalist America, this kind of intellectual stretching will help.  Malley’s study of one evangelical community can’t be taken to speak for all conservative Protestants, much less for the broad conservative coalition that makes up Fundamentalist America.  But his book is a good place for outsiders to start.  It will help people from outside the tradition make sense of the many meanings of “Bible” in Fundamentalist America.

FURTHER READING: Harry Elmer Barnes, “Sociology and Ethics: A Genetic View of the Theory of Conduct,” The Journal of Social Forces, III (January, 1925): 214; Brian Malley, How the Bible Works: An Anthropological Study of Evangelical Biblicism (Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press, 2004).

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  1. I really enjoyed this. As an ex-fundamentalist, there is part of me that just wants to criticise fundamentalism, but I can see that your approach is much more productive. We have to share our democracies with fundamentalists, and understanding them – as well as not making them feel unnecessarily persecuted – is important to that.

  2. Yasha Hartberg

     /  May 24, 2012

    I ordered this book almost immediately after reading your review of it. I’m about half way through it, now, and I have to say it lives up to its billing. This has been a fantastic read and very helpful to my own work. Thanks for calling it to my attention!

    • @Yasha, Glad to hear you’re getting something out of it. I didn’t think it would help with your work too much, since it has such a tight focus on just one community. One other book you might want to check out if you haven’t yet is Claudia Setzer and David Shefferman’s The Bible and American Culture: A Sourcebook (Routledge, 2011). I haven’t read it yet, but I’ve been meaning to every since I saw John Fea’s endorsement of it.

      • Yasha Hartberg

         /  May 24, 2012

        It’s been delightfully illuminating despite its focus on a single community. I’ve particularly enjoyed Malley’s discussion of the tension between “the Scylla of hermeneutic freedom and the Charybdis of irrelevance.” This echoes my own work on cultural robustness and evolvability, so much so that it tempts me to take on yet another project.

        That sourcebook looks very interesting. Consider it ordered!

  1. The Bible as America’s Book: Americans Love the Bible « I Love You but You're Going to Hell

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