How the Bible is used in practice.
How the Bible works: an anthropological study of evangelical Biblicism. Walnut Creek, CA: Alta Mira Press. Paperback. 172 pp. $27.00 ISBN.0-7591-0665-7.
Brian Malley studied comparative religion at Western Michigan University (M.A., 1994) and anthropology at the University of Michigan (Ph.D., 2002). His 1995 article "Explaining order in religious systems" earned the Distinguished Article Award from the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion. Dr. Malley currently lectures in psychology at the University of Michigan, and continues to pursue his research interests in religion and the intersection of culture and cognition.
How the Bible Works includes five chapters. Malley's introduction introduces the reader to his methodology, in which he planned to study a particular Christian church and determine the role of culture in transmitting cognitive beliefs from one person to another. How do people learn what a Biblical lifestyle is and how do they begin to imitate it? How does the Bible as a text come to have meaning for individuals? Malley, who describes himself as having been raised as a fundamentalist and a co-believer (p. 34), describes his book as "a step toward a distinctly anthropological theory of scriptural traditions" (p. 14), while admitting that outcome might not be possible. Chapter one introduces the reader to "Creek-side Baptist Church," the field site of the study. Chapter two assesses how evangelicals have developed what I would describe as a latent conceptualization of "the" Bible, in spite of numerous formats, translations, and marginal study notes. Chapter three observes how various church members interpret the Bible, presuming its relevance and taking even small snippets of it for the development of major conceptual themes. Chapter four challenges the idea that the Bible is authoritative, and therefore to be taken seriously. Perhaps it is used to justify ongoing practices rather than being the guide for practices. Chapter five comes to a conclusion that the author hopes is more empirically valid and "strikingly different from common assumptions about evangelical practice. (p. 16)"
As this reviewer has little background in anthropology, it is quite possible that my comments do not fully capture the intent of the author. Protestants have long opposed the authority of the Pope but have resented the attempt of liberals to allow for a relatively modern interpretation of the Bible, even while allowing each individual the right to interpret the Bible as he or she sees fit. To study the ways in which evangelicals use the Bible, the author selected "Creekside Baptist Church," begun in 1964 and growing to about 400 attendees, most of whom are European-Americans. The author recognizes that "The Bible is central to the life of this community" (p. 34). However, he admits to his own skepticism about traditional ways of interpreting the Bible, though acknowledging that in Islam even textual criticism is not always permitted (p. 36). Comparisons with Islamic uses of their scriptures seem to underlie much of what Malley tries to explain.
Malley begins chapter two by acknowledging the numerous types of Bibles Some are paraphrases whereas others are more literal; some contain verses (I John 5: 7) or titles to Epistles (e.g., Hebrews) that are clearly incorrect. Bibles differ because none of the extant manuscripts are first originals, not to mention that editors use differing textual sources and differing study notes or footnoting. I would agree with Malley that "Most of the people who use the term "Bible" do so without having any clear ideas about textual history or the translational processes" (p. 45). In contrast to the Bible, the Qur'an is virtually revered as an object (no other books are to be placed on top of it, it should never be positioned below one's waist). Malley notes that there were at least 23 different versions of the Bible among attendees at the church. In contrast, he notes that the Qur'an is considered by Muslims to be untranslatable, the Arabic version being the only completely true version. While Malley defines the Bible as a cognitive placeholder at the end of chapter two, I would argue that the average person sees (if not consciously) the Bible as a type of latent variable that is related to but not defined exclusively by any specific characteristics.
I think the key point of chapter three is that the members of Creekside do not read the Bible and then develop their beliefs; they read the Bible in order to explain and reinforce their pre-existing beliefs. Malley also argues that too little freedom of interpretation makes the Bible less relevant, whereas too much freedom may undermine the traditional beliefs. Malley works over the apparent contradiction between verses that say all things are possible with God, versus others that say God cannot lie. I would argue that the intent is that God can do all good things or things that conform to His character, which is precisely why He cannot lie--so I do not see this apparent contradiction as worthy of much consideration. In fact, paradox may define much of the difference between Christianity and Islam (Schumm, Ferguson, Hashmat, & New, in press). Having volunteered to do an "It's Greek to me" lesson every week in my church, I quickly came to realize that some English words are derived from several Greek words while some Greek words are given different English translations. So, one does have to be careful with the interpretation of Scripture as Malley emphasizes.
In chapter four several issues are raised about the authority and inspiration of Scripture. In his surveys of church members, Malley found that they believed in both but usually had a difficult time explaining why, often using one to justify the other (an apparent tautology). Even if Scripture is inspired, few members could explain the process of inspiration. In practice, many church members do not practice Biblical commands and even refuse to do so when they are pointed out. Thus, it appears that the Bible is often not practiced in spite of its alleged authority and inspiration. Thus, the Bible is used to justify things that the church culture wants justified, perhaps even if they are not commanded in the Bible.
In the final chapter, Malley pulls together his arguments. I take issue with Malley's comment that the core of Christianity is a belief system in comparison to other religions, of which purity is the major component. Here, I think the definition of faith is incorrect, as I view faith as an understanding derived from actual experience of God's kindness and mercy toward undeserving sinners (Schumm, 2003), rather than merely a profession of the nature of God structurally (e.g., the Trinity, Jesus as God's son, etc.). Malley argues that the church members define themselves in relation to Biblical authority but by attributing that emphasis to Scriptural inspiration, they excuse themselves from having to think seriously about what Biblical authority should or does mean. Malley argues that the search for relevance is tied to the authority since authority implies that there is relevance somewhere for each person.
How the Bible Works was frustrating to me because the individual points it made were often brilliant and quite valid in my opinion, but it never seemed to come together well. In my mind, it seemed that a greater degree of intellectual laziness or spiritual apathy rather than pure cultural factors might have been the underlying issue in the issues Malley raised. I think the book is an important one for those who want the Bible to challenge their current culturally based beliefs and understandings rather than merely serving as justification for them.
Schumm, W. R. (2003). Comments on marriage in contemporary culture: five models that might help families. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 31, 213-223.
Schumm, W. R., Ferguson, A. D., Hashmat, M. S., & New, T. L. (In press). Differences in paradox between Islam and Christianity: a statistical comparison. Journal of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations.
Reviewed by WALTER R. SCHUMM, Ph.D.
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|Author:||Schumm, Walter R.|
|Publication:||Journal of Psychology and Theology|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2007|
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