"How Much of This Is Promise?" God as Sincere Speaker in Evangelical Bible Reading

By Bielo, James S. | Anthropological Quarterly, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

"How Much of This Is Promise?" God as Sincere Speaker in Evangelical Bible Reading


Bielo, James S., Anthropological Quarterly


Abstract

In this article I examine how language ideology intersects with textual ideology, listening, and group identity in an American Evangelical context. The ethnographic focus is a men's Bible study group, their extended reading of the Old Testament book of Proverbs, a schism within the group involving a Pentecostal participant, and the tensions that surface when they read biblical texts as promises from God. I argue that the model of the sincere speaker can be extended to scriptural authors, forming religious subjects as listeners. The religious listening that is created, when viewed against the backdrop of Evangelical textual assumptions and Western assumptions about the nature of promises, explains the struggles these men encounter through their collective reading of scripture. [Keywords: Language ideology, reading, Evangelical Christianity, United States.]

Dave: Okay, what else stuck out to people? What verses did you have comments or questions about?

Peter: As your non-denom brother, I feel obligated that we don't skip over seven through ten, which reads like this: Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and shun evil. This will bring you health to your body and nourishment to your bones. Honor the Lord with your wealth, with the firstfruits of all your crops; then your barns will be filled to overflowing, and your vats will brim over with new wine. And, you know, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Jesus became flesh as the Word, and the Word we believe in has right there healing and prosperity. So, the non-denoms that you guys are always beating up for healing and prosperity. It's in there like Prego. I mean, it's in there.

Dave: Yeah. That's one of the issues you have to deal with with Proverbs. How much of this is promise? How much of this is, I don't know, how much of this is GENERALLY the case?

This exchange took place among a Lutheran men's Bible study during the summer of 2005. It was their second meeting in a 13-week study of the Old Testament book of Proverbs. Dave, the church pastor and group facilitator, posed one of his typically open-ended questions, allowing the men to discuss which verses interested or puzzled them. Peter, the only group participant not a member of the Lutheran-Church Missouri Synod (LCMS), prefaced his reading of Proverbs 3:7-10 with a self-positioning statement (a gloss for his Pentecostal/Prosperity-oriented identity). The interpretation he gives, and Dave's response, capture my interest in this article.

With his question-"How much of this is promise?"-Dave moves the group into an interpretive discourse that questions which Biblical texts should be read as timeless certainties from God: divinely-ordained guarantees unbound by circumstance, agency, or other mitigating factors. Every time the group returned to this hermeneutic dilemma they struggled with the consequences of reading scripture as a promise from God. I hope to show that their treatment of the genre of promise is rooted in two sets of cultural assumptions. First, there is an inherent riskiness surrounding this interpretive style that proceeds from ideologies of language and text. Presuppositions about the nature of Christian speakers and the nature of the Bible create a hermeneutic context where fulfilled and broken promises accrue increased value, reward, and danger. Secondly, for the collection of readers comprising this group, the problem of naming Biblical promises is complicated by efforts to maintain the boundaries of religious identity. Peter's status in the group-as a Pentecostal, a "nondenom," and consequently a primary religious Other for Missouri-Synod Lutherans-makes the interpretive struggle over promises an opportunity to perform a sense of LCMS belonging. I conclude by asking what implications this analysis has for anthropological discussions of Protestant language ideologies and ethnographies of listening.

The Sincere Speaker and Biblical Authorship

The dominant model for understanding Protestant language ideologies has been the sincere speaker (Keane 2002). …

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