Academic journal article Ethnology

Walking in the Spirit of Blood: Moral Identity among Born-Again Christians

Academic journal article Ethnology

Walking in the Spirit of Blood: Moral Identity among Born-Again Christians

Article excerpt

The proliferation of small groups within American Protestantism, in particular those devoted to Bible study, raises questions about the collective construction of meaning in congregational life. Using discourse as an analytical tool, this article explores the meaning of moral identity as constructed in three Protestant groups in the southern United States. Discursive participants relied on three strategies for building a concept of the moral self: positioning the heart at the center of moral identity; describing what it means to be born again; and describing three moral "others." (Discourse, moral identity, born-again Christianity)


Recent ethnographic work among mainline Protestants has noted the centrality of Bible study to congregational life, individual spirituality, and religious communication (Wuthnow 1994a, 1994b; Davie 1995; Roberts n.d.). Similarly, anthropologists working with text-based religions have been called to shift attention from the internal properties of those texts to the active processes through which their meaning is engaged, interpreted, and applied by adherents; what Bowen (1992:495) calls the "social life of scriptures." This article bridges these two lines of research by examining how, within three Protestant groups, Bible-study discourse is concentrated on answering the central question of what it means to be moral. The question of moral identity is placed in relation to these groups' dominant sense of religious belonging as born-again Christians, and considered for how it is achieved, communicated, and reaffirmed through the discursive action of members. While some anthropological attention has been directed toward the cultural grammar of the born-again movement (Stromberg 1993; Harding 2000), this article takes a discourse-centered approach to the construction of moral identity, viewing language as a form of social practice rather than a system of rhetoric.

It is necessary here to define "discourse," a favored term in anthropology (Lutz and Abu-Lughod 1990:7). Three understandings of discourse are employed by anthropologists: first, as a single stretch of talk or written text, in either dialogic or monologue form (Sherzer 1987); second, as a collection of interpersonal and/or written texts occurring across a defined time and space, and usually concerning a particular topic (Stewart 1996); third, as a historically deep field of texts, symbols, and practices typically analyzed to discern institutional relations of power (Foucault 1980).

This essay employs the second of these approaches. Accordingly, the discourse-centered approach is not the same as that proposed by Urban (1991), but instead uses Bahktin's (1934) premise that all speech is situated within a larger discursive setting. Discourse is open ended, and therefore must be approached across time and space to allow its ongoing meanings to be revealed. It therefore is necessary to investigate discursive activity across numerous Bible studies. Utterances do not exist in isolation, but in relation to one another (Bahktin 1986). The same must be said for a particular discursive context such as Bible study.

This approach is carried out using data collected among three Protestant groups in a rural area on Virginia's Chesapeake Bay coast. (1) One, a United Methodist congregation, is experiencing a resurgence, both theologically and numerically. Influenced by his background with the Assemblies of God, Pastor Jeb has placed increased emphasis on an evangelical and scripture-based Christianity during his three-year tenure. Some older members struggle with the transition, but six new members have joined in the past year. Jeb's effect is evident in the church's small-group life. Two biweekly Bible studies and a second Sunday-school group have been added to the adult class on Sunday mornings. The Wednesday and Thursday groups have seven regular participants, while the second Sunday-school class is a bit larger, including participants from both weekly Bible studies. …

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