Words upon the Word

An Ethnography of Evangelical Group Bible Study

208 pages

April, 2009

ISBN: 9780814791219



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James S. Bielo is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Miami University. He is the author of four books including, Anthropology of Religion: The Basics, Emerging Evangelicals: Faith, Modernity, and the Desire for Authenticity, and Words Upon the Word: An Ethnography of Evangelical Group Bible Study. He is also the founder of Materializing the Bible, a digital scholarship project, available at www.materializingthebible.com.  

All books by James S. Bielo

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. Through a close analysis of participants' discourse, Bielo examines the defining themes of group life—from textual interpretation to spiritual intimacy and the rehearsal of witnessing. Bielo's approach allows these Evangelical groups to speak for themselves, illustrating Bible study's uniqueness in Evangelical life as a site of open and critical dialogue. Ultimately, Bielo's ethnography sheds much needed light on the power of group Bible study for the ever-evolving shape of American Evangelicalism.


  • Words Upon the Word is a model of ethnographic reflexivity and methodological transparency. . .ethnographies like this one will remind everyone else that, to some extent, they may still be right.”

    —Omri Elisha, CUNY Queens College

  • “Bielo’s use of discourse theory is among the best I have seen in terms of its clarity and coherence. Simply put, at every point in the book the reader knows exactly what Bielo is talking about, what its implications are, and how it relates to empirical evidence. The book is a pleasure to read... Overall, Bielo’s study offers important claims about evangelical Christian culture and biblicist practices supported by a first-rate ethnography and clear analysis. It is recommended for all students of U.S. religiosity, Christianity, and reading.”

    American Anthropologist

  • “Given the centrality of Bible study to American evangelical life, the relative dearth of scholarly investigation of Bible studies is striking. Anthropologist James Bielo has helped fill this significant lacuna.”

    Books & Culture

  • “Bielo examines the importance of bible study for evangelical belief, institutional life, and interaction with nonbelievers. In analyzing the vitality of these groups, Bielo also adds complexity to our understanding of the intellectual processes of biblical literalists... Bielo has created a useful analysis of an underrecognized (sic) civic activity and has illuminated the complexity of evangelical intellectual processes.”

    American Ethnologist

  • “What gives this book an edge beyond previous research is the extensive qualitative data it draws upon; it is a relatively short book based upon an impressive amount of fieldwork... The strengths of the work include its conciseness, readability, and rich but selective use of conversations extracted from Bielo’s vast ethnographic data. Wisely, each of the chapters draws evidence from one particular small group—a group whose meeting culture nicely highlights the theme he is exploring—rather than extracting bits and pieces from his total data set of 19 groups... This text will, hopefully, attract more attention to the field of small group research, a large and diverse field ripe and waiting for further scholarly investigation.”

    Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses

  • "An important methodological and theoretical advance in the study of Biblicism and the anthropology of Christianity. Bielo’s research is excellent, and he asks all the right questions. Words Upon the Word is on my very short list of essential readings for the study of the Bible's reception and use."

    —Brian Malley, author of How the Bible Works: An Anthropological Study of Evangelical Biblicism

  • "At long last, there is now a sustained analysis of how conservative Protestants collectively generate and disseminate scriptural interpretations. And it turns out that the process is rarely smooth and easy. Bielo's book shows how the Bible is a living document—a source of both discussion and debate—among conservative Christians."

    —John P. Bartkowski, author of The Promise Keepers: Servants, Soldiers, and Godly Men

  • “The book advances scholarly understanding of an important practice that shapes the community, piety, and politics of many Americans each week. The book is also a model for sophisticated ethnographic work on religious practices.”


  • "James Bielo's Words upon the Word is a short, intelligent, and well-written analysis of what happens when Protestant Christians who live in the United States come together in small and medium-sized groups to read the bible . . . this book must be classified as a significant contribution to our understanding of Protestantism in the contemporary United States."

    —James S. Bielo, Sociology of Religion

  • "This is a very good introduction to and analysis of small Bible study in evangelical life...Bielo's analysis...provides readers with rich material."

    Journal of Linguistic Anthropology