Bielo, James S. 2013. “FORMED”: Emerging Evangelicals Navigate Two Transformations. In The New Evangelical Social Engagement. Edited by Brian Steensland and Phillip Goff, 31-49. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Excerpt: This book asks a vital question. Is there a sea change happening on the social, political, and cultural front of evangelical social engagement? And if so, just how is that sea floor shifting? These questions are important due both to the significant influence of evangelicals in American public life and to the received wisdom among academic and mainstream discourses about evangelicals’ public presence. There is a familiar story at work here. American evangelicals are culture warriors, obsessed with abortion and homosexuality, who seek to elect their own into public office so they can codify religious morality. They create Christian alternatives to every imaginable form of popular culture and democratic institution. And they do service work with people who are socially disadvantaged and marginalized, largely from the comfortable confines of middle-class suburbia.
We might read this volume as a call to take seriously the complexity and tensions within the amorphous category “evangelical.” As Steensland and Goff outline in the Introduction, evangelicals have recently made waves on their own shores and those of secular media outlets for appearing in unexpected places: taking up arms in debates about sustainable development, climate change, HIV/AIDS, human trafficking, and global peacemaking. This chapter proceeds from the assumption that while platforms and agendas are indeed up for grabs, the future of evangelical social engagement will not unfold on the basis of specific public issues. It will unfold along the cultural contours that give expression and direction to evangelicals’ ongoing public influence.
Any comparative analysis of a new social engagement must confront the institutional and ideological changes that evangelicals have produced and wrestled with in recent years. The diverse movement known as the Emerging Church exemplifies such changes and was the focus of my ethnographic research from October 2007 to July 2011. In this chapter, I highlight one institutional invention among a small group of emerging evangelicals in Cincinnati, Ohio, to consider how views of social engagement are tethered to ideals of spiritual formation.
Bielo, James S. 2013. Promises of Place: A Future of Comparative U.S. Ethnography. North American Dialogue 16(1):1-11.
Excerpt: In this essay I capitalize on a convergence in some recent U.S. ethnography to explore the cultural power of place-making and the conceptual promises of ‘place.’ Reports of losing, forgetting, and otherwise being disconnected from place are legion in depictions of late modernity. Said (1979) called it a “generalized condition of homelessness” (18), Gupta and Ferguson (1992) described it as a “profound sense of a loss of territorial roots, of an erosion of the cultural distinctiveness of places” (9), and Appadurai (1996) termed it “deterritorialization” (49). The culprits of this anxiety in the U.S. are multiple. A post-industrial economy fuels constant mobility, creating highly flexible labor regimes and others that are not reliant on geographic locale. Expanding urbanization disrupts relationships to land, transforming farm acreage into ultra-planned exurbia. Neoliberal corporate infrastructures prize predictable familiarity over uniqueness in order to secure service industry profits. There are, as well, technological and media empires that can render the particularities of place irrelevant. We late moderns are said to struggle to maintain meaningful place attachments and places themselves struggle to be distinctive. We are increasingly uncertain of how to recover from our pandemic placeless-ness. Of course, this narrative is ideological; it contains truth and myth, history and nostalgia, is uncannily accurate for many and exaggerated for many others. Nonetheless, the threat of placeless-ness is an American social fact, very real for the discontents it generates. According to recent U.S. ethnography that addresses different cultural spheres – religion and food – this anxiety has also produced resistance. People are not simply internalizing erosion and loss, they are responding by actively cultivating senses of place. Regarding religion, I look to my own fieldwork with American evangelicals… Emerging evangelicals are not the only late modern Americans looking to place to fashion a better future. This essay ensues from a repeated observation about recent work in U.S. ethnography: first, in step with developing interests in the anthropology of food, ethnographers are writing about American food systems; and second, analyses of the sustainable food movement reveal a striking veneration of place.
Bielo, James S. 2012. Belief, Deconversion, and Authenticity among U.S. Emerging Evangelicals. Ethos 40(3):258-276.
Abstract: In this article I examine the status of belief among U.S. evangelicals organizing under the moniker of the “emerging church.” As part of their cultural critique of the conservative Christian subculture, many emerging evangelicals recast their standpoint toward the role of propositional doctrine in their definition of an authentic Christian self. I join with colleagues in the anthropology of religion, in particular the anthropology of Christianity, who are rethinking the nature of belief as a form of relational commitment. I argue that emerging evangelicals seek a faith where human–human relationships are a precondition for human–divine relations to flourish. To achieve their desired sense of community emerging evangelicals create ritual structures that foster a highly relational religiosity. I illustrate this recasting of belief through analyses of narrative and institution making, grounded in three years of ethnographic fieldwork.