This article examines religious language in a contested public sphere by analyzing performances of linguistic creativity among creationists in the United States. The public creation‐evolution debate has been a central speech event in the development of modern creationism, and functions as a key site for claiming cultural legitimacy. Focusing on three creation‐evolution debates spanning 33 years, I advance the concept of “creationist poetics” to capture how framing, stance taking, and speech play define the performance repertoire of creationists in the debate context. In particular, I illustrate how creationist speakers work to create a conspiracy‐populist frame and a revealer stance. Together, these strategies sketch a lifeworld that envisions elitist “secular” actors suppressing scriptural authority and creationists as humble, clear‐eyed people exposing the conspiracy through scriptural fidelity. I argue that this system of poetics is a key expressive resource in the ongoing struggle to wrest authority away from evolutionary science and claim it for biblical fundamentalism. Ultimately, this analysis of creationist poetics informs our understanding of how authority as a contingent social process is discursively mediated, a central theme in the study of both religious and political language.
Protestants mobilize objects such as ‘Holy Land’ flowers, Jordan River stones, vials of Dead Sea water, sand from Lake Tiberias, and Golgotha soil as potent metonymic resources, promising a kind of direct access to the scriptural past and its sacred stories. This article uses this case of biblical landscape items to reflect on the historic ambivalence that characterizes Protestant relations with religious materiality. Building on scholarship that has demonstrated the prolific role of religious materiality in Protestant ritual and everyday lifeworlds, the author extends this analysis by asking: under what conditions do Protestants experience materiality as untroubled and under what conditions is a more anxious disposition activated? To differentiate among conditions, the author proposes that it is helpful to conceptualize Protestant engagements with materiality vis-à-vis legitimized frames (e.g. pedagogy, devotion, evangelism, entertainment). Drawing together archival and ethnographic data, primarily among US Protestants, the article argues that when Protestants function within legitimized frames they are prone to embrace biblical landscape items, but when they find themselves out of frame, their engagement with this particular species of materiality becomes troubled.
Abstract: This article explores how the phenomenon of biblical gardens joins three bodies of scholarship: the social life of scriptures, the study of religion’s media turn, and religious pedagogy. As a kind of religious attraction, the biblical garden is both devotional and pedagogical, with historic roots in nineteenth-century projects to connect botanical science with biblical literacy. I argue that the pedagogy of biblical gardens is anchored by an ideology of sensual indexicality and a strategy of metonymic immersion, which is differentiated from themed immersion. Analyses are drawn from observational and textual data, as well as comparative data from other forms of Holy Land replication, primarily in the USA. Ultimately, I argue that biblical gardens resist a modern ideology that elevates visual experience atop a sensory hierarchy.
Howell, Brian, J. Derrick Lemons, Jon Bialecki, James Bielo, Tanya Luhrmann, and Timothy Larsen. 2016. Faith in Anthropology: A Symposium on Timothy Larsen’s The Slain God. The Cambridge Journal of Anthropology 34(2):140-152.
Abstract: Timothy Larsen is the Carolyn and Fred McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College, Illinois, and the author of The Slain God: Anthropologists and the Christian Faith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), an intellectual history of the relationship between anthropology and Christianity. Here Brian Howell, Professor of Anthropology at Wheaton, introduces comments on the book from J. Derrick Lemons, Jon Bialecki, James Bielo and Tanya Luhrmann, as well as a response from Larsen.
Bielo, James S. 2016. Creationist History-Making: Producing a Heterodox Past. In Lost City, Found Pyramid: Understanding Alternative Archaeologies and Pseudoscientific Practices, 81-101. Edited by Jeb J. Card and David S. Anderson. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.
Excerpt: The past, though quite real, is forever and densely mediated by this production of histories. As a cultural process, history-making is a social and ideological accomplishment that is achieved through material means and infrastructure. In turn, the anthropology and ethnography of history-making confronts important questions: how are different relationships to the past cultivated? What strategies and resources are marshaled to perform history-making? And, what is up for grabs in competing acts of history-making? A key contribution of this volume is to develop better ways of thinking about how non-professional historians and scientists perform the work of history-making (cf. Beisaw this volume). The Answers in Genesis creative team reminds us with little subtlety that the past is ideologically contested and that even the most scientifically established historical claims can be actively challenged. As the historian Raphael Samuel writes: “History is not the prerogative of the historian, nor even, as postmodernism contends, a historian’s ‘invention.’ It is, rather, a social form of knowledge; the work, in any given instance, of a thousand different hands” (1994: 8). Moreover, those thousand hands are not working in concert, which means the present hosts multiple historical narratives vying for cultural authority. Anthropologically, our remit is to understand whose hands are doing what and to seek a full ethnographic account of all history-making projects, including those of creationists. To aim for any less is to shrug off our most profound scholarly responsibility.
Abstract: This article explores how religious communities actualize the virtual problem of temporality. Analysing two case studies from contemporary America, Mormon Trek re-enactment and a creationist theme park re-creating Noah’s ark, I argue that replication is a strategy for constructing a relationship with time in which a strict past–present divide is collapsed through affective means. This work contributes to comparative studies in the anthropology of religion and temporalizing the past.
Abstract: Throughout the world there are over 200 sites that materialize the Bible, that is, sites that transform the written words of biblical scripture into physical, experiential attractions. These sites are definitively hybrid, integrating religion and entertainment, piety and play, fun and faith, commerce and devotion, pleasure and education. Religious studies scholars and anthropologists have published insightful works about selected sites, but no genre-wide analytical appraisal exists. In this article, I focus on how religiously committed visitors approach and experience these sites. Framed in a comparative register with research in religious tourism and pilgrimage studies, I propose analytical and methodological frameworks for the ethnographic study of Bible-based attractions.
Abstract: James S. Bielo analyzes a practice of religious replication: re-creations of Holy Land sites in the United States. Such replications invite visitors into an experience of sensorial and imaginative immersion, marshaling indexical techniques for materializing the Bible. Replicating the Holy Land is a strategy for actualizing the virtual problem of authenticity, a problem that animates any and every lived expression of Christianity. To explore this phenomenon, we indulge another national tradition: the great American road trip. This essay emerges from a larger project, Materializing the Bible, curated by Bielo.
By: James S. Bielo (Miami University)
Come and listen in to the radio station, Where the mighty hosts of heaven sing, Turn your radio on, turn your radio on, Turn your radio on, turn your radio on…
So sings John Hartford on his 1971 cover of the 1938 southern Gospel standard. It was this song, “Turn Your Radio On,” that I recalled in a progressively louder hum to myself throughout Anderson Blanton’s Hittin‘ the Prayer Bones. The reason is that Blanton’s ethnography of charismatic Christianity in Appalachia has a distinctly musical quality. Each chapter unveils further nodes in a network of oral traditions and communicative genres: songs from deep in the coal mines and songs for laying rail track; Gospel tunes; the verbal artistry of prayer, testimony, and preaching; hand claps and technological emanations; and rhythmic faith-filled laughter. Pages and sections introduce singular moments of rich cultural revelation, akin to John Jackson’s “slices” (2013: 16-17) more than any conventional mode of ethnographic writing. I do not hesitate to write that this is really not a book one simply reads; it is a book to experience… Continue reading
Bielo, James. 2015. Literally Creative: Intertextual Gaps and Artistic Agency. In Scripturalizing the Human: The Written as the Political, edited by Vincent L. Wimbush, 21-33. New York, NY; Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
Excerpt: “In this chapter I approach Ark Encounter as a grand act of scripturalizing. Following scholarship on the social life of scriptures, an ethnography of this biblical theme park-in-the-making focuses not on scripture as text but on “the signs, material products, ritual practices and performances, expressivities, orientations, ethics, and politics associated with the phenomenon of the invention and uses of ‘scriptures’” (Wimbush 2008: 3). With the example of Ark Encounter, we can add to this list the cultural labor that must be invested to bring new scriptural forms into being. Ark Encounter is scripturalizing imagined, sketched, colored, sculpted, materialized, and engineered. Ark Encounter emerges from a long tradition of scripturalizing performed by a familiar set of scripturalizers: conservative Protestant biblical literalists. What I aim to show in this chapter is that the frame for their work—a religious theme park that promises edification and entertainment in equal doses—requires that scholars seeking to understand Ark Encounter engage in some analytical recalibrating.”