The Bible in American Life

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Philip Goff, Arthur Emery Farnsley, II, Peter Johannes Thuesen
  • Oxford, U.K.: 
    Oxford University Press
    , April
     456 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The Bible in American Life, edited by Philip Goff, Arthur E. Farnsley II, and Peter J. Thuesen, is an interdisciplinary collection of essays on how individuals and groups have used the bible throughout American history. Consequently, for those of us who are interested in how literacy functions outside of academics, this text offers new insights and raises new questions for research in literacy studies. For scholars interested in how the bible and Christianity function to inform American culture and politics, this text is also quite useful. Included are essays which provide insights for those outside of religious studies on women’s uses of the bible as well as how other historically-marginalized groups utilized it. Additionally, for those interested in the current apocalyptic ideology filtering into America’s sociopolitical discourses, this collection reveals the multiple levels through which apocalyptic views have permeated the American discourse.

Contributors to this collection have published works which focus on the intersections of religion and their various interests from anthropological to historical to literacy approaches, yet the essays are just as accessible and enlightening for the non-academic reader. Rarely do the authors stray into their own disciplinary jargon without providing context or definitions to make the concepts understandable for those outside their specialties. Therefore, anyone interested in both the history and place of the bible in American culture will enjoy this collection. And those scholars interested in American literacy practices, both historically and currently, will find this collection especially useful.

Per the editors’ introduction, this text investigates how the bible is used in daily American life outside of religious services (xix). Using empirical research provided through surveys, the editors asked scholars across a variety of disciplines to provide “historical, cultural, and social background for interpreting the survey data” (xix). Part 1 is an overview by the editors presenting the methodology and data results obtained from the 2012 General Social Survey and the National Congregations Study along with short sectional discussions of the data generated (III). For example, participants were asked to name their favorite books or stories as well as which version of the bible they prefer to read. The resulting data suggest that, as educators, we may need to rethink how we teach both literature and composition.

Part 2 is a collection of fifteen essays that examine how the bible has been used historically. Linford D. Fisher introduces the reader to the fledgling print industry of the 1600s and the translation and publication of the bible into Wôpanâak Indian language. This essay is a fascinating glance into early linguistics issues as well as the interactions of Christian evangelism with indigenous peoples. This section also includes essays that make visible how various racial and ethnic groups used and interpreted the bible. Emerson B. Powery’s “The Origins of Whiteness and the Black (Biblical) Imagination: The Bible in the ‘Slave Narrative’ Tradition,” and Sylvester A. Johnson’s “Scripturalizing Religion and Ethnicity: The Circle Seven Koran,” provide new insights into how racial and ethnic elements intersect with American religious practices and biblical interpretations. Additionally, this section includes essays by Amy Easton-Flake and Claudia Setzer which focus on how women have historically used and interpreted the bible. Remaining essays in part 2 touch on various cultural, economic, and political elements in the use and interpretation of the bible outside of religious services. Interestingly, these essays also begin to make visible the historical thread of the apocalyptic ideology that is often associated with American evangelical biblical interpretation.

Part 3 presents eleven essays that turn to current uses of the bible in American culture. Corwin E. Smidt provides a comparative analysis while Russell W. Dalton’s essay examines emerging trends. One such trend of interest to literacy scholars is the role of digital media, examined in Bryan Bibb’s “Readers and Their E-Bibles: The Shape and Authority of the Hypertext Canon,” and John B. Weaver’s “Transforming Practice: American Bible Reading in Digital Culture.” This section also presents essays that examine generational literacy practices regarding the bible, as well as the publication industry, and other economic intersections with current biblical culture. Finally, in part 4, Mark Noll reflects on both the studies and essays in relationship to our current public discourses and cultural divides. Overall, this text adds to the growing library of scholarship that seeks to understand how we, as Americans, arrived at our public discourses regarding the bible and Christianity in general, and perhaps, to remind us all that the bible has been—and remains—more than a political tool.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Terry L. Nugent is assistant professor of English at the University of Arkansas at Monticello.

Date of Review: 
July 13, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Philip Goff is the Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture and Chancellor's Professor of Religious Studies, American Studies, and History at IUPUI. Since 2000, he has been co-editor of Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation. His current research is focused on the history of religious radio in the United States.

Arthur E Farnsley, II is director of the Indiana University Center for Civic Literacy and Associate Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at IUPUI. His books have been about the politics of the Southern Baptist Convention, the role of congregations in faith-based welfare reform, and the ways religious culture shapes and is shaped by urban growth and development. His popular writing has appeared in Christianity TodayChristian Century, and in newspapers across the country, as well as in his most recent book, Flea Market Jesus.

Peter J. Thuesen is Professor of Religious Studies at IUPUI and Co-Editor of Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation. His publications include Predestination: The American Career of a Contentious Doctrine (OUP) and In Discordance with the Scriptures: American Protestant Battles over Translating the Bible (OUP).


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