Dispatches from the IUPUI Conference on the Bible in American Life

By Chris Cantwell

One of the conference's many fine presentations.
As I noted in one of my earlier posts this summer, the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis is wrapping a multi-year study of the Bible in American life. The study began with a survey, continued with an insightful report on the results of the survey, and is concluding with a conference that puts the report's results in broader historical, sociological, and theological contexts.

Well, the conference wrapped up its final session moments ago and I'm pleased to report it was a success by every measure. A testament to the conference organizer's efforts, the papers were remarkably diverse. Nearly a hundred attendees heard extended presentations on everything from the first Bible published in America to the latest biblical iPhone apps. Ray Haberski has offered up his own reflections on the conference divergent streams over at the U.S. Intellectual History Blog. But what struck me the about the conference were two very coherent conversations that emerged from these very different papers.

  • Words or the Word? The Bible in American life can take the form of both a specific biblical story as well as symbolic presence. Papers considered not only the ways Bible stories have inspired popular music but also how particular editions or translations of the Bible in toto have anchored specific religious communities.
  • Book Binding. The study of the Bible in American life is the study of power. The resonance scripture has in both its textual and iconic forms has made it a weapon of both the weak and the strong. Even non-Christian groups have plied the Bible for a number of causes, using it to both connect with and critique broader American culture. Social, cultural, and political power is also bound up in the ways race, gender, and class shapes who can interpret scripture and how religious institutions authorize interpretations. But power is also about access, and the ways the Bible has been published, marketed, or distributed also shapes the kinds of power scripture can yield.
I'm certain there are other vital questions and concerns in the study of American scripture, but this is what stood out to me at the conference's immediate end. I'd welcome other's thoughts.


Paul Harvey said…
Chris, that's a GREAT picture of Matt Sutton doing his presentation on Uncle Tom's Cabin -- thanks!
Matt Sutton said…
Matt Sutton is not so good looking.
Unknown said…
I actually tried to post a picture of Sutton's presentation, but it kept crashing Google!.
Edward J. Blum said…
Was a wonderful couple of days. My thanks to everyone for teaching me so much! Hope everyone has a great rest of the summer.

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