God’s Agents: Biblical Publicity in Contemporary England. The title certainly worked to catch my eye! It’s an ethnographic exploration of the work of the Bible Society, by Matthew Engelke, and anthropologist currently working at the LSE.
A preface sets out the terms of his study, based on participant observation over a three and a half year period, with roughly 15 months of that being given to full time engagement with the Bible Society’s work. This is followed by a lengthy introduction in which he sets the scene with a short historical note and a more detailed present description of the society, focussing particularly on its “Bible advocacy” work.
It is this advocacy that he means by “biblical publicity”. It is about how the Bible Society seek to gain a hearing for the message of the scriptures in a culture that no longer knows it. It is about seeking ways of presenting the Bible as a “credible” text for 21st century English people. And it is about public religion: the place of faith in the public square. One of the running themes of the book is how this work is a response to an attitude usefully expressed in Alastair Campbell’s soundbite on behalf of Tony Blair: “We don’t do God”.
The first chapter describes and reflects on a Christmas decorations project the Bible Society engaged in in their home town (well the town where their offices are) of Swindon, together with some other activities. The project – having some socially designed angel-kites in a key central area, being in constant motion because of the wind. Engelke reflects on the use of signs which are ambiguous – intentionally undetermined to invite people to engage.
He also reflects on the Lyfe project, where Bible study groups were encouraged to do their Bible study in a public place, coffee house or pub. In this, Bible study is seen as a natural activity for Christians, and coffee ships and pubs as natural places to meet. He brings these themes together by suggesting there is a task here of creating ambience: God as part of the normal background noise of contemporary life.
His second chapter looks at a relatively early Bible advocacy approach of their three “Campaigns to Culture” where they tried to find ways of placing the Bible in public as a contemporary book. The largest of these involved a series of events in Manchester including a significant advertising campaign, which sought to riddle rather than preach. He explores what the Bible Society means by “culture” and how it tries to find culturally acceptable ways of drawing attention and provoking thought within it. One of the issues that emerges from this is just how much they run into a brick wall: many people simply think the Bible is too old to be interesting.
In chapter three he spends time with the Society’s Parliamentary Officer. In most respects, this is the most traditionally evangelical piece of work described here, with a piece of networking, relationship building work developed especially through the (nowadays reshaped in the manner of an evangelical Christian Union) group Christians in Parliament. It does offer some opportunity to reflect on how (if at all) Christian MPs can articulate their faith as informing their positions, and in what arenas. In that sense it begins to introduce the idea that will dominate the last three chapters of the book: public reason.
This final half of the book covers the work of what is 9n my view the Bible Society’s most interesting project, the sponsoring of the semi-independent (or at least semi-detached) think-tank Theos. Chapter 4 covers its launch and early projects, Chapter 5 covers how it seeks to use the media, which is the arena in which a think tank lives of dies, and especially reflects on how it engages in media conflict with atheist organisations over the issues of the day.
The final main chapter looks at a major project to use the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth (and 150th anniversary of The Origin of the Species). This project sought to put across a consistent message that science and Bible can be friends. In the process it staged a major public debate in Westminster Abbey (site of Darwin’s memorial) between atheists and believers on the relationship between faith and science. It also commissioned some research that perhaps could have been made more of, on trying to understand creationists. (Theos, as Engelke describes it, wasn’t really interested in understanding them: it wanted to combat them just as much as it wanted to combat the aggressive atheists like Dawkins.)
The conclusion adds only a little to the substance of the main chapters. It might have been more helpful to give a little more time to the sections which located it among the long-standing anabaptist think tank Ekklesia, and the newer in the ring (political but with theological commitments related to Radical Orthodoxy) ResPublica.
Let me add a few short reflections to this description. First, and most importantly, this is by and large a very readable book, both in its language and the story and character driven way it has of describing the work it covers. The first chapter (unfortunately) is the one with the most jargon, although most of the time (until its conclusion really) it’s not too inaccessible. But “fractally recursive conception of publicity” or “sensory semiotics” (both p63) are not helpful to the average reader drawn in by the story, especially since they are not well explained.
I think the way Engelke develops the concept of ambience is helpful, and offers some ways to reflect on future practice, and how the church, with its members and organisations, seeks to use public media. It’s worth pondering the idea of finding ways of making or keeping aspects of faith, mentions of God, a feature of cultural ambience not just in the “high culture” of classical art and architecture, choral music, and literary allusion, but within “popular culture”. (That’s a rather pre-postmodern distinction, if useful in this context.)
He also has some useful, if underdeveloped reflections on some of the odd ways in which the team use the word “culture”. Not least he notes that “The very idea of a Church-Culture split is indicative of the ways in which the logic of secularism has shaped this strand of Christian social action in contemporary England.” (p231). It might have been helpful to see rather more teasing out of this: surely the division between the two may mask the ways in which the church exists within and is shaped by culture. And how do we distinguish a sub-culture from a counter-culture, a harbinger of future change, a movement of resistance, or a nostalgic after-image?
Finally, I note an area where I wish he had been more critically reflective. It seems to me that the various projects he describes reify the BIble in ways I’m not entirely sure work. It is talked about as if it is a thing in itself, and that everybody knows what we’re talking about. Yet Engelke describes, for example, one bit of the Bible Society (Theos) going into fairly full-blooded combat with creationists while other staff are creationists (p223).
The book (or at least the texts) for actual BIbles are rather replaced with iPads, phones and printouts, is situated n communities of interpretation. Talk about “the Bible” may disguise the necessity of interpretation, never mind hide the complexity of which books are included. I deduce from some of the ways he comments on and describes things that Engelke himself is an evangelical Christian. If that has made him choose an interesting subject, and then using his professional skills to write an enjoyable, readable and thought-provoking book, all to the good. But I wonder if it has prevented him from seeing a very pertinent issue: how the focus on “the Bible” being a voice in contemporary culture is itself something that needs reflecting on.