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James S. Bielo

Associate Professor of Religious Studies

James S. Bielo is an anthropologist of religion, with an ethnographic focus on Christianity in the United States. His research interests center on materiality and language as expressive resources in religious life, and the intimate relations of religion and power. 

In 2021, Dr. Bielo published his fifth monograph – Materializing the Bible: Scripture, Sensation, Place – with the Bloomsbury Studies in Material Religion series. The book explores what happens when written scripture is transformed into experiential, choreographed environments. A diverse range of practices and places, from gardens and theme parks to shrines and museums, show how materializing the Bible works as an authorizing practice to intensify scriptural intimacies and circulate potent ideologies. Performed through the sensory experience of bodies, physical technologies, and infrastructures of place, this phenomenon is always, ultimately, about expressions of power. For podcast interviews about the book, see Things Not Seen and New Books in ReligionMaterializing the Bible is also an interactive digital scholarship project, designed with student research assistants and featuring contributions from interdisciplinary scholars. Dr. Bielo assembled a physical archive to complement the ethnographic fieldwork, which now resides as a special collection at Chicago’s Newberry Library. 

Bielo’s current ethnographic work focuses on the secondhand circulation of Christian material culture. Churches close. Producers stop producing. People die. Things survive. Every day, scores of items are exchanged through the networked assemblage of estate sales, thrift stores, flea markets, antique malls, auction houses, eBay, Instagram, and more. At the project's core are part-time and full-time resellers: folks who scavenge secondhand venues in search of donated, discarded, and passed over items. The range of material culture is immense, from Bibles and books to prayer guides, rosaries, holy cards, figurines, clothing, art, icons, and other decor. Two early research questions focus on value and ethics in the social life of Christian material culture: How are objects attributed value, from affective attachments to financial profit, devotional use, and aesthetic display? And, how is circulation informed by ethical commitments, ambivalences, and negotiations regarding what is appropriate to source, sell, and buy?

Dr. Bielo welcomes opportunities to mentor students in the ethnographic study of religion, material religion, expressive culture, digital scholarship, and American religions. You can connect with him on Twitter (@MaterializingB), Instagram (@sacredpicker), and his website.

Selected Works


2021. Materializing the Bible: Scripture, Sensation, Place. London: Bloomsbury.
2018. Ark Encounter: The Making of a Creationist Theme Park. New York: NYU Press.
2015. Anthropology of Religion: The Basics. London: Routledge. 
2011. Emerging Evangelicals: Faith, Modernity, and the Desire for Authenticity. New York: NYU Press.
2009. Words upon the Word: An Ethnography of Evangelical Group Bible Study. New York: NYU Press.