Symposium Introduction

Jeffrey Guhin’s 2021 book, Agents of God, is an ethnographic comparison of four high schools in the New York City area: two Sunni Muslim and two Evangelical Christian. Signaled as core concepts in the subtitle, categories of “boundaries and authority” divide the book in half. After a compelling introduction that lays out the book’s methodological and theoretical core, the first three empirical chapters look at the boundaries that situate these communities while the next three chapters look at the “external authorities” these boundaries situate.

In the first half of the book, Guhin shows how politics, gender, sexuality, and the internet all differently bound off these communities from the secular world outside, even if, drawing on Christian Smith’s concept of “distinction with engagement,” those boundaries are neither total nor intended as such. Instead, Guhin describes how these boundaries are marked by ongoing debates between communities and secular outsiders and, more importantly, within the communities themselves. Pulling on the Aristotelian distinction between what is essential to a thing (the houseness of a house, for example) versus what is accidental to it (that house’s color, for example), Guhin shows how boundaries within these communities helped to maintain a communal identity rooted in difference from the secular world-at-large, even as community members debated with each other how much certain elements of those differences or even the differences themselves actually mattered.

In the next three chapters, Guhin develops an innovative theory of social institutions, generally avoiding the concept of institutions itself to focus instead on what he calls “external authorities,” by which he means those institutions experienced by community members as agents who can authorize, will, and command. In three separate chapters on, respectively, scripture, prayer, and science, Guhin shows how each of these institutions is experienced within the schools as an agent. “What the Bible commands,” for example, is not simply another way of saying what God commands through the Bible. Instead, Guhin argues that the phrase should be taken literally, looking at either scripture, prayer, or science as specific agents in both senses of the word: first, as beings with agency and, second, as individuals authorized to act on another’s behalf—an insights he develops from sociological theorist Isaac Reed’s work on “chains of power.”

This forum has received responses to Agents of God from six brilliant sociologists, each speaking to and building on a different element of Guhin’s argument. Freeden Blume Oeur, a sociologist of race and education, engages, among other things, Guhin’s methodological choices, his distinctive approach to the sociology of education, and how the schools might have responded to Trump. Carly Knight, a theorist and sociologist of economics, pulls from Durkheim to ask about both the breadth and specificity of external authorities as they might relate to other institutions. Besheer Mohamed, a quantitative methodologist and sociologist of religion and race, asks whether Guhin’s separation of scripture from God is either as empirically or theoretically tenable as he claims. Samuel Perry, a sociologist of race, sexuality, politics, and religion, engages with Guhin’s chapter on scripture, pointing out the importance of translations in a way that Guhin only partially engages in his book. John Evans, one of the foremost sociologists of science and religion, asks some fundamental questions about the relative roles of God, the individual, and the community in contemporary American religion. Then, engaging Guhin’s chapter on science, he suggests new directions for the sociology of science and religion. Finally, Hajar Yazdiha, a sociologist of migration, religion, and race (and this panel’s organizer) asks about Guhin’s work on boundaries, showing how the comparisons of Evangelicals and Muslims can reveal how all experiences of marginalization are not equal, despite white Evangelicals describing their own marginalization as the most intense in the United States.

Each of these respondents’ essays reveal the depth and breadth of Guhin’s book, as does his response, featuring a reply to each essay after an extended summary of Agents of God. We are grateful to all of the respondents for the time and careful attention that went into these essays and to Guhin for writing the book that occasioned them. Finally, we should express our gratitude to Sean Larsen and everyone involved at Syndicate Theology for hosting this conversation. We hope you enjoy these essays, and, if you have not already, we hope they bring you to purchase, borrow, or find some other way to read Agents of God and engage with its generative insights.


Introductory Remarks by Jeff Guhin

How I Got Here

I’m not sure if every dissertation is a form of self-disclosure, but mine certainly was. When I got to graduate school at age twenty-six, my life to that point had been defined by two institutions: religion and education. I had been in the Catholic world more or less continuously since before I can remember, including attending Catholic schools from first grade through college, then working briefly at a Catholic social service agency while living with Catholic sisters, briefly considering becoming a Jesuit priest, and then teaching English at a Catholic all-girls high school in downtown Brooklyn for three years. My published writing was almost all in Catholic periodicals. Except for that year as a caseworker, I had also been either in a school or working at a school nearly every year of my life.

I flirted with the idea of moving beyond religion and education, trying on some sociological subfields entirely separate from my past. The breakup didn’t last. My compromise was leaving Catholicism, or at least the study of it. I took Arabic classes and went to Syria two summers in a row (2008 and 2009) to get better at the spoken form. I threw myself into the study of Islam. And I got really interested in the intersection of religion and politics. I wanted to learn more about how politics works for Muslims and also for Christians, especially the Evangelical Christians I knew so little about. Evangelicalism seemed so different from my own Catholic experience, even as I knew I had much more in common with Evangelicals than I did with Muslims, at least doctrinally. Yet something about Sunni Islam felt much more natural to me than what I knew of Protestant Evangelicalism, and while I didn’t have the words to articulate it yet, this was my fist hunch that practices—and orthopraxy—would be a key part of my story.

So began a comparative ethnography of four high schools in the broader New York City area, two Sunni Muslim and two Evangelical Christian. The basis of my dissertation in sociology from Yale University, I spent a year and a half (2011–2012) in the four schools: two semesters at the Muslim and urban Al Amal, one semester each at the Christian and urban Apostles and the Muslim and suburban Al Haqq, and all three semesters at the Christian and suburban Good Tree. I conducted approximately fifty field visits at the Muslim and urban Al Amal, seventy field visits at the Christian and suburban Good Tree, and around twenty-five visits each to the Muslim and suburban Al Haqq and the Christian and urban Apostles. I conducted formal, tape-recorded interviews with three adults and four students at Al Amal, fifty-one students and fourteen adults at Good Tree, twenty-seven students and seven adults at Al Haqq, and twenty-six students and eleven adults at Apostles.

I started the dissertation expecting it would be about politics and religion. After the idea of an international comparison fell apart for various reasons, I decided to compare four schools in the New York City area, and I chose American Evangelical and American Muslims because both communities felt at once inside and outside of American politics. Yet the direction of that semi-separation was different, at least in the communities I studied. As I put it in the book:

These schools distinguished themselves from what they thought of as unholy and unwholesome, yet they had no desire for complete separation from America, a nation they thought of very much as their own. The difference is as much temporal as religious: conservative Christians believe they have lost an America that was once theirs, while Muslims (conservative or not) believe they could gain an America that holds promise if only it would cease its Islamophobia. (15)

While I was doing the fieldwork, I realized that politics was only part of the story. I became increasingly interested in science in the schools, especially creationism, the subject of my first publication from my dissertation. I also realized I couldn’t avoid studying gender and sexuality. And prayer and scripture both were vital at all four schools in ways both similar and fascinatingly different.

These interests, over many revisions, eventually became the chapters of the book Agents of God. After an introduction that lays out the book’s theoretical underpinnings, I divide the book into two halves: three chapters on boundaries (“Politics and Public Schools”; “Differently Differentiating Gender”; “Sex and the Internet”) and three chapters on what I’m calling external authorities (Scripture, Prayer, and Science). I close with a conclusion, a methodological appendix, and a whole lot of endnotes.


When I say boundaries, I’m referring to a huge literature in sociology, even if, in the interest of space, the book mostly engages with the concept of symbolic boundaries as articulated by Michèle Lamont and Virág Molnár with a bit of distinctive spice from Pierre Bourdieu. In these three chapters, I described how politics, public schools, gender, sexuality, and the internet gave these schools a sense of how they were distinct from the rest of America yet also deeply connected to it.

Along the way, I introduced two new theoretical concepts: the first was an emphasis on specifically where the boundary is worked out. In other words, we might disagree about gender. But how? In which contexts? What is our site of boundary contestation, which is my way of asking about the location of the fight. This emphasis on contestation is really important for me. I disagree pretty intensely with Pierre Bourdieu on all sorts of things, but I appreciate his insistence that the “field” in which we define ourselves need not be a Durkheimian kumbaya. We can, instead, define ourselves through our disagreements, provided our disagreements are about the same things.1

That focus on disagreements allowed me to describe my other theoretical contribution to the discussion of boundaries, going back to my sophomore sacraments class at Creighon Prep, Omaha’s Jesuit high school. In that class, I learned Aquinas’s distinction between substance and accident. (A substance is also called essence, which is the term I use.) Aquinas takes the distinction from Aristotle, who said, roughly, that the essence of a thing is its thingness. It’s the chairness of a chair for example. If something were to happen to that chair that made it no longer a chair, then it would lose its essence. If it was burned to ashes or broken up for firewood, it would no longer be a chair. Yet what if we just painted the chair a different color or if we removed its armrests? It would still be a chair, just a different one. Aristotle and Aquinas would say its accidents would change, but not its essence.

In the many years since scholasticism, philosophers have debated the degree to which people and things actually do have essential and accidental qualities. Yet as a social scientist, I can bracket these questions entirely, instead focusing on how people experience themselves and their communities as having both essences and accidents. And what I’m interested in, following similar work in psychology, is how those fights work out. I hope that the essence/accident distinction can be helpful for other sociologists too (though see Stephen Fuchs’s argument Against Essentialism).

In the chapters themselves, I use these concepts to show how politics, gender, and sexuality provided different kinds of disagreements at these schools. In the politics chapter, I developed the line of thinking I described above, showing how Christians felt they were losing America and Muslims felt they had not yet acquired it, at least not completely. I describe the problems of Islamophobia and racism in the schools, an issue I describe in more detail in an article about “Colorblind Islam.” Yet the most important argument in this chapter is that the schools were bulwarks, or so they described themselves, protecting their communities and especially their children from the perils of a world that did not know God. That fear was most pronounced as teachers and students distinguished their communities from public schools, regularly describing their communities as essentially caring and religious in ways that public schools simply could not be.

My next chapter is a study of gender differences in the four schools. I emphasize how the Evangelical schools were more stereotypically “orthodox” (focused on right belief) while the Muslim schools were more stereotypically “orthoprax” (focused on right action) in that the Muslim schools primarily policed their girls to wear certain clothing while the Evangelical schools policed their girls to believe certain things about feminism. In my interviews and interactions with kids at the schools, I noticed that the Muslim girls could believe wearing the hijab was feminist or they could reject feminism entirely. It didn’t really matter provided they wore the hijab. In contract, the girls at the Evangelical school were much more ideologically constrained, with feminism regarded as the real f-word. In so doing, I showed how even seemingly orthodox commitments like beliefs about women are necessarily embodied and practiced: someone has to say something with their mouth, think something with their brain, habituate those words and thoughts through repetition, etc. Orthodoxy, as I argue in my introduction, is simply a specific form of orthopraxy.

My third boundaries chapter is about sexuality and the internet. In the chapter, I describe how the schools understood the promise and perils of students getting online. Most of the concern about the internet was about sex: the ever-presence of porn, of course, but also the possibility that students will meet other and make plans their parents and teachers would not approve. The internet in this sense was a microcosm of all the world’s possibilities, both hopeful and horrifying. Parents and teachers worried that the internet—and through it the world—would undo the socialization they tried so hard to maintain. As I write at the end of the chapter, “the great fear these teachers had about the Internet was only partially that students would do something wrong; it was also that students would consider what the school thought essential as no longer important, that it was actually just accidental. And if the schools’ essences began to fade, they worried, then so might the schools’ authorities” (110).

External Authorities

Those authorities are what I talk about in the book’s final three sections. I show how community members at the schools I studied could shift the coercion inherent in any form of socialization onto institutions they understood as capable of making demands. I show how people at all four schools would describe Scripture, Prayer, or Science as doing, commanding, or insisting on certain actions from individuals in the schools, making it possible for teachers to say things like, “It’s not me that needs you to do this; it’s the Bible.” As a result, external authorities can solve a paradox at the heart of socialization, especially for school communities committed to their students freely choosing their religion: following the logic of external authorities, it is not the teachers or parents making these demands but prayer, science, or scripture that act as “agents” themselves. As I argue in the book,

Each of these terms—scripture, prayer, and science—is often described as the subject of its own sentence, as when people in the schools told me that prayer changes things, that science shows something, or that scripture gives us wisdom. Prayer, scripture, and science are external because they are not contained within any one individual or even any one organization, and also because that externality is to some degree the source of their authority, in the same way that a lever gains strength when its fulcrum is farther from the effort applied. (7)

I draw explicitly on theories of agency worked out by Julia Adams and Isaac Reed, though I expand their work to think about how institutions themselves become agents. On the institutional theory side, while previous theories ofinstitutions have hinted at institutions’ capacity to act as agents, I am the first to articulate this theory explicitly, and I hope the theory is exportable beyond studies of religion.

In the scripture chapter, I give some historical context to how the Evangelical communities came to understand the Bible and how the Muslim communities came to understand the Qur’an and the hadith. I then show how these scriptures work as both boundaries and constitutive practices: that is, how students and adults in these communities distinguish themselves from others by their relationship to scripture and also how they do certain things—especially reading, memorizing, and relating to the physical artifact—to make their connection to scripture an embodied element of their lives. Through this combination of boundaries and practices, the scriptures come to have legitimate agency in their lives, able to make commands and requests that are not simply reducible to God. Indeed, scriptures become “agents of God,” hence the book’s title.

The prayer chapter is similar to the scripture chapter, though I show how prayer often functions as a different kind of agent than does scripture: if scripture is something like a governor, an intermediary of authority, then prayer is something like a messenger, a means of going back and forth to a higher power that is not reducible to the relationship itself. In both of these chapters, I describe how the communities have different relationships to both scripture and prayer, with Muslims tending to emphasize prayer more as a constitutive practice and Evangelicals tending to emphasize scripture more (though both are important at all four schools). I have written elsewhere about both Evangelical prayer and Muslim prayer, and what I emphasize in this chapter aligns with these arguments: I’m interested in how prayer is both a mechanism and result of socialization, the way that praying requires certain virtues that it simultaneously engenders.

My last body chapter is about science, though it’s much less focused on creationism than I expected it to be. Instead, it’s about how these schools understand relate to science and the distinction they then make from secular scientists. Yet I was also fascinated by how much more removed “science” seemed to students as opposed to the immediate effectiveness of prayer or scripture. These authorities worked; science was all too often some answers you had to memorize for a quiz. All four schools I studied were creationists, yet for much of their science curriculum, that didn’t really matter. As I argue in the book, it was “ironically . . . in disagreeing with the scientific theory of evolution that science—or what they thought of as science—became most obviously an agent capable of action in the world” (173). The people I met in these communities were most concerned about the external authority of science when they were trying to disprove the atheist scientists.

  1. As I argue in my introduction, Talal Asad makes a similar argument about tradition, and in many ways Asad’s fusion of MacIntyre and Foucualt is a better fit for what I’m doing here (and elsewhere) than is Bourdieu’s concept of field and habitus.

Freeden Blume Oeur


Whither Public Education?

A Comment on Jeffrey Guhin’s Agents of God

Before I got my hands on a copy of Agents of God, I had a chance to read something else by Guhin: a chapter that appeared in a recently published edited volume on sociological theory. I found the chapter quite intriguing, and I had it in mind as I read Guhin’s new book. In the chapter, titled “Why Study Schools?,” Guhin makes the convincing case that research in the sociology of education has been guided by a stratification mandate, or a concern for how schools are engines of inequality and reflect and reproduce power dynamics outside of schools. A path less taken, according to Guhin, has been the study of schools as sites of moral education. This is a path that animates the writings of Emile Durkheim, W. E. B. Du Bois, and others. This view of education considers how schools have goods internal to them: in other words, as having a kind of value on their own terms, and not an instrumental value where, for example, schools exist mainly for students to accrue capital and credentials.

With this perspective in mind, one of the better ways of approaching Guhin’s exciting book is to consider the importance of moral boundaries at religious schools, which were Guhin’s fieldsites. Like in the chapter I just mentioned, Guhin makes it a point to say that the schools take part in symbolic boundary work: the kind that creates conceptual and moral distinctions. As Guhin’s astute observations revealed, these schools—two Christian and two Muslim—despite being different, defended the idea of the freedom of religion, one often rooted in conservative and orthodox principles. They also found common threats in the internet and in public schools. The persistent, perceived danger of these spaces—which constitute what Sarah Diefendorf has called “the imagined secular”—could be rationalized by deferring to what Guhin calls “external authorities,” or the semi-autonomous sources of authority including scripture, prayer, and most paradoxically but compellingly, science. An excellent study, I think, names something important that you know about but have taken for granted and helps you to see it an entirely new way. The idea of “external authorities” does that for me. Reflections on authority have a long history within sociology, anchored by Weber’s foundational writings on the topic. Guhin’s concept manages to add nuance to this literature without being beholden to a Weberian tradition.

I approached this book with a mix of professional and personal interests. In graduate school, I started training to be a sociologist of education and gender just as I decided to become a Christian (though I can’t say I resemble much of one today!). I find myself wanting to share this book with others who study these fields and also with religious folks I know who are suspicious of public schools and wonder if Catholic schools are a better alternative for their children. The study of Christian (mainly Catholic) schools is familiar to the sociology of education. I am reminded of the influential text Catholic Schools and the Common Good (1993), by Anthony Bryk, Valerie Lee, and Peter Holland. While that book and Guhin’s share certain themes, they diverge in important ways. Bryk and colleagues advanced the idea that Catholic schools support forms of democratic education which promote the larger good; Agents of God, meanwhile, reveals that the idea of a common good is itself fraught and contentious, and that religious schools operate in a deeply polarized political environment where persistent boundary work greatly restricts the idea of the “common.” The study of Muslim schools has a much shorter history in the sociology of education. And so the comparative angle of Agents of God, with data drawn from four schools, allows Guhin to draw out intra-religious distinctions as well as how these schools together differentiate themselves from nonreligious spheres marked by their many clear and present dangers and temptations. Since the book is so conceptually rich, it would be easy to miss the book’s methodological sophistication, and I’d be curious to hear more from Guhin about the ups and downs of doing a complex comparative study of schools.

Agents of God makes several major contributions. First, I think that in a time of lean and theory-lite ethnographies, Guhin’s book embraces theory and invites readers to learn about and love theory just as much as the author clearly does. It’s a very teachable book for this reason, and Guhin has a special talent for connecting conceptual dots that will teach readers many things even if they aren’t especially interested in schools, religion, or culture. In her recent book, Dear Science and Other Stories (2020), Katherine McKittrick asks us to consider endnotes and footnotes as sites of labor and love and dreaming, when it’s more common to toss these aside as secondary and distracting. Some of the best stuff in the book are contained in Guhin’s endnotes, and any graduate student studying religion, schools, or culture for their exams would be wise to seek counsel in the book’s final pages.

This leads to a second major contribution. The book is steeped in details concerning religion—from interpretations of scripture, to what it means exactly that people think that the Bible is actually God’s divine word—without ever feeling insular or off-putting. This is because Guhin accomplishes the goal of, in his words, “using religious sites to answer cultural questions.” This achievement is more than a simple matter of what a few unique schools can tell us about moral issues and questions that affect all of us. The book also showed me that cultural questions matter in a way for subfields like education, race, and gender which have historically at times had an awkward or uncomfortable relationship with the topic of culture. To put it differently, Agents of God helped me to see that some of the more important questions I’ve been asking in my own scholarship have been fundamentally cultural ones. I am grateful to Guhin for this basic but important insight.

I was disheartened to read about how public schools continue to be a punching bag for so many. But not surprised. I’ve found many of the same patterns in my own research, and you don’t have to search far to find studies showing that parents, students, stakeholders, and others deride public schools as immoral, pits of failure; and then seek out any number of alternative schooling options, from charter schools to religious schools. Guhin’s concluding chapter is titled “It’s Dangerous Out There,” and I felt that it was here that the symbolic and moral boundaries that Guhin speaks of most interfaces with social boundaries, or those distinctions that reveal material inequalities. Christian and Muslim schools, and people across the political spectrum, all repudiate public schools for being unsafe and lacking compassion. As these people retreat from public schools and find alternative options to work or to send their own children, the perceived dangerous thing “out there”—public schools—grows weaker and less legitimate, with very real consequences for what the schools can and can’t do to help young people. Guhin’s own language allowed me to see that this anti-public-school narrative is a kind of external authority, as it were, we’ve collectively created as a society, a self-fulfilling narrative where sacred spaces build walls between them and the profane space of public schools. As Guhin ends his book by saying, the idea of an external authority isn’t “uniquely religious,” and I think he’s correct. I’m eager to see how other researchers use and build on the idea of external authorities. Within a volatile political climate bracketed by identity politics and culture wars, education is emerging as a top priority for Republican legislators. Through the use of old strategies like book banning and dark money, progressives see the culmination of a years-long GOP effort to dissolve public education entirely. It is more important than ever to understand how authority works in the lives of American schoolchildren.

I have a few questions for Guhin. I am curious about these Evangelical schools in the wake of Trump’s presidency. I wondered how the graduates of the two schools voted if they chose to vote. Much has now been made about Evangelicals as an influential voting bloc for the Republican party, but I want to know more about the kinds of political conversations taking place inside these classrooms. How might, for example, the power of external authorities help to guide thinking on contemporary targets of conservative disdain, from transgender identity to critical race theory? Guhin’s research on schools will only become more important given that education has recently catapulted to the top of issues that matter for voters, motivated by the backlash to the perception that critical race theory is being taught in schools. As a product of Virginia public schools, I watched with great interest and dismay as education and critical race theory emerged as priority items in the recent governor’s race won by the Republican Glenn Youngkin. The new Virginia governor owns a foundation with properties across the state that are home to Evangelical congregations and retreats. With Guhin’s insights in mind, I was able to track how he and his supporters have turned to external authorities—in particular, the Bible and certain strands of science—to defend a particular view of traditional, conservative education.

And speaking of science, I would also love to hear more from Guhin about the role of science as an external authority today. While this fascinating chapter tells us much about how religious communities engage certain strands of science—creationism and evolution, biology and biochemistry, the lab sciences—I am curious what these schools thought about the social sciences and history, and the critical conversations that happened or were muted. We hear less about these subjects in Agents of God, but they would seem to matter in other sections of the book; for example, in chapter 3, where the schools held a tenuous relationship with feminism, believing that girls should have the same academic opportunities as their male peers but also expected those young women to be the main care providers for their families one day.

  • Jeff Guhin

    Jeff Guhin


    Response to Freeden Blume Ouer

    I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to respond to these essays. Thank you especially to the respondents themselves for their wise, kind, and insightful critiques and comments, and thanks even more to Hajar Yazdiha for organizing this panel and Sean Larsen and the rest of the Syndicate community for providing the opportunity.

    I am grateful for Blume Oeur’s generous and wise comments, especially his connection of this book to my writing that is more explicitly about schools. There’s a tendency in the sociology of education to focus almost exclusively on the ways that schools reproduce or remedy stratification and inequality. That’s important work, of course, but I argueelsewhere—and in my current book project—that the study of schools is more than a subspecies of the study of stratification. I am grateful to so many of the kind words in this response, especially the recognition of my love of theory, my insistence on the importance of the study of culture, and my ongoing commitment that religious sites have things to teach us that don’t necessarily have anything to do with religion.

    Blume Ouer asked a series of great questions that I’ll do my best to answer. First, he asked about how Evangelicals at the schools I studied voted and especially about their commitment to Trump. This is something I’ve thought a lot about too. I don’t know as much about Apostles but I get the sense, from talking to people at Good Tree, that the school is pretty divided between people who voted from Trump while holding their nose and people who voted for Trump with a deep enthusiasm, which is pretty true of white Evangelicalism in general, and not just white Evangelicals either. My sense is that, unlike mainstream white Evangelicalism, which is much more in the boat for Trump, there is at least some division in the schools, but that might simply be the combined wishful thinking of the respondents I still keep up with and myself.

    Blume Oeur also asked about science, expanding beyond what I looked at in the book. It’s a great question, and something that others have been looking at even if I haven’t, even if much of the work has centered Christian Nationalismrather than Evangelicalism (or white Evangelicalism) per se. Certainly, some of the suspicions I heard whispered at Apostles resemble the Q-Anon conspiracies now related to COVID vaccines. Yet Blume Oeur’s question was more specifically about history and social science, and that’s something that I wish I could have gotten into more in the book and that I think other scholars could get at as well. I don’t have the sense that “history” or especially “social science” work as external authorities in quite the way that science does. Yet people do talk about how “History” shows something, so it’s a great question.

    As I think on it, there was a sense of a “real history” hidden from view, something that wasn’t simply a matter of different interpretation but actually a cynical and cruel obfuscation. For the Muslim schools, this was a matter of Islam’s historical commitment to science, peace, and the “greater jihad” of self-mastery. While most of these criticisms were of how Islam is treated in the media, there was also a regular sense that “our history” is not being taught and so we have to teach it ourselves. The same was true for the American Evangelicals, though less regarding religious history and more regarding American history. I did have a brief conversation with the history teacher at Good Tree, and he made clear to me that they used Christian textbooks that could better center the role of Christianity in the nation’s founding. Now whether or the United States really was founded as a Christian nation is a complicated question, but even if it was, it wasn’t necessarily the same kind of Christianity that modern American Evangelicals might think of as their own. Yet there was sometimes reference to this “history” as itself a kind of external authority, with History showing that the secularists are wrong. In that sense, History worked a bit like the way Science worked at these schools, framed not as the working out of various historians or scientists, but as a statue already fully formed in the stone, simply waiting to be revealed by people of good will. In that way, discussions of history could parallel discussions of science, a word which moved readily and often unwittingly between meaning “the physical laws of the universe” and “the descriptions of the physical laws of the universe.”

    Finally, Blume Oeur asked about the ups and downs of doing a complex comparative study of schools. It was a lot of ups and downs! I was kicked out of Al Amal, which was probably the most stressful experience I’ve ever had doing ethnography. And there’s much more I could say about the comparative process, some of which I talk about in the methods appendix. But what I’d like to focus on here is how the comparative process provides all sorts of helpful angles for what, specifically, I should compare.

    In some ways of thinking about comparative ethnography, you wait to compare until you know what you’re comparing. For example, you would start in one field site and it’s only after a few months that you realize, hey, wait, what I’m really interested in is X and I’ll go see if X works the same way at another site and why. But doing a comparative project on day one, as I did, allowed me to see things as interesting I might not have realized were interesting. I would usually go to one school on Monday and Thursday and another school on Tuesday and Friday. And in doing that, I noticed, for example, that Muslims didn’t believe in evolution but just didn’t seem to care that much about, and that Evangelicals were explicitly committed to thinking of prayer as obvious, natural, and easy in a way that Muslims were very comfortable admitting it was difficult. Those aren’t necessarily things I would have thought to compare if I had just started at one school.

Carly Knight


External Authorities and Group Beliefs

In the opening chapter of Agents of God, Tomas Lopez, a Bible teacher at a Christian school, explains how he goes about dealing with students who bring ideas into his classroom with which he disagrees. Lopez states that his general strategy is not to push back directly against the students, but, rather, to redirect them: “I’d ask you to just keep reading the word [the Bible] and let it act on you.” The supposition is that over the course of the semester it will be the text itself, rather than Lopez’s guided discussion of it, that will steer students towards the proper biblical interpretation.

It is statements such as these—where the teacher’s agency is concealed behind an abstract power—that animate the puzzle at the heart of Agents of God, Jeff Guhin’s exploration of religious education in the midst of a highly secular New York City. Based on ethnographic immersion into four religious high schools (two Christian, two Muslim), Agents of God provides an astute analysis of the commonalities between two very different communities seeking to shepherd students through adolescence in a fallen city. It also makes a more general theoretical argument about the role that scripture, prayer, and science play in religious education—the way these abstract institutions serve as sources of legitimacy, authority, and power.

Guhin’s principal argument throughout the book is that scripture, prayer, and science operate as “external authorities”—Guhin’s Weberian-inflected term for institutions that are “semi-autonomous sources of authority, allowing communities to . . . solve problems, make decisions, and develop meaningful, coherent lives” ( 7). In particular, it is the institutions of prayer and scripture—and the sense that such things “act” upon religious individuals—that are the “agents of God” for which the book is titled. One of the book’s most crucial insights is that appeals to such external authorities obscure the role of actual authorities in social reproduction. As Guhin states, “instead of a teacher commanding a student to do or believe a certain thing, the command comes instead from some other authority, one that is external to either the teacher or the student or even the community itself.” Invoked in this way, these institutions serve as the ultimate argument from authority.

In articulating external authorities, Guhin raises the question of how, precisely, the concept of “external authorities” differs from the more general sociological concept of “institutions.” To a certain extent, the two concepts appear synonymous. After all, externality and authority are already deeply embedded in institutional theory. To the extent that institutional theory enjoys any theoretical consensus, it tends be with respect to institutions’ coercive “rule-like status” (Meyer and Rowan 1977)—a status which is, definitionally, based outside the actor in question, typically in law or tradition (Dobbin 2004). Are external authorities particular subtypes of institutions or do they refer to an underappreciated aspect of how institutions function more generally?

The answer to this question is critical to our attempt to define external authorities’ theoretical scope conditions. Do all institutions have the potential power of the external authorities Guhin cites to provide rhetorical legitimacy for their own self-perpetuation? Or are there certain facets of these particular institutions that render them especially likely to become personified representatives for institutional actors?

In concluding, Guhin gives two possible answers to this question, arguing that the difference between external authorities and institutions comes down to experience on the one hand and action on the other. First, external authorities are experienced by actors as having particularly “explicit agency and authority” (205). And indeed, scripture, prayer, and science exert their coercion more conspicuously than the “taken for granted” institutions that often populate institutional studies. For Guhin’s respondents, prayer and scripture are constantly front and center, active participants in everyday conversation. If sociologists have spilled a lot of ink convincing others that their seemingly autonomous decisions are in fact guided by institutional rules and conventions, then Guhin’s respondents have, in a way, already openly embraced this notion.

Second, Guhin argues that external authorities are maintained by practice: “Beliefs as such were only important as evidence of practices” and “it was practices that helped to maintain the authority and agency of external authorities . . . [and] . . . their felt agency and power” (206). Yet while Guhin convincingly demonstrates that practice and habit are required for external authorities to exert their power, I wondered here if the importance of beliefs to external authorities was being undersold.

That is, external authorities—scripture, prayer, and science—seem to be institutions that are primarily aboutorganizing belief (or a method of arriving at beliefs, as is perhaps the case with science). Viewed through this lens, I oftentimes found myself wondering if external authorities had not only Weberian origins but also, importantly, Durkheimian. After all, it is Durkheim who, in the Rules of Sociological Method, wrote about the beliefs of groups as a type of social fact, that are “independent of their individual manifestations” and which contain a certain “authority” over their subjects (Durkheim 2013: 27). Such beliefs, referred to as “collective beliefs” by some contemporary philosophers (e.g., Gilbert 2013), allow one to say things like “Catholics believe in transubstantiation” in a way that is neither a statement about every Catholic’s belief nor even a statement about the average Catholic’s belief but instead a statement about what members of the Catholic church are committed to believing. From this, what seems important to Guhin’s case is that communities that are organized around a set of beliefs require some mechanism to coordinate these sorts of joint commitments. Here, prayer and scripture are institutions with external authority but a very particular kind of external authority—the authority to coordinate and align group beliefs into a consciously held, collective identity. It seems to be this kind of coordinated collective belief that allows one of Guhin’s respondents in a Muslim school, when asked whether she believed in evolution, to ask another, “We don’t believe that, do we?” and then immediately confirm, “No, we don’t believe that” (181).

Crucially for Guhin, the coordination of belief by these institutions is experienced by these communities as agentic. Scripture and prayer, in particular, are always acting and are regularly rhetorically personified, such as when the students were prompted to think of how they would address salah, the Muslim form of daily prayer, as if salah were a person (144). Beyond this extreme example, the students and teachers regularly talk about their relationship to abstractions like prayer and scripture—how prayer has changed them, how scripture speaks to them.

The insight that individuals must animate abstract institutions in order to interact with them is one of my favorites of the book, and there is a lot of overlap between Guhin’s observations about inhabited institutions and research in organizational sociology on organizations as agents. Yet the differences may say something instructive about the conditions under which individuals attribute agency. For organizational sociologists, a key reason for organizations like companies to be discussed as if they were agents is that such rhetoric is necessary for predicting future behavior (e.g., King 2015). Treating Facebook as an agent not only allows individuals to assign actions to a collective entity but also allows individuals to draw inferences about how Facebook is likely to act in the future. For Guhin, by contrast, imagined interaction with abstract institutions seems to be based not on the need for coordination or prediction, but rather on the need for formation of one’s collective identity (again, Durkheim). External authorities not only guide individual action, but allow individuals to develop, align, and affirm their group belief.

Ultimately, Agents of God raises fundamental questions about how social reproduction takes place, particularly for groups that find themselves swimming against the cultural tides. For such groups, authorities are necessary: providing not only a source of knowledge and legitimacy but a kind of institutional totem around which collective beliefs can be articulated and experienced. At the same time, one of the great insights of Agents of God is that external authorities are not limited to the realm of the religious; in his discussion of science, Guhin suggests their potential role in more secular circles. Indeed, it is difficult to read the chapter on science and not think about covid-era invocations to “believe science.” Institutions, Guhin reminds us, are not merely taken-for-granted conventions that quietly guide our actions but can—for certain groups and in certain times—become active participants in our conscious shaping of our selves.


Dobbin, Frank. The New Economic Sociology: A Reader. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004.

Durkheim, Emile. The Rules of Sociological Method: And Selected Texts on Sociology and Its Method. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2013.

Gilbert, Margaret. Joint Commitment: How We Make the Social World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

King, Brayden. “Organizational Actors, Character, and Selznick’s Theory of Organizations.” Research in the Sociology of Organizations 44 (2015) 149–74.

Meyer, J. W., and B. Rowan. “Institutionalized Organizations: Formal Structure as Myth and Ceremony.” American Journal of Sociology 83.2 (1977): 340–63.

  • Jeff Guhin

    Jeff Guhin


    Response to Carly Knight

    In her incisive comments, Carly Knight asks the million-dollar question, as she is wont to do: “Are external authorities particular subtypes of institutions or do they refer to an underappreciated aspect of how institutions function more generally?” She goes on, “Do all institutions have the potential power of the external authorities Guhin cites to provide rhetorical legitimacy for their own self-perpetuation? Or are there certain facets of these particular institutions that render them especially likely to become personified representatives for institutional actors?” Finally, she challenges me to pay more attention to beliefs, rather than centering practices so much. Indeed, she argues, following Durkheim, external authorities might well be “institutions that are primarily about organizing belief (or a method of arriving at beliefs, as is perhaps the case with science).” These are fantastic questions, and they make me excited to continue a project Carly Knight and I are working on regarding the similarities between the agency of institutions and the agency of organizations.

    First, a few words of clarification for those who don’t know how I’m distinguishing them. In the book, and in my other work, I tend to (mostly fall) John Meyer and his colleagues to say that an organization is a group of specific people (however large) at some collective project while an institution is a set of norms and expectations regarding an element of social life. So UCLA, where I work, is an organization, while “the university” is an institution. Both organizations and institutions can therefore be nested: within the organization of UCLA is the organization of its sociology department, and within the institution of the university is the smaller institution of the college lecture, both of which are contained in the much larger institution of schooling (or, if you like, education).

    I think I’ll start with some example institutions to think with. “Heterosexuality” is an institution that sociologists recognize as having power in people’s lives, orienting both practices and—I think Knight is correct here—beliefs about what it means to be a certain kind of sexual and gendered being. Yet I don’t think of heterosexuality as an “external authority” mostly because I don’t think of it as agentic. Which is to say that any powerful institution will help to coordinate and coerce practices, but only certain institutions will be experienced as agentic while doing so. The concept of “gay” (or, perhaps “queer”) might be in the middle here. I’m not sure of anyone narrating “gay” or “being gay” in quite the same as people narrate Scripture, Prayer, or Science, but there are ways that people might say (jokingly or not), “Of course I do that because I’m gay” in a way that that (at least heterosexuals) would not say “of course I do that because I’m heterosexual.” (That gay people might make such a joke about heterosexual—or, more likely—straight culture is itself an interesting example of how these categories are tricky.)

    Of course, there are boundaries to all of this. How people define what it means to be gay obviously varies tremendously, as well as whether such a thing as “gay” even exists, as opposed to sex between members of the same gender. So whether or not an institution becomes experienced as agentic, which is the most important definition of an external authority, is subject to the degree to which that institutions is (a) practiced and habituated and (b) contained within relatively clear boundaries that delimit where and when and how the external authority is able to accomplish its task. This is especially the case for Scripture or things like scripture: The Bible has tremendous power in an Assemblies of God commune but less power in a Buddhist temple. That’s just as true for things that are like scripture, like the DSM, which can lessen criminal charges or permit insurance payments today in the United States, but not necessarily in other parts of the world and certainly not in earlier centuries. So whether or not an institution like “family” or “gay” or “America” or “France” (the latter two are also sort of organizations) can be described and experienced as individually agentic is as much a question about boundaries as it is about agency.

    But it’s also a question, I think, about everyday language, which is simply an empirical problem as much as anything else, though there might be a theoretical way of cutting this I just can’t see yet. For example, most people probably don’t talk a lot about “Industrial Farming,” and I think it’s that everyday speech which is actually a constitutive part of where external authorities come from. Industrial farming as an institution—or the various organizations that are industrial farms—come to be experienced as either distant or at least non-relational, as something that happens out there that does not necessarily affect me.

    Yet there’s an interesting paradox here, because while industrial farming is an example of an institution that might not be turned into an agent, it’s also the case that the further someone is from an organization or institution, the easier it to simply it into one simple agent provided it’s still something you think about and engage. For example, if you work at Google, you might be aware of a Google culture or a “Google way of doing things,” but you are also profoundly aware that it’s hard to talk about Google as a single agentic being. In contrast, if you don’t work there, you might be very comfortable talking about Google as a singular entity. Similarly, working scientists or doctors might be suspicious of the agentic singularity of something like Science or Medicine, but those further away might be grateful for what “Science” shows or what “Medicine” can do.

    This is not a universally true situation of course; my respondents were intimately involved with prayer and scripture, and so distance was not required to make the agency grow stronger. Yet I think distance might be able to serve as a replacement for the habituation of an expectation of agency. In other words, if you are taught from a young age to relate to an institution as agent, then it’s easy enough to do so. But if you’re not, then it makes sense that it’s easier to simplify into a single agent something that you don’t know as well but still find yourself relating to in some way. And there also has to be the kind of reification into one thing that happened in the schools I studied regarding scripture, prayer, and science, but which is harder to do if you’re in the middle of that thing. In other words, a working scientist knows that “Science” is messy and heterogenous in a way that one of the students in my school does not know, in the same way that someone working at Google knows it’s hard to talk about one agentic thing called Google, though that might not be the case for those outside of Google.

    Yet still there’s Knight’s question about beliefs, and I think she’s right about all of this: the need for joint commitments and coordinating them especially. I think it’s really just a difference of emphasis, as I discuss briefly in my engagement with Asad’s work on orthodoxy versus orthopraxy in the introduction. I’m relatively convinced that all beliefs are, to some degree, practices, not only in the sense that they are necessarily embodied in the brain but in the sense that they gain strength through habituation and repetition. So all of Knight’s important points about coordination are true, but I would simply say they’re both/and: the coordination that institutions provide is for beliefs and practices or beliefs as a special subset of practices plus the more obviously embodied practices. Yet I do think Knight is right that external authorities as distinct from institutions require a focus on beliefs separate from what I have described here, namely, the belief that a certain institution is, in fact, an agent. That belief is obviously itself a practice and gains its power through practices (e.g., consistently relating to scripture as agentic). But it’s very much a belief and deserves more attention than I gave it as such.

Besheer Mohamed


External Authority in the Hands of Authority Figures

One important contribution of Agents of God is an exploration of the ways in which educators appeal to “external authority.” The author points out that authority figures often frame their demands as coming from elsewhere. Doing this allows them to claim they are acting as interpreters or representatives for a third party, rather than as independent agents enforcing their own will. In the case of the four religious schools that he studies, the teachers often frame their religious demands as coming from God or, more directly, scripture. As he points out, this framing obfuscates both their interpretative power and discretion in how to apply God’s word.

When dealing with external authorities the level of interpretation and discretion left to the representative is something of a continuum. One extreme might be a direct and clearly worded command—“Mom says you are supposed to do the dishes now.” Or prophet Abraham being commanded by God to sacrifice his son. In the Christian, Muslim, and Jewish traditions God gives a direct, unambiguous command to his prophet. There is no interpretive ambiguity and little discretion short of outright disobedience. On the other extreme, the representative may be invested with full power and discretion. If one accepts the author’s assumption that “the meaning of scripture is never obvious or clear absent a certain interpretive community” (113, emphasis mine) then the teachers are in a situation much closer to the latter. The implied source of the authority, the scripture, does not (and cannot) restrict the representative.

Though the teachers would probably object to the assumption that the scripture is something of an empty vessel, they probably would concede that they are left with more interpretive authority than prophet Abraham. Despite this fact, the teachers use phrases like “The Bible requires . . . ” or “The Quran says . . .” in a way that implies they aren’t doing any interpreting and have no discretion. By framing of their interpretations as the necessary result of the text, the teachers create a strong but brittle understanding of the scriptures specifically, and God’s will more generally. This is apparent in the story of Leslie, a student who has a crisis of faith when she decides she believe in evolution (139). Like Abraham, the students are left with but two choices—submit to God or reject him. That this can be a consequence of the teachers’ approach is a powerful insight, but it is not clear to me that this is a necessary result of their reliance of external authority. As the book point out, appeals to external authority can mask the exercise of power in democratic or quasi-democratic contexts. But the context in which the book focuses isn’t particularly democratic.

When a teacher appeals to scripture as an external religious authority they are really making two claims. First, that the scripture is an authority that we, as members of the faith community, all agree to accept. Second, and just as importantly, I, as the teacher, have intrinsic authority to decide what interpretations my students learn (not just when it comes to scripture, but also of history, science, math, and whatever other subjects I teach). Student are required to accept these interpretations (or at least pretend to long enough to pass the class). A teacher would have to work very hard to prevent the second claim from bleeding into their appeals to external authority.

In the book we occasionally see teachers trying to separate their own authority from that of the scripture. Brother Yaqub, a teacher at Al Haqq, does this when he discusses the debate among Muslim scholars on whether or not women can be prophets. In this exchange the teacher appears to call into question the interpretive authority of the school’s teachers, with statements like ,“If you learned it in Islamic History, it doesn’t mean it’s true” (67) and “Islam is much vaster than 11th grade Al Haqq” (68).

A recognition of the teachers’ interpretive authority (and its limits) can also be seen when a teacher’s interpretation is contradicted by another authority. Mr. Lopez, a Bible teacher at Apostles, describes this situation when talking about students who push back on his interpretations using those they have learned from their parents (who, in many cases, are not only Christian but also preachers). In that situation he appears to back away from his own interpretive authority with statements like, “I’m not going against your father. I’d ask you just to keep reading the word [the Bible] and let it act on you” (9). Rather than start a (probably unwinnable) fight over his own authority to interpret the Bible, he removes himself from the equation and goes back to the shared external authority. Interestingly, for at least some students, the limits of the teacher’s interpretive authority seem intuitive. When asked who they would turn to for help interpreting scripture, parents and pastors are mentioned spontaneously, but the school’s Bible teachers are not (138).

Which is to say the book makes a powerful analytical point about external authority, but in a context where the person relying on external authority also has an independent source of authority. When those two are decoupled, an appeal to external authority might offer room for disputation within the shared framework. As the author points out, “there is an important difference between saying the Quran and hadith require interpretation and saying they are wrong” (140).

Not surprisingly, some teenagers are anxious to grasp this opportunity, when it is available. We see them attempting to do so when probing around long-day creationism, though the teacher steps in and uses his authority as a teacher to invalidate relying on one part of the Bible to explain another, with the assertion, “You would never do that with any manuscript science or study of a document” (2).

In contrast, we see this dispute over interpretation flourish more freely when peers disagree with each other. At one point the book describes students challenging the other’s interpretive authority with retorts like “who are you to say. . .?” (141). When the peers are scholars, rather than high school students, we might expect them to be more articulate and sophisticated in their disputation. Such a sentiment appears to be present in the (perhaps apocryphal) saying of the classical Muslim scholar Imam Shaffi’I, “I believe my opinion is right with the possibility that it is wrong, and I believe the opinion of those who disagree with me is wrong with the possibility that it is right.”

In these cases, the commitment to scripture as external authority is strongly present, but is decoupled (at least to some extent) from nonreligious authority. Presumably, this decoupling has the potential to create much more flexible commitments. Though the author may be correct in implying that theologians and sociologists will disagree on whether or not any clear and obvious ethics are left in the wake of this flexibility.

  • Jeff Guhin

    Jeff Guhin


    Response to Besheer Mohamed

    As usual, Besheer Mohamed asks the hard questions, in this case referring to ongoing debate about what’s really in a text, or, more specifically, what’s really in a scripture. Mohamed, like many literary scholars and religious people, is not so sure about the “death of the author,” especially in the context of a scripture whose author is, by many accounts, immortal (even if Christians and Muslim do have a pretty important disagreement about one particular death). Mohamed rejects the idea that scripture is an “empty vessel” not only for religious teachers who believe in the authority of scripture and its origin in God’s mind but even for secular scholars like me: scripture pushes in certain directions rather than others, with what we might call particular affordances we cannot avoid. I acknowledge as much in my chapter on scripture, and so does James Bielo in his work on scripture, which is probably my most important influence. Nonetheless, both Bielo and I do tend to emphasize more what people do with scripture rather than what scripture, in itself, affords: In other words, even if I am arguing that scripture is an “external authority” in these communities, I am locating the content and power of that authority almost entirely within the communities themselves rather than as a kind of affordance within the scripture’s own text. It seems fair to argue, for example, that an emphasis on reincarnation is better afforded from the Bhagavad Gita than from the Bible. Mohamed pushes me to consider a bit more what scripture itself might require, and it’s an important push. I suppose all I would say in response is that affordances are not necessities: I could sit on just about anything, but it makes more sense for me to sit on a chair. In a similar way, I can make an argument for war even from the radically pacifist Synoptic Gospels, as has been done throughout the past eighteen hundred years. Yet that belligerence brings with it certain contradictions in the text that, for example, apocalypticism does not. I would say that you can claim just about anything with any text, but some texts make those claims easier and some texts make those claims harder.

    The other really important point that Mohamed pushes me to recognize is the relative authority of the teachers themselves in narrating and providing context to the scripture as external authorities. In other words, the power of external authorities is differently situated in the schools I studied, with certain people (teachers, for example) understood as having more interpretive authority about what texts mean. I think that’s right, and it’s especially pronounced in the Muslim schools I studied, where the Qur’an and hadith were understood to require a tremendous amount of experience and wisdom for their interpretation. In the Evangelical schools, on the other hand, there was an ideological commitment to an easy understanding of the Bible’s “plain meaning.” That ideology is rooted as much in longstanding suspicions of religious elites as in the “common sense” philosophy common in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Protestant Christianity. As a result, the Muslim schools provided more opportunity for teachers to emphasize how their own interpretive authority could be separated from the scripture’s relatively autonomous external authority.

Samuel Perry


“Translations Were Quite Important”:

Gender, Bible Production, and the Reconstitution of Boundaries and External Authorities

In what is arguably the central thesis of his book, Dr. Guhin explains that “boundaries and external authorities . . . have a mutually constitutive relationship” (15). Put simply: “The external authorities help to legitimize boundaries, just as the boundaries help to demarcate the external authorities” (15). This is absolutely true, and the rich examples Dr. Guhin provides are compelling.

But in this brief essay I want to extend Dr. Guhin’s argument by focusing on an empirical case the author only mentions in passing, namely, the curious importance of certain Bible translations to the teachers at Good Tree. What Dr. Guhin correctly identifies as a concern over “modern” translations that were “too liberal” was in fact a concern about preserving patriarchal gender roles—a central boundary to this school and conservative evangelicals more broadly.

Knowing something about that particular controversy reveals that “the Bible” is not just an external authority that helps communities police gender boundaries, but the boundaries themselves shape that external authority both in the ways Bible translations are produced and how they are promoted by specific communities. Thus we’re able to see more clearly the “mutually constitutive relationship” between boundaries and external authorities Dr. Guhin describes.

Gender Boundaries and (Only Certain) External Authorities

Almost more than any other symbolic boundary, beliefs about gender are central to these communities. Dr. Guhin explains, “Women’s lives and actions were the boundaries of communities. Communities know they are different based on what their women do” (62). He also shows how “the Bible” was an important external authority for his evangelical schools because it enables those who want to inculcate an appreciation for patriarchy among the students to do so without claiming it’s what they want. Rather, it’s just what “the Bible” says.

But the kind of Bible obviously matters among his evangelical participants. Dr. Guhin makes passing references to this, explaining, “Translations were quite important at the Christian schools as certain more ‘modern’ translations were considered far too liberal. The Evangelicals in the schools I studied tended to use two common translations of the Bible, the New King James Version and the New International Version” (117–18). But it was not just any old New International Version, Dr. Guhin later points out. In discussing the practice of Scripture memory, he recalls students “are also asked to memorize from one of two translations: either the New King James Version or the New International Version, though the latter must be from its 1984 version and not the more ‘liberal’ later version” (128).

Thus in two places, Guhin identifies that “modern” translations are “far too liberal,” and specifically the newer edition of the New International Version. But what exactly made this updated translation “far too liberal” for the students to use? The answer is its violation of the deeply held gender boundary.

Evangelical Gender Wars in Bible Translations

Other than the venerable King James Version (KJV) which is still the best-selling Bible today, the 1984 New International Version (NIV) has dominated the evangelical Bible market for decades. Average evangelicals in the pews loved the NIV because it maintained a balance between readability (as opposed to the antiquated vocabulary and Shakespearean English of the KJV) and translation accuracy.

Historically, part of this “accuracy” was the tradition of English Bibles translating gendered words even when addressing mixed audiences (e.g., adelphoi as “brothers”) or generic masculine third-person pronouns (e.g., “He does not come into judgment . . .”) or generic references to men (e.g., “Man shall not live on bread alone . . .”) literally to preserve the masculine gender construction. Though other Bibles that evangelicals had already rejected as “too liberal” began adopting more inclusive language in their translations in the 1980s, the NIV had always maintained its traditional gendered language.

In the late 1990s, a firestorm erupted as complementarian evangelicals discovered the NIV was planning on updating its translation to adopt more “gender neutral” language in its text. Leaders in these circles decried the move as capitulating to the “feminist agenda” and “political correctness.” I’ve recounted this controversy more fully elsewhere (see Perry 2020; Perry and Grubbs 2020), but what transpired after was essentially ten years of negative attacks from influential complementarian evangelicals against an updated version of the NIV called Today’s New International Version or TNIV (New Testament published in 2002; full Bible published in 2005). The outcry against the more inclusive TNIV was so great, in fact, that evangelicals largely rejected it and it became a complete sales failure. It was thus discontinued in 2011 when the publisher simply released an updated NIV under the old name.

Another consequence of the NIV controversy was the commissioning of two new Bible translations that would be marketed to evangelicals, both of them committed to translating gendered language as literally as possible. The English Standard Version (ESV) would be published by reformed evangelicals through Crossway. And the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) would be published by LifeWay, the curriculum arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. Explaining the importance of the HCSB, Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary stressed that the emergence of the gender-inclusive TNIV has “convinced me that in the end this is an important thing for Southern Baptists to do—if for no other reason than that we will have a major translation we can control” (emphasis added).

Mohler gives away the ballgame there. The “liberalism” of the updated NIV that evangelicals were combatting was specifically egalitarianism. The solution was (1) to stigmatize the TNIV so severely that no evangelicals considered it a viable option and (2) produce and promote alternative translations that evangelicals fearful of creeping liberalism and feminism would read instead. The point isn’t just so they could have a translation they could control, but to maintain control over the boundaries of “who we are” as evangelicals—namely, gender traditionalists.

Gender and Bible Practice in Evangelical Schools

When Guhin was doing his ethnographic fieldwork at Good Tree and Apostles in 2011 and 2012, these Bible translation controversies had already transpired. The 1984 NIV (along with a modest update to the KJV in the New King James Version) was acceptable as conservative and reliable, while the more modern version of the NIV was rejected as “far too liberal.”

Guhin astutely points out that the Bible is a critical external authority for policing and reproducing the boundaries of gender, both through the practices of formal teaching (e.g., the Bible teachers connecting biblical texts to gendered interpretations) and reading/memorization. But we ignore several critical insights by assuming “the Bible” is essentially uniform on issues of gender. The teachers at the evangelical schools, in fact, know that this is not the case. That is why they demanded students ignore the updated NIV and use the 1984 edition instead.

What are some differences? And why might they matter?

Guhin points out that students internalize the teaching that wives are to submit to their husbands (74). This comes from Ephesians 5:22, but there are significant word differences between the 1984 and 2011 NIV. I highlight these in table 1 below.


Table 1: Ephesians 5:21-23 in the 1984 and 2011 NIV

Ephesians 5:21–23 (1984 NIV) Ephesians 5:21–23 (2011 NIV)
21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Wives and Husbands

22 Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior.

Instructions for Christian Households

21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior.

The 1984 NIV starts the passage under the heading “Wives and Husbands” with v. 22, which says, “Wives, submit to your husbands.” Reading in this version one would get the impression that “the Bible says” the marriage relationship is to be characterized by wives submitting.

But notice where the 2011 NIV now puts the heading “Instructions for Christian Households.” It has included v. 21, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” The interpretive conclusion readers are more likely to draw from the 2011 NIV is that Christian households are to be characterized by mutual submission. This flies in the face of traditional complementarian teaching in which only wives submit; husbands love and lead.

Here’s another example. In Guhin’s conversation with a female student, she references the story of Eve not doing what she was told to illustrate the sin of female insubordination (62). There’s actually a subtle difference between the 1984 and 2011 NIV in reference to Eve and women sitting in authority over men (see table 2). I’ve underlined the key differences.

Notice in the 1984 translation, the subordination of women is much more absolute. Paul does not permit a woman to “have authority” over a man, and she must be “silent.” But the 2011 version is changed slightly. Paul says a woman shouldn’t “assume authority” over a man, which could be interpreted to mean that she’s not supposed to undercut the authority of male teachers or her husband in public. The problem Paul is trying to address, in other words, isn’t women having authority per se, but perhaps a specific problem in that church of women interrupting or overpowering men.

Moreover, in the 2011 version, women are not to be “silent” as if they couldn’t speak at all. But they are to be quiet. This perhaps refers the reader back to v. 11 where Paul instructs them to learn in quietness.

Table 2: 1 Timothy 2:11–13 in the 1984 and 2011 NIV

1 Timothy 2:11–13 (1984 NIV) 1 Timothy 2:11–13 (2011 NIV)
11 A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 11 A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve.

My point isn’t to say either construction in Ephesians 5 or 1 Timothy 2 are “better” or “worse” by the standards of feminists today. Rather I mean to point out there would be clear reasons why teachers interested inculcating students with an appreciation for patriarchal gender roles would prefer the 1984 NIV over the “far too liberal” updated NIV.

Knowing this background helps us understand precisely what the teachers at Good Tree and Apostles are objecting to and why they mandate students use one version for Scripture memory and reading over another.


Through countless examples, Dr. Guhin elaborates how boundaries and external authorities mutually constitute one another. But one clear example where this takes place is in the production of Bibles, in which a community identity as “complementarian” or “egalitarian” literally guides the translation decisions of committees resulting in quite different Bibles. Gender boundaries then guide the selection and promotion of such Bibles by evangelical communities, resulting in some Christian leaders (e.g., like Bible teachers in Dr. Guhin’s schools) prohibiting the use of certain objectionable Bibles (i.e., the ones that violate the cherished gender boundary) and promoting others that more suit the communities’ needs to reinforce its own cultural identity.

Thus boundaries (gender) constitute external authorities (Bibles) which reconstitute boundaries (gender).

Works Cited

Perry, Samuel L. “The Bible as a Product of Cultural Power: The Case of Gender Ideology in the English Standard Version.” Sociology of Religion 81.1 (2020): 68–92.

Perry, Samuel L., and Joshua B. Grubbs. “Formal or Functional? Traditional or Inclusive? Bible Translations as Markers of Religious Subcultures.” Sociology of Religion 81.3 (2020): 319–42.

  • Jeff Guhin

    Jeff Guhin


    Response to Sam Perry

    As is his wont, Sam Perry gives me good stuff to think about. He encourages me to think a bit more about scripture, especially the question of translation. It’s an important point, and one he illustrates well in his essay here and elsewhere in his work, including in a forthcoming book. Perry’s point is especially important for my argument about gender, showing how the scripture translation has a significant effect on certain beliefs and practices about gender—what we might call a gender ideology—which then have a feedback effect upon insisting on certain scripture translations as a means of maintaining that same ideology. Perry provides a fascinating example of why and how these translation battles have significant stakes in Evangelical communities, something I touch on briefly in my book but do not give sufficient attention to.

    Sam’s criticism raises another important point as well. Why was translation so much less important in the Muslim schools? It’s a complicated question, but I have two hunches. First, there is a significant normative commitment to learning Arabic in the Muslim schools I studied and in much of the Muslim world. That means that Muslims might know the original, or at least, might know someone who could help them with the original. Evangelicals also learn how to look up words in Greek and Hebrew to get a better sense of a word’s original meaning—I watched a class in which a teacher showed students how do this at Good Tree—but it’s pretty rare for them to learn Greek and Hebrew the way that many Muslims learn Arabic, or at least feel normative pressure to do so.

    The other important hunch I have is that the translation doesn’t matter as much because the scripture is not asked to do as much heavy lifting all on its own. As I described in my response to Besheer Mohamed’s criticism, the Muslim schools I studied had more of a sense that both the Qur’an and hadith required interpretation and accrued wisdom to understand. On the other hand, many Evangelicals believed the Bible was just there, ready to dole out advice. If the Bible needs no instructions, then how words are translated have a lot more stakes.

John Evans


October 6, 2022, 1:00 am

Hajar Yazdiha


October 13, 2022, 1:00 am