That ’70s faith

Explo72 01A friend who called my attention to Mark Lilla’s New York Times essay (about leaving behind his faith) raised this question: Will the Times ever publish a similar essay about a person who comes to faith?

As “my former faith” essays go, Lilla’s “Getting Religion” is well above average. He builds the piece around Billy Graham’s crusade in Queens and the menagerie of anti-Graham protesters the crusade attracted. When Lilla is critical of individuals, such as an unnamed member of A True Church, it’s usually because they reflect some aspect of his days as a zealous convert to evangelical faith during the groovy 1970s: “Mr. True Church is one of those energetic types you find in every evangelical church and prayer group: the amateur scholar. I was surrounded by them in my teens and eventually became one myself. Ours was not a bookish home, and no one in my family had graduated from college.”

Lilla, a former editor of The Public Interest, now teaches at the University of Chicago.

His worst misreading of contemporary evangelical culture is in thinking that it’s bereft of serious theology:

A half-century ago, an American Christian seeking assistance could have turned to the popularizing works of serious religious thinkers like Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, John Courtney Murray, Thomas Merton, Jacques Maritain and even Martin Buber and Will Herberg. Those writers were steeped in philosophy and the theological traditions of their faiths, which they brought to bear on the vital spiritual concerns of ordinary believers — ethics, death, prayer, doubt and despair. But intellectual figures like these have disappeared from the American landscape and have been replaced by half-educated evangelical gurus who either publish vacant, cheery self-help books or are politically motivated. If an evangelical wants to satisfy his taste for truth today, it’s strictly self-service.

Well all right, then. The editors at Baker Publishing, InterVarsity and Zondervan should call an end to their decades-long parody of academic publishing and find other work.

Lilla is more on target when he critiques the opening act at Graham’s last American crusade:

There was no joy to be felt in Corona Park the night I was there. To my disappointment we never got around to singing “How Great Thou Art.” Instead, two Christian pop bands opened for Graham, playing their own insipid music before the television cameras, as if they were recording an MTV video. When I pulled my eyes away from the visual vortex caused by the screens, I realized that no one was singing along with them; the crowd just watched and clapped. I wanted to shout out the joyful words of Moses: “The Lord is my strength and song, and he is become my salvation!” (Exodus 15:2). Or the exhortation of the prophet Isaiah: “Sing unto the Lord a new song, and his praise from the end of the earth!” (42:10). But this was not an evening for the God of Sinai and the Judean desert. Nor was it an evening for the song in every believer’s heart to rise up and draw him lovingly into the mystical body of Christ. Tonight that body was plastered to its seats, each member gazing forward in private, rapt silence. Sixty thousand iPods would have had the same effect.

Print Friendly

  • +G.J.

    The author is quite right. Baker, InterVarsity, and Zondervan do not produce intellectual material with anything like the mainstream cachet and currency of the earlier thinkers he names or the vacant bilge of contemporary evangelicals that he refers to. E.g., Rick Warren, Max Lucado, etc.

    Additionally, while Baker and InterVarsity (I would also add Brazos) have some fine stuff, they do not have authors with such stature as that and not just because they are in the evangelical intellectual ghetto. They just aren’t that good–which is Lilla’s point. Unfortunately, the stuff that is really bad has made evangelical publishing houses like Tyndale exceedingly rich and no doubt more widely know.

  • Andy Crouch

    For all the thoughtfulness, and artfulness, of a piece like this, I can never read such a narrative without recalling The Onion’s news story, “Black Gospel Choir Makes Man Wish He Believed in All That God Bullshit,” , especially its masterful final punch line.

  • Brad

    Augsburg Fortress Press often has some heavier, more academic stuff (one I’ve been reading alot of lately is N.T. Wright).


  • pcd

    I’d be interested in Mr. LeBlanc’s opinion of some of the authors at Baker Publishing, InterVarsity and Zondervan he considers on a par with Niebuhr, Tillich, Murray, Merton, Maritain Buber and Herberg.

  • Douglas LeBlanc

    To my mind, Darrell Bock, Stanley Hauerwas, Alister McGrath and N.T. Wright all easily surpass Tillich and are on a par with the other gentlemen.

    I could very well be wrong, of course, but I’ve never felt consigned to “self-service” — to use Mark Lilla’s language — in finding substantial theology from evangelical houses.

  • Brad

    Maybe Jaroslav Pelikan, JP Moreland, Norman Geisler, Miroslav Volf…I don’t really see the shortage of intellect, there just aren’t 1 or 2 publishing houses that dominate this area of Christian publishing.

    Eerdmans should be mentioned in any list of Christian academic publishing.


  • Mark

    Thomas Oden and Christopher Hall are doing a fantastic job at InterVarsity in reviving modern interest in patrisitcs outside of the Orthodox seminaries.

  • Harris

    There are two aspects: first, the national culture that nurtured and elevated a Neihbuhr, Merton, or Buber has become decidely less religious; second, while there are some writers of comparable quality (e.g. Hauerwas) few write with an eye or ear to the larger public audience.

    Off-setting this is the reality that our culture generally does not honor men (and women) of intellectual stature the way it did 30+ years ago, be it writer, musician, scientist, or theologian.

    Of course there are men and women writing significant works (cf. George Marsden), but evangelicals specifically continue to wrestle with a heritage of anti-intellectualism that Mark Noll (himself now a public intellectual) ably pointed out. Not surprising, then, the closest we get to a public theology is that of a more subjective cast, in a select set of memoirs like Kathleen Norris or Annie Lamotte.

  • Brad

    Mark Lilla used Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr as examples for which he couldn’t find parallels today, so given the way they were situated within Christianity (especially Tillich), I don’t think we need to limit ourselves to Evangelicals when we mention Christian intellectuals. Clearly he wasn’t trying to say there used to be Christian evangelical intellectuals that he couldn’t find parallels for (or for that matter, Christian American intellectuals).


  • Douglas LeBlanc

    Brad writes:

    {Clearly he wasn’t trying to say there used to be Christian evangelical intellectuals that he couldn’t find parallels for (or for that matter, Christian American intellectuals).}

    I agree that Mark Lilla wasn’t saying there used to be Christian evangelical intellectuals but that they’re no longer here. Instead, he was implying that no evangelical author today could hold a candle to “serious religious thinkers like Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, John Courtney Murray, Thomas Merton, Jacques Maritain and even Martin Buber and Will Herberg.”

    At pcd’s invitation, I cited a variety of theologians, all published by three of the major evangelical houses, who challenge Mr. Lilla’s generalization.

    I didn’t intend to slight Eerdmans. That house publishes evangelicals regularly, but it could also be considered more geared toward mainline Protestantism. I wanted to challenge Mr. Lilla’s claim on its own terms (genuine intellectuals vs. “half-educated evangelical gurus who either publish vacant, cheery self-help books or are politically motivated”).

  • Brad

    That makes sense, I just think his willingness to compare apples and oranges (using the whole spectrum of Christianity) to oranges (using just evangelical Christianity for today) is kind of unfair. If we’re going to use the whole spectrum from the middle of last century, we should use the whole spectrum for now, too!

    Also, I sent him an e-mail that included a list of some of these authors (I highlighted Wright because he writes both for popular and academic audiences, but also mentioned Alister McGrath, Jaroslav Pelikan, JP Moreland, Miroslav Volf, Norman Geisler) and he said “I do appreciate
    your book suggestions, which I will follow up on” so it should be interesting to see if he actually does that.


  • jayman

    Leave aside for a moment the question of whether contemporary evangelical theologians measure up to the heavyweights of yesteryear (and I would agree that if we’re talking American thinkers the smartest evangelicals are in philosophy, biblical studies, & history — in theology we’ve got some competent custodians of orthodoxy, which is fine — but nobody really creative like a McGrath, Packer, Pannenberg, or Torrance; all UK or continental figures). Name any serious theologian who’s a confessional Christian that’s a public intellectual in the way someone like the bros. Niebhur were. They’re just not there, and the public venue for them doesn’t exist for them as it once did. Lilla’s point in this regard strikes me as anachronistic and it ignores the seemingly obvious: Protestant liberalism, as an intellectual tradition, is wheezing its last gasps on the respirator. Why the leading lights of a dead-end tradition are held up for emulation is a little bewildering. The future belongs to those like Oden who are nurturing a more ecumenical but robustly Christian orthodoxy.

  • Brad

    I agree that there isn’t really a market for an equivalent of the Niebuhr’s in modern Christianity, but then I don’t think there’s an equivalent market for such people outside Christianity, either.

    There isn’t really much of a market for intellectuals in general…popular psychology and postmodernism’s lack of belief in true knowledge have to be at least partly to blame for that (and I would argue these things have affected Christians and Christianity to the extent they’re uninterested, as well).

    It’s certainly not the case that we couldn’t use a modern day Niebuhr right now.


  • Stephen A.

    Are today’s theological works up to the same standards as in past decades? I’m not sure they are.

    “Woman, thou art loosed” and the numerous “prosperity gospel” books by preachers of one type or another (Osteen, etc.) and the numerous ‘inoffensive’ preachers who produce bland, trite tomes come to mind as not really living up to the names mentioned above in sheer brain power.

    Yet, some of the midcentury authors that may come to mind (especially those mainly liberal in their theology) may fall into the category of those who were so darned proud of their thoughts that they tended to overthink and forgot to simply believe. But that’s a generalization, I know.