That Authority Question, That Credibility Question

The authority question, when it comes to science, often becomes charisma instead of intelligence and reason but evangelicalism is marked by ambiguity on the credibility questions. See this excellent piece by Molly Worthen:

When it comes to history, many evangelicals reject the world-class historians in their own fold — such scholars as Mark Noll and George Marsden, who advocate a balanced account of Christianity’s role in early America — in favor of the amateur David Barton’s evangelical makeover of Washington and Madison.

Why would anyone heed ersatz “experts” over trained authorities far more qualified to comment on the origins of life or the worldview of the founding fathers? Drawing on case studies of evangelical gurus, Stephens and Giberson argue that intellectual authority works differently in the “parallel culture” of evangelicalism. In this world of prophecy conferences and home-­schooling curriculums, a dash of charisma, a media empire and a firm stance on the right side of the line between “us” and “them” matter more than a fancy degree….

The authors make a strong case that serious scholars are prophets without honor in a culture in which successful leaders capitalize on “anti-intellectualism, populism, a religious free market, in- and out- group dynamics, endorsement by God and threats from Satan.” The most influential expert in their pantheon, James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family, studied at the University of Southern California and, early on, published research in peer-reviewed journals, but later resigned from the American Psychological Association and turned his back on secular accolades in favor of the anointing power of the evangelicals who buy his best-selling books on child-rearing.

In fact, Dobson’s academic career, however brief, hints that evangelicals’ attitude toward the ivory tower is more ambivalent than Stephens and Giberson suggest: the authors don’t always explore the paradoxes inherent in their own evidence. The doctorate of philosophy is no Mark of the Beast, but a mark of intellectual respectability that evangelicals have long coveted. The amateur experts of “The Anointed” often style themselves “Doctors” (usually on the basis of a dubious honorary degree). Despite their anti-elitist posturing, most conservative Christian colleges have sought secular accreditation and often boast when one of their own earns a Ph.D. from a prestigious university….

This pride does not mean these evangelicals embrace mainstream academic standards. On the contrary, they want it both ways: to claim the authority of reason while also defending the “Christian worldview” against the ivory tower’s “secular humanism.” Two centuries ago evangelicals retaliated against science’s incursions on biblical authority by trying to out-­rationalize the scientists, appropriating Enlightenment principles and treating Scripture as a “storehouse of facts,” as the 19th-­century theologian Charles Hodge put it. The point was that Christianity is eminently reasonable. Even the untutored layman can understand the Bible’s meaning. Stephens and Giberson note their subjects’ zest for “unmediated” truth, for bypassing professionals and presenting “evidence” directly to the Christian masses — just as Martin Luther, with his calls for sola Scriptura, bypassed Catholic priests. “I don’t interpret Scripture; I just read it,” Ken Ham says. Glenn Beck, when he made David Barton a darling of his media empire, contrasted him with historians who “bring in their own ideas instead of going back to the original sources.”..

For all evangelicals’ supposed disdain for secular academia, it is telling that their favorite guru is not an undereducated quack, but a thinker that “The Anointed” mentions only in passing: C. S. Lewis. American evangelicals adore Lewis because he was an Oxford don who defended the faith in a plummy English accent, thus proving that one could be a respected intellectual and a Christian too. The “parallel culture” that “The Anointed” vividly describes, then, is not a bald rejection of Enlightenment reason, but a product of evangelicals’ complex struggle to reconcile faith with the life of the mind. Self-styled experts like Ham appear to be spokesmen of certitudes. But their promises to reconcile the Bible with modern thought do not conceal that this balancing act has forced evangelicals to live in a crisis of intellectual authority — a confusion so unabating that it has become the status quo.

 

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://Whatyouthinkmatters.org/blog Andrew Wilson

    Another day, another very insightful bit of analysis. Thanks again.

  • http://OurRabbiJesus.com Lois Tverberg

    “The worship of reason is arrogance and betrays a lack of intelligence. The rejection of reason is cowardice and betrays a lack of faith.” – Abraham Heschel

  • Joshua

    “Despite their anti-elitist posturing, most conservative Christian colleges have sought secular accreditation and often boast when one of their own earns a Ph.D. from a prestigious university”

    I would say this is quite accurate. But, in my experience (my dad as a case-in-point): evangelicals pay lip service to respecting the academy. That is, they’re proud “when one of their own earns a PhD,” but will not respect the actual academic authority of that person unless he/she toes the party line and preaches populist/political talking points rather than the hard work of actual academic argument.

  • Joshua

    “’I don’t interpret Scripture; I just read it,’ Ken Ham says.”

    Groan. Sigh. Groan.

    Whenever I read things like this, I always say to myself, with a tinge of dis-belief, “This guy actually influences people. A lot of people. And the problem is, he shouldn’t be influencing ANYONE.”

  • Joshua

    Glenn Beck, when he made David Barton a darling of his media empire, contrasted him with historians who “bring in their own ideas instead of going back to the original sources.”

    Word of the day?: irony.

  • Joshua

    “For all evangelicals’ supposed disdain for secular academia, it is telling that their favorite guru is not an undereducated quack, but a thinker that “The Anointed” mentions only in passing: C. S. Lewis.”

    This is exactly what I’m talking about. Evangelicals may like Lewis’ books, but if he wrote what he actually believed on some issues, he would have been ostracized and disregarded as a liberal, Anglican secularist. Were it not for the fact that Lewis was a brilliant writer/communicator, he would have found no audience for his ideas, no matter how profound or well-reasoned they were. That is exactly the point the authors are trying to make in the first place.

  • DanS

    C.S. Lewis also wrote that it was the academics who most easily fell prey to deception and the everyday man who is hardest to dupe. That was one of the key themes in “That Hideous Strength”.

    Maybe the reason evangelicals don’t trust the academy is because over and over again some very wacky ideas come from the universities. How long has Princeton tolerated Peter Singer or the U of I coddled unrepentant terrorist Bill Ayers? It is in the Universities that we often get 911 conspiracy theories, live sex demonstrations at NU and folks like David Horowitz can’t even speak without getting shouted off the stage.

    Wasn’t it Lewis who once wrote of the biblical scholars of his day that they claimed to see fern seed but couldn’t see an elephant standing ten yards away in broad daylight? Bottom line, I prefer to think for myself rather than just follow the experts.

  • http://leadme.org Cal

    In a certain sense the Gospel as presented is pretty understandable seen in the New Testament. Who Jesus is, what He came to do, and where you stand are ideas easily gathered. However there are layers of depth to study, to learn from Christians who came before and poured soul into text.

    I think it is rather silly to include Luther, who advocated the Bible be written in the common tongue, and Ham, who uses it as a enlightenment fact mill, in the same sentence. The Church is a Kingdom of Priests but there are still Elders to be servant-leaders.

  • Phil

    Maybe the reason evangelicals don’t trust the academy is because over and over again some very wacky ideas come from the universities. How long has Princeton tolerated Peter Singer or the U of I coddled unrepentant terrorist Bill Ayers? It is in the Universities that we often get 911 conspiracy theories, live sex demonstrations at NU and folks like David Horowitz can’t even speak without getting shouted off the stage.

    Even though things like you mention here do occasionally happen at universities, I hardly think they represent the mainstream of thought at these universities. My experience is that the people who complain about “liberal” or godless universities are those who don’t really spend much time around them. I don’t think most researchers at universities have an ax to grind. They undoubtedly are some, but I can’t in good conscience condemn them all.

    Bottom line, I prefer to think for myself rather than just follow the experts.

    It’s not really an either/or proposition you know? You can still think for yourself while respecting the work of those who have dedicated their lives to a certain field of study.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    Ha, I just got layed off today and my ex-boss said that I really should try to get a job with intelligent people next time…ha.

  • http://www.soulation.org Dale Fincher

    This is an important reflection and study. Thanks, Scot, for sharing this!

    One of the tragedies I see happening today is how evangelicals will shoot their own in the back when they disagree. Men with lesser knowledge who possess power are often quick to write critiques and wreck careers of men with greater knowledge in fields they know little about. It looks like the child trying to tell the parent that what he learned in third grade today should be taken as the final word by his parent.

    I’ve seen dismissals and firings from evangelical institutions because the party line was unbendable to newer research. What are we supposed to do as the People of God? Let the “weaker brothers” always run the show? Is it no wonder so many are leaving the “church” to follow Jesus in more open spaces? I often can’t even get new ideas through to my own evangelical family because they did not become familiarized by them from a best-selling Christian author or radio head first.

    I grow weary of evangelical talk of “community” being a priority… when the community is is captured by group-think and skepticism against growth. Thank God for prophets without honor who still have courage to be wandering people in a strange land.

    I like the Lewis example. I think that if half the people who quote Lewis actually understood Lewisian thought, they would be aghast.

  • Susan N.

    Scot, from my own experiences in this parallel universe, and coming through the fog into the light, so to speak, here is what woke me up to truth:

    When I began to see in the published material or spoken rhetoric of these “anointed” evangelical leaders a dark agenda that is far, far, FAR from what in my deepest being I *know* to be “of” Christ — I’m talking about warped historical POV such as slavery maybe wasn’t such a bad thing, and the Civil War was immoral (interfering with God’s will in regard to slavery, the economy, politics, etc.); and, in scientific terms, that global warming is a hoax and we do not need to be active in protecting and caring for the environment — whatever will be, will be — que sera, sera, God is sovereign!

    *THAT* is when I knew that these folks were not anointed, at least by God.

    The other day, I was really feeling downcast and dejected, like a failure as a parent and teacher of my children. In expressing these thoughts to my daughter, she said, “You are a good Mom and teacher. We got rid of the bad materials, and are learning the truth now. It’s all good.”

    Later, when I lamented that I’ll bet she wishes she had a different, better mother (especially when she’s mad at me), she said, in part, this: “When I am mad, I want ‘magical, fantasy mother’ who will let me have my way, but then when I have had time to think about it, I cannot think of another mother I’d rather have than you.”

    She is a treasure. So smart, and gracious and wise beyond her years…

  • John

    Scot, religious authority is increasingly crowd-sourced. Ideas collectively considered important or inspirational are shared widely and rapidly, including religious postures towards science and academia. A “religion vs. Jesus” video hit YouTube five days ago. Today it has over 12 million views.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1IAhDGYlpqY

    Not long ago, a compelling religious meme took months or years (if ever) to influence 12 million people, and often required a significant institutional budget, staff, and ample initials after one’s name. Those days are almost over.

    I also see emerging generations being more compelled and influenced by people who are living out their ideals, rather than just talking about it.


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