Christianity Today’s strange story on Al Mohler

Christianity Today’s strange story on Al Mohler October 8, 2010

This story is the buzz on the Evangelical blogs, the most important of which is Justin Taylor’s at the Gospel Coalition. (He has the whole skinny here). As a Catholic, I have no dog in this fight, but it seems to me that the article’s author, Molly Worthen, a PhD candidate at Yale, pens a few cheap shots that should cause any well-known religious figure with theologically traditional sensibilities to think twice about agreeing to an interview with her.

There are two passages that stand out as particularly outrageous. Here is the first:

Mohler has gone to great lengths to counteract this assumption, to nurture a polished, well-read breed of fundamentalism that is a far cry from H. L. Mencken’s caricature of the literalist bumpkin. “He knows he’s carrying the mantle of Southern Seminary, which has been, at its best, patrician in its appreciation of culture and learning,” says J. Ligon Duncan, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Mississippi, and a friend of Mohler. Students at Southern are not sawdust-trail Baptists but the smartly dressed sort who can make small talk about literature and art.

Imagine it was not 2010, but 1910, and it was H. L. Mencken writing about American blacks attending college for the first time: “Students at Howard are not ordinary sharecropper Negroes but the smartly dressed sort who can make small talk about literature and art.” The bigotry would be obvious (as, no doubt, Mencken, with no temptation to court subtlety, would have wanted it).

Another passage, describing Dr. Mohler’s immense and impressive personal library (which I had the pleasure to visit almost 12 years ago):

A self-conscious air pervades the library, in the jumble of cultural artifacts intended to convey worldliness; in the shelves lined with a conspicuous number of Great Books, Harvard Classics, and other pre-packaged sets that seem the fruit of a single-minded mission to conquer a body of knowledge, or at least to give that impression.

Apparently, if we follow Ms. Worthen’s narrative carefully we are forced to conclude that just like his impeccably wardrobed seminarians who can parrot sophistication, Dr. Mohler probably just has an interior decorator who knows how to create the proper literary ambiance by lining his shelves with “pre-packaged sets” that “give that impression.”

I carry no brief for Dr. Mohler’s tenure at the helm of Southern Seminary or even the political machinations that were instrumental in helping him and a host of others to shift the historical trajectory of the Southern Baptist Convention in a more conservative direction. I am neither a Baptist, nor a Calvinist, nor a young-earth creationist. I am a Catholic, a Thomist, and a theistic evolutionist. And as a professor at Baylor University, I am pleased that in the late 1980s and early 1990s the board was able to change its bylaws in order to thwart a fundamentalist takeover. Again, I have no dog in this fight. Nevertheless, I know smugness and condescension when I see them (and I am told that I may have practiced them myself once or twice).

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