Where Have All the Theological “Public Intellectuals” Gone? (An Invitation to Participate)

Where Have All the Theological “Public Intellectuals” Gone? (An Invitation to Participate)

Recently I have been lecturing and writing (again) about some of the “giants” of modern theology: Schleiermacher, Bushnell, Hodge, Ritschl, Rauschenbusch, Machen, Troeltsch, Fosdick, Barth, Brunner, Niebuhr, Tillich, Bonhoeffer, John Courtney Murray, Carl Henry, Hartshorne, et al. Some of them, perhaps all of them, spoke not only to the churches but also to society at large. Several of them graced covers of Time magazine: Fosdick (twice), Barth, Niebuhr, Tillich. Niebuhr was interviewed on a 1958 version of “60 Minutes” by Mike Wallace. Tillich was on the platform (honored guests only!) at Kennedy’s presidential inauguration. Even Henry was the subject of an article in Time. What made these (and perhaps other theologians) “public theologians” was that they gained a hearing from even non-Christians as respected voices of reason in the “public square.” People turned to them for commentary on public policy—not just as representatives of a perceived lunatic fringe but as spokespersons for religious perspectives that deserve a hearing from everyone.

Let me illustrate what I’m talking about. When I moved to Germany in 1981 I timidly turned on German television to explore what might be there. The very first thing I saw was a national broadcast on one of the German networks featuring theologian Jürgen Moltmann delivering a lecture on God and disability to a convention of disabled persons. It wasn’t just a ten second clip on a news program; it was an hour long broadcast during prime time. In Germany Moltmann and some other Christian theologians are considered public intellectuals, not just church theologians.

Ironically, the only theologians I can recognize as having the status of a public intellectual in American society today (2013) are Stanley Hauerwas and Cornel West. I say “ironically” because they eschew the kind of role Niebuhr and many other public intellectuals played—friend and advisor to power. They’re iconoclasts. But even they are not likely to be the subjects of “60 Minutes” segments or grace the cover of Time magazine. However, both have been subjects of article in Time.

In my estimation, as important as Hauerwas and West are, their public voices are whispers compared with, say, Niebuhr’s or Tillich’s or even John Courtney Murray’s. That’s not because what they have to say is unworthy of wide public attention but because the media have generally turned away from theologians—except those shrill voices on the extreme ends of the social and political spectrums the media use to boost ratings.

I once conducted a study of Time magazine covers from its inception up until the time I conducted the study (around 1990). I’ve tried to pay attention to Time covers since then as well. I may have missed a few. Until the 1966 “Is God Dead?” infamous cover Time frequently put theologians and noted religious leaders on its covers (which always also meant feature articles about them inside). After that no theologians (unless you consider evangelists and popes theologians) were featured on Time covers. I once found myself on a hotel elevator with the publisher of Time (Henry Luce III) and asked him about that. He said he hadn’t noticed it.

My theory is that once real theologians came out publicly denying the reality of God many people decided theology isn’t worth paying attention to. It would be as if some medical researchers declared themselves devoted Christian Scientists (i.e., members of the Church of Christ, Scientist). If nothing happened to them, if they were applauded for their courage by their peers, what would people think of medical researchers? Beginning in the 1960s (but with older roots) Christian theology became a joke. Without anyone to yank theologians’ credentials, theologians get by with saying anything. The ethos of the theological (and religious studies) academy is to reward the craziest notions. I realize this is not unique to theology or religious studies, but that’s my area of scholarship, so it’s the one I’m most concerned about.

Yet there are still voices of reason among theologians that deserve a broader and deeper public hearing. They’re unlikely to get it. Instead of naming candidates here, I want to invite you to name one and give a brief explanation why you think he or she should be on Time’s cover or featured in a “60 Minutes” segment.

Now what do I mean by “voices of reason among theologians?” I mean people who express themselves calmly and reasonably—with messages that could be heard and understood and even heeded by the public at large. I’m not assuming a “view from nowhere” kind of Enlightenment rationality. I am assuming that perhaps, hopefully, a confessionally committed theologian might nevertheless be able to express himself or herself to public issues in a way that is persuasive—at least causing people who are not so confessionally committed to stop and think and consider.

Please post your nominations here and give a brief (two or three sentences) explanation.

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  • Jewish theologian Peter Ochs (Virginia) would certainly merit attention with his Jewish-Christian-Muslim “Scriptural Reasoning” project, including his “A New Approach to Religion and Violence: Reasoning across the Borders of Competing Religions,” which he prepared for the U.S. State Department.

    Also, you didn’t mention biblical scholars, such as Ben Witherington III or (from the other end of the spectrum) JD Crossan, who have a way of making it onto TV specials every Christmas and Easter!

  • Caleb G

    What would you consider Albert Mohler?

    • rogereolson

      President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Beyond that I’d rather not say here. 🙂

  • Jack Harper

    Roger, I would recommend Steve Gregg as someone who could calmly and intellectually speak to our culture in a way that is challenging and thought provoking. He is willing to confront false teachings within the church and although he is a self taught theologian, he has a pleasant personality and a confident demeanor.He has a daily broadcast and has been a teacher for 40 years or better.

    • rogereolson

      Never heard of him.

  • Craig Wright

    The relevant questions for today’s world are questions such as, “Is there a god?” or “What happens after we die?” or “What is God like?” The only person who I see addressing these questions and receiving public attention is Rob Bell, an important Christian thinker and communicator (theologian?). He has at least been featured on the cover of Time magazine. I just recommended his latest book, “What We Talk About When We Talk About God”, to an atheist friend of mine.

    • rogereolson

      As you may know, I defended Rob and his book Love Wins here–much to the chagrin of many people. But recently I stood in an airport bookstore and looked through What We Talk about When We Talk about God and didn’t see anything worth blogging about there. I may not have given it a sufficient glance, however. In my opinion, for what it’s worth, Bell is a very good popularizer of other people’s ideas. Love Wins was pure C. S. Lewis. I think a public theologian has to be somewhat creative and original–at least in the way he or she communicates old ideas.

  • Zach

    I think you could make a case for NT Wright, and he has had a pretty fair amount of media exposure (he’s been on the Colbert Report, featured in Time). As an evangelical I find him the most compelling as he is solidly rooted in the orthodox faith and yet has something to say to the present age. I would say that Cornel West gets a fair amount of press and that he deserves it.

    • rogereolson

      Yes, I saw Tom on The Colbert Report and asked him why in the world he would go on that show knowing Colbert would interrupt him at every turn and mock him. He said that he knows Colbert personally and they are friends and that Colbert is a devout Catholic Christian. I still wouldn’t go there if I were interested in communicating anything serious.

      • Actually, Wright held up pretty well on Colbert, and Colbert, though “teasing” him perhaps, did not come across as “mocking” him. Colbert is indeed a Catholic (even a Sunday school teacher!) and gives a much, much harder time to atheists who come on his show than serious Christians.

        • rogereolson

          True, he was more respectful toward Wright than toward many of his guests. But he kept interrupting him. I don’t think Tom got to finish a single sentence.

      • Jon Van Dop

        I think you might have just hit on the reason why we don’t see the serious theologians in the public sphere. We are increasingly a twitter society, meaning that if you can’t make a point in a funny way in 140 characters or less, you won’t have an audience. Serious theology involves developed ideas and there are fewer and fewer venues in which ideas are developed beyond a headline or snarky comment.

        • rogereolson

          My view exactly. It’s a culture problem. But the culture has invaded the churches–as usual. How many serious Christians (I mean Christians who take their faith seriously) read or listen to serious theology? I’m informed by Christian publishers that it’s not many.

      • Zach

        You need to know this in teaching your young students Dr. Olsen! The Colbert Report is one of the most watched news programs by young people, and even if you don’t like it, it’s become a important part of the cultural landscape.

        • rogereolson

          Of course I know that. And I watch it often. However, I don’t think it’s a good source of “news.” The only TV news source I trust and enjoy watching is BBC America.

  • Jeremy

    I like William Lane Craig. He’s a good speaker, intelligent, well versed in theology and philosophy, and I don’t find him terribly abrasive or adversarial in his approach. In the same vein perhaps Alvin Plantinga would be a good choice, though I am not as familiar with him. I know a lot of folks really respect him though.

    • rogereolson

      I agree that Plantinga would be a good candidate–if he could come down to earth, so to speak, and talk so that non-scholars can understand him. He’s so comfortable talking about “possible worlds” that many listeners would wonder what he’s getting at.

  • My nomination would be Tom Wright.
    1. Absolutely brilliant (although I don’t agree with him about everything…which makes me…?)
    2. Most clearly consistent about NPP, which rocks Evangelicalism now as much as Barth did earlier
    3. Ideas on justification touch the Catholic / Protestant divide like nothing since the Reformation
    4. His gospel definition has importance to the world at large so that those who are not religious have a stake
    1. Too much explanation may be necessary for Time readers to understand the point

    • rogereolson

      I see that others here are also recommending Wright. First, he’s not a theologian per se, he’s a New Testament scholar. However, he has crossed over into systematics. But my main question about this nomination is whether he speaks to the public at large about social and cultural issues–like Hauerwas and West (and in the past Niebuhr and Tillich and even Barth)? Still, yes, I’d very much like to see American television (e.g., “60 Minutes”) or print media (e.g., Time) feature him. He is by most accounts one of the most profound and influential Christian thinkers alive today. But most Americans have never heard of him (outside the theological, biblical studies academies).

  • Rob

    Do you count N.T. Wright as a theologian? I suppose that technically he is a New Testament scholar but his style of New Testament scholarship certainly engages theology and transcends the hyper-specialized divisions between biblical scholarship and theology in the academy.
    N.T. Wright can intelligently discuss concrete issues of international and public importance like poverty, war, same-sex marriage, the environment and he can do so with an incredible command of what both the Christian tradition and scripture have to say about it. He can also function comfortably as an apologist for the historicity of Jesus’ ministry while at the same time explaining its deep theological significance and relevance for contemporary life. He can sum up Jesus’ ministry, death, resurrection and Paul’s theology into a story that speaks to contemporary concerns. Is there anyone else even close?

    • rogereolson

      Okay, I’m becoming convinced! Tom Wright for a cover story in Time! (I’m not sure that’s a nice thing to wish on someone, though. There’s an old legend about bad things happening to people right after they are featured on Time’s cover.)

      • Hard for a Brit, excellent though he be, to be public theologian in the U.S. Wright doesn’t mince his words when he talks about us, though! Hard to hear, but insightful.

  • N T Wright: brilliant communicator in written and spoken word, at academic and popular levels. Fulfils the criteria in your last paragraph at each point.

  • Just Sayin’

    N.T. Wright used to fulfil this role in the UK, but less so since he gave up his bishopric.

  • joshua_thiering

    The fact that you could watch Jurgen Moltmann on TV in Germany makes me a little jealous. The closest we can get to that is a few catholic nuns on EWTN talking about Polycarp, which isn’t bad, but it is really just history.

    John Milbank would be interesting but I’m afraid he would be too difficult to understand, even I don’t really understand him.

    Perhaps Barbara Brown Taylor, or Will Willimon, because they both do theology, but they are excellent communicators. Taylor has always struck me as extremely careful in how she constructs thoughts, and she exhibits a great deal of pastoral sensitivity. It’s strange to say, but I think pastors and preachers make for some of the best theologians.

    John Polkinghorne, because a sort of base pseudo scientism appears to be the kind of stock religious worldview in America. He would be fantastic because he can engage both disciplines at a very deep and provocative level.

    • rogereolson

      Thanks, Josh. Did I ever tell you about the time I was supposed to chauffeur Polkinghorne but couldn’t get near his hotel to pick him up because of a rodeo parade blocking it off? That was before cell phones were common and I couldn’t even call the hotel ask them to tell him I was driving all over downtown trying to get close enough to the hotel to walk to it to lead him back to the car. It was a fiasco.

      • joshua_thiering

        NO! What happened? Is he still at the hotel?? (Has he come back to Baylor since?) You’ll have to tell me about it later. I just realized this is ethics driven. I rescind Polkinghorne. I listened to a lecture on economics and theology by Joerg Riguer who teaches at Perkins who was pretty impressive. I hadn’t ever really heard anyone talk about both side by side before in an in depth way, but then again I guess many people haven’t heard that either.

        • rogereolson

          So the rest of the story is…I found a kind policeman who sort of understood my problem and escorted me through the parade to the hotel to pick up Polkinghorne. The real problem (for me) was when I got him to the banquet in his honor 30 minutes late and the university’s president and provost were sitting there staring at me as I brought the honored guest in.

  • I wonder if a philosopher like Alvin Plantinga or a scientist/mathematician like John Lennox would not more appropriately fill the public space once occupied by theologians. I say this because the God “argument” has not only moved but become to a greater degree disingenuousness. The gatekeepers of the secular academe and of the public square of today are results oriented in a way that would have made those of the fifties blush or worse. While, granted the new gatekeepers don’t really represent their institutions and colleagues in the way they formerly have in past years, they enjoy the underlying strategic clarity of President Reagan, in that they are fully committed to winning the war against not the Soviets but the Christian God having any (positive) role in the public square.

  • John C.Gardner

    I can only think of one possibility: Tom Wright who has been a Bishop, scholar, writer of popular books, appeared in the pages of the popular media as well as having been a member of the House of Lords in Britain; Wright has also commented in public on issues ranging from Christ, the war in Iraq, homosexuality and even religious freedom.

  • I think that the problem is in part that as the world changed, many Christians and their leaders responded by trying to stop change which is always a fool’s errand. But aside from failing to stop change, this also meant that Christians have found themselves in a situation where they have answers for questions no one is asking any more. By largely opting out of change, Christian leaders also opted out of developing the ideas and answers to address people’s current needs and perspectives. Rather than providing guidance as they might have in the past, Christian leaders are largely left to be dragged along into post-modernity.

    • Rebecca

      Rebecca, very well put. As I’ve tried to explain to my more fundamental, far right, evangelical friend, we don’t live in a flat earth society anymore. Circular reasoning doesn’t cut it, nor do answers that have no relevance.
      And as pastors become more personality than teachers, I find congregations are kept in line by keeping their questions to themselves.

  • Miroslav Volf seemed to be heading that way with his book “Exclusion and Embrace”. The theme of that book seemed to speak to a pressing need of our time, offering some ground breaking solutions.

    • rogereolson

      I agree. It’s a classic already. (And I do not lightly give that honor to many books whose authors are still alive.) However, it’s such a difficult read. It requires two or three readings (especially for non-scholars) to get the point(s). But I’m sure Volf could express the point well in a “60 Minutes” interview.

  • JohnD

    I would include Harold J. Ockenga on your list of great public Christian intellectuals.

    Today? The ones you won’t see on CNN or MSNBC, because they are too afraid of them and would rather have on the extremists (who are their “useful idiots”). Albert Mohler, even though he’s a Calvinist, can argue reasonably in public. And also Dr. John Mark Reynolds, formerly of Biola’s Torrey Honors Institute.

  • Brandon

    I think Miroslav Volf would be an excellent person to be featured on 60 Minutes or the cover of Time magazine. His work on how faith should interact with the public sphere, as well as his theology of exclusion/embrace have a lot to offer our society, as a whole. Plus, the way his theology has been informed by his personal life experiences adds quite a bit.

  • Joey Richard

    Hello Dr. Olson, I just discovered your blog and started reading through some of your posts on theology. I just wanted to say thank you for sharing your thoughts and views. I’m sure I don’t agree with you about every theological issue but it’s always refreshing to read other viewpoints and challenge my own views. I am a Senior at Liberty University studying to be a youth pastor but I have a love for theology as well as ministry! God bless you!

    • rogereolson

      Thank you and may God bless your ministry. With what do you disagree? 🙂

      • Joey Richard

        I fall in line more with Open Theism than with Arminianism. But I really do enjoy reading your thoughts on these issues! You make some really great points.

  • Ben

    This is a really good point. However, given the flux and status of media today, I don’t think the cover of Time and a segment on 60 Minutes is by any means a gold standard; in many cases, they’re referents that people in my generation and below barely know about. Media attention today looks more like (in no particular order): 1) Placement in Google search results, 2) Youtube hits, 3) Likes on Facebook, 4)Podcast downloads, and 5) CNN and Fox have dominated in the polarized political spectrum, and, in my opinion, sent Time and Life into the realm of the dodo. For me, Time Life media is the infomercial conglomerate that pulls out old Woodstock stars to sell boxed CD sets. Thus, in this day and age, I think Dr. Gregory A. Boyd is the best candidate for being a public theologian. He’s been featured on CNN; he has a website (reknew.org); he has a podcast; he has multiple videos in Youtube; he’s more academically pedigreed than Rob Bell and John Piper put together; and, finally, has been featured in Darren Wilson’s feature length films, The Finger of God, Furious Love, and Father of Lights– which, collectively, without exaggeration, have been viewed by millions. On top of that, he’s a drummer in a rock band.

    • rogereolson

      I’m sure you know this, but Greg and I are good friends. I certainly agree with you about his worthiness to be a public intellectual. But I disagree that being on the cover of Time is now irrelevant. Why? Because when you walk into any airport news store or bookstore one of the first things you see is the latest issue of Time and who or what is on its cover. And “60s Minutes” is still the most watched television program. As for pitting Greg against Piper, well, let’s be fair. Piper has a doctoral degree in New Testament from a German university and has written some pretty scholarly stuff.

      • David Hess

        Boyd seems to be the clear frontrunner amongst those mentioned. Piper isn’t even close to Boyd in terms of being a theological mind. He’s more of a echo, whereas Boyd is truly a voice. In 100 years, Boyd’s work will continue to be influential. Piper’s will not.

  • Paul W

    Rather than nominate someone may I suggest that Martin E Marty already fits the profile. He is and has been a calm, reasonable theological/religious voice in the public square. Time magazine recognized him as the “most influential interpreter of religion” in the nation and he has served on two U.S. Presidential Commissions. He is clearly one of the most recognized and respected voices of reason in the American “public square.” Additionally, he taught for 35 yrs at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School and is an ordained Lutheran minister in the ELCA who served parishes in the suburbs of Chicago for a decade before joining the University’s faculty.

    • rogereolson

      And don’t forget that he was an editor of Christian Century for many years. I loved (!) his “M.E.M.O.” columns there. I know Martin personally. He’s a gem, a jewel, a prince of men. His son was my state legislator for many years. The last time I heard him speak, however, he was showing his age. (So am I, of course, so that’s no insult.) Yes, he has been a Christian public intellectual. I wish the media had given him more attention as a voice of reason among Christian scholars. So who might pick up the mantle from him?

  • John Cobb is still around, and he tackles everything from theology proper to economic and environmental issues at a deeper level. People (professors!) come from China to learn from him. He embodies commitment to Christ, humility, courage, a prophetic spirit, wisdom, and a breadth of knowledge that the public would greatly benefit from discovering.

  • Dr. Olson – I think this is a compelling question and I appreciate the post. I have two related questions.
    1) Why do you separate “evangelicals” like Rick Warren or Rob Bell (both of whom I’ve seen on venues 60 Minutes) from theologians like Moltmann? What do you see as the defining difference? While I feel a difference I think Bell or Warren would argue that they are modern theologians.
    2) Is it fair to say that the absence of theologians is a byproduct of the passing of American Christendom? Are theologians no longer being invited to speak in mainstream public forums an early warning sign that culture in America was shifting away from the institutional church? Or is it the other way around – Theology pronounced God is Dead and the institution of church suffered for it? (This maybe a chicken and egg discussion, but I would appreciate your thoughts.)

    • rogereolson

      It isn’t that the institution of the church suffered; it’s that the reputation of theologians suffered. Churches are thriving; theology is now “the sick man of Europe” (an old term for the Ottoman Empire that was later applied to metaphysics in relation to philosophy when analytical philosophy arose to prominence). In other words, it’s the “sick man of the scholarly world and public intellectual life.” Who pays any attention to theologians unless they say crazy or controversial things to get attention? (And no, I don’t consider influential pastors theologians or public intellectuals unless they earn those stripes. Rick Warren a public intellectual? It is to laugh. He’s a great pastor and popularizer and motivator.)

      • Dr. Olson,

        I would not confine my observation to theologians. It seems to me that biblically serious Christians have largely absented themselves from participation in the public square in the sense of presenting any organized intellectual community or movement that will engage that public square on its own terms.

        In the non-church circles in which I move Evangelicals are seen (1) to adopt as their majority view that women should be excluded from specified roles in the home, house of worship and (for many) parts of the workplace due to gender alone, (2) to be dismissive of the scientific method as embodied in evolutionary science — flatly rejecting such science rather than debating it in empirical and academic peer-reviewed terms head-on, and (3) to simply refuse debate on questions of analysis of what we take as our primary authoritative text the Bible — again, declining to engage in peer-reviewed scholarship from all comers regarding demonstrated language and documentary expertise relating to the Scriptures.

        I can name you biblically serious intellectuals who labor in isolation from a community or movement of others of similar faith and Bible commitments (e.g., Dr. Francis Collins of NIH (medicine & the human genome), Professor David Skeel at the University of Pennsylvania (law), or Mark Noll at Notre Dame (history). Among clergy I’d cite Dr. Timothy Keller — one might suggest that he does not labor in the intellectual or cultural isolation I point to, but there are precious few others to identify like him.

        My point is that biblically serious Christians as a community or a movement are unlikely to engage the culture intellectually until they … engage the culture intellectually. The current rules of engagement among Evangelicals tend to encourage cultural isolation and anti-intellectual themes — with differences of opinion often leading to exclusion in the name of doctrinal integrity. Nothing new in that, but I wish the Francis Collins’s, David Skeel’s, Mark Noll’s and Tim Keller’s were less the exception than they are.


        Joel Webber

        • rogereolson

          Spot on. Thanks. Years ago I edited an evangelical scholarly journal supported by about fifty mostly evangelical colleges and universities. We (the editorial board) begged and pleaded with our constituent college and university colleagues to submit articles. Many were reluctant or even refused and the most common reason was fear of their institutions’ constituents and administrations. Unfortunately, I could not relieve their fears. Even I came under fire merely for publishing some articles. When the book The Openness of God was published I wrote in a review (published in Christianity Today) that this would test evangelical maturity–whether we could have a serious discussion about it or whether there would just be an inquisition with aspersions, castigations and accusations. I was profoundly disappointed in the controversy that ensued. In my opinion, many of the loudest anti-open theism voices could not have seriously engaged with the arguments of the book. One critic told face-to-face that he didn’t need to read it to know it was wrong because the view expressed was non-traditional (among evangelicals).

  • Steve Rogers

    What I know of the already mentioned candidates makes me willing to offer the “I second that.” Also, not a theologian per se but certainly a significant Christian thought influencer, is Brian McLaren. And one of the obvious candidates has to be Roger Olson. Perhaps we should not look to Time as a measure of anything. I think presence on the web and the blogosphere might be a better indicator of public theologian status.

    • rogereolson

      Again, as I said to another person who rejected Time magazine as a criterion, the reason I mention it is because whenever you walk into an airport newsstand or bookstore the cover of Time’s latest issue is staring at you right up front. People notice it. I think there’s still a kind of implicit assumption (for better or worse) that being on the cover of Time is a marker of public importance. It’s only one, of course, but it is one.

  • Besides those already mentioned (Wright, Plantinga, and Volf), I would suggest Walter Brueggeman and Richard Bauckham. Others that I haven’t seen mentioned yet are Scot McKnight, Mark Noll, and Alistair McGrath. I don’t know that any of these really fit the bill of “theologians,” but I think most of us no longer distinguish between a theologian, a biblical scholar, and even a church historian. (Though I think Wright fits all three.)

  • Alright, I’ll throw a couple of Reformed guys into the hat just because:
    1. Tim Keller – He’s not a ‘theologian’, in the strict sense, but a theologically-sensitive pastor. He’s good up-front, great for sound-bites, orthodox, gentle, without giving the farm away. The one problem, and I don’t think it’s really a problem, is that I don’t think he’d want to comment politically on too much simply because he sees his primary witness as that of an evangelist and preacher, which could get damaged if he ventures out too much. Still, if he ever did, he’s an easy pick.
    2. Michael Horton – Roger, I think may have heard of him. 🙂 But seriously, I think he can handle himself up-front without getting lost in pointless intricacy. He’s also pretty quick on smart cultural analysis. And yet, I still haven’t heard him comment on too much politically.
    3. Peter Leithart – I have utterly no clue how he is live, but he is someone who would have incisive and nuanced commentary on a host of issues, without being flat-footed about it.
    Well, those are mine off the top of my head.

    Oh, and did anybody mention N.T. Wright?

  • Candace

    Is it that there are no more “giants” or that the pool of theologians is starting to look more diversified and therefore less interesting to some. I know of many great theologians not mentioned but unfortunately they are women and/or “minority”. Consider those mentioned above and what audience they are speaking to. There are many theological public intellectuals but don’t get the hype and acclaim of others. (My two cents:-)

    • rogereolson

      So name some who deserve an interview on “60 Minutes” or a cover article in Time.

  • Roger,
    I may be wrong, but I see three fundamental flaws in your question:
    1. The past admiration of heroes, “cult of personality” as theological giants is dying. The new giants are more about the communities in which these theologies are developed.
    2. The cultures into which these great minds spoke was much more in tuned to religious concerns and the ethical expressions of White, Euro-centric men.
    3. Although the same dominant culture is in power, most people realize the future of Christianity can no longer be contained in, or validly expressed through the assumptions carried with Western hegemonic, theologies and ethics. People are thirsting for an imminent, ecumenical spirituality. Theological Propositions are being replaced by story. These are not easily commodified.
    There are new theological voices found in many communities i.e., from the south, the east, indigenous, eco-feminist, womanist, Orthodox, Far Eastern, Celtic. These have been the marginalized voices in theology and ethics, but they are growing in influence. Perhaps that’s why you have not heard of them.

    • rogereolson

      Um, I thought I mentioned Cornel West as one of two people I consider contemporary Christian public intellectuals.

      • Your dismissive response revels much about the dilemma.

        • rogereolson

          I thought your comment was dismissive of my mentioning West!

  • I am coming late to this conversation. Dr. Olson, I think you are quite right, that we do not have anyone of the caliber of a Niebuhr, a Fosdick, or a Moltmann appearing on the public scene (man, I would have loved to have seen that broadcast of Moltmann). Though these are not really in the league of which you speak, and would not be considered theologians, two that I admire whenever I see them as Christian spokesmen on the television media are Rev. Welton Gaddy (Protestant) and Fr. James Martin (Catholic). They “do me proud” when I hear them speak, especially on ethical issues.

  • Tony Springer

    Much as the loci of the theologian has moved from the university/seminary to the pulpit of the megachurch, so has the loci of the public intellectual changed from the print media to visual media. Talk shows and cable news have become places where intellectuals discuss their ideas, and likewise, movies/TV and music where intellectuals influence the message of the medium. In that way, Christian intellectuals include Fred Rogers and Bono.

  • Anthony

    Worldwide, I think William Lane Craig is one of the most popular intellectuals in the world. He has written on both a scholarly and popular level and his writings are readily available to the laymen all over the world(he has even written books on the Metaphisics of Relativity, God and Time, and has both doctorates from European universities – Germany and England). His ability to articulate views is impeccable and his critical assessments are always enlightening (even if you disagree). Also, he is definitely not afraid to be controversial (Molinism, God as temporal with creation, Trinity Monotheism, case against Thomistic divine simplicity, etc.)

    • rogereolson

      I’m glad he has a fan!

  • Tim Reisdorf

    While he might be a NT scholar more than a Systematic Theologian, I’d nominate Gordon Fee. He is scholarly through and through and he can communicate in non-scholarly ways when the context calls for it. He is well respected from everyone I’ve heard and he’s got a remarkable story to tell.

  • Rebecca

    Evangelicals don’t need theologians. They already know everything!

    • rogereolson

      Well, I assume you wrote that tongue-in-cheek about some evangelicals. But it’s a caricature if intended to describe all evangelicals. That’s one of my major reasons for having this blog–to correct misconceptions about evangelicals and evangelicalism.

  • John

    The first one I thought of is Billy Abraham at Perkins School of Theology. He’s a theologian who can speak cogently about a variety of subjects (he recently published a book on theology and terrorism).

    Philip Yancey, though he’s a journalist and not a theologian, is solid theologically and communicates well. He seems to get more exposure addressing tragedies and disasters because several of his books address the problem of pain.

    Frederick Buechner– a pastor/author who communicates through his many books (though he’s elderly now).

    Adam Hamilton is another pastor/author who already has a public platform. Again, not a professional theologian, but theologically informed and grounded.

    Roger Olson may be the one!

    • rogereolson

      Thanks, John. I don’t aspire to it, but I appreciate your vote of confidence.

  • Rob

    So N.T. Wright won, right? I would love to see him get more exposure. He is way above soundbyte 24 hour news networks, but I could see him on Piers Morgan or something where there is time to let someone develop a thought. N. T. Wright is like a master composer: you only grasp the depth of his work when you devote enough time to hear it develop.

  • I agree with many of the men mentioned above and would add to that Dr. Carl Ellis and Thabiti Anyabwile for their ability to speak on issues relating to theology, racial reconciliation and social justice among other things.

  • Dr. Olson,
    I’m a philosopher (expect to complete my PhD next year) and have been following your blog for a while, but am speaking up for the first time now. Being ‘analytically’ trained, I have a lot of difficulty understanding Hegel or those influenced by him, so a lot of recent academic theology is quite opaque to me, though my work on the history of early modern philosophy (and personal interest) has led me to read up on a lot of pre-1800 theological debates. I thought I’d indicate this because someone whose work is not accessible even to those in related academic disciplines is probably not a good candidate for the role of ‘public intellectual,’ and it seems to me that the majority of the living theologians (as opposed to pastors or Bible scholars) I’ve encountered are ruled out for this reason. Maybe I’ve just encountered the wrong theologians, though. (Let me say, by the way, that I have never had difficulty following your explanations of the views of recent theologians; I’m looking forward to your book on 20th century theology for this reason!)

    With that preface, I would nominate Marilyn McCord Adams as a brilliant thinker who would be in a position to get people thinking and talking about God in new and interesting ways, while still connecting with the Ecumenical Christian tradition. She started out in analytic philosophy, but has also held professorships of theology (including at Yale and Oxford), and is an ordained priest in the Episcopal Church (USA), and has done some pastoral ministry. Her views are far enough away from Evangelicalism that it might be hard for her to get a hearing among American Christians at large, but, unlike many Liberal theologians, she believes in the literal existence of God (a powerful immaterial personal being) and the Incarnation of Christ and her views are firmly rooted in the Christian tradition, she just selects different parts of that tradition that Evangelicals do. Her views about salvation and the problem of evil are fascinating, and worthy of wider discussion (both inside and outside the academy) than they have so far received.

    • rogereolson

      Interestingly I have just embarked on reading Rowan Williams’ book Wrestling with Angels which has a chapter on Adams. I look forward to knowing more about her. Thanks.

  • John Mark

    Dr. Olson; are you familiar at all with Dennis Kinlaw of Asbury College and Seminary? He is too old for any kind of public career, but has written a handful of books, and there is an “Asbury” systematic theology coming out with his name on the cover (along with a couple others).
    My short question is–and is an aside, I suppose–have you ever heard of him?

    • rogereolson

      I’ve only heard of him. I may have read some articles by him in CT or Eternity long ago.

      • John Mark

        As I said, age and health are against him. But he has, I believe spoken to the culture in a number of ways. His aspirations have been to be a preacher/evangelist as much as anything else, but I think he has been overlooked in the public sphere (maybe that is the way he has wanted it) to our loss.
        Of course, he is an advocate of Entire Sanctification, which immediately marginalizes him in many minds.

        • rogereolson

          Oh, well, just being a Christian is enough to marginalize someone in many minds. I certainly wouldn’t reject him as a public intellectual for believing in the possibility of entire sanctification.

      • John Mark

        As I said, age and health are against him. But he has, I believe, spoken to the culture in a number of ways. His approach to theology in nuptial terms has been, if not unique, different than what most of us hear from the pulpit and this has made him an advocate for marriage. I think he has been a keen observer of culture, both ecclesiastical and secular. His aspirations after leaving the academic world have been to be a preacher/evangelist as much as anything else, but I think he has been overlooked in the public sphere (maybe that is the way he has wanted it) to our loss.
        Of course, he is an advocate of Entire Sanctification, which immediately marginalizes him in many minds.

  • John Mark

    Obviously I am asking if you have an opinion of him, if you have heard of him….

  • Timothy

    I have been surprised at the number of British names suggested. One less well known British person who is good is Luke Bretherton.
    Among Americans, there are Stanley Fish and John Flett.

    • rogereolson

      But I was asking about Christian candidates for public intellectual status. Stanley Fish?

  • Corey

    One theologian who is already a public intellectual of great influence in Phillip Blond. His “red toryism” is supposed to have been the intellectual driving force behind David Cameron’s “big society” agenda (and I don’t think we should hold Blond liable for any of Cameron’s political failings). Blond has also been a major influence on some important American political theorists, including Patrick Deneen whose work touches on theology as well. Blond’s work should lead back to theologians like John Milbank, but Blond has been far more willing to get involved in politics and policy than Milbank and the others associated with radical orthodoxy.

    Jean Elshtain is something of a public intellectual, and while she is known more for her work in political theory, her main appointment at The University of Chicago is in religious ethics in the divinity school. She is older and her health isn’t great, but she packs a punch.

    Jean- Luc Marion is another professor at The University of Chicago who ought to be more in the public eye- in fact, he probably is in his native France. He straddles the line between philosophy and theology, and redefines it in many ways, so I believe he would do a very good job explaining the rationality of the Christian faith to the public… if he could could explain his thinking in a way that could be understood by people who haven’t read Heidegger, Husserl, and Derrida.

    • rogereolson

      Yes, in my “book,” Elshtain counts as a Christian public intellectual (for better or worse). I doubt many people could understand anything Marion says. One requirement of being a public intellectual is being able to “translate” high level thought for public understanding. Niebuhr was certainly able to do that. Another candidate for Christian public intellectual I forgot to mention is Bill Moyers.

      • Corey

        What do you think of Phillip Blond? He is trained as a theologian, but has had a very large impact on David Cameron’s philosophy and policies.

        • rogereolson

          Another one I haven’t heard of. Should I?

          • Corey

            Well, he isn’t American, so I suppose he doesn’t really fit your criteria here. On the other hand, while he’s done some good academic work on post- secular philosophy and radical orthodoxy, he’s most known for his think tank ResPublica and for his “red toryism,” which is supposed to have been a big influence on David Cameron’s “big society” agenda (althoug h Blond has moved away from Cameron lately). This is a good introduction to Blond’s “red tory” approach: https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/riseoftheredtories/. Georgetown University’s Tocqueville forum (then under the leadership of Pat Deneen, a political theorist who has since moved on to Notre Dame because Georgetown wasn’t “Catholic enough” for him) also hosted a symposium featuring Blond and panel discussions with John Millbank, Andrew Abela, Charles Matthewes, Daniel McCarthy, Russ Douthat, and Rod Dreher (see here for the audio: http://www.theamericanconservative.com/listening-to-the-red-tories/).

  • Corey

    I would also add that there has been a notable trend towards (Catholic) Christian theology in French philosophy. I know you are thinking mainly of people trained in theology, but I wonder if you would consider folks like Remi Brague, Pierre Manent, and Chantal Delsol “public theologians.”

    • rogereolson

      I have never heard of them.

  • Pierre Keys

    Tim Keller, Brian Zahnd (pastor but has a rich theology on Christian ethics).

  • mrbultitude

    I’m familiar with a lot of the names previously mentioned. Many of them seem to be American or British. I do agree that Timothy Keller would perhaps be the best model for a Christian public theologian (I know he was a professor at some point. I wonder what he taught?).

    From my own backyard, I’d recommend John Stackhouse Jr. He’s worked as an advisory editor for Christianity Today and many other evangelical publications. He serves as a professor of theology and culture at Regent College and so I think he would be able to speak into society. He participates in public discussions (I saw him participate in a forum with Rex Murphy and Preston Manning about the hollowing out of the “Christian consensus).

    I think this lack of Christian consensus is what makes the emergence of new public theologians difficult. I think Ross Douthat is very perceptive in discussing how in post-war America there was a general Christian consensus in society that allowed figures like Billy Graham, Reinhold Niebuhr and Fulton J. Sheen to become prominent. There was a generally shared moral code that I think has eroded over the last few decades, kickstarted by the 1960s. Now if any potential public theologian was asked their opinion on, say, same-sex marriage and voiced opposition to it, I think they would generally be ostracized by the media and caricatured as an antiquated radical.

    • rogereolson

      I like John Stackhouse; we are friends. I am focusing on America in this discussion thread (about candidates for American Christian public intellectuals). Thanks for mentioning Ross Douthit. He’s a good candidate for “American Christian public intellectual” today.

  • mrbultitude

    Another name I would put forward is James K.A. Smith. I have only read two of his books but I getthesense that he is influencing a lot of younger evangelicals. I found his book on postmodernism helpful and although he is fairly young he has a very impressive amount of books published.

  • buddyglass

    What about Dallas Willard? Too obscure? Not a theologian, but “Christian Philosopher” comes close.

    Maybe Richard Foster?

    • rogereolson

      Both are important evangelical voices. Whether they would “fit” on Time’s cover or be good candidates for a “60 Minutes” interview I’m not sure. Let me throw out a name, a candidate for “Christian public intellectual”–my friend and colleague Peter Berger (with whom I had lunch yesterday). I have only recently become aware of how seriously he takes his Christian faith. He believes in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Certainly he has been and remains a public intellectual. Now I know he’s also a Christian. (I have only gotten to know him personally in the last two years.)

  • Don

    What about Ron Sider?

    • rogereolson

      And Jim Wallis. Both are good candidates for Christian public intellectuals. Wallis has gained that status–somewhat. I’ve seen him on many television talk shows representing “other evangelicals.”

  • JD

    I agree with others that Tom Wright would make a great public intelletual theologian. I also think Rowan Williams (and indeed to a lesser extent Benedict XI) always had interesting and importnt things to say, and I felt it was a mised opportunity that we didn’t listen to Rowan more carefully. Now that he’s no longer ABC, we might realise what we’ve missed. This man is not nearly as impressive in person than he is in writing, but I believe he has some really interesting things to say about our culture, and that is David Bentley Hart.

  • JD

    Just reading some of the other comments…It’s true that Phillip Blond is well known here in the UK, and although he was a theologian, and is very sympathetic of the church’s role in public life, he is really called upon for his socio-political/economic views. He was influential in Cameron’s Big Society idea, which for Blond was, in part, supposed to mean greater influence in society from the third sector (NGOs, churches etc…), but which Blond has subsequently believed Cameron has misunderstood and misapplied (many, understandably, saw it as a cover up for the cuts the government has been introducing here). But along with his friend John Milbank, Blond is introducing (albeit not overtly, and unbeknownst to most people) some intereting theological critiques of our public life.