Review of Apostles of Reason by Molly Worthen: Part 3 (Final)

Review of Apostles of Reason by Molly Worthen: Part 3 (Final)

This review is primarily of Part III of Apostles of Reason—a recently published book by historian Molly Worthen published by Oxford University Press. (No thanks to OUP which declined to respond to my request for a review copy.) Part III is entitled “Let Them Have Dominion.”

This is, without doubt, one of the most challenging books about evangelicalism that I have read. It’s challenging for several reasons but two stand out at this moment: It is prophetic (to evangelicals) and confusing. Let me start with the second reason.

After bashing neo-evangelicalism (a label Worthen sometimes uses for the specific movement begun by evangelical intellectuals dissatisfied with the anti-intellectualism and isolation of fundamentalism and sometimes uses for the whole post-fundamentalist evangelical movement of the second half of the 20th century into the 21st century) for being endemically anti-intellectual at its core (noting some exceptions among its scholars) she concludes the book this way: “If the evangelical imagination harbors a potent anti-intellectual strain, it has proven, over time, to be a kind of genius.” (265) One could say exactly the same thing, of course, about American culture in general and the evangelicalism Worthen is examining here is distinctly American.

Here is just one example of Worthen’s seemingly devastating pronouncements on American evangelicalism that would seem to conflict with any talk of a “genius.” She writes (253) “Is anti-intellectualism, then, chiefly the sin of the Christian right? The answer is no: “The confusion of authority that best accounts for the culture described in these pages is not an exclusively conservative or liberal trait. For good or for ill, it has been the defining characteristic of evangelicalism as a whole since its origins in the aftermath of the Reformation.”

The defining characteristic?” And yet “a kind of genius?” Nothing about her diatribe against American evangelicals’ anti-intellectualism would lead one to expect the final pronouncement at the very end of the book.

Sidebar: At the very end of the book Worthen comes close to recognizing my distinction between evangelicalism as a movement and evangelicalism as an ethos only she calls it the “evangelical imagination.” And I don’t think we are identifying it similarly. There may be some overlap, but hers is more focused on behavior (e.g., activism) and less spiritual and theological than mine. I still think scholars such as Worthen who attempt to examine evangelical culture need to distinguish strongly between the movement (which now is fading away if not already gone) and the ethos which will, hopefully, always be around (stripped of its anti-intellectualism).

Throughout the book Worthen is gradually, step-by-step building up an argument, mainly anecdotal but nevertheless strong, that since its beginning in the 1940s the neo-evangelical movement has been beset by a problem or set of problems having to do with authority. The founders and their would-be faithful followers wanted to break away from fundamentalism without becoming liberal. They did that by rejecting what was a veneer of fundamentalism while retaining its essence. Predictably (but largely unacknowledged) the neo-evangelical movement and its larger aftermath, “American evangelicalism,” has been torn between two competing impulses—what Worthen labels as “worldview presuppositionalism” (which she identifies as primarily Reformed) and a claimed desire to be worldly and modern in the best senses—open to free inquiry, scholarly, reasonable, intellectual, culturally alert and sensitive, ecumenical, etc. The central problematic pathos of evangelicalism in the second half of the 20th century and into the 21st century, Worthen makes clear in this third part, is an inability to reconcile these competing impulses that has led evangelicalism into a crisis of authority.

So what does that have to do with “anti-intellectualism?” I think her case study of Francis Schaeffer best illustrates her point. It appears in Part III but sheds light backwards on her main argument about the problematic of neo-evangelicalism from its beginning.

According to Worthen, Schaeffer styled himself as an intellectual and as culture-savvy and sensitive while all the time hiding a basically fundamentalist attitude toward inquiry and knowledge. Worthen’s portrayal of Schaeffer is so harsh as to border on being uncharitable. But charity isn’t her concern; she’s a historian. She honestly believes, apparently, that Schaeffer was a charlatan who convinced even himself, to say nothing of millions of readers and followers, that he was the epitome of a Christian intellectual. In fact, if Worthen is right (and others have said the same), Schaeffer was a fake. He was to evangelicalism what many gurus (and she uses that word for Schaeffer and many evangelical leaders) are to Hinduism—tricksters who cast a spell over their followers and have even come to believe their own press when, in fact, they are the proverbial Wizard of Oz—all bluster and show but no real depth.

You doubt me? Read her treatment of Schaeffer in the sections subtitled “A Thinking Christian” and “The Uses of History” (209-216). Here’s a sample: “[John Howard] Yoder was not the only one appalled by Schaeffer’s hamfisted caricature of history. For all of his emphasis on careful argument, Schaeffer was notoriously irresponsible as a scholar. ‘Schaeffer didn’t read books,’ said his son-in-law, John Sandri. ‘He got his material from magazines, Newsweek, Time—he’d take them to the beach. He did go to seminary, so he had that, but when he was here [at L'Abri], he went through the summarized version. He was out to give broad strokes. It was not necessary to give you the details of Kierkegaard.’ Schaeffer wowed audiences by explaining 500 years of intellectual history in paragraphs and a casual chalkboard diagram—but he did so with exaggerations, oversimplifications, and misinformation that would make a specialist cry.”

Why was Schaeffer so popular? Here’s Worthen’s harsh explanation of his and other “evangelical gurus’” popularity among evangelicals in spite of their obvious lack of expertise and scholarship: “Truth is no obstacle to a story that people want to believe.” (253) Ouch.

In Part III Worthen trots out a parade of such evangelical gurus evangelicals have followed en masse—gurus who appeared to have some semblance of intellectual depth and cultural savvy (per the neo-evangelical founders’ intentions) but were actually authoritarian anti-intellectuals who treated their own versions of “the Christian worldview” as a totalizing ideology impermeable to critique and incorrigible in comprehensive, coherent truth. Other case studies she offers include Bill Gothard of Basic Youth Conflicts fame and David Barton, founder of Wallbuilders and (according to her and many critics) reviser of American history.

Worthen’s point seems to be that neo-evangelicalism set up a religious culture that pretended to be intellectually respectable while constantly shutting doors to any real critical thinking and inquiring into truth. In spite of claims that the Bible is our supreme authority, evangelicals have by-and-large set up other authorities, claiming to be “the true interpretation of the Bible” (often labeled “the Christian worldview”), and shut the door to any challenges to it however faithful and reasonable they may be.

I have been making the same diagnosis of evangelical theology (its main movers and shakers) for a long time. They took Charles Hodge’s Systematic Theology, baptized it as the once and for all evangelical theology (“The Stout and Persistent Theology of Charles Hodge” as David Wells called it in an article in Christianity Today) and permitted only translations of it into contemporary language. That’s what most evangelical systematic theologies have been.

Then, according to Worthen, and I find this largely true, evangelicalism spawned large numbers of pseudo-intellectual gurus who claimed authority for their own versions of “the biblical worldview” or “the Christian worldview” and presented them as if they had the authority of the Bible itself. This is basically a move back to fundamentalism—often under the guise of modern, up-to-date language, technology and rhetorical devices. She labels these men (all so far have been men) “demagogues.” They have been Pied Pipers who have played on evangelicals’ cravings for authority, certainty, respectability and power.

As I look back over my lifetime in American evangelicalism this narrative rings true. There seems always to be one or two or three major seemingly infallible evangelical leaders, usually independent and self-appointed but often given credibility by other evangelical leaders, who pronounce “the truth” as yet unknown or forgotten that, when accepted uncritically, will dispel doubt, despair, confusion and deliver enlightenment, success (spiritual, material or whatever), closure, certainty.

I will never forget one pastor’s advice to our congregation that met in the downtown area of a major European city. It was a Southern Baptist Church (which wouldn’t let me become a member without being re-baptized because I wasn’t baptized in a Baptist church). The pastor was a Southern Baptist missionary. His sermon was about the Christian’s relationship with “secular culture.” His closing line was “The Christian’s attitude toward the world should be ‘Don’t confuse me with the facts; my mind is already made up’.” Immediately came to my mind a hymn from my childhood by evangelist Gypsy Smith written as a response to a skeptic who said he was dreaming that Christianity is true:”If I Am Dreaming, Let Me Dream On.”

So what does that have to do with evangelicalism? Well, there are more sophisticated versions of that anti-intellectualism and even obscurantism and they abound among evangelicals—even in places where they are adamantly denied. I served ten years on the editorial board of Christian Scholar’s Review including five years as its senior editor. The Review was truly open to critical inquiry and we published many articles that challenged evangelical assumptions while remaining basically evangelical. (I edited an entire theme volume on process theology including articles by leading process thinkers.) But we could not seem to draw submissions from evangelical scholars teaching in our constituent liberal arts colleges and universities (about 50 of them). One year we asked all our institutional representatives to ask their colleagues why they didn’t submit manuscripts to CSR. We knew many of them were submitting manuscripts to other, mostly non-evangelical publications. The answer came. “We know our administrators read CSR and we’re afraid of publishing our findings and thoughts because our institution does not have real tenure.” Digging a little deeper by asking many of these evangelical scholars why this is a problem came up with the following answer: “Our administrators have good intentions but they are beholden to constituents who will pressure them to fire us if they disagree with what we write.”

Returning to my two reasons Worthen’s book is challenging: I hope I have already made them clear. First, it is confusing because she never adequately explains why evangelicalism’s anti-intellectualism (or pseudo-intellectualism in some cases) is its “genius.” Second, it is prophetic because she dares to point out something few evangelical leaders are willing to admit—that a deep strain of anti-intellectualism runs through their movement and needs to be named and corrected. Of course, Mark Noll already pointed this out some years ago in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, but he laid the blame at the doorsteps of pietism, the holiness movement and experience-centered spirituality. Worthen turns the finger of accusation around and points it at Noll’s own Reformed neo-evangelicalism (which is not to say he is guilty).

So what are some solutions? That’s where Worthen is weakest—offering practical advice to evangelicals. But, then, she’s a historian; advice isn’t her job. So I’ll go out on a limb and offer some. First, evangelical institutions of higher education (at least) need to establish real tenure for trusted professors based on scholarly achievement and not primarily “institutional fit.” Second, evangelical organizations need to let it be known that conservative donors are not going to call all the shots. Third, evangelical publications need to establish a pattern of exposing pseudo-intellectualism and demagoguery among evangelicals. (Eternity magazine did some of this in the 1970s and 1980s. We need to return to that.) Fourth, evangelicals need to overcome their obsessive, reactionary fear of “modernism” and “liberal theology” and become sufficiently self-confident of the truth of evangelical faith to expose it to critical inquiry without running and hiding behind some new set of “fundamentals” under the guise of “worldview.”

 

 


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