Stupid Christians

Review of The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind by Mark Noll

By PAUL D. MILLER

Have you ever noticed the prominence of Catholics among American public intellectuals? George Weigel, Peggy Noonan, Robert P. George, Richard John Neuhaus, Ramesh Ponnuru, William F. Buckley, Jr., Russell Kirk, Hadley Arkes, Michael Novak, and others make up a growing body of conservative American Catholic thought on social, cultural, and political affairs in the 20th and 21st centuries. A majority of Justices on the Supreme Court—the high priests of public philosophy—are Catholic, a remarkable situation considering the position of Catholics in American society just a few generations ago. Catholics seem to be leading the effort to formulate ideas about the implications of Christian faith for American life.

And where are the evangelical public intellectuals? Don’t snicker: the term isn’t (quite) an oxymoron. But you may be forgiven for thinking so. Evangelical engagement with the life of the mind and with public affairs is most famously represented by the Christian Right, by creation science, and by the Left Behind series. Compared to Catholics, Evangelicals have a reputation for being simplistic, rigid, ideological, and uninformed. It is enough to make one wonder if we are, at heart, the stupid part of Christendom.

Mark Noll thinks so—or thought so twenty years ago when he wrote his controversial book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Noll, an evangelical who teaches history at Notre Dame, writes “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” (p. 3) He laments evangelicals’ lack of cultural influence, lack of representation at elite universities, and failure to engage with the best ideas and best science of the day. This amounts to nothing less than the sin of failing to love God with our minds.

Noll describes the vacuity of the evangelical intellect and makes a powerful argument for why it matters. He then recounts the history of evangelical and fundamentalist engagement with the life of the mind from the American Revolution forward in a trio of brief and somewhat unsatisfying chapters. They were unsatisfying because I wanted more depth and context about the history of the church, which is an unfair criticism since that is not the book Noll set out to write.

Noll hits his stride in the chapters on “The intellectual disaster of fundamentalism” (Chapter 5) and “Thinking about science” (Chapter 7). He is careful to point out that fundamentalists rightly defended the authority of the Bible and the reality of supernaturalism, that they preserved a faithful Christian witness when mainline denominations were abandoning orthodoxy in droves, and that their frustrated response to the antireligious, condescending views of the secular culture was entirely justified, if often inept.

Nonetheless, Noll is scathing in his criticism of fundamentalists and their legacy. Fundamentalists’ intellectual habits (which Noll argues have passed into the evangelical mainstream) include a general distrust of formal education, which yielded an overt anti-intellectualism; an excessive confidence in their own knowledge, which yielded a dogmatism and inflexibility hostile to open debate; and an unseemly obsession with peripheral theological matters (e.g., end-of-times prophecy), which distracted from the more important task of applying Christian thinking to everyday life.

Noll targets dispensationalism and creation science for a special dose of ire. Attempting to interpret the social and political events of the world using only labored and questionable interpretations of the Book of Revelation ignores the very real and useful insights available using the tools of social science and history. Dispensationalists assert they are using “Scripture alone,” but they are using it for a purpose (political analysis) for which it was not intended. Similarly, Noll argues, reading Genesis 1 as a scientific treatise uses Scripture in a questionable way and contradicts the insights generated by the God-given human intellect applied to God’s revelation in nature.

This is a theme Noll returns to throughout the book. Human reason is a gift from God, and creation is part of God’s revelation of himself. Using reason to interpret creation—which is what good scholarship does—is a legitimate and valid act of worship, of coming to know God, of loving him with our minds.

Noll’s thesis is controversial, as you’d expect from a book like this, and I hope to follow up by reading some of his critics. It would be easy to criticize Noll for perhaps valuing human reason too highly, underestimating the noetic effects of the fall, or desiring the world’s esteem too much.

But I have to say that I think Noll is basically right—or, at least, he was right when he wrote this twenty years ago. I say that with some trepidation for fear of offending our vast readership. I fear that in agreeing with Noll it will sound like an accusation that every evangelical friend and family member in my life is stupid. So, dear reader, I want to be clear: no, I don’t think you’re stupid.  (Besides, if you take time to read blogs like Schaeffer’s Ghost, you are certainly among the smartest and most intellectually sophisticated people out there).

But I confess that I have sometimes wondered if there is something in the culture of evangelicalism that undervalues the life of the mind. Noll’s criticism of dispensationalism was especially resonant for me.

Noll ends with some notes of hope, charting the growth of evangelical intellectual labor in recent decades and with a theological reflection that because Christ transforms our entire persons and renews our minds, we can and should be able to overcome our legacy of intellectual neglect. That is a good truth for further reflection. Each of us should seek to apply it to our lives and vocations in whatever way, small or large, available to us. Noll ends with a coda that says what I tried to say in introducing this blog five months ago, but says it better than I did:

The search for a Christian perspective on life—on our families, our economies, our leisure activities, our sports, our attitudes to the body and to health care, our reactions to novels and paintings [Ed. Note: and movies!], as well as our churches and our specifically Christian activities—is not just an academic exercise. The effort to think like a Christian is rather an effort to take seriously the sovereignty of God over the world he created, the lordship of Christ over the world he died to redeem, and the power of the Holy Spirit over the world he sustains each and every moment. From this perspective the search for a mind that truly thinks like a Christian takes on ultimate significance, because the search for a Christian mind is not, in the end, a search for mind but a search for God.

  • Timothy Dalrymple

    Great post, Paul. Thanks for this.

    I had the opportunity to ask Mark a few years ago whether he still thought the evangelical mind is scandalous. He basically said there was probably more of an evangelical mind than he credited back when he wrote the book, and there has been significant progress since as well — even though he doesn’t think the evangelical mind has fully emerged. He also points to certain intrinsic trends that make a distinctly evangelical approach to thinking difficult or unlikely:

    http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Future-of-Evangelicals-in-Academia.html

    It was an interesting interview. The number of shares has been lost because we switched systems several times, but it had some decent penetration when it first came out.

  • http://inchristus.wordpress.com Paul

    You said in words what I have observed for years. Time to put our feet to the ground and apply what we know without the dogmatism but with the full force orthodoxy.

  • http://www.jeffgissing.com Jeff

    Thanks for drawing attention to an important book. As someone whose vocation is intentional ministry to Christians called to the academy (through InterVarsity’s Graduate & Faculty ministries — http://www.intervarsity.org/gfm) it’s my belief that more evangelicals are presently going into the academy than at any time before. The fields of philosophy and sociology have some terrific, world-class evangelical scholars.

    However, I also think that the evangelical movement as a whole remains largely as critiqued by Noll. Evangelical intellectuals are, on the whole, the exception rather than the rule.

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    • Mark

      Very timely. The degree of evangelical engagement with the academy, with hard science and with philosophy may be debated, but whatever the degree, it’s not enough. As an evangelical, I can’t say I agree with conclusions that protestant doctrine leads inexorably to intellectual disengagement, and would offer as a small anecdote that I’ve seen this familiar quotation of Aristotle seen at a nearby evangelical university: “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

      The needed action of intellectual engagement by evangelicals with the academy, within the academy and with the culture remains to be demonstrated. Christianity can go directly to the table in Philosophy and engage with the alternative views there now, but someone must go there and represent it. What’s “Left Behind” in the sciences is the scientific method, as the academy expends extraordinary effort to build a scaffolding of speculative (cannot be falsified) “science” to uphold a purely materialist cosmology. Our response should not be protest, but engagement with open and gracious minds. Jesus needs to show up for the discussion. It is our calling as the Body of Christ to do just that in His name.

  • http://carsontclark.com/ Carson Clark

    Hey, Paul. This post might interest you:

    A Cordial Rebuttal to Owen Strachan’s “Is Mark Noll Right? Is There No Evangelical Mind?”
    http://carsontclark.com/uncategorized/20555/cordial-rebuttal-to-owen-strachans

  • rumitoid

    Almost everyday, from various sources, I hear the same complaints from Christians about academia and intellectuals. Thinking seems to be equated with worldliness, a form of paganism or humanism, and our public educational system, along with all of its teachers, is a minion of Satan. Especially our universities. Many lay the blame for the moral decline of America at the feet of these godless smarty-pants liberal educators. (“Liberal” is usually spit rather than spoken.)

    What I find odd, however, is the juxtaposition of these seemingly sola scriptura defenses against secular encroachment and the seemingly unbridled engagement (no, make that marriage) with politics, a totally secular and worldly enterprise. Like their adventures “with peripheral theological matters (e.g., end-of-times prophecy), ” their “unseemly obsession” with America as, in the extreme, the New Jerusalem or simply a Christian Nation (the founding documents divinely inspired), appears a contradiction of purposes. I feel this Freedom of Worship right they so deeply treasure has warped their perception of the Bible, which they claim to be its mighty defenders. Truth will set us free, not government; nothing will guarantee that freedom but being hidden in Christ, not joining the army and going to war, which they quickly cheer. Strange mix.

    Reason has a place but it is not central to faith. Trust in God alone is central. Besides that, no amount of Reason or critical thinking can possibly apprehend truth: that is the sole job of the illuminating spirit of God. Reason is the servant of faith, not its overseer. It is faith in God that allows reason to see God in creation, not the other way around.

  • Susan

    Noll seems to be arguing that the causal relationship moves in the direction that being protestant causes the lack of intellectual rigor, and therefore that protestants need to just try harder and they can be more intellectually rigorous. I would argue the opposite – that a lack of intellectual rigor is what causes people to be protestant (or at least to remain protestant over many years or in the face of much evidence that their theology is simplistic, undeveloped, and in some cases, illogical). Not trying to be offensive here, but having been protestant most of my life and slowly seeing the flaws in the theology over time, I became Catholic and have continued to notice the layers upon layers of coherence and consistency over century after century of theological development. It seems there’s no end to how the truth keeps building on itself – and I could study for lifetimes and never reach the end of all the beauty and truth in the theological and philosophical development of the Catholic faith. This isn’t because Catholics prioritize intellectual pursuits more – God knows we don’t. (Most Catholics are simply luckily born into the faith and never pursue it intellectually at all.) Couldn’t it be instead that intellectual pursuit actually leads to Catholicism instead?

    • http://www.coyleneal.blogspot.com Coyle

      “Couldn’t it be instead that intellectual pursuit actually leads to Catholicism instead?”

      Susan, there’s certainly some truth to that. The problem is that this argument tends to be something of a zero-sum game. While there are a good number of Protestants who have switched (apostatized?) into Catholicism, there are at least an equal number of Catholics who have gone the other way. (And that’s not even counting conversions into and away from Eastern Orthodoxy from both sides.)

      • Arnold

        I too mean no offense but is it not the case that Catholics switching to evangelical Protestantism tend to be from the less or non- informed segment of the Catholic community rather than through an intellectual pursuit?

        • http://www.coyleneal.blogspot.com Coyle

          No offense taken! :)
          I don’t know how the numbers fall exactly, but my sense is that going each direction its a good mix of both. That is, sometimes it’s the case that an individual is reflexively or culturally Protestant or Catholic, and then they get interested in religion and switch to the other. But sometimes it’s also that they are well informed and switch after long reflection.
          That said, I don’t know what the actual numbers are, or if anyone has bothered to find out.

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  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    As a Catholic, may I offer a hypothesis that I don’t know if it’s correct but is possible. Could it be that having a centralized religious structure–the Papacy down to the Bishops and further down to the parishes–that controls religious doctrine allows the lay people to be free to explore intellectual pursuits on the contours of the doctrine? Learned theologians such as the Pope or Bishops use reason to fix the Christian thoughts allowing a burdened to be lifted from the intellectuals listed. For Protestants, without such a centralized authority, doesn’t that create a insecurity in the lay people as to whether they are violating some Christian principle, and therefore inhibits further exploration? For instance, if the Papacy tells Catholics that evolution fits within an interpretation of Genesis, then they are free to explore either the science or social sciences as it relates to evolution. But Protestants are either left with a literal biblical reading or must feel they have to violate their Christian conscience.

    Anyway, whether the hypothesis fits or not, it’s probably not the entire story. But I do offer it in a charitable way. I’m not trying to score any religious points. I do hope all our brothers and sisters in Christ can transcend this secular culture.

  • Greg Jones

    Where are the evangelical intellectuals? Ravi Zacharias (www.rzim.org), Steve Brown (www.stevebrownetc.com), R.C. Sproule are a few that come to my mind.

    G.K. Chesterton stated that the problem with Christianity was was not that it was tried and found wanting, but that it was not tried.

    These people are speaking but who is listening?

    I’m no longer an evangelical, but when I was, although I was frustrated that the average evangelical church was anti-intellectual, I was able to find evangelical leaders and ministries with an intellectual approach.

    Even though I disagree with young earth creationism, I don’t think one can so easily say that many of them aren’t intellectual. Ken Hamm, Dr. Russel Humphreys, and Henry Morris are far from idiots. While I might no longer agree with Answers in Genesis, they taught me HOW to think even though I no longer embrace WHAT they think in totem.

    I often find that when allegations of anti-intellectualism are cast at evangelicals, these voices are ignored and their points dismissed instead of being engaged and considered….

    • Kevin Harris

      Actually, Greg, I think Ken Ham, Humphrey’s, and Morris are textbook anti-intellectuals! While they amass a vast amount of information, it is furiously funneled into sacred cows and pet peeves! They are marked by bickering, unnecessary divisiveness, and narrow-mindedness. This is not intellectualism.

  • http://AmericanDeist.com American Deist

    Great article. The lack of intellectual vigor in the evangelical community has harmed Christian influence on the culture at large. Our nation has undergone a tremendous change in its theological outlook since the founding, and that has happened in large part because the great intellectual battles of the day have been won by default by elites who are hostile to theology. When evangelicals join the struggle, not only with their hearts, but with their minds, we will again have a fighting chance.

  • http://www.progressiveinvolvement John Petty

    Peggy Noonan is an intellectual?

    • Falcon 78

      To John Petty–first, when you can write like she can, then you can make a reasoned comment about her positions, logic, and points. But this ad hominem, sarcastic attack adds nothing to the conversation. Suggest you read her biographical portrait of Pope John Paul II, “John Paul the Great,” or her portrait of Reagan, “When Character was King,” or her “A Heart, A Cross, and A Flag”, and then decide–objectively and fairly–if she is an intellectual. If you are not moved tothink deeper about your own circumstances after reading any one of these three books, then I don’t know what to say to you.

  • http://www.progressiveinvolvement John Petty

    Mainliners were “abandoning orthodoxy in droves”? When did this happen?

  • Charles Bogle

    As a former Christian who abandoned the faith because I could not ultimately square it with reason, I’m not sure how to respond. I consider myself an intellectual. At least, most of my interests are things of the mind. I’m a writer, never mind what kind. And much of my reading is in the hard sciences or social sciences. Some of the smartest, most mentally engaged people I’ve ever known were evangelicals, a few of them in ministries attempting to reach out to the upper levels of academia. At the same time it is true that Protestant churches in general are far more anti-intellectual than Catholic or Orthodox, and while I can no longer accept any form of Christian theology, I agree with H.L. Mencken that Catholicism is ten times less ridiculous than Protestantism. To be fair, the vast bulk of Catholic believers have no life of the mind either and never question or explore any aspect of their faith. But it is true, what public intellectuals we have in the ranks of Christendom tend to come from Rome. Personally, I wish more people from every branch of faith would apply the same rigorous standards of discernment to their beliefs as they do to other information they receive. Why do they accept statements at more or less face value because they come from the Bible when anyone bringing them similar tales here and now would be instantly laughed out of the room? It is a mystery. I don’t pretend to have the answer. But I know what answers I have rejected because they simply cannot be validated by reason. And reason is the best we have, at least in my opinion.

    • Kevin Harris

      Hold on, Charles! You gave up too soon! It’s getting good! Don’t miss the philosophical/intellectual renaissance among Christ’s followers!

      • Charles Bogle

        Kevin, I appreciate the encouragement but I’m afraid it’s too late. I cannot get excited about a philosophical/intellectual renaissance among Christians when I can no longer acknowledge the key concepts of the faith (essentially, all the supernatural stuff). I realize that people smarter than me have believed and continue to believe in the magical parts of Christianity. I cannot. This implies no hostility to Christians or even to some concept of God. I simply don’t know whether there is a God and I don’t see any way of ever finding out on this side of the grave. Sign me a somewhat sympathetic but confirmed agnostic.

  • George

    How about Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig. Or are they not considered evangelical?

  • Kevin Harris

    My only hope is that J.P. Moreland is correct that today’s Evangelicals are not the Religious Right. Evangelicals can still embrace the tenants of this book and be intellectual ambassadors for Christ. I hold out no hope whatsoever that the Religious Right will do anything but continue to dwindle into an embarrassing side show.

  • http://www.gregjonesmusic.com Greg Jones

    William Lane Craig… I forgot about him. He held his own against Christopher Hitchens in a debate that I saw on Youtube. I would also add Hugh Ross (www.reasons.org)

    One problem that I have with the Scandal of the Evangelical Mind book is that it dismisses all creationists without engaging their arguments. The intellectual argument against evolution upholds natural selection but not evolution, focusing on the distinction between the two (laid down by Darwin himself and scientists to follow) to make the point that we only have evidence of change, we do NOT have evidence that such change caused origins.

    Instead, I find that the book (and many evolutionists) simply dismiss Creationists as ignoring the evidence, yet they don’t engage the Creationists in their arguments even when they ARE being intellectual (www.reasons.org for example). That is just as narrow minded.

    Again, Chesterton’s words ring true: “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting, it has not been tried”.

    I also want to say that I think there is a psychology behind much of the anti-intellectualism within the Christian church. I work as a worship leader and preacher in the church and have found that people use faith as a security blanket. Such blankets only bring security if the beliefs are ‘nailed down’. Questions threaten such security. Therefore, there is a closed-mindedness in the church. It is a psychological issue. It is not limited to Christianity though….

  • http://www.gregjonesmusic.com Greg Jones

    I wonder how many of you would be Christians (and maybe even Protestant) if the plenary view of inspiration wasn’t such a heavy ‘plank’ in it’s worldview?

    This is the article that moved me to a different view on Scripture yet without having to abandon Protestantism or my intellect:

    http://www.cresourcei.org/revins.html

    BTW, the author is another example (in my opinion) of an intellectual protestant.

  • Joe M

    Speaking as an atheist I am very impressed with the civil tenor of the article as well as many of the comments. As long as people like you are sincerely trying to engage with others who disagree with you there is still hope for the world. That being said according to a recent Pew study Evangelicals along with Catholics are at the bottom of the pile in knowledge about religion than are Atheists/Agnostics, Mormons and Jews. This is painfully obvious to me when I engage others in a discussion or debate. I also am mystified at how much time and energy are spent on peripheral issues (Creationism, Dispensationalism) rather than foundations like mercy, peace, love and stuff like that. It’d be my guess that to people like this the Bible is more a way to justify you and your political confederates and to condemn your political adversaries. For example: endless speculation has been aired as to whether or not Barack Obama (D) is a christian yet these same voices never question the veracity of The Washington Times nor its founder the Rev. Moon (R) who claimed to be the answer to Jesus’ failed attempt to save the world.

    Anyone?

  • jim

    Paul,
    Discussing this 20 years later is instructive because we can evaluate what has transpired within the Evangelical world during that time and compare the returns on investment of our priorities. While I disagree with the magnitude of your (Noll’s) point, I agree that most of his observations are accurate. We Evangelicals ignore intellectual pursuits to our detriment, (our level of intelligent rigor pisses me off and is an embarrassment at times). But in Noll’s (your) degree of emphasis I’m hearing the worship of the wisdom of men. Are you succumbing to the criticisms and values of the world? We have a limited capacity for pursuit during our lifetime and I take Paul’s, “that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death;” a far more important, time consuming, and worthy pursuit.

    I’m an engineer and I know the stress and effort required to obtain the degree while putting yourself through college. So I’m not impressed by people who can merely recall historical events, discuss philosophical topics, and cross pollinate a few subjects. It’s not that hard, and doing that does not qualify one as being an “intellectual,” at least not in my book. Intellectual excellence is often in the eye of the beholder (for example, Noonan an intellectual! no disrespect to Noonan, but your bar is too low! Surely Buckley deserves to be in a different category than Noonan).

    I’ve not read Noll’s book, but judging from your write up, I question what seems to be the veneration of intellectualism, flinging mud on fellow Christians, and kissing the world’s ass. I greatly appreciate men who excel in fields that require intelligent rigor, but that critical rigor is no substitute for knowing, and serving, Christ. I doubt Noll knew the difference back then.

    The stronger walls of Catholic intellectualism were insufficient and failed to defend itself from the perverse pedophile plague, which extended well up into the Catholic hierarchy, and bankrupted a few dioceses. If Noll’s Catholic intellectuals had the same mind as Paul, perhaps their church leadership would have had stronger moral character and avoided the catastrophe that stained and drained them. If the stronger Orthodox and Catholic intellectualism provided the same level of commitment to Christ as “stupid” Evangelicalism does, would Catholic, Orthodox, (and traditional Protestant churches) be atrophying at their current rate? The bigger problem is not the lack of intellectual rigor, it is the lack of spiritual passion for truly knowing and serving God.

    There is a difference between the intellect and the spiritual, between knowing facts, and knowing Christ. I’m not decrying intellectual pursuit, I am against turning it into an idol. Evangelicals do need to improve in those areas that you and Noll targeted. Not because the world or other Christians mock us but because intellectual excellence is an important component of our work and witness.

    20 years later, I’d judge the Evangelicals as having done okay on a world wide scale. Evangelical churches are now flourishing in Muslim countries, and the faith is spreading strongly. What greater testament is needed than to say that millions are being saved? We are engaging culture more than before, (of course not as much as you may want), we’ve done okay politically, etc., and we are continuing to admit and address our weaknesses. I hope we never veer off the path into the veneration of intellectualism and forget, or marginalize, our real calling. “Knowledge makes proud, love edifies.”

  • http://www.ses.edu Simon Brace

    I enjoyed Mark Noll’s book, but I think that he failed to diagnose the problem. The situation had already been presented to evangelicals by Charles Malik in his address at Wheaton: http://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/23/23-4/23-4-pp289-296_JETS.pdf. The problem is anti-intellectualism. How does the anti-intellectualism within the ranks of Protestants continue despite the efforts of the evangelical intelligentsia? I do not think that dispensationalism or creationism or the structure of the academy are the the cause of anti-intellectualism. My opinion is that the disposition of evangelicals towards philosophy is the 800 pound gorilla in the room. Prostestant’s lost their voice at the academy, and Catholic’s by comparison, still have one. Why? Because Catholic’s for the most part had a philosophy to combat the skepticism. Catholic’s had a reason for Christ, evangelicals had a personal relationship with Christ and did not see fit to attend to much else. The problem for evangelicals is “theologism.” Etienne Gilson, in my estimation, is right on the mark in dealing with the issue in his book: The Unity of Philosophical Experience. Protestants have missed the 2nd half of Titus 1:9. Things are certainly improving and evangelicals scholars are having an impact. The problem is the evangelical seminaries need to stop paying lipservice the requirement for elders to be able to both preach and defend their faith according to Titus 1:9. Logic and philosophy should be mandatory classes for all evangelical students. If not philosophy then at least a class in logic. A number of evangelical institutions including the one that I work at are rather serious about attending to the matter. See http://www.ses.edu. I also think that Ratio Christi: http://www.ratiochristi.org is a an definite instance of a grass roots movement seeking to start a movement at campuses to begin the long haul of reclaiming some ground. That is my take on the matter.

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