Variations on a theme: Why evangelicals don’t do scholarship, humor or philosophy

These are three different posts on three different topics. These are three posts all saying the same thing.

First, Peter Enns, with “The Deeper Scandal of the Evangelical Mind: We Are Not Allowed to Use It“:

The real problem isn’t simply a failure on the part of Evangelicals to engage the world of thought. Evangelicals earning higher degrees and publishing their findings in the wider intellectual community isn’t what’s needed.

The real scandal of the Evangelical mind is that we are not allowed to use it.

Calling for Evangelical involvement in public academic discourse is useless if trained Evangelicals are legitimately afraid of what will happen to them if they do.

A more basic need is the creation of an Evangelical culture where the exercise of  the Evangelical mind is expected and encouraged.

But, with few exceptions, that culture does not exist. The scandal of the Evangelical mind is that degrees, books, papers, and other marks of prestige are valued–provided you come to predetermined conclusions.

Second, Larry Shallenberger for Relevant magazine, asks, “Why Aren’t Christians Funny?

A vintage cartoon illustrating both: A) the sorry state of evangelical humor; and B) the reason why evangelicals are not funny.

Humor requires the ability to admit weakness and a willingness to laugh at it. A joke is funny because it exposes the silliness bound up in the act of being human. Self-deprecation makes for good comedy, but it’s akin to putting bullets in your opponent’s gun in a culture war. Weaknesses can’t be just hidden from one’s opponents; their very existence must be denied. Miroslav Volf wrote, in Exclusion and Embrace, that a people group must be convinced of its moral superiority to feel justified aggressing against another party. You can’t laugh at yourself until you cede the moral high ground.

… Bryan Allain, author of Actually, Clams Are Miserable says, “To me, for something to be funny it has to be on the edge. Whether that is the edge of decency, the edge of expectations or the edge of sanity; if it’s right down the middle, it’s not going to make someone laugh. I think Christians struggle with creating humorous art because too often we don’t want to stray near the edges. Pushing the boundaries can open us up to judgment by those outside and inside Christianity, so instead of risking that for the joke, we play it safe and nobody cracks a smile.”

And Jesse James DeConto discusses the intellectual implosion of his alma mater, the evangelical Cedarville University, with “Why My Evangelical College Shouldn’t Do Away With the Philosophy Department“:

Evangelical institutions like Cedarville have always had a rocky relationship with the humanities: Philosophy, literature, the arts — they’re all great as long as they support what we already believe. But if they make us question our assumptions, they’re dangerous. The Culture War has been fomenting at Cedarville since before I was there, and it always seemed the powers-that-be perceived my philosophy professors to be on the wrong side.

Back to Peter Enns:

Evangelicalism is not fundamentally an intellectual organism but an apologetic one. It did not come to be in order to inspire academic exploration but to maintain certain theological distinctives by intellectual means. These intellectual means are circumscribed by Evangelical dogma, though avoiding Fundamentalist anti-intellectualism.

As an intellectual phenomenon, the Evangelical experiment is a defensive movement.

An apologetic or defensive culture primarily concerned with preserving “certain theological distinctives” will not just defend its boundaries against anything that might violate them. It will defend those boundaries against anything that might transcend them. The transcendent — the good, the beautiful, the true — becomes the forbidden.

That’s why Cedarville wants to purge its philosophy department. It’s why the evangelical mind is not allowed to be used.

And it’s why a sense of humor will get you reclassified as a “post-evangelical” almost as fast as a hermeneutic of radically inclusive love will.

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  • EllieMurasaki

    Non-discriminatory language is a liberal project, I believe, and one that would not be possible without a certain degree of power. Telling others to change something as personal as the way they speak is not a small thing.

    If you say a word–‘lame’, ‘retarded’, ‘gypped’, the list is endless–and I say ‘do not use that word, it hurts people [including me, if applicable]’, and you grin at me and say the word again, who is the person exercising power here?

  • vsm

    I don’t have a very firm grasp on how to analyze power on such a small scale, though my instinct would be that we both tried to exercise power and I was pretty unpleasant about it. However, if I did that here, I’m pretty sure several members of the community would tell me such language is not acceptable here. If I was particularly unpleasant about it, it would likely affect how and whether you would allow me to participate in future discussions. That is a form of power, though obviously rather limited. Nothing would stop me from joining a less-reputable community and blasting away with such language.

  • EllieMurasaki

    In my scenario, you are (by use of the word in question) hurting someone. I am incapable of compelling, requiring, or forcing you to stop; I am only capable of asking you to stop, and you are capable of refusing, and further capable of deliberately repeating the harm done by using the word. Power’s all on your side.

    If there’s only one of you and ten of me, it’s a slightly different story, but we still don’t have the power to make you stop using the word–just to make you either stop using it around us or stop being around us altogether. (Note that on Slacktivist, nobody has that power but Fred, who is reluctant to use it for any reason.)

    One on one, when all else is supposedly equal, the power is in the hand of the person using the hurtful language, and it’s disingenuous of you to say otherwise.

  • Hth

    A Cracked article today (which also shouted out Slacktivist, whee!) included a link to this article about women in comedy that took a different tack on what makes comedy tick, and one that I find a little more intuitively convincing.

    Humor, Barreca explains, is in itself an act of power and aggression;
    audiences are known to be intimidated by comedians, especially at live
    venues. (That’s why nobody sits in the front row, she says.) “When women
    in are in comedy, there still needs to be a certain mitigating factor
    for the ferocity that goes with any kind of effective humor,” Barreca
    says. “So if we show someone our neck, rather than our squared
    shoulders, we’ll be more appreciated–and they’ll permit us into their

    Robert Lynch, a cultural anthropologist from Rutgers University and a
    part-time stand-up, agrees: “Maybe women have to go overboard with the
    self-deprecation because comedy can be an alpha thing,” he says–the
    alpha being the class clown, the attention-grabber, the presence
    dominating the room. “Women alphas in general tend to be disliked. They
    can sometimes be distrusted, I think. And they’re not sought after.”

    “The female stand-ups I know,” he admits, “they don’t get a lot of dates out of it.”

    If humor is aggressive, you’d think conservatives would be good at it — and in a sense they are, as a huge amount of stand-up comedy expresses a socially conservative worldview.  *Evangelicals* aren’t good at it, and I honestly think it’s just because creativity in general is discouraged.  Good comedy, whether you agree or disagree with it, is funny because you’ve never heard it said *quite like that* before.  Evangelicals are trained up to be so afraid of saying something incorrectly (having the wrong “stance” on an issue, as Fred often points out, even *slightly* wrong, gets you blackballed from the community) that they’re extremely cautious speakers and writers, relying on the same well-vetted talking points over and over.  They’re honestly really dull, even to one another.  Evangelicism isn’t producing great art in any field, because there’s no room in it for risk-taking in front of an audience.

  • I’m reminded of an anecdote I heard after the kerfluffle about the Danish cartoonist who depicted the prophet Muhammed.

    Some muslim-run publication ran a contest encouraging aspiring artists to send in their best anti-Semitic cartoons.

    According to the anecdote I heard, shortly after the publication of the first round of anti-semitic political cartoons,  some Israeli publisher responded with, roughly, “You call that anti-semitic?” and ran their own contest seeking funnier anti-jewish propaganda cartoons.

  • vsm

    The last thing I want to do is be disingenuous, hurtful or unclear, so please permit me to switch to a more obvious example than the power relations of an online community.

    There’s a certain racial slur in the English language, once ubiquitous in the Southern United States in particular, that most people are not permitted to use in public these days. In fact, even saying the word aloud for purposes of identification can be problematic. If a public figure were to use it of someone, there’s a good chance they’d be shunned, forced to resign (if applicable) and crawl under a rock for a good while. There’s no law against using the word, but that hardly matters in this case. I think this is an obvious example of anti-racist power, and a good thing at that.

    That is, assuming we define power as the ability to influence people and events, whether it’s backed by ideology, personality, threat of violence or something else.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Who’s exercising the power, though?

    I submit that it is neither black people nor liberals. It is in fact society at large, white people and conservatives included, exercising the power, and without white people and conservatives so doing, the word would still be in common currency.

    Black people and liberals agitated to make the word unacceptable, successfully, but the people enforcing its nonuse are mostly not black and mostly not liberal and certainly not mostly black-and-liberal.

  • vsm

    I don’t think it really matters who the people wielding the power would vote; by affirming anti-racism (or at least a reasonable imitation thereof) as a requirement of participation in public life, they are enforcing a progressive idea.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Which isn’t the same thing as progressives being the ones with the power in this situation. Women in positions of power is a progressive idea, and about the only one Sarah Palin holds.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    I had a friend who worked in church circles where various people had a bible reference in their email sig. So she put one in her own, that when you looked it up was a line from the Gospels saying something like “They did not understand what he was saying, but no one dared to ask him about it”.

  • You know, that article reminds me of Olivia Munn’s short-lived presence on The Daily Show.  Her first two focus segments were a little flat, but I feel like she got her feet after that and delivered some solid chuckles (like her segment on Arizona traffic cameras or her tiger-mom story) but she still had a ton of detractors.  You have female fans decrying her as being put in just for fanservice and male fans ignoring any comedy to debate irrelevant minutia of her attractiveness  (her cloths and manner on the show was suitably modest so I thought both positions were rather strange.)   

    She seemed to have been quietly dropped after that, which is a pity because I found her bits entertaining.  

  • MaryKaye

    A rule I worked out when I was sampling martial arts schools:  If the humor in the dojo is across the board, or is mostly juniors joshing seniors, it’s likely to be a pretty safe and healthy place.  If there’s no humor at all, it’s probably too intense for me but might be okay for someone younger and tougher.  If the humor is mostly seniors teasing juniors, stay away.

    There’s a reason “Humorlessness” is one of Bonewitz’ warning signs for cult behavior (cult here in the sense of “organization that exerts a dangerous kind of control over its members,” not “organization whose theology I disagree with”).

  • arcseconds

     God is gravity?

  • arcseconds

    I knew a couple of people who had made their way into secular philosophy programmes at good, mainstream universities, and at the same time climbed out of being highly conservative Evangelicals by way of bible college.  I’m not certain that their colleges had philosophy departments, but it would sure help!

    Somehow I don’t think ‘keep your philosophy programme because some of your graduates will be glad of the exit it offers from evangelicalism’ will encourage them to keep it, though. 

  • Esdavejones

    There was an excellent if somewhat short-lived series of comics (with one annual/book) back in the early 90’s called Winebibber – very much in the style of ‘Viz’, a notoriously ‘adult’ comic in the UK.

    Genuinely funny (IMHO) and poked fun at evangelical ‘culture’ – from within – with a variety of characters such “Ronald Hutchin, he reads too much in” who convinced himself from Genesis1:1 that a pear was a fruit of the Spirit – and much talk of being attacked by the ‘warm & fuzzies’

  • I almost prefer anti-intellectualism to this sort of self-referential exercise on the part of Evangelicals.  At least anti-intellectualism is itself intellectually honest.  But in the end both are ultimately damaging to the faith.

  • SkyknightXi

    For all the commentary about the lack of intellectual effort the comic seems to portray, I think it telling that (a) there are no side stairs, the only alternative to all the way down is back up to the top; and (b) the first step away from Christianity is “Bible not Infallible”. Pace seems to have been arguing in the same fashion as your Mk. I Mod. I KJV-only stumper. Namely, there is only one Proper Way to understand the Bible’s words, and (somehow) the Bible itself will instill it within you if you don’t try to interpret it yourself, as though it were some sort of sorcerous artifact. (This is actually sounding like the librams from the first couple of editions of AD&D…) Neutral criticism/critique of the Bible seems to be the main thing Pace is inveighing against; from this, he says, necessarily comes atheism, and presumably failure to do one’s ultimate purpose and glorify God.

    Never mind that the step “No Deity (of the Christ)” would have struck other resolute Christians, at least of the past, odd to be following from “Bible Not Infallible”. The Vandals come to mind here. Genseric believed his attack on Rome was justified because, in part, the Athanasian Romans were “cursed of God” (or thereabouts). The Vandals were Arians–they believed the Bible (or at least the Gospels and Pauline letters) did NOT teach the Christ’s divinity. Because the Athanasians DID believe that, they were robbing God of some of his due glory by imputing it to the Christ. (At least, I think that would be Arius’s logic.) Given that Pace would qualify as an Athanasian, I wonder what a Vandal, or other Arian, equivalent of that stairway would be (if it would even end up at Atheism).

  • Lacey Wrigley

    It’s saying they’ve lost the belief in the deity of Christ, not that they don’t believe in any kind of God. If Jesus isn’t God, there is no atonement and there is no resurrection. Once someone is unsure of those things, they no longer know what to believe about God, and are one step closer to believing he doesn’t exist.

  • AnonymousSam

    Interesting. That makes more sense. I wonder what it says about their attitude toward Judaism? “Congratulations, you’re marginally better than atheists!”

  • Tricksterson

    IIRC Einstein believed that God was essentially the sum of all natural law.

  • Water_Bear

    Einstein used the word “God” as a catch-all for the universe, hence “God does not use dice.” From what I’ve heard he was fairly agnostic. Unfortunately, being the most famous genius of the twentieth century means theists are eager to grab him up, especially the type who aren’t good with subtlety.

  • AnonymousSam

    In addendum to Tricksterson: Which is part of why Einstein is considered by some to be a pantheist.

    feeling lazy and not going into full detail about my spiritual beliefs,
    I identify as a pantheist as well, and would affirm that gravity is an
    aspect of divinity. Less specifically, the laws of physics themselves (including the aspects of them we don’t fully understand or haven’t even discovered) are a manifestation of what I think of when I say “God.”

  • The_L1985

    I like to respond to those with Proverbs 26:11.  It’s a bit cruel, but it gets the point across.

  • Which god?

  • arcseconds

    You and Einstein better lay of the Spinoza.  It’s giving you strange ideas :] 

  • This whole environment is a lot like what happened to the Confucians in Imperial China…eventually it becomes a self-referential exercise, repeating the same litanies with no deviation in thought allowed, and ultimately no intellectual growth or progress. Faith on the other hand requires you to be on the edge constantly. This isn’t faith; it’s stagnation. 

     I can picture easily a scenario in which the politically-minded fundamentalists actually achieved sweeping power; they’ll pay lip-service to the law as written (while slowly undermining it) but only accept individuals with the appropriate credentials to any position of importance.  They’re creating a culture of evangelical mandarins, and like the original mandarins, they’ll end up useless and counterproductive in a world that’s progressed around them.

  • Ekatherineallen

    Atheism is lack of belief in gods, while agnosticism is the position on whether or not gods exists. I’m an agnostic – I don’t know if gods exist or not, and in practice I’m an atheist – I don’t believe on gods (as in, I don’t pray to Jesus or Isis personally). But you can still have religion without gods: Buddhism abd Taoism are good examples. So is deism (as practices by many of the US founding fathers: the idea that there was a deity who created everything, but that deity is very far removed from humans and we are on our own.

  • Ekatherineallen

    My bad, guys! My magnifier software didn’t kick in until after my reply was up – I couldn’t see the smaller words until now. Sheesh

  • AnonymousSam

    *Facepalm* I forgot about deism (and after identifying as a deist for about five years!). That probablywould fall under their “NO DEITY” category.

    Now that I think of it, the idea of judging people’s beliefs based entirely on their similarity to this particular variant of Christianity, actually having a sliding scale of similarity and better/worseness, really is quite disgusting. Judging on this basis is bad enough, but to have quantifiable degrees of just how “fallen” a person is by what aspects they believe and don’t…

  • Tricksterson

    Thank you, Spinoza was the other person I was trying to think of who expressed that view.

  • Hemlockroid

    8th paragraph:
    ‘last wire’…just like present day Iran charge. 

  • It’s worth noting that what Peter Enns means by the deep scandal that evangelicals are not allowed to use their minds is that most of us disagree with his conclusions about various matters to do with Scripture. I’m pretty sure if evangelicals had rished to embrace “Inspiration and Incarnation” and the other books he’s published he’d think we were all tickity-boo.

  • So an evangelical once produced a cartoon that wasn’t funny. Therefore evangelicals have no sense of humour. Profound.