The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind—Again
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In 1994 evangelical church historian Mark Noll published (via Eerdmans) his extremely influential jeremiad about the sorry state of the (white) American evangelical “mind.” By “mind” he meant (and means) reflective thought engaging Christianity with the world. The book decried especially 20th century American evangelical anti-intellectualism and he laid the blame squarely on these movements in 19th and 20th century American evangelicalism: dispensationalism, the holiness movement, fundamentalism, and Pentecostalism. Here, on this blog, I have added to these, in my own opinion, the Charismatic Movement and the Jesus People Movement. Noll is especially critical of dispensationalism and fundamentalism while admitting some positive influences of the holiness and Pentecostal movements. I have said the same about the charismatic and Jesus People movements—some good came out of them, but they were by-and-large guilty of anti-intellectualism and excessive emphasis on ecstatic experience to the neglect of the life of the mind.
Now, in 2022, a second edition of The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind has appeared from Eerdmans. It is the same book with an added Preface and Afterward. In the Afterward especially Noll adds to the now nearly thirty year old original content of Scandal.
I am reviewing the new edition for Christian Scholar’s Review, a journal I edited in the 1990s. Back then, I commissioned a review of the first edition and that review was written by Gordon College professor Thomas Askew and published in 1995.
Certainly Noll does not think the life of the mind fares better within evangelicalism in 2022 than it did in 1994. In the Afterward (2022) he mentions some points of light in the darkness, but most of them are by evangelicals but not specifically evangelical in terms of their flavor or foundation. They are works by evangelicals with a kind of generic Christian (think C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity) foundation.
What Noll misses among American (white) evangelicals is creative, thoughtful, integrative, intellectual endeavor and production that is distinctively evangelical. He strongly hints that the models he is looking at are Catholic, Anglican, and Reformed. Devoted Christian scholars from those three traditions-communions have produced, during the 20th century (and now into the 21st century) amazingly creative interactions with the arts and sciences including philosophy.
Noll does not mention David Bentley Hart, but I will mention him here. Why have American evangelicals not produced anything comparable with the profound theological-philosophical insights Hart has produced and continues to produce? Hart writes from a generally Eastern Orthodox perspective. Noll’s question is why American evangelical Christians so rarely, hardly ever, engage in and produce that kind of high level interaction with culture—philosophy, art, science, political thought, etc.—that is identifiably evangelical?
His answer is the continuing influences of fundamentalism, dispensationalism, holiness and Pentecostal forms of evangelical Christianity which all tend to be anti-intellectual, discouraging the life of the mind, detrimental to creative interaction with culture (broadly defined).
I have to side here with Noll. He is “right on.” With some notable exceptions, white American evangelicals have fallen short when it comes to creative engagement with the best of modern culture—the sciences, philosophy, the arts, etc. Noll notes, and I agree, that evangelicals have certainly produced our share of defensive, apologetic critiques of especially popular culture and politics. Many of these products, however, have been, well, simply lame. They have generally not risen to the intellectual level or had the intellectual or rhetorical power of books by Hart.
Noll’s and my complaint is that there is something amiss within the American (white) evangelical movement and community. For all its strengths, American evangelicalism is seemingly anti-intellectual in its DNA. How do I know this?
Well, I was editor of Christian Scholar’s Review for five years and during that time I heard numerous complaints from professors at evangelical colleges and universities that they received little or no encouragement or support from their institutions when it came to research and publishing. And many of them complained bitterly that IF they were to publish their research they feared they would be punished by their administrators due to predictable negative reactions by “constituents.” And I’m not talking here about out-and-out heresies or denials of the authority of scripture or anything like that. These evangelical scholars felt a “drag” on their research and writing/publishing from within their institutions. Instead of “publish or perish”—the watchword in most major research colleges and universities—they said their fear was “publish AND perish” within their colleges and universities. And I knew of specific examples of that happening.
I have been “in the thick” of white American evangelicalism all my life and worked/taught in three major universities identifiable as evangelical in a broad sense. In all three I sensed and felt just such a drag on expressing the results of my research, not so much from administrators as from “constituents.” I have actively been “out there” in the “trenches” (churches) teaching and speaking and have felt the influences of folk religion and anti-intellectualism. I have made people (evangelicals) angry by gently correcting their folk religious beliefs, including uncritical acceptance of blatantly false urban legends of a religious nature. More generally, however, as a faithful evangelical Christian intellectual, I have felt excluded, out of place, marginalized by most fellow evangelical Christians who are suspicious from the outset of me and all other scholars.
I have learned to keep my mouth shut in Bible studies and home-based church-related small groups—when I know that I could correct some of what is being said. Such correction is almost never appreciated. I often feel like a medical doctor all of whose friends and circle of acquaintances are heavily into highly dubious “alternative medicines” and “holistic health” practices. “An apple a day will keep the doctor away!” No, it won’t. And most people know that. But in evangelical Christian circles, all too often, “As the Bible says” is followed by something the Bible absolutely does NOT say and the speaker does not want to be told that. Nor do his or her friends in the Bible study or Sunday School class.
This is just the life of an evangelical theologian in America. I know it is not AS MUCH the case among many non-evangelical Christians. I have spoken in and participated in many non-evangelical churches and dialogue groups and Bible studies and found much greater openness to my knowledge and understanding and insights. The moment I “move” among white American evangelicals, however, I find myself under suspicion unless I hide my intellectual gifts and academic credentials under the proverbial bushel basket.
Noll’s book and my supporting experiences and reports here combine to present a strong indictment of American evangelicalism; one of its major weaknesses is uncritical thinking, if it can be called “thinking” at all.
Recently a seminary trained Baptist pastor told me that his deacons accused him of wanting to teach them about the Bible—too much. I was not surprised. Oh, the stories I could tell…but too many for this space. I will finish by saying that Noll’s book is absolutely right even if unlikely to make much of a difference. You can hardly change DNA.