Stupid Christians

Stupid Christians January 4, 2013

Review of The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind by Mark Noll


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.

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