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The evangelical mind must obey the moneyed enforcers of the tribe

The evangelical mind must obey the moneyed enforcers of the tribe June 24, 2012

Peter Enns offers a powerful one-two punch on the subject of what Mark Noll called The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.

First up was a post by Enns himself, titled, “‘If They Only Knew What I Thought’: The Sad Cycle of Evangelical Biblical Scholarship.”

He discusses both the frustration of students at evangelical institutions, who often feel, he writes, “they have been lied to by their teachers.” And he discusses the flip-side of that same problem, the overbearing pressure on those teachers to lie to their students because they’re not allowed to teach what they know to be true.

Once they start teaching, they bring with them the excitement of learning new things, some synthesis of old and new for their students, because they feel such conversations are necessary for intellectual and spiritual health.

But Evangelicalism does not exist to create these conversations, but to keep them from happening — or perhaps from getting out of hand. Decision makers are gatekeepers, and they rarely have the training or the inclination to walk the same intellectual and spiritual path. A strong response is inevitable.

This leaves these scholars to ponder how to engage that conversation with their students carefully but with integrity — which is to consign themselves to a life of cognitive dissonance. Either that or they bury their academic and spiritual instincts for fear of losing their jobs.

This is what happens to the “best and brightest” Evangelicals.

… The best Evangelical minds trained in the best research institutions have to make believe they don’t know what they know.

Making believe that you don’t know what you know is simply dishonest — it’s morally wrong. But I don’t place the blame for this primarily on those professors — they’re doing what they’re forced to do on threat of losing their livelihood. That doesn’t excuse them, or justify their dishonesty, but it points to where the greater blame for this corrupt system lies.

I place the bulk of that greater blame on the schools themselves, the institutions forcing these professors to “bury their academic and spiritual instincts for fear of losing their jobs.”

Enns recounts one anecdote from an evangelical scholar who returned to teach at the evangelical school he attended before going on to a less sectarian, more honest school to attain his higher degrees. The younger scholar …

… asked his former professor, now colleague, why he was sent to graduate school with so many gaps in his learning. The answer: “Our job was to protect you from this information so as not to shipwreck your faith.”

Enns’ response is brutally blunt:

I would replace “your faith” with “our system” and then I think we are closer to the truth.

The follow-up post at Enns’ site is by Dr. David Lincicum, lecturer in New Testament Studies at Oxford University, whom Enns introduces by saying:

Like many younger and academically trained evangelicals, Lincicum has had to do some thinking about the pressing tensions between his evangelical heritage and his academic training. The relationship between the two has been put into sharper relief for him by virtue of his time spent in a British evangelical context.

That difference between the American and British evangelical contexts is important. If evangelicalism were primarily a theological tradition, then British and American evangelicals would be more similar than they are. But American evangelicalism has ceased to be mainly a theological category. It’s now mainly a political subculture, a tribe. That tribalism in service of partisan politics is what forces American evangelical scholars to “make believe they don’t know what they know.”

Lincicum discusses this tribally enforced ignorance or pretense of ignorance in his guest post, titled: “Lament for a Maternal Home (or, Is There No Place for Believing Criticism in Evangelicalism?)“:

Recent months have witnessed a scene that is becoming all too familiar in contemporary North American evangelicalism: a noted evangelical scholar makes statements about Scripture that seem edgy or uncomfortable. The self-appointed guardians of orthodoxy turn on him, calling him to account for his errors in a public flagellation; their verdicts, in turn, are parroted by the petty tyrants of blogdom and the new social media. After repeated failed attempts to assuage his combatants, the embattled figure steps down from his post to avoid further distraction or pain.

… Evangelicals have a penchant for policing their borders that can be downright shocking in its brutality. Such parsimoniousness is the luxury of an establishment that is quickly fading in the West as we find ourselves at the dawn of a fully post-Christian age.

… The specter of anti-intellectualism (which has been haunting evangelicalism from its youth) rises in the doublespeak that says, “We are happy for you to use the best tools and methods available, as long as your conclusions agree with our own.”

The “thirst for control expressed in this theological McCarthyism,” Lincicum writes, is leading a younger generation of evangelical scholars to despair of whether honest scholarship will ever be permitted in American evangelicalism. “We dream of working at evangelical institutions without signing doctrinal statements with fingers crossed and one eye closed,” he writes.

Enns’ initial post has more than 5,100 “shares” and “likes.” I’d bet that many of those come from professors and graduate students at evangelical institutions who nervously clicked that “like” button while looking over their shoulders. They’re fearful that this small act of rebellion might somehow be found out by administrators enforcing the tribal boundaries insisted upon by the school’s wealthy donors.

Enns presumes the best motives of these administrators and gatekeepers. I do not. “Decision makers are gatekeepers,” Enns wrote, “and they rarely have the training or the inclination to walk the same intellectual and spiritual path.”

This disinclination of the “gatekeepers” is not due to a lack of academic training, nor even to intellectual timidity. It’s due to money.

What is and what is not permissible inquiry at evangelical institutions is determined by those institutions’ wealthy donors. It’s not that these donors are theologically conservative, but that they are politically conservative. Their theology is in service of their politics, which in turn is in service of their wealth.

That wealth — its acquisition, preservation and multiplication — is what shapes the boundaries of the evangelical tribe.

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