What Do Evangelical Professors Do, Anyway?

What Do Evangelical Professors Do, Anyway? December 9, 2014

professor studyI have a suggestion for a fun question you could throw out at your annual Christmas party. “Professors,” you could say vaguely. “What is it they do, anyway?”

You’ll likely get a bunch of answers, many of them expressing confusion. Some will voice skepticism–the professorate is an escape from real life. Thinking, after all, is much harder to justify in empirical terms than other disciplines. Do not underestimate the power of empiricism in America.

Whatever your view of empiricism, this much seems clear: few vocations are as strange as the professorate, particularly in evangelical circles.

Evangelicals and the Life of the Mind: A Fraught Partnership

Christians have historically had a tough time with scholarship. More broadly, Christians have often struggled to see the value of the life of the mind. This last phrase is a fancy way of saying thinking. Historically, the church in America has often tended toward what we could call spiritual pragmatism. You get people saved in the most efficient way possible, and then you do it again. Revivalism spurred such thinking on in the nineteenth century and beyond. What’s really important are evangelistic events; the rest of the Christian life is just fine print.

This is a quixotic situation, because Christians have at key moments recognized the value of thinking. If you consider Europe, it was the age of Christendom (no golden age, this) that birthed one excellent school after another: Cambridge, Oxford, and the list goes on. If you think of America, Christians began the schools that now provide the intellectual capital for the global elite: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and so on. In many cases, these schools were not begun out of a thoroughly-developed intellectual vision. They were generally started to train clergy.

Over time, this vision morphed, as readers will know. George Marsden has chronicled the shift toward secularism in the academy in his masterful The Soul of the American University. To understand modern America, read this book post-haste. James Tunstead Burtchaell has done similarly profitable work in The Dying of the Light. 

The aspect of this educational transformation that especially piques my interest is the correspondence between increasing academic secularization and decreasing Christian intellectualism. As modern schools grow larger, the Christian intellectual vision seems to grow smaller. I’m not sure why; intimidation, maybe. Hopelessness, perhaps. But whatever the reason, as schools like Harvard expanded their academic vision in the early 20th century, Christians trimmed their schools’ mission statements. Out was the Christian university; in was the evangelical Bible institute. Such schools–which proliferated by the dozens in the years prior to World War II, as Virginia Brereton’s Training God’s Army has shown–intentionally sought to be the equivalent of training schools, or what we could call technical colleges today.

At such institutions, the curriculum was often “the Bible alone.” In actual fact, close devotional reading of the Scripture was supplemented by practical education–teaching, evangelism, trades learning. Professors at such schools were little more than instructors. They taught a plain and simple curriculum, they wrote little, and they focused almost exclusively on the students before them.

The Modern Evangelical Resurgence

There were many strengths to this system. By all accounts, it fostered a love for God’s Word, one not easily compromised by cultural challenge. Would that all evangelical schools were so tied to the mast. It created a sense of community and shared mission. It launched many hundreds and thousands of missionaries and ministry workers. Joel Carpenter notes in Revive Us Again that Moody Bible Institute alone produced around 1,400 missionaries by the 1940s. One out of every seven missionaries from America was a graduate of Moody. That is a stunning achievement.

But there were significant weaknesses as well. In general, the American church had essentially conceded–and had been forced to concede–the life of the mind to secularists. If you were a person who loved thinking deeply, and who wanted to ponder the greatest texts and ask the most high-level questions, evangelical faith could seem malnourished. Christianity had a rigorously practical character, one that laudably drove thousands, even millions, to work sacrificially for the cause of missions and evangelism. But Christianity also seemed to many to be very nearly anti-intellectual, culturally defeatist, and to have made peace with its marginalization.

I tell the story of how the neo-evangelicals, led by Harold John Ockenga, Carl F. H. Henry, and Billy Graham, reversed this situation in my forthcoming Awakening the Evangelical Mind (fall 2015). But though I have a great deal to say about this attempted renaissance, I’ll leave off with the general narrative and focus on what these trends have meant for that strangest of species: the evangelical professor.

Because of the trends sketched above, many evangelical professors have struggled to find their place. By nature, they enjoy the life of the mind (at least many do). They want to serve the church and help in some small way to see the body of Christ fulfill the Great Commission. But they also love intellectual life, and that does not rest easy alongside what I have called spiritual pragmatism. Where do evangelical professors fit, then? What do they do, anyway?

The Pleasant Tasks of Evangelical Professors

Evangelical professors at secular schools have the privilege, in my view, of being intellectually-inclined missionaries to their context. They have an unparalleled opportunity to teach well in settings that are often hostile or at the very least ambivalent to Christianity. They should not be quick to relinquish such positions, but should sagely cultivate their career, practicing gospel shrewdness and being light in dark places.

My primary interest in this little piece, however, is the role of the evangelical professor at evangelical institutions. What should professors at Christian schools be doing?

This calling will vary, of course. Some professors are more focused on research, others on teaching, others on discipleship. Most evangelical institutions place a premium on teaching. Course loads will be higher than at R1 universities (top research schools), for example, and this can lead to stronger bonds with students and a better educational experience for students than will be had at R1s. Counseling, discipleship, mentoring, training, investment: these are gifts that many evangelical colleges and universities give their students.

Many evangelical professors increasingly enjoy the life of the mind. This is a manifestly healthy development for the evangelical movement. Spiritual pragmatism had its day, but the challenges of a post-modern culture bode ill for intellectually malnourished Christianity. If Christian youth are trained to embrace the faith by church ministry that emphasizes entertainment and world-like media (“If you like Maroon 5, you’ll love…), then we should not only anticipate that our youth will fall away, we should expect it. The church too often treats young people just like the world does. We coddle them, talk down to them, entertain them, and train them to think that being immature is more fun than being mature. In so doing, we set them up to crash and burn spiritually.

Evangelical professors thus have the delicious chance to show students a better way. They have the privilege of grounding the life of the mind not in chaos theory, but in intelligent design. They have the opportunity to begin the intellectual enterprise not with Voltaire, but with Christ and his greatest commandment. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind (Matthew 22:37). They have the delight of leading students to see that immaturity, characterized in our day by raunch culture, hook-ups, postmodern academic ideology, and therapeutic narcissism, is a massive fail. Maturity is delightful. Driven by the Spirit, it leaves you changed. It transforms you.

Evangelical professors can show students that the life of the mind is invigorating. Enlivening. Exciting. Catalyzing. Systematizing. Cohering. They can do so in the classroom. They can do so in personal interactions. They can do so in writing.

The life of the professor is a continual one. It is a vocation, not a job. It does not stop at the end of the semester. By contrast, the excellent professor–the one who gives you a passion for their discipline, regardless of whether you originally like it or not–works year-round. The excellent professor has to be thinking constantly about their field. They chew up books to learn more about their discipline and how it relates to other disciplines. They work on a journal article that is not long in length but makes a contribution to their field. They read fifty, 100, 200, 500 books so that they can write one well.

There are of course some professors who have checked out. They don’t have much energy or ambition. They have a lot of time to themselves but not much to show for it. People who under-produce are not authentic to the academy, however. They’re found everywhere. Most evangelical professors relish their work. They see it as a calling, not a 9-5. They work well beyond expectations. They want to do so. They have tremendous impetus, after all, because they are serving the Lord, and not merely a department head or a board of trustees.

Should Evangelical Professors Attempt Technical Scholarship?

I think there’s still a good bit of spiritual pragmatism in the evangelical movement, however. Some of this is because academics don’t always do a great job of making their case. They don’t always thrive at showing why their high-level work matters, how it trickles down through their teaching into the life of the church. They need to communicate better, and establish that the life of the mind needs no justification. God thinks. He created the brain. Thinking is an irreducible good. It does not necessarily create results as immediate as other activities. But a people who believe in life-long discipleship and daily perseverance must know that many of the best things in life take a long time and do not yield immediate or flashy outcomes.

There’s a great scene in The Devil Wears Prada in which a priestess of high fashion upbraids a young worker who fails to see that the color of bargain-basement sweaters is not disconnected from high fashion but in fact depends on it. In the same way, but with less snark, much of the doctrine preached to the pew has been thoroughly debated, worked over, and developed in the academy before it arrives in the church. But academics are not always attuned to generalist communication.

Theology matters. And it is for this reason that I believe that evangelical professors should not only write for pastors and for the general market. We should also write for the academy. I was stimulated by the recent Themelios essay, “Three Reflections on Evangelical Academic Publishing,” by my friend Andy Naselli. He made many good points. One of them centered in pushback against an overly academy-heavy publishing strategy. Evangelical professors can write profitably for academic, yes, Andy said, but should also feel free to write for the church. I heartily agree. I do.

But I would add just one remark here. Evangelical professors should not trim their ambitions. We should inform them with a rich biblical theology of vocation and the intellect. We should remember the centrality of Christ. But we should, when possible, attempt great academic feats. We should seek to write books that will set the scholarly standard in our field. Many of us love writing for pastors and laypeople. But we should also produce technical exegetical commentaries, distinctive theological monographs, exhaustive scholarly histories.

At least, that is, some of us should. Not everyone. But some. We need to reverse the historic trend of the church’s engagement with the life of the mind. When the culture secularizes, the church dims its lamps. It damps down its intellectual ambitions. It sighs, laments the rising tide, and puts away its notebooks and its studies. It cedes ground to the big bad wolf of secularism, and embraces spiritual pragmatism, its old and trustworthy friend.

We must not do this today. We must give good answers to our youth. We must teach well in our classes. We must write books that capture the intellectual imagination of the church. We must build institutions that literally embody our love of the life of the mind. We must never think that the educational task can be bottled, packaged, or marginalized. We must look to Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Edwards, Kuyper, and Henry and see afresh that the intellectual life requires massive investment and continual effort. It is bounded to and shaped by the Word of God. We think according to a Word-ordered worldview that unleashes our pent-up intellectual longings and leads them to discover great gobs of the truth.

What is it evangelical professors do, anyway? None of us do all we should, or even close. But day in and day out, we delight to serve the Lord by seeking to think deeply, teach excellently, and write searchingly. The life of the mind can look abstract, disconnected, even lazy, perhaps. But if it is conducted in service to Christ, it leads not only to illumination, but to worship.

This is a high calling, indeed.

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