Preferring a narrowly defined gospel, why have so many American evangelicals in recent decades not invested more in intellectual pursuits? Mark A. Noll here in ‘The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind’ wants to know, and I hold that we should want to know along with him.
He opens this book published in 1995 in a provocative enough way.
“The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.”
There are a few surprising gems here, though. And Noll confirms a suspicion I recently arrived at from reading other things.
German pietism has had a few hundred years by now to emphasize as penultimate the importance of feelings in the Christian life, for one. In this way, the former preeminence which cultivating the life of the Christian mind enjoyed in the Church has gradually been displaced. This has left the Church in America especially vulnerable to a lot of nonsense, ignorance, and unreasonableness as we obsess over our emotions at the expense of truth and good works on God’s terms according to the Scriptures.
Yet I have something against Noll, that he seems not to appreciate the link between the condescension of liberal theology having administratively dominated American higher education and K-12 over the past century to the evacuation of conservative evangelical Christians from this space, even though these are two sides of the same coin. At the same time, and nevertheless, Noll criticizes fundamentalists above all for having thrown in the towel on playing by the rules of the liberal academy.
On the other hand, The Democratization of American Christianity by Nathan O. Hatch is referenced helpfully. However, Noll as a Progressive Christian comes across as fussy and whiny at points about the kinds of connections one might draw from Hatch’s work in a way that is, frankly, unbecoming. Nor does Noll thereby sell the merit where it is to be found in many of his anecdotes and observations, much like what I would say was the Achilles heel for Neil Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death.
Where Noll complains early and often about Creationism and fundamentalism, for instance, I cannot agree with him. He is downright insufferable. Moreover, I myself had to work hard not to be offended because he is being rude and presumptuous on the subject. I myself am a Creationist, after all.
But there is more where Noll also seems to be not drawing the relationship correctly between presuming that science on the terms of the positivists has ascended even as conservative Christians have been pushed out of every kind of “respectable” debate in secular and Statist institutions. But where respectable intellectuals are defined by their adherence to progressive presuppositions, the complaint that few to no conservative intellectuals qualify as such or are celebrated seems disingenuous. Thereafter, the further criticism that conservatives have taken their ball and gone home in many cases puts the cart before the horse – even considering that he wrote this book in 1995, and maybe all the more because he did, where we consider what has been wrought in the public square in the intervening years.
But where I appreciate most what Noll has to say is in his call for restoring a long, rich tradition in Christianity of scholarship. We all do need to rediscover intellectual rigor, study of the natural world, and engagement in every sphere of science to the glory of God. This is well, then. And the American Church would do well to heed this.
At the same time, Noll’s prescription for how to accomplish the thing is narrower-minded than Rod Dreher’s Live Not By Lies, for instance. Where Dreher calls more recently for more Christian home education and adult education especially, Noll seems to have eyes only for higher education and the academy on the terms of secularists and liberals. And he leaves scant to no room for conservative Christians whom Noll seems to lump into a kind of proto-basket of deplorables for American Christendom with his frequent use of the pejorative moniker ‘Fundamentalists.’
Yet I would challenge Noll and those taken with his survey. Consider real examples like mine and my neighbor JP Chavez’s – who did read this book before I myself did. In fact, Mr. Chavez recommended it to me. And we both read and discuss all these important books like Noll’s, and are endeavoring to cultivate the life of the mind to honor God, and to lead our families well, and to serve our local church with an eye to the rich history of not just Christian life, but also thought. But Noll seems incapable of imagining such eventualities.
Where Noll at times comes across as a bit of an elitist, I think his facts and historical treatment of evangelical Christianity in America is generally helpful. Yet, respectfully submitted, it could have been much more helpful without the condescension and self-aggrandizing of a particularly narrow vision of cultivating Christian intellect on the terms of the secular academy and progressive Christianity.
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