Evangelical Churches and Intellectuals

Is evangelicalism anti-intellectual?  As many of our readers know, Mark Noll answered this question twenty years ago with a resounding “yes” in his book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.

Do evangelical churches contribute to this kind of anti-intellectualism?  Last October, Stephen Mattson of the University of Northwestern in St. Paul, MN, writing at Sojourners, answered this question with a resounding “yes” in a piece entitled “Do Churches Alienate Intellectuals?”  Mattson believes that there are three primary reasons why churches tend to alienate Christian intellectuals.

First, Mattson writes, “churches prefer certainty over doubt.”  I would probably phrase this a little differently and say that churches are not very good at dealing with complexity. Now don’t get me wrong.  I expect my minister to preach with authority and exhort the congregation to put truth into practice.  Sermons are not always conducive to complexity, and I am OK with this.

But unfortunately this kind of authority or certainty often informs the way people in a given congregation analyze social, cultural and political issues.  I would assume that all evangelical ministers want the people in their congregation to think Christianly, or biblically, or theologically about the world around them,   If this is the case, then ministers must acknowledge the fact that such thinking does not always lead the thinker to end up in the same place on this or that social issue. Issues such as whether or not the United States was founded as a Christian nation or whether or not to support Obamacare are complex.  Serious, smart, and faithful Christians can come to different conclusions about these issues.  This is why there are few Christian humanists in evangelical churches.  Most of them flock to denominations or traditions that celebrate the mystery of Christianity and, consequently, the diversity that abounds in the Church on this side of eternity.

What I have described above is part of the reason why I have always resisted joining a small group or participating in men’s fellowship activities at my church.  I applaud these groups for the way that they attempt to cultivate spirituality among attendees, but whenever I have attended them in the past I have always ended up being the only guy in the room who is asking uncomfortable questions about the Biblical text under consideration or questioning the group’s presuppositions on this or that issue.  I try to be polite and civil when I do this, but I always leave feeling like the odd duck.  Sometimes I just stay quiet until I get in the car and start complaining to my wife!  I also realize that this is partly my fault.  I need to work harder at being part of my church community, but it is often difficult when complexity ruffles so many feathers.

One more thing on this front.  Most intellectuals I know are not very good at small talk. But we will often light up when the conversation turns to deeper matters or when you put us in front of a Sunday School class or adult education forum.  Many of us are introverts.  As a result others in church can often perceive us as aloof or even rude.

Do any other church-going intellectuals feel the same way?

Second, Mattson writes, “churches are anti-science.”  Since I am not a scientist, this one does not bother me as much.  But I know it bothers some of the scientists in my congregation.  Frankly, I can’t get my head around the fact that so many people in my church believe that global warming is a myth. I seldom talk about this issue with folks from my church because I don’t want to ruffle feathers or create undue division in the community.  Maybe I should change my approach here.

Third, Mattson argues that the church should be doing a better job at Christian education.  Again, a caveat is in order here.  I have yet to find any brand of Christianity that is better than evangelicalism at forming young people in the faith.  Having said that, evangelical churches could do a much better job of bringing college-level or seminary-level courses in Biblical studies, theology, or church history to their members and attendees.  Mattson writes:  

Unfortunately, churches now depend on higher education to do most of the in-depth training that was once commonplace among lay parishioners. The average believer seemingly knows less and less of the Bible and the historical context of the Christian faith with each passing year. Churches need to remember that very few of their members attend or attended Christian colleges or seminaries. Churches (with a few exceptions) no longer offer classes about church history, Greek, Hebrew, proper exegesis, or groundbreaking Bible studies to churchgoers — these are reserved for Bible colleges and the students who attend them.

Let’s remember that nearly all of the people attending evangelical churches today did not attend a Christian college, a Bible college, or a theological seminary.  It is thus not surprising that people like Noll and Mattson lament the church’s anti-intellectualism.  Why don’t more evangelical churches have a “theologian in residence” or a staff member devoted to equipping the saints in this way.

Mattson concludes:

Overall, modern Christianity has modeled a strategy of comfort, where believers are viewed as consumers that need to be pleased and catered to — not challenged or made to feel uncomfortable. Intellectuals are not the target demographic within churches, so they rarely garner much attention or care, and it’s widely believed that they would be better off in an academic setting rather than a spiritual one. 
It seems that thoughtful evangelicals can do one of two things.  They can either leave their evangelical churches (as many, many, many have done, especially those of us in the humanities) or they can stay within evangelicalism and seek opportunities to cultivate a Christian mind among the congregations where they have been placed.  I have thought long and hard about pursuing the first option, but I have decided to at least try, however imperfectly, to pursue the second option.
During my two years of ecumenical dialogue and conversation as a Lilly Fellows in the Humanities and the Arts at Valparaiso University I realized that evangelicals were “my people” and thus deserved my loyalty. (Of course it also helps that I believe in the transforming power of the gospel as preached by evangelicals).  But I also realize that as an intellectual in a mainstream evangelical church I will always, it seems, occupy a liminal space.  I am prepared to live with the tensions.

8 thoughts on “Evangelical Churches and Intellectuals

  1. I was going to post some kind of sarcastic comment about global warming, but I see that someone beat me to it in terms of missing the point of the essay 😉

    Love this John!

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  3. Continuing….

    5) “anti-environment”: I know, the “non-intellectuals” just can't get enough of dirty air and drinking dirty water. (eye roll) One may not like the fact that coal cause some pollution, but it is also inexpensive and abundant. Natural gas production as a result of fracking has led the U.S. to actually reduce it's CO2 output over the last decade or so. “Anti-environment” doesn't mean what those who use it want the label to imply. It simply a way to say “you don't agree with our viewpoint and how things should be done”. Removing one more microgram of some pollutant from the air or water at some exorbitant cost does not make one “anti-environment”. In the non-political world, it's called economics. In my profession, it's called engineering economics — what is the safest product you can build with the least amount of risk for a reasonable amount of money. There are no zero risk options in this world. There are only trade-offs.

    6) “anti-psychology”: Don't know anyone who fits here, although I suspect there's plenty that wouldn't want to trust their mental health to someone who views mental health in a strictly secular manner. Be similar to Christians going to pre-marriage counseling and asking a secular person if it's OK to have sex before marriage or to live together beforehand. “Sure,” they say, “you need to find out if you're 'sexually compatible'”.

    7) “anti-medicine”: I know of no one in my religious circles who hasn't been to a doctor because they are “anti-medicine”, and there are plenty of evangelicals who are physicians, surgeons, dentists, nurses, etc.

    8) “anti-women”: another term that's more political rhetoric than anything else. “Anti-woman” is nothing more than a synonym for 'anti-abortion'. Are all the women I know that are anti-abortion “anti-woman”? Since 1973, there's been approx 20,000,000 women-to-be killed in the womb. Are there any policies in place advocated by the “anti-intellectual” crowd that can top that?

    One last comment, Dr. Fea. I agree that evangelicals don't, in my experience, often deal with complex issues. I think we do ourselves a disservice in not addressing them. Personally I would greatly enjoy being in a group with some folks who might challenge my ideas.

    I've taken enough of your time and blog space. Have a good day.

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  4. Forgive me for the length of this one, but being “one of those” to whom this article is aimed, I trust you'll grant me some leeway.

    1) anti-science in general: I consider that phrase to be more political rhetoric than anything else. I've taken biology, chemistry, physics, statics, dynamics, thermodynamics, electromagnetic field theory, basic electricity/electronics just to name a few in the course of my education. I know plenty of evangelical doctors and dentists, engineers, architects, teachers and others who work in the field of science. How these folks are “anti-science” when they depend on science for their occupations I fail to grasp.

    2) “anti-evolution”: Guilty on this one. Science is about observation and reproducible results, not about unobserved occurrences supposedly from millions or billions of years ago and which one cannot test or validate. Yeah, I find the thought of a big explosion putting the universe into order to be silly. I find it more silly to think some blob decided he wanted to become a fish and then an ape and then a man. Toss in “theistic evolution” for another spin/variation on the topic.

    3) “anti-global warming”: The earth warms. The earth cools. Done so for a long time. The dispute is over whether or not man is causing it and that we're all doomed if we don't do something about it. Scientists and such experts have a long, long history of making such failed predictions. Man is also an arrogant creature. Nothing quite as arrogant and prideful than to think that in barely over 100 years you have put in motion the means by which to alter planetary weather.

    The man-made-global-warming crowd – or climate disruption or climate change or whatever the “term du jour” is – keeps saying that the “science is settled” and that there's a “consensus”. But when is science ever settled? Is it not the very nature of science to subject it to verification and revision and to continually test it?

    Yet we've come to the point that to be skeptical about putting our trust in computer programs that portend to predict global temperatures 75 and 100 years from now is be equated with Holocaust deniers.

    Goodness, it was only 15 or so years ago that we had “experts” tossing out predictions that if we didn't “do something” about Y2K that airplanes would be falling out of the sky, we couldn't be able to get money out of ATMs, people would be stuck in elevators, the power grid was going to fail, “dogs and cats living together…mass hysteria!!” etc., etc. Ho-hum. Jan 1 2000 came and went and life went on without any noticeable interruptions, regardless of whether someone spend millions doing code remediation or none at all.

    Human beings are notoriously wrong about predicting the future. The “pro-science” folks say we skeptics are “anti-science”, but if science is based on observation and verifiable results and my observation is that such “experts” have struck out continually with their doomsday predictions over the last 100 years, why should I and other Americans bet billions, if not trillions, of dollars that the next time you step up to the plate and stare down that fast-ball of a prediction that you're going to crank one out of the park with this latest prediction and be right?

    I don't think so.

    4) “anti-pro-choice”: What this one has to do with being “anti-science” I do not know. This one lends itself to make the case that the entire premise has more do do with denigrating the opposition and advancing the political agenda of one group than anything to do with science.

    continued…….

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  5. “What I have described above is part of the reason why I have always resisted joining a small group or participating in men's fellowship activities at my church. I applaud these groups for the way that they attempt to cultivate spirituality among attendees, but whenever I have attended them in the past I have always ended up being the only guy in the room who is asking uncomfortable questions about the Biblical text under consideration or questioning the group's presuppositions on this or that issue. I try to be polite and civil when I do this, but I always leave feeling like the odd duck. Sometimes I just stay quiet until I get in the car and start complaining to my wife! I also realize that this is partly my fault. I need to work harder at being part of my church community, but it is often difficult when complexity ruffles so many feathers.

    One more thing on this front. Most intellectuals I know are not very good at small talk. But we will often light up when the conversation turns to deeper matters or when you put us in front of a Sunday School class or adult education forum. Many of us are introverts. As a result others in church can often perceive us as aloof or even rude.

    Do any other church-going intellectuals feel the same way?”

    YES! I can so relate. And sometimes staying becomes extremely hard, particularly if the environment is not only anti-intellectual but intolerant.

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  6. This is a very interesting post, Dr. Fea. I would love to see you unpack what work your loyalty to Evangelicals as your people does in your thought. Are there ways that you try to conform yourself to the Evangelical practices/ideas which you find uncomfortable?

    Thanks again,

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  7. John, I could write much in response to this excellent post–but, in short, yes: this has largely been my experience (especially with your description of small and men's groups). The one exception to this was when I was in graduate school in NC and belonged to a church that drew many academics from both Duke and UNC. But the demographics of our shared context of central PA are quite different from Chapel Hill or Durham. The primary saving grace for me is that my pastor is sensitive to these issues.

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