Dan Turello of the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress interviews University of Notre Dame historian Mark Noll. Noll is a member of the Library of Congress’s Scholar’s Council.
Here is a taste:
Just over 20 years ago, you published a book that made waves, titled “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.” Then, as now, you identified as an Evangelical, and the book was issued by an Evangelical publishing house. What was the “scandal” and why did you feel it was important to write this book?
The scandal of the evangelical mind, I said in that book, was that not much “an evangelical mind” existed. I still believe that this assessment is correct, although I would now try to put it in ways that require at least a couple of subordinate clauses, along the following lines: Since the seventeenth century and the rise of European pietism, and then the emergence of evangelicalism in Britain and her colonies in the eighteenth century, pietistic and evangelical impulses have greatly assisted in adapting historical Christianity to the individualism, democracy, and practical mind-set of western modernity. At the same time, that very process of adaptation has, with a few exceptions like the New England minister Jonathan Edwards, hindered pietists and evangelicals in thinking carefully about the basic questions concerning God, the physical world, social order, other cultures, and the human condition.
Broader and more comprehensive thinking of that sort needs the intellectual and theological ballast provided by the historical Christian traditions (Catholic, Calvinist, Lutheran, or even Orthodox). Pietists and evangelicals who make use of those traditions are in a good position to think carefully and to produce responsible intellectual work, even as they can bring a measure of spiritual vitality to those traditions. But because of the populist, individualist, and activist character of evangelicalism, the foundations for productive thinking need to be sought somewhere other than in evangelicalism itself. I wrote “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” to encourage other evangelicals, along with myself, to think more responsibly about how to contribute to serious intellectual endeavor.
What do you think has changed over 20 years? How are Evangelicals who are part of the Gen X, Gen Y, and Millennial generations living out the relationship between faith, life, and scholarship?
My sense is that a considerable number of younger scholars with evangelical or similar backgrounds now do much better with intellectual tasks. Evangelicals now enjoy more good models of responsible scholarship in philosophy, the history and philosophy of science, sociology, history, and more recently also law, biology, physics, and other disciplines. What has not changed, I fear, is the general climate that besets not just evangelical communities, but the wider public landscape, where snap judgments, tendentious politicized partisanship, and the rush to instant analysis undermine all serious intellectual efforts. In other words, it is possible to find a wider array of responsible Christian thinking in the broader intellectual marketplace (admittedly, not all wanting to be identified as “evangelical”), even as that marketplace is overrun by shoddy thinking, name calling, and a great deal of all-or-nothing media hype. We self-identified evangelicals, I fear, contribute too much of the latter and still not enough of the former.