Calvin College philosopher James K.A. Smith delivered the final plenary lecture at “The State of the Evangelical Mind” conference last week. Very early in his talk Smith announced that “everything going on in this conference has no connection whatsoever to evangelical churches.” He was right.
Smith began by addressing the “elephant in room.” Up until this point all of the speakers danced around the links between the the so-called “scandal of the evangelical mind” and Donald J. Trump. Smith called out the 81% of American evangelicals who voted for the current POTUS and even gave a shout-out to my work on the “court evangelicals.”
Smith was not optimistic about the state of the evangelical mind. The “evangelical mind,” he lamented, is a “minority report at best.” If such an evangelical mind does exist, it is found almost entirely in “confessional groups.” In other words, it is not thriving, or perhaps even existing, in non-denominational churches. These congregations have grown from 194,000 in 1990 to eight million today. According to Smith, those concerned about the evangelical mind should be devoted to closing the gap between the scholarly world and these churches. Evangelicalism, he argued, is a “mission field for evangelical scholars.”
Following Smith’s call will require boldness on the part of Christian scholars. Smith urged us to consider a “scholarship for the masses,” a “scholarship without condescension,” an “outreach scholarship, and a “translation scholarship.” Our work with the church should be something akin to the work we do in undergraduate classroom teaching. Smith imagined bringing our general education programs into the churches
Smith calls Christian scholars to critique American evangelicalism while at the same time working for reform. The Christian Right, he said, is “invested in the anti-intellectualism of evangelical churches.” They rely on non-thinking Christians in order to advance their political agendas. The fulfillment of Smith’s vision will require evangelical scholars to stay in their churches and engage in a “come alongside scholarship.” He reminded us that “you can’t be a prophet on your way out the door.” Such work will require scholars dedicated to the church, Christian colleges and universities willing to provide time to faculty who want to pursue this work, and patrons willing to fund such an effort. Where is the Christian scholar MacArthur grants? Why isn’t the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities developing a program to promote Christian scholarship along the lines of the National Endowment for the Humanities?
There were times during Smith’s talk when I wanted to stand up and cheer. As many of you know, I have been trying to live out Smith’s vision for over a decade and it has been a somewhat lonely experience. To hear a leading evangelical intellectual like Smith affirm the kind of things I have been doing through my speaking, my writing, and my work at The Way of Improvement Leads Home gave me hope.