Early in his career, Jacobs experienced what might be called an extended crisis of audience, a crisis he recalled when I interviewed him in February. At the time a professor of English at Wheaton College, an evangelical school outside of Chicago, he was publishing scholarly work within his field but was increasingly devoting time to writing essays and theological pieces for Christian magazines and journals. Switching back and forth could be disorienting, and he spent several years debating and praying about which audience he should focus on. “At one point, I just had an epiphany: You don’t get to choose.You’re gonna have to write for your scholarly peers, and you’re gonna have to write for your fellow Christians because you have things to say to both audiences. So, that means, you gotta learn to code switch.”
Since making that decision, Jacobs has published 15 books on literature, technology, theology and cognitive psychology and has written for such disparate publications as The American Scholar, First Things and Harper’s. His résumé is nine pages long without his book reviews (approximately 75) or online writing (hundreds of articles and blog posts). It calls to mind David Foster Wallace’s comment about John Updike: “Has the sonofabitch ever had one unpublished thought?”
Jacobs is now 59 and teaches humanities at Baylor University, a Baptist school in Waco, Tex., with the delightful motto “Pro Ecclesia, Pro Texana.” He has kind eyes beneath mantis-like glasses and a warm, mischievous smile framed by a trim salt-and-pepper beard. He looks and dresses less like an academic than a middle-aged middle manager at a tech company—which is to say, both cool and not.
In the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, Jacobs grew concerned over what he was witnessing. “I was watching the country come apart. I felt that, across the board, there was this failure to think. There was also a failure of charity, and I wanted to address that.”
So he quickly wrote How to Think: A Guide for the Perplexed, a short and engaging book that offers strategies for thinking more clearly and charitably at a time when the media fosters agitation and discourages thinking. The New York Times columnist David Brooks called it “absolutely splendid.”