What is happening at Spring Arbor University?

Spring Arbor

Spring Arbor University just fired one of its most talented young professors

I know a few faculty members at Spring Arbor University, a Christian college in Spring Arbor, Michigan. But when I think about this school, I think first about English professor Jeff Bilbro. In the world of Christian scholarship and intellectual life, I have long considered him to be the public face of the university.

Bilbro graduated from George Fox University in 2007. I am guessing that this makes him around 35 years old. He has already published or edited five books. Jeff’s scholarly essays have appeared in Christianity and LiteratureChristian Scholars ReviewSouth Atlantic ReviewThe Journal of Ecocriticism, Milton Quarterly, Early American Literature, Journal of Narrative Theory, Mythlore, and The Southern Literary Journal. I have benefited from his essays on Phillis Wheatley, C.S. Lewis, and Wendell Berry. In addition to his scholarly work, Jeff has published pieces in a variety of popular venues and he currently serves as editor of The Front Porch Republic.

Seldom does one find such a productive and thoughtful Christian scholar. If I was an administrator facing tough faculty cuts, Jeff Bilbro would be on my untouchable list. He would be the kind of professor I would want to rebuild around.

Now he is gone, or at least he will be gone after this coming academic year.

I don’t know all the details of Bilbro’s situation. But I have met Jeff, corresponded with him, and share several mutual friends. I can attest that he is a kind, genuine, and gracious Christian scholar who cares deeply about the mission of Spring Arbor and Christian higher education.

What does Jeff Bilbro’s story tell us about Spring Arbor University?

More importantly, what does this story tell us about the fate of some of our brightest Christian intellectuals working at Christian colleges?

Sadly, we are going to see more of this.

John Wesley and the Life of the Mind

ef580-wesley

“I am an evangelical Christian, so it was nice to hear a lecture about evangelicalism that was not related to contemporary politics.”

This was our intern Annie Thorn‘s response to Bruce Hindmarsh’s lecture “John Wesley, Early Evangelicalism, and Science.” Hindmarsh, the James M. Houston Professor of Spiritual Theology and Professor of the History of Christianity at Regent College in Vancouver, delivered this lecture on Tuesday night at Messiah College.  Hindmarsh is the author of three books published by Oxford University Press: John Newton and the English Evangelical Tradition (1996),  The Evangelical Conversion Narrative (2005), and The Spirit of Early Evangelicalism (2018).  He is the past-president of the American Society of Church History.

Hindmarsh, whose lecture drew upon his 2018 book on early evangelicalism, argued that the rise of evangelicalism coincided historically with the reception of modern science in mainstream eighteenth-century culture.  The new science was generally embraced by evangelicals as a source of what Hindmarsh describes as “wonder, love, and praise.”  Few did more to popularize the new science than John Wesley.

According to Hindmarsh, Wesley accepted the findings of the new science, but he “nested” these new ideas in the “glory of God.” In other words, there was no tension between the two. Wesley was not an anti-intellectual. He wrote a host of books and pamphlets on science. His contemplation of the created order, and his advancement of society’s understanding of the new science, aroused the same kind of “doxology and praise” that stemmed from his conversion experience, that moment in Wesley’s life when his “heart was strangely warmed.”

I left the lecture with several thoughts.

First, like Annie, I was glad to hear again about evangelicals, like Wesley and Jonathan Edwards, who were intellectuals. If you read this blog regularly, you know I have been re-reading Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectual in American Life.  In his chapter on evangelicalism, Hofstadter argues that New England Puritans were people of the mind, but the project integrating faith and learning all but disappeared with the revivalism of the First Great Awakening.  (Edwards, Hofstadter argues, was the exception here).  Hindmarsh is one of several scholars of evangelicalism who has challenged this idea. (Although I am not sure Hofstadter is completely wrong.  I am inclined to think of Edwards and Wesley as outliers).

As I listened to Hindmarsh in the context of my fresh reading of Hofstadter, I realized again that much of the motivation behind the work of the previous generation of evangelical historians–George Marsden and Mark Noll come immediately to mind–was to challenge Hofstadter’s portrayal of evangelicalism as anti-intellectual. Marsden, Noll, and others authors showed us that evangelicals did care about thinking. They also showed us with their lives and work that “evangelical intellectual” is not an oxymoron.

Hindmarsh’s lecture, and my post-lecture conversation with Annie, made me think about Noll’s book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Noll argues that the anti-intellectual populism of present-day evangelicalism was more of a 19th and 20th-century phenomenon than an 18th-century one.  Modern day evangelicals can find serious thinkers in their history.  Noll showed that it is possible to explain the evangelical move toward anti-intellectualism as a rejection of the intellectual pursuits of evangelicals like Edwards and Wesley.

Second, it was good to listen to a scholar talk about the 18th-century. I told Bruce that his lecture made me long for the days when I used to spend most of my time doing early American history. Indeed, it’s a lot safer there. 🙂 I hope to return to this world once this whole Trump thing dies down!

Third, I left with a question about Messiah College, the school where I teach.  Messiah is rooted in the Anabaptist, Wesleyan, and Pietist traditions of the Christian faith. Of these three traditions, Anabaptism seems to be the one that gets the most attention.  I think this is because Anabaptism’s commitment to peace and social justice often fits well with the progressive mindset of many academics.  But if there are Anabaptist and Pietist intellectual traditions, they often get overshadowed by a kind of activism (Anabaptism) and experiential religion (Pietism) that does not always draw heavily on the life of the mind. (This, I might add, is changing–especially on the Pietism front). But Hindmarsh made me wonder if Wesleyanism, at least as articulated by Wesley himself, might help us with the heavy intellectual lifting necessary for a Christian college to sustain a robust life of the mind.  I will continue to ponder this.

Help Bring John Wilson to *Englewood Review of Books*

Portrait of John Wilson

John Wilson

I am really glad to hear that Englewood Review of Books is growing and making a concerted effort to bring John Wilson aboard full-time.  Here is a letter from editor Christopher Smith and several other scholars, including historian Mark Noll:

As you might be aware, John has been employed with us at The Englewood Review of Books as Contributing Editor for the last six months. We have been delighted to have John on staff, and his work is already bearing fruit: He has identified excellent books to feature that would not otherwise have been on our radar; he found new reviewers to write for us (including Philip Jenkins); and he has thoughtfully written columns for our recent issues. John’s role with us is minimal at the present, but we would like to employ him in a greater capacity (ideally full-time) beginning as soon as possible in the coming year.

As friends and co-workers of The Englewood Review, we are delighted to announce that we are entering an exciting season of building capacity, extending our readership, and moving toward fiscal sustainability. The strategy we are developing will unfold over the next five years, and will include a new and more mobile-friendly website, publicity efforts to broaden our readership in churches and in academic settings, and partnerships with institutions that share our mission of cultivating the timely habits of reading and conversation.

Given that these plans will take some time to develop, and given that we don’t want to wait until they come fully to fruition to expand the scope of John’s work with us, we are initiating a fundraising effort to cover the interim cost of John Wilson’s employment. We plan to raise $250,000, which would cover the cost of about three years of John’s employment with us. We have set up a restricted fund devoted solely to compensating John for his work with us. These funds will not be used for any other initiatives of The Englewood Review of Books.
 
We know that you share our deep gratitude for the important work that John did over his two decades as editor of Books & Culture, and for his significant contributions to cultivating the breadth and depth of the Christian mind in recent years. And so, we invite you to celebrate John with us by contributing to this fund that will support his work over the next few years. This fund is hosted by Englewood Community Development Corporation, the parent organization of The Englewood Review of Books, which is a 501(c)(3) non-profit, and any donations will be documented as tax deductible. (Specifically, any donations dated on or before December 31, 2018 can be claimed as deductions on your 2018 taxes.)  Contributions are welcome from individuals and institutions who desire to honor John’s work and help advance the mission of The Englewood Review of Books.

Please join us in celebrating John Wilson in this way.

Alan Jacobs: Christian Intellectual

jacobsCheck out David Michael’s piece on Baylor humanities professor Alan Jacobs.  A taste:

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.”

Read the entire piece here.  See our posts on Jacobs’s work here.

Are There Any Evangelical Intellectuals Who Support Donald Trump?

Metaxas

Is Eric Metaxas an intellectual?

First,  a quick comment about the title of this post.  I am operating under the assumption that “evangelical intellectual” is not an oxymoron.

Can anyone name an evangelical intellectual who currently supports the administration of Donald Trump?  I am not asking for names of evangelical intellectuals who voted for Trump in 2016, but rather someone who uses his or her intellectual skills and public access to mainstream American political discourse as a means of supporting Trump’s presidency.  I would also consider culturally engaged and well-published evangelical academics as “evangelical intellectuals.”

I am thinking here about intellectuals who identify as “evangelical” and have a platform that transcends the evangelical subculture.

I am not trying to be snarky here.  I really want to know if there are people out there that I am missing.  Every evangelical public intellectual I know is anti-Trump.  Yesterday a reporter asked me to identify a thoughtful pro-Trump evangelical and I could not come up with one.

Could Eric Metaxas fit the bill?  Is it fair to call him an intellectual?  This reporter did not seem to think so, but others might disagree.

I am eager to read your suggestions, but I am also eager to read how you might deconstruct the question.

“Loyalty and respect not present in any other kind of social criticism.”  

Christian scholar

Christian academics occupy a very lonely space.

We are not entirely trusted, and often looked upon with suspicion, by our faith communities.

We are also not entirely trusted, and often looked upon with suspicion, by the academic communities we inhabit.

Some Christian intellectuals have chosen to simply abandon the academic community and write within the community of the Church.  Others have chosen to pursue academic lives within the guild and keep their faith private.  But if one is to take seriously her or his intellectual calling in both spaces, companions are few.

I have written about this tension often here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  It is a part of my intellectual life that I cannot shake.  It has returned again this month as I have been teaching in my church.  As I was preparing for my last class, I read this passage in Glenn Tinder’s The Political Meaning of Christianity:

One must keep a measure of critical distance even from the Church.  The Church in history is not the Kingdom of God, and the alienation inherent in living as a destined member of the Kingdom of God, within history, is inescapable.  One can only give such alienation moral and spiritual form by using it as the basis for prophetic relationship with the world around. And the Church is part of the world around.  Hence, it is subject to prophetic criticism and appraisal.

On the other hand, however, to criticize and appraise the Church prophetically is to be aware that the Church is distinct from the world around even though part of it.  The Church, as envisioned by faith, is essentially different from any other institution.  Hence, critical independence of the Church is different from the critical independence that may characterize an individual’s relationship to other social groups.  Strictures on the historical Church can be true and justified only when originating, consciously or not, in the eschatological Church.  To say, as I have, that the Church provokes spiritual pride, is fallible, and is more social than communal does not presuppose merely standards of a kind any social critic might apply but also faith in what the Church will be at the end of time.  When prophetic hope establishes critical distance between the individual and the Church, that distance lies within the Church, and an individual who opposes the Church as it is can be justified only if called into opposition by the Church as it is destined to be.

Underlying prophetic criticism of the Church, therefore, is a loyalty and respect not present in any other kind of social criticism…[The Church] requires our respect for the actual even when our criticisms of it are severe.  Again, we see that a Christian’s relationship with the Church is analogous to his relationship with individuals. We respect individuals in their destinies; yet we respect them in their present actuality, too, and do this without denying their fallenness.  In similar fashion, personal independence of the Church is authentically prophetic only as a paradoxical form of loyalty to the church.

I think we can sum-up of Tinder’s complex language with a sentence from the last paragraph: “Underlying prophetic criticism of the Church…is a loyalty and respect not present in any other kind of social criticism.”

I want to explore this idea more in the coming years, perhaps in writing.

Rod Dreher Interviews Alan Jacobs on *How to Think*

ThinkHere is a taste from Dreher’s blog:

I initially thought How To Think would be a basic primer of informal logic. It’s not that at all, but something more interesting. What’s the book about, and why did you write it? 

Last year, when the Presidential election campaign was ramping up here in the U.S., and my British friends were being roiled about by the Brexit debate, I was working on a different book (an academic one), but kept being distracted by all the noise. It seemed to me that everyone was lining up and shouting at everyone else, and no one seemed able to step back from the fray and think a bit about the issues at stake. More and more what attracted my attention was what seemed a complete absence of actual thinking. And then I asked myself: What is thinking, anyway? And what have I learned about it in my decades as a teacher and writer? I sat down to sketch out a few blog posts on the subject, and then realized that I had something a good bit bigger than some blog posts on my hands. So I set my other book aside and got to work.

You write, “The person who wants to think will have to practice patience and master fear.” What do you mean? 

Practicing patience because almost all of us live in a social-media environment that demands our instantaneous responses to whatever stimuli assault us in our feeds, and gives us the tools (reposts, likes, faves, retweets) to make those responses. Everything in our informational world militates against thinking it over. And mastering fear because one of the consequences of thinking is that you can find yourself at odds with groups you want to belong to, and social belonging is a human need almost as important as food and shelter. I’ve come to believe that our need — a very legitimate need! — for social belonging is the single greatest impediment to thinking.

Read the entire interview here. Learn more about How to Think here.

 

Alan Jacobs Teaches Us How To Think

ThinkBaylor University humanities professor Alan Jacobs‘s latest book is How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds.  Over at Religion News Service, Jacobs talks with journalist Jonathan Merritt about the book and the state of Christian thinking.

Here is a taste:

RNS: What do you see is the core problem with many “thinkers?”

AJ: It’s hard to name just one thing — there are so many problems! So much bad thinking! But if I were forced to name one universal one it would be a lack of awareness of our own motives and incentives. A failure to realize that there are forces at work on and in all of us to discourage thought or even prevent it altogether.

RNS: What about American Christians, generally speaking? Are they good thinkers?

AJ: Ummm … not so much.

RNS: How can followers of Jesus become better critical thinkers? Give us one or two points that come to mind.

AJ: Christians of all people ought to be attentive to our own shortcomings, and the ways our dispositions of mind and heart and spirit can get in the way of knowing what’s true. After all, we’e the people who are supposed to believe that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” and “the heart is deceitfully wicked above all things” and that sort of stuff. If we want to think better, then the first step should be to take those beliefs as seriously as many of us say we do, and to turn a ruthlessly skeptical eye on ourselves — before we turn it on our neighbors. There’s a line about specks in our neighbors’ eyes and logs in our own that applies here.

There’s a lot more to say, obviously, but I think self-skepticism is the place to begin.

Read the entire interview here and find out why Jacobs think it is impossible to
“think for yourself.”

Evangelicalism as a Mission Field for Evangelical Scholars

Gateway
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.

Why Did *Books and Culture* Die?

Stacks

During Q & A following the first plenary session of the State of the Evangelical Mind conference last week, I asked the audience: “What does it say about the state of the ‘evangelical mind’ if evangelicals cannot come up with enough money to support Books & Culture?”

Books & Culture was a Christian review of books edited by John Wilson and published by Christianity Today.  As I noted in an earlier post, Mark Noll’s plenary address at the conference identified Books  & Culture as one of the several signs of a thriving evangelical mind.  Back in January, I wondered how evangelical intellectual life would continue to move forward after Books & Culture.  My blog post called attention to Missouri State sociologist John Schmalzbauer’s piece at Comment magazine titled “The Life and Death of Evangelicalism’s Little Magazine.”  Noll referenced both Schmalzbauer’s piece and my blog post in his address in Indianapolis.

John Wilson was honored during the conference for his work on Books & Culture. Indiana Wesleyan University, one of the conference sponsors, gave Wilson library bound copies of every issue of the periodical.  It was a very meaningful gift, but someone is going to have to lug those books home! 🙂

Rachel Maxson, a librarian and instructor in the honors college at John Brown University, put the demise of Books & Culture in context.  She began her talk by describing the conference as a “funeral”–a time to “grieve together” over the end of this important periodical.  Maxson pointed to 2007 as the beginning of the end for print periodicals such as Books & Culture.  In that year, Apple released the first iPhone, Amazon introduced the Kindle, the bottom of the housing market dropped out, and Harold Myra retired as the CEO of Christianity Today after thirty-two years at the organization.  Traditional print publication took a serious hit from the iPhone and the Kindle.  The tough economy made it difficult for periodicals such as Books & Culture to raise funds. And following Myra’s retirement, Christianity Today changed in a way that was not entirely clear from Maxson’s presentation.

After diagnosing what happened to Books & Culture, Maxson offered some general observations:

  1. It is too soon to say that “print is dead.”  Maxson pointed to a survey that found that 92% of college students would rather have a print textbook.
  2. Evangelicals interested in promoting Christian thinking need to be more creative in their funding models.
  3. Evangelical public scholars and public intellectuals must be rewarded for their work when they “go up” for tenure and promotion.
  4. Evangelicals need to do a better job of creating “clearing houses” so that Christians know how to find good stuff on the Internet.

These are all excellent points that resonate with the work we do here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  While we are a very small operation, we are slowly advancing our grassroots crowd-sourcing efforts to keep this little corner of Christian intellectual culture up and running.  (Now might be a good time to think about investing in what we do here).  In terms of tenure and promotion, I think Christian colleges have always been places where writing for the public has been rewarded.  I also hope that The Way of Improvement Leads Home blog has been a clearing house to help you navigate the Web in a more thoughtful and responsible manner.

Stay tuned for most posts on the “State of the Evangelical Mind” conference.

Quote of the Day

The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.  An extraordinary range of virtues is found among the sprawling throngs of evangelical Protestants in North America, including great sacrifice in spreading the message of salvation in Jesus Christ, open-hearted generosity to the needy, heroic personal exertion on behalf of troubled individuals, and the unheralded sustenance of countless church and parachurch communities.  Notwithstanding all their other virtues, however, American evangelicals are not exemplary for their thinking, and they have not been so for several generations.

-Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, p. 3.

The Intellectual Life–Part 6

sertillangesRecently I reread the A.G. Sertillanges’s classic work on the life of the mind: The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods.  Sertillanges (1863-1948) was a Catholic writer and a member of the Dominican Order.  He published The Intellectual Life in 1934.  Read the entire series here.

p.119: It is very important to work in joy, therefore with relative ease, therefore in the direction of one’s aptitudes. By going forward at first on different paths each one must discover himself [or herself], and when he [or she] has found his [or her] special vocation, pursue it.

p.119: When the whole field of study has been surveyed and its connections and unity estimated in the light of fundamental principles, it is urgently necessary, if one does not want merely to mark time, to turn to some task which is precise, defined in its limits, proportioned to one’s strength; and then to throw oneself into it with all one’s heart.

p.121: It is a painful thing to say to oneself: by choosing one road I am turning my back on a thousand others. Everything is interesting; everything might be useful; everything attracts and charms a noble mind; but death is before us; mind and matter make their demands.

p.121: Therefore, do not imagine you can do everything. Measure yourself, measure your task; after some experiments, make up your mind, though without rigidity, to accept your limits; persevere, by reading and if necessary by a certain amount of writing, the advantage of your early studies, your contact with wide fields of knowledge–but for the main part of your time and strength, concentrate. 

Alan Jacobs: Christian Intellectual

jacobsOn Friday we published Marilynne Robinson’s response to Alan Jacobs’s Harpers essay on Christian intellectuals.  You can read that post, with all the pertinent links, here.

Since we posted this piece I learned that Jacobs has responded.  Here is a taste:

I am not sure why Robinson writes “I think the word ‘secularist’ itself is a crude presumption, disrespectful of the mysteries of the soul” — I don’t use the word “secularist” in the essay, though I do use the word “secular,” and I quote Robinson herself saying “I have other loyalties that are important to me, to secularism, for example.” Why “secularism” is something she can be loyal to while “secularist” is crude and disrespectful I cannot guess.

While I was over at Jacobs’s blog I also found some other thoughtful pieces.  For example:

Jacobs on the recent New York Times piece on hijab-wearing political science professor Larycia Hawkins and what it says about Wheaton College.

Jacobs on why he can’t vote for Hillary Clinton

Jacobs on Eric Metaxas and evangelical support for Trump

Marilynne Robinson Responds to Alan Jacobs

robinson

Many of the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home are familiar with Alan Jacobs‘s recent Harper’s essay on Christian public intellectuals.  Jacobs is critical of Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Marilynne Robinson.

He writes:

In light of the history I have been narrating here, the career of Marilynne Robinson looks like a case of opportunities taken, but also opportunities missed. It is true that, especially in her fiction, she offers to a (largely secular) audience a picture of what the world looks like when it is irradiated by faith or the possibility of faith; but it is never a faith that calls upon her readers to act differently, socially or politically or morally, than they would normally be inclined to act. In her essays, she often speaks explicitly as a Christian, but there tends to be a strange mismatch between her subject and her audience. Take “Fear,” an essay from 2015 in which she writes that “contemporary America is full of fear” — a fear manifested largely through a kind of cult of firearm ownership — and “fear is not a Christian habit of mind.” If Robinson wants to persuade her fellow American Christians to reject the culture of guns and overcome their fear, The New York Review of Books is an odd place to do it. My point is not that Robinson’s argument is wrong but that it offers a highly critical interpretation of people who are not reading it, and leaves the core assumptions of its audience unchallenged…

In another recent essay, “Memory,” she writes,

I am a Christian. There are any number of things a statement of this kind might mean and not mean, the tradition and its history being so complex. To my utter chagrin, at this moment in America it can be taken to mean that I look favorably on the death penalty, that I object to food stamps or Medicaid, that I expect marriage equality to unknit the social fabric and bring down wrath, even that I believe Christianity itself to be imperiled by a sinister media cabal. It pains me to have to say in many settings that these are all things I object to strenuously on religious grounds, having read those Gospels.

There is, it seems to me, a good deal to find fault with here: the apparent implication that, since Robinson says she holds the views she does simply by virtue of having read the Gospels, those Christians who see things differently than she does have not read the Gospels; or the notion that such reading could settle practical questions of social policy; or the notion that she “has to” distance herself from other Christians who do not share her political and social views.

That last point above all. For when we read the great Christian intellectuals of even the recent past we notice how rarely they distance themselves from ordinary believers, even though they could not have helped knowing that many of those people were ignorant or ungenerous or both. They seem to have accepted affiliation with such unpleasant people as a price one had to pay for Christian belonging; Robinson, by contrast, seems to take pains to assure her liberal and secular readers that she is one of them. (From the same essay: “I have other loyalties that are important to me, to secularism, for example.”)

Something similar might be said of Robinson’s recent conversation, also published in The New York Review of Books, with Obama, to whom she returns the name of friend. It may be poor form to use a conversation with a friend in order to speak truth to power, but I for one would have appreciated a dose of Cornel West–like poor form. After all, the claim that “contemporary America is full of fear” might also be applied to the person who promised but failed to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay. I think Robinson may well be the finest living American novelist, and at her best a brilliant essayist, but whatever her religious beliefs, her culture seems to be fully that of the liberal secular world — and it may matter, in this regard, that her professional career has been at a public university. While surely she must know some living Christian subculture from the inside, she does not seem to be interested in representing its virtues, or its mixture of virtues and vices, to an unbelieving world, or to speak on its behalf, or to speak to it in any general way.

I fear that this sounds like a reproach, though I mean for it to be a lament. Blame is hard to assign here. If we cannot imagine Robinson being invited to preach at a big-box Bible church somewhere in suburbia, that may say less about her than about the anti-intellectual and artistically indifferent culture of much of today’s evangelicalism; but then, those developments may have been exacerbated by Christian intellectuals’ neglect of their responsibilities to the life of their churches. At some point in the past sixty years or so a perverse and destructive feedback loop engaged, and I cannot see how to disengage it.jacobs

Still, it is noteworthy how consistently inward and solitary the faith of the characters in Robinson’s novels is, including that of her most compelling creation, the elderly pastor John Ames in Gilead. The community of church is not a strong element in these people’s lives; they tend not to speak for anyone or anything more than themselves, and the conversations that they have about faith are mostly internal. I can’t help wishing that someone, someone of Marilynne Robinson’s stature and gifts, would tell readers of The New York Review of Books that such church communities need not be scorned or feared, and then tell those church communities the same about the readers of The New York Review of Books. That would require a patience, a kindness, a courage that it seems scarcely possible to ask for in our current climate.

Marilynne Robinson has responded to Jacobs in a letter to the editor of Harper’s.  Here it is:

There are a great many things those of us who call ourselves Christian need to talk over. One very important one is secularism. Interpreting my career in light of this phenomenon as he understands it, Alan Jacobs notes that I have taught for many years at a big public university, where, he assumes, one must encounter penalties for being identified with Christian faith, and that I must have made concessions to these pressures [“The Watchmen,” Criticism, September]. I can only assure him that the hostility he imagines has had no part in my experience. I have taught Old and New Testament fairly frequently, answering to the job description for my position when I was hired. At my university and, I assume, others like it, many people are variously religious, members of communities of faith, and many are in some state of questioning and transition that is by no means dismissive of religion. We meet on other terms and usually talk about other things, which does not signify indifference or hostility on any side. These great public environments where everyone feels equally welcome are an invaluable achievement of our society, a culture of mutual courtesy and service that is no less compatible with Christianity because it accommodates the same values in other faiths and ethical systems. The essay on fear that he imagines I wrote for The New York Review of Books and its secular readership was actually a speech written for and read to a conservative church in Michigan. I have no idea how many secularists read my books, but then I think the word “secularist” itself is a crude presumption, disrespectful of the mysteries of the soul. Judge not, said Jesus, and I think the commandment particularly warns us away from the kinds of harsh, categorical judgments that make too many Christians feel and act as though they live in a hostile and oppressive world. This kind of thinking, this habit of antagonism, has done incalculable harm. It has contributed in a way unbecoming in Christians to the bitter divisions that afflict this country.

Marilynne Robinson
Iowa City, Iowa

Some Early Tweets on Alan Jacobs’s Essay “The Watchmen”

Jacobs

Alan Jacobs

As many of you know by now, Alan Jacobs has written an excellent essay on Christian intellectuals in the current tissue of Harper’s Magazine.  It is titled “The Watchmen: What Became of the Christian Intellectuals.”  I hope to do some posts on the piece very soon here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  Stay tuned.

Twitter has been abuzz with commentary on Jacobs’s article and Jacobs himself has joined the conversation. I have Storified as many tweets as possible here. (They are listed in chronological order and I have not commented on any of them in the story.  I did my best to capture some of the key threads, but my collection is certainly not comprehensive).

Some of the tweets are helpful.  Others are snarky.  Some are disrespectful.  Others are wise and insightful.  I will let you decide which tweets fit into which category! 🙂

Calvin’s Beatles

Calvin gang

l to r: Wolterstorff, Marsden, Mouw, Plantinga  Cartoon credit: Jack Harkema

Four of the greatest Christian thinkers of the last generation once taught together at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  They are philosophers Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff, historian George Marsden, and theologian/philosopher Richard Mouw.

Plantinga taught at Calvin from 1963 to 1982 and spent the rest of his career at the University of Notre Dame.

Wolterstorff taught at Calvin from 1959 to 1989 and at Yale University from 1989-2001.

Marsden taught at Calvin from 1965 to 1986, Duke Divinity School from 1986 to 1992, and finished his career at the University of Notre Dame (1992-2008).

Mouw taught a Calvin for seventeen years and then moved to Fuller Theological Seminary, where he was eventually elected president.