Race and Evangelicals (#AHA19)

Wheatley

Matt Lakemacher of Woodland Middle School in Gurnee, IL attended a session sponsored by the Conference on Faith and History at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association.  You can read all his posts here. Enjoy! –JF

Right out of the gate in today’s Conference on Faith and History session at AHA19, both Kristin Kobes Du Mez and Jemar Tisby responded to the recent Twitter debate over whether or not Phillis Wheatley should be considered an evangelical.  Esteemed historian of Evangelicalism Mark Noll also entered the fray in the Q&A session that followed the presentation of papers.

For those (like Noll) who hadn’t followed the social media discussion, here’s a short summary.  In early December of last year, historian Thomas Kidd tweeted a Gospel Coalition post he wrote, titled “Phillis Wheatley: An Evangelical and the First Published African American Female Poet.”  Religion journalist Jonathan Merritt replied, “Assigning her the label of Evangelical is weird,” to which Kidd asked, “Why?”  As Du Mez put it in describing the exchange after that, “things devolved quickly from there ….”

In her paper, “Race, Gender, and the 81 Percent: Defining Evangelicalism and What’s at Stake,” Du Mez posed the question: Who are evangelicals and does that label even mean anything anymore?  Her answer to both parts of that question, in short, was that it depends on who’s asking.  To make that point she briefly discussed themes that she’s written about extensively over at the Anxious Bench, such as the ideas that “Evangelicalism is an imagined religious community” and that “there are, in fact, many Evangelicalisms.”  When considering the more nuanced and seemingly academic responses (compared to the Twitterbate) given to the question by LifeWay in December of 2017 and the Voter Study Group in September of 2018, she referred to a piece by Tim Gloege on Rewire.News, in which he questioned the motivation, methodology, and conclusions of such studies conducted in the wake of the 2016 presidential election.  Noting the vested interest that people such as Russell Moore and Ed Stetzer had in rehabilitating the image of evangelicals both during and after that election, Du Mez also stated that it’s worth interrogating why mostly conservative, white, male evangelicals are the ones trying to define what the word evangelical means today.

As one would hope and expect, Du Mez insisted that we must approach the question historically.  It is not appropriate to use a static definition of the word.  “History didn’t end in the early to mid-nineteenth century,” she noted wryly.  To study more closely that change over time, Du Mez conducted a linguistic analysis of the word evangelical.  What she found was that before the 1970s and 1980s, the word was primarily used as an adjective.  Since that time, it has primarily been used as a noun.  She also found that from 1996 on, the word has been used to connotate a political alignment, not a theological one.  And as she came to discover during one fortuitous visit to Hobby Lobby (also a post worth reading on the Anxious Bench), to contextualize evangelicalism in our current time is to realize that much of it is a white religious brand rooted in consumer culture, Christian Nationalism, and patriarchy.  Today, sadly, “James Dobson and Duck Dynasty have more to do with Evangelicalism than Whitefield or Edwards.”  And while many people view the conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention that started in 1979 as being about orthodoxy, Du Mez argued that it was far more about gender.

For Du Mez then, the issues of race, gender, and power (not belief alone, as the Bebbington Quadrilateral lays out) must be considered when defining the cultural meaning of the word evangelical.  To that end, it’s understandable how Merritt found labeling an enslaved African woman such as Phillis Wheatley an evangelical weird in the context of today, even if historically she was part of the trans-Atlantic movement of protestant Christian revivalism that swept the Anglo world in her lifetime, the influence of which is evident in her writings.

Du Mez’s examination of the question who is evangelical dovetailed nicely with Jemar Tisby’s paper, “Are Black Christians Evangelicals? A Multi-perspectival Assessment.”  To answer that query, he used theologian John Frames concept of Tri-Perspectivalism, examining it from a normative, situational, and existential framework.  From the normative perspective, using the Bible and Bebbington, it is quite easy to label most Black Christians evangelical.  According to Tisby, the normative frame only considers a person’s theological beliefs, and this is what Kidd did with Wheatley.  Using the situational perspective, however, forced Tisby to ask if Black Christians in America could be considered evangelical in every historical, cultural, and geographic context.  The answer there was clearly no.  Sunday mornings only became the most segregated time of the week after the Civil War – it wasn’t always that way.  Lastly, the existential frame required him to take personal experience and self-identification into account when deciding who is and isn’t evangelical.  From that perspective, he pointed out, there are many blacks today who do claim the label (as evidenced by organizations such as the NBEA), even if, according to Pew, more than three in four black protestants belong to historically black churches, as opposed to evangelical or mainline denominations.

In the end, Tisby was comfortable with not answering the question, claiming that such a response was the best way to think historically about it.  “Let the ambiguity remain,” he concluded.  As he had just demonstrated, when deciding whether Black Christians are evangelicals, the answer should always depend on the angle of inquiry.

During the question and answer session, Mark Noll provided his own tweet-sized take on the debate and the topic before the panel.  “Whether Wheatley was an evangelical or not is irrelevant,” said Noll.  “Who is or isn’t an evangelical is really not an important historical question.”  He continued, “I don’t think evangelicals exist … evangelical movements exist, evangelical theology exists, but evangelical individuals are a useful fiction.”  From Noll’s perspective, the session had been a valuable one, but he hoped that nobody would follow up on it.

Thanks, Matt!

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.

Christian Nationalism and Evangelical Support for Donald Trump

RevisedI wish I would have seen this study when I was writing Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.  It provides statistical evidence for an argument I have been making ever since Trump announced his presidential candidacy.

Sociologists Andrew Whitehead, Joseph Baker, and Samuel Perry have found that evangelical support for Donald Trump is directly related to the belief, common among conservative evangelicals, that the United States is a Christian nation.

This supports my argument that evangelical support for Donald Trump is based on some pretty bad history.  As many of you know, I have been writing about this bad history for a long time.  A good place to start is my Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction.

Here is a taste of Whitehead’s, Baker’s, and Perry’s piece in The Washington Post:

The more someone believed the United States is — and should be — a Christian nation, the more likely they were to vote for Trump

First, Americans who agreed with the various measures of Christian nationalism were much more likely to vote for Trump, even after controlling for other influences, such as political ideology, political party and other cultural factors proposed as possible explanations…

No other religious factor influenced support for or against Trump

Second, we find that Americans’ religious beliefs, behaviors and affiliation did not directly influence voting for Trump. In fact, once Christian nationalism was taken into account, other religious measures had no direct effect on how likely someone was to vote for Trump. These measures of religion mattered only if they made someone more likely to see the United States as a Christian nation.

Read the entire piece here.

These sociologists used the following questions to decipher the ways that evangelicals think America is a Christian nation:

  • “The federal government should declare the United States a Christian nation”
  • “The federal government should advocate Christian values”
  • “The federal government should enforce strict separation of church and state” (reverse coded)
  • “The federal government should allow the display of religious symbols in public spaces”
  • “The success of the United States is part of God’s plan”
  • “The federal government should allow prayer in public schools”

Now here is how people like David Barton and other Christian nationalists try to historicize these questions:Believe Me JPEG

  1. The federal government should declare the United States a Christian nation because it was founded as a Christian nation and secular liberals have been steering it away from its Christian roots since the mid-20th century.
  2. The federal government should advocate for Christian values because the founding fathers advocated for the role of Christianity as a way of bringing morality and order to the republic.  (This, I might add, is only partially true).
  3. Separation of church and state is a myth because it is not in the Constitution.  The doctrine of separation of church and state was created by the Supreme Court in 1947 when Hugo Black said that there is a “wall of separation” between church and state and it is “high and impregnable.”
  4. The federal government should allow the display of religious symbols because America has always allowed for such symbols.  Just look at the Rotunda of the Capitol building or coins.
  5. America is exceptional because God is on its side more than He is any other nation.  The United States is the New Israel–a chosen people.  And because George Washington and other founders talked about God’s providence this must be true.
  6. The Federal Government should allow prayer in public schools because prayer has always been part of the American education system, separation of church and state is a myth, and many of the Founding Fathers were men of prayer.

There are, of course, serious historical problems with all of these statements, but my point here is that all of these points must be addressed from the perspective of American history.  They must be pulled-up from the roots.  In many ways the evangelical support for Donald Trump is a historical problem and the failure of evangelicals to study it. This is something akin to Mark Noll’s Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.

“A little bit of pique and a little bit of anger, but not too much”

Noll and Wilson

John Wilson (former editor of Books & Culture) and Mark Noll were apparently talking about Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump earlier today in South Bend at a conference honoring Noll and his work.  Or at least that is what Twitter tells me:

A blurb from Jana Riess is forthcoming. Here is Mark Noll’s “official” blurb:

Noll Fea quote

Scholars Reflect on the Songs Billy Graham Chose For His Funeral

All-Hail-The-Power-Of-Jesus-Name-F-Major

Here is Mark Noll:

This list looks like something from one of the hymn pamphlets prepared by Cliff Barrows for a typical Graham crusade from the 1950s or ’60s, with slight modifications tilted toward the contemporary. Such pamphlets, in turn, resembled the way that Ira Sankey prepared his “Sacred Songs and Solos” from his musical work for D. L. Moody.

Sankey and Barrows, both fond of traditional hymnody but also very much in tune with the times, followed similar paths. They put to use “classics” that could be sung with enthusiasm and gusto (e.g., “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name”). They found contemporary hymns that their own promotion made into classics, as Sankey did for several of Fanny Crosy’s compositions (“To God Be the Glory”). They featured music popular among the constituencies that came out to hear Moody or Graham and went away warmed in their hearts (“Because He Lives,” “Above All”).

They made especially good use of songs tied to the ministry of the evangelist, as the BGEA did for so long with George Beverly Shea and “How Great Thou Art” (for the funeral, “Until Then,” which I am remembering as sung on one of the Graham movies of the 1950s, but maybe I’m imagining). And with “Amazing Grace,” they take a hymn well known to many people, but with the bagpipes presented it in a form that had become super common (because, in this case, of how often bagpipe renditions were used at memorials after 9/11).

Read other reflections on the song list at Christianity Today.

Trump Evangelicals and “Legitimate Concerns”

Over at my Facebook page some very good historians and scholars who I respect have been critical of Mark Noll‘s blurb for my forthcoming (June) book Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.

Here is the blurb:

Noll Fea quote

I tried to capture some of this last night in a series of tweets:

John Wilson, the editor of the now defunct Books & Culture, responded to these veiled tweets:

I even had one friend tell me on Facebook that I should get Eerdmans to edit Noll’s blurb to remove the word “legitimate.”

Frankly, I think Noll’s blurb nails it.  (After all, he read the book.  None of the critics have seen it).  Evangelicals do have “legitimate” concerns. They have also responded to those concerns, as Noll writes, in very unhealthy ways.

I thought about all of this again this morning as I read Peggy Noonan’s Wall Street Journal column.  She writes:

We discuss motives, but isn’t it always the same motive? “I have murder in my heart.” Why do so many Americans have murder in their hearts?

That is my question after the St. Valentine’s Day shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. We all know it is part of a continuing cultural catastrophe. A terrible aspect of the catastrophe is that so many central thoughts about it, and questions, have been flattened by time into clichés. People stop hearing when you mention them. “We talked about that during Columbine, didn’t we? That couldn’t be it.”

So we immediately revert to discussions of gun law, and only gun law. There is much to be improved in that area—I offer a suggestion at the end—but it is not the only part of the story. The story is also who we are now and what shape we’re in.

A way to look at the question is: What has happened the past 40 years or so to produce a society so ill at ease with itself, so prone to violence?

We know. We all say it privately, but it’s so obvious it’s hardly worth saying. We have been swept by social, technological and cultural revolution. The family blew up—divorce, unwed childbearing. Fatherless sons. Fatherless daughters, too. Poor children with no one to love them. The internet flourished. Porn proliferated. Drugs, legal and illegal. Violent videogames, in which nameless people are eliminated and spattered all over the screen. (The Columbine shooters loved and might have been addicted to “Doom.”) The abortion regime settled in, with its fierce, endless yet somehow casual talk about the right to end a life. An increasingly violent entertainment culture—low, hypersexualized, full of anomie and weirdness, allergic to meaning and depth. The old longing for integration gave way to a culture of accusation—you are a supremacist, a misogynist, you are guilty of privilege and defined by your color and class, we don’t let your sort speak here.

So much change, so much of it un-gentle. Throughout, was anyone looking to children and what they need? That wasn’t really a salient aim or feature of all the revolutions, was it? The adults were seeing to what they believed were their rights. Kids were a side thought.

At this moment we are in the middle of a reckoning about how disturbed our sexual landscape has become. This past week we turned to violence within marriages. We recently looked at the international sex trade, a phrase that sounds so 18th-century but refers to a real and profitable business.

All this change, compressed into 40 years, has produced some good things, even miraculous ones. But it does not feel accidental that America is experiencing what appears to be a mental-health crisis, especially among the young. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported as many as 20% of children 3 to 17 have, in any given year, a mental or emotional illness. There is research indicating depression among teenagers is worsening. National Public Radio recently quoted a 2005 report asserting the percentage of prison inmates with serious mental illness rose from less than 1% in 1880 to 21% in 2005. Deinstitutionalization swept health care and the psychiatric profession starting in the 1960s, and has continued since. The sick now go to the emergency room or stay among us untreated. In the society we have created the past 40 years, you know we are not making fewer emotionally ill young people, but more.

Not everyone will agree with me, but I do think Noonan addresses “legitimate concerns.”  The issue, as I see it, is less about the diagnosis of the problem and more about how to respond to it.  As I argue in Believe Me, Trump is not the answer.   Read the book and decide whether I am right–both about the “legitimate concerns” and about Trump as the answer.  And don’t forget to pre-order here.  🙂

Believe Me JPEG

Mark Noll Defines Evangelicalism

NollHere is a taste of the esteemed evangelical historian‘s article at the blog of the National Association of Evangelicals:

The conceptual challenge from scholars poses a more basic challenge than the simplistic equation of evangelicalism and right-wing politics. In 1989 the British historian David Bebbington provided a succinct definition in his book, “Evangelicalism in Modern Britain,” that has been widely referenced. That definition identifies evangelicalism as a form of Protestantism with four distinct emphases:

  • conversion, or “the belief that lives need to be changed”;
  • the Bible, or “the belief that all spiritual truth is to be found in its pages”;
  • activism, or the dedication of all believers, especially the laity, to lives of service for God, especially in sharing the Christian message far and near; and
  • crucicentrism, or the conviction that Christ’s death on the cross provided atonement for sin and reconciliation between sinful humanity and a holy God.

While many have employed this definition to good effect, others have pointed out difficulties. Most obvious in an American context are divisions created by race. Along with many white Protestant groups that have embraced these four characteristics, so have many African Americans. Yet the American reality of slavery, followed by culturally enforced segregation, means that whites and blacks who share these religious emphases share very little else, as Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith demonstrated in “Divided by Faith.” An evangelicalism that includes both blacks and whites might make sense in very narrow religious terms, but far less in the actual outworking of American history.

A broader historical challenge has recently come from Linford Fisher of Brown University in the substantial article “Evangelicals and Unevangelicals,” published in Religion and American Culture, which argues that “evangelical” has often meant less, and sometimes more, than the Bebbington definition. From the time of the Reformation and for several centuries, the word usually meant simply “Protestant” or, almost as frequently, “anti-Catholic.” During the 18th century revivals associated with George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, and the Wesleys, “awakened” believers in Britain and America did not use the word too frequently. When they did, it meant “true” or “real” religion as opposed to only formal religious adherence.

Linford then documents the way that after World War II, former fundamentalists embraced the word as they sought a less combative, more irenic term to describe their orthodox theology and their desire to re-engage with society. Organizations like the National Association of Evangelicals and the wide-ranging activities of Billy Graham popularized the word. In the process some Pentecostals, Lutherans, Mennonites, Christian Reformed and others who had not been associated with the main body of America’s earlier “evangelical Protestants” were now glad to join in using it to describe themselves. At the same time, other Protestants who had thought of themselves as evangelicals began to avoid the word as designating something too close to fundamentalism.

Read the entire piece here.

Is Evangelicalism Experiencing a Lutheran Moment?

luther

Back in 1992, Mark Noll published a piece at First Things titled “The Lutheran Difference.”  In that piece he made the following observations:

  • Despite the popularity of Garrison Keillor, Lutherans have always appeared to be “on the fringe of American life”
  • Lutherans are “remarkably unremarkable.”  They are “pretty ordinary” or “ho-hum.”  Unlike evangelicals, for example, they do not have “spectacular stories of conversion.”
  • The history of Lutherans in America is very interesting.  It needs more attention.
  • Lutherans have much to offer Americans if they contribute to the culture “as Lutherans.” Lutherans can offer “resources” to Americans, especially other Protestants,” that “would be an incalculable benefit.”
  • Lutherans have always insisted history is important for the faith, while other American Protestants, especially evangelicals, have “proclaimed that the past is pollution.”  It was Lutheran Jaroslav Pelikan who wrote “tradition is the living faith of the dead” and “traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”  Noll writes: “American liberals, who want to fix things by themselves and right away, both need to learn from Lutherans that God’s concern extends over decades and centuries as well as over days, weeks, and months.”
  • Lutherans have much to offer in thinking about Christian political involvement.  Noll writes: “The dominant pattern of political involvement in America has always been one of direct, aggressive action modeled on Reformed theories of life in the world.”  He adds: “there have been only occasional examples of what could be called ‘Lutheran irony.’ In religious terms, this irony is the sense that precisely when Christians mount their most valiant public efforts for God, they run the greatest risk of substituting their righteousness for the righteousness of Christ, and thereby subverting justification by faith.”

I have been thinking about this piece (and Lutherans) a lot lately.  Evangelicalism may be experiencing (or perhaps should be experiencing) a “Lutheran moment” right now, at least in terms of political engagement.

Let’s remember that Luther believed the purpose of the secular government is to restrain evil, protect citizens, and promote justice. In other words, Lutheranism rejects the idea, made popular by Thomas Aquinas, that government plays a positive role in society by promoting the common good.  God redeems and justifies us in the kingdom of redemption, but government is part of the kingdom of creation.  In other words, government is necessary, but it cannot be redeemed.  Government cannot help in promoting the Kingdom of God.  Most Lutherans call this “2 Kingdom Theology.”

So why might we be having a Lutheran moment right now?  Let me suggest two reasons.

  1.  Many evangelicals who support Donald Trump have justified their vote based on something akin to Lutheranism. (Although they never reference it this way).  They argue that we should not expect government to do anything beyond protecting us and giving us liberty.  Government, for example, is not required to conform to the Sermon on the Mount or other teachings of Jesus.  This is the approach to government I hear most often from court evangelical Robert Jeffress, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas.  And while I think Jeffress misrepresents Lutheranism in several ways, his view of church-state relations seems closer to Luther (and Augustine?) than it does to Calvin or Aquinas.  As long as Trump is protecting us (building a wall, keeping Muslims out of the country, giving us religious liberty, etc.) then he deserves our vote despite his character.  (Of course even this theory does not explain everything, because many evangelical Trumpers voted for Trump because they believed he was a Christian.  I unpack some of this in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. (Pre-order here).
  2.  Lutherans always remind us that there is a difference between the kingdom of redemption–the place where we are saved–and the kingdom of creation–the place where government resides.  Evangelicals always need to be reminded of this so they don’t confuse the two kingdoms.  Court evangelicals like Jeffress say that the character or policies of the president do not matter as long as he is protecting us. But they don’t usually behave this way.  Their behavior suggests that they REALLY believe that government should be active–very active.  It should be active in promoting their Christian agenda.

Can the Museum of the Bible Avoid Controversy?

RNS-BIBLE-MUSEUM i

In the past week I have done a few interviews with reporters about the Museum of the Bible, a Washington D.C. museum scheduled to open next month.  I have written about the Museum before and with the opening less than one month away, I expect to write about it again.  A few days after the official opening I will be at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) to speak on a panel devoted to Joel Baden and Candida Moss’s new book Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby.

A recent Washington Post piece on the museum is revealing.  Evangelical historians Mark Noll and Grant Wacker both weigh-in on their experiences with the museum.  So does Steven Friesen, an officer at the SBL.

Here is a taste:

Mark Noll, one of the country’s most prominent experts on American Christian history, served as an adviser. He compared the Museum of the Bible to the Newseum, another huge private museum.

“Obviously the museum is there to make people think better or think kindly about the effects of Scripture in U.S. history,” he said. “But I did think they were trying to be as nonpartisan as they could.”

Some remain skeptical that the museum’s viewpoint will be neutral. Steven Friesen, an officer at the Society of Biblical Literature, the largest association of biblical scholars, said there is debate in the academic community about whether to do research involving the Greens’ collection. He would advise fellow scholars to steer clear.

Friesen hasn’t seen the museum, but he believes from reading the website that its materials subtly promote a singular version of Scripture; indeed, the museum mostly omits discussion about how the Bible was compiled and which religious traditions believe which disputed books belong in the Bible. Museum staffers say the place for discussing issues such as sexuality and abortion, which aren’t mentioned in the exhibits, might be at events hosted at the museum; Friesen thinks those events are meant to draw in influential people to hear the Greens’ opinions on the culture wars.

“My guess is that they’ve worked very hard at covering what they would like to do, trying to hide the agenda that is behind the museum,” he said, defining that agenda as the promotion of their deep faith in the literal truth of the Bible.

The Bible has shaped cultures from Africa to Asia, Muslim to Mormon. But the 20-member leadership of the museum is almost entirely white, male and evangelical.

Grant Wacker, an expert on Christian history, said that he declined an invitation to join the leadership team because he was asked to sign a statement of faith. Wacker said he considers himself an evangelical Christian but that the statement went too far for him.

“It stressed, shall we say, factual accuracy [of the Bible] more than I could endorse,” he said.

Instead, he agreed to be one of the many scholars from diverse religious traditions to weigh in on drafts of some of the museum displays. The leadership team sought input repeatedly during the three-year construction process from experts from Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and secular backgrounds.

Read the entire piece here.

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.

Is There an “Evangelical Mind?”

400e1-nollscandalAfter a weekend of conference-going and watching one of the greatest NCAA Division III volleyball rivalries in history (Hope College vs. Calvin College), I am easing my way back into the blogging life.

As regular readers know, I spent part of the weekend in Indianapolis attending (and speaking at) the “State of the Evangelical Mind Conference.”  I hope to carve out some time this week (in addition to my regular links and posts) reflecting on what I heard and what I learned about the state of the so–called “evangelical mind.”

On Thursday evening, University of Notre Dame historian and self-identified evangelical Christian (although he implied that he is no longer entirely comfortable with the label), Mark Noll reflected on the state of evangelical intellectual pursuits since the publication of his 1994 classic The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.  He argued that since 1994, the evangelical mind was cultivated through the now-defunct periodical Books and Culture (which took the place of Reformed Journal for many Calvinist evangelicals); the now-defunct Pew Evangelical Scholars Program which poured millions of dollars into the work of evangelical scholars and intellectuals; the now-defunct Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals (ISAE), an organization at Wheaton College that published books and hosted scholarly conferences on American evangelicalism; and the ever-growing number of evangelical scholars working in the academy today–both the Christian academy and the secular academy.

No one in the room at the Sagamore Institute in Indianapolis could miss the fact that three of these institutions–Books and Culture, the Pew Scholars Program, and the ISAE–no longer exist.

While Noll was optimistic about the proliferation of Christian scholarship and the increasing number of Christians doing first-rate intellectual work, he was no longer convinced that such work should be labeled distinctly “evangelical.”  Here he drew on some of the ideas in his book Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind.  (Noll said that not many people read this book because it wasn’t as “angry” as Scandal).  He noted that many believing scholars today are drawing on the rich tradition of the ancient Christian creeds and the insights of a variety of Christian expressions, including Roman Catholicism, the Reformed tradition, Anglicanism, Lutheranism, Anabaptism, etc….  In other words, Noll doubts whether or not there really is a distinct and unique “evangelical mind.”  He encouraged evangelicals to press on in their work, drawing from the larger, confessional, and ecumenical resources of historic Christianity.

About twenty-four hours later, Mark Galli, the editor of Christianity Today, took the stage to deliver the final presentation of the conference.  Galli agreed with Noll about the importance of evangelical scholars drawing on a variety of Christian traditions, but he was not yet ready to abandon the word “evangelical” as either a distinct way of pursuing Christian faith or as a unique way of thinking about scholarly endeavors.

According to Galli, “Evangelicalism” is a “unique way of being a Christian.”  He described it as a “mood” and compared it the kind religious ethos Perry Miller uncovered in his studies of 17th-century New England Puritanism.  Galli argued that because Evangelicalism is ultimately rooted in Augustinian theology, it will never go away.” At the heart of evangelical religion, Galli reminded us, is an “encounter with the triune God.” This encounter, he added, will ultimately lead one toward a life of piety.  Borrowing a term from writer Anne Lamott, Galli said that evangelical Christians are “Jesusy Augustinians.”

Galli did not elaborate fully on how this “Jesusy Augustinianism” should inform scholarly endeavors, but he did think that evangelicals can make a distinct contribution to intellectual work.  For example, Galli pushed the evangelicals in the room to think hard about how they use the Imago Dei in their scholarship.  Many Christians, including myself, argue that we should love all people–Muslims, drug addicts, enemies, people who are not like us, etc.–because all human beings were created in the image of God and thus have dignity and worth.  This understanding of human dignity provides a theological foundation for much of Christian scholarship today.  All voices matter.  All of the human beings we study are important because they are image-bearers.  But Galli finds such an approach to be rather vague and generic for the evangelical scholar.  Instead of always appealing to the Imago Dei, evangelical scholars might argue that all people have human dignity and worth because they are sinners for whom Christ died.  Such an approach puts the Gospel and the the doctrine of the atonement at the heart of our scholarship.

After Noll spoke on Thursday night, I was convinced that Evangelicalism, the term “evangelical,” and the project of the “evangelical mind” had seen its last days.  Galli made me think harder about such a proposition.

I will keep thinking.

Quote of the Day

Whatever happens in the practicalities of American political development, however, evangelicals will almost certainly continue to exhibit, in one form or the other, the activism, biblicism, intuition, and populism that had defined evangelicals for more than two centuries.  If they repeat the imbalances of their history, evangelical political action may be destructive and their political reflection nonexistent.

–Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (1994), p. 173.

The State of the Evangelical Mind Conference

25ff0-scandalLater this week I am heading to Indianapolis to participate in the “State of the Evangelical Mind” conference.  This two-day conference will explore how the evangelical mind is faring since Mark Noll wrote his seminar The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind in 1994.

Somehow I managed to end up in the opening plenary session with my old partners-in-crime Eric Miller and Jay Green.  Needless to say, we are happy to be Mark Noll’s warm-up act.  But like most warm-up acts we don’t have a lot of time to play our full repertoire. We each get 12 minutes to offer a review of The Scandal and reflect on the state of the evangelical mind today.

Unfortunately, registration for the event is closed.  I will try to keep you updated via social media, but I am not sure how much time I will have or what the Internet connection will be like.

Here is that schedule:

Thursday, September 21, 2017

  • 4:00 PM to 5:00 PM – Preconference Roundtable (filmed live): Comments in Context – Donald Cassell (Sagamore Institute) & Abson Joseph (Indiana Wesleyan University)
  • 5:00 PM to 5:30 PM — Reception of Guests
  • 5:30 PM to 7:00 PM – Opening Dinner, Welcome – Jay Hein (Sagamore Institute), Opening Remarks and Tributes to John Wilson – David W. Wright (Indiana Wesleyan University)
  • 7:00 PM to 8:00 PM -The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind: A Tripartite Review
    John Fea (Messiah College), Jay Green (Covenant College), & Eric Miller (Geneva College) 
    Session Host — Abson Joseph
  • 8:00 PM to 9:00 PM – Reflections upon the Past
    Address – Mark A. Noll (University of Notre Dame) 
    Session Host – David W. Wright

Emcee – Jerry Pattengale (Indiana Wesleyan University)


Friday, September 22, 2017

  • 7:30 AM to 8:30 AM – Continental Breakfast
  • 8:30 AM to 10:00 AM – The Church 
    Keynote Address – Jo Anne Lyon (The Wesleyan Church) 
    Paper Overviews – Andrew Draper (Urban Light Community Church & Taylor University),
    Christopher Smith (The Englewood Review), & Maureen Miner Bridges (Excelsia College)
    Session Host – Mark Bowald (Christian Scholar’s Review)
  • 10:00 AM to 10:30 AM – Break
  • 10:30 AM to 12:00 PM – Para-Church Organizations 
    Keynote Address – David Mahan/Don Smedley (Rivendell Institute & Yale University Divinity School)
    Paper Overviews – Rachel Maxson (John Brown University), Mark Stephens (Excelsia College), & Tim Dalrymple (Polymath Innovations)
    Session Host – Jon Boyd (InterVarsity Press)
  • 12:00 PM to 1:30 PM – Lunch
  • 1:30 PM to 3:00 PM – The University 
    Keynote Address – Timothy Larsen (Wheaton College) 
    Paper Overviews – Rick Ostrander (Council for Christian Colleges and Universities), David Johnstone (George Fox University), & Jack Baker/Jeff Bilbro (Spring Arbor University)
    Session Host – Stacy Hammons (Indiana Wesleyan University)
  • 3:00 PM to 3:30 PM – Break
  • 3:30 PM to 5:00 PM – The Seminary
    Keynote Address – Lauren F. Winner (Duke University Divinity School) 
    Paper Overviews – Karen Johnson (Wheaton College), Erin Devers (Indiana Wesleyan University), & Grant Taylor (Beeson Divinity School, Samford University)
    Session Host – Jim Vermilya (Indiana Wesleyan University)
  • 5:00 PM to 5:30 PM – Break
  • 5:30 PM to 6:30 PM – Dinner
  • 6:30 PM to 7:30 PM – Prospects for the Future 
    Address – James K. A. Smith (Calvin College) 
    Session Host – David L. Riggs (Indiana Wesleyan University)
  • 7:30 PM to 8:00 PM – Closing Remarks – Mark Galli (Christianity Today)

Emcee – Jerry Pattengale (Indiana Wesleyan University)

 

Christians are More Likely to Believe Poverty Comes From a Lack of Effort

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Are there people in American who live in poverty because they don’t want to work, don’t work hard enough, or made bad choices with their money?  Absolutely.  I know a lot of people who fall into this category.

But poverty is also a structural problem.  It is related to larger economic, racial, social, and cultural forces that have developed over time.

A recent Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation study has found that Christians are more likely than non-Christians “to view poverty as the result of individual failings, especially white evangelical Christians.”

Part of the reason this is true is related to what evangelical historian Mark Noll has called “the scandal of the evangelical mind.”  In other words, evangelical anti-intellectualism has something to do with this.  Evangelicals have failed to understand issues like poverty in terms of historical development and other larger structural issues. The failure to understand these issues in deeper and broader ways ultimately weakens evangelical attempts at trying to address these social problems.

Here is a taste of the Washington Post report on the study:

Helen Rhee, a historian who studies wealth and poverty in Christianity, attributed Christians’ diverging viewpoint first to scripture and second to a theological divide in the early 20th century. At the same time that fundamentalists were splitting from modernists over whether Christians should accept Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, an academic split emerged: premillennialists versus postmillennialists.

The premillennialists think that the “Second Coming of Christ” is nearing, and with it the elevation of believers to heaven and the terrible tribulations of nonbelievers on earth promised in the Book of Revelation. The postmillennialists interpret Revelation differently, and believe that humans will achieve a blessed era of peace on earth, after which Christ will return.

As conservative evangelicals embraced premillennialism and more liberal Christians turned toward postmillennialism, their approach toward aiding the poor changed in accordance with their beliefs. The postmillennialists, who thought it was their responsibility to work toward a better epoch on earth, focused on dismantling harmful economic structures to create a more just world. The premillennialists, who thought the world might end imminently, wanted to save as many souls as possible to spare those individuals from the torment soon to come for nonbelievers.

To the premillennialists, Rhee said, “The world is already lost. Things are going to get worse and worse … The betterment of society is very intangible. You don’t know whether it’s going to happen or not. It’s a very difficult thing to do. You’ve got to just focus on what is important — that is, salvation of the soul. That is, preach the gospel. Evangelism.”

Saving an individual’s soul by correcting his personal behavior will do him far more good than fixing an economic structure, if the world is about to end anyway, Rhee explained. “They are being compassionate.”

That thinking has influenced Christian culture to this day. Mohler, a conservative evangelical, said, “There’s a rightful Christian impulse to consider poverty a moral issue … Evangelicals are absolutely right to look at the personal dimensions. No apology there.”

But he added that the sins that cause a person to be in poverty may be the sins of others, not of the person who is poor, and he said that conservative Christians need to acknowledge that more often. “I think conservative Christians often have a very inadequate understanding of the structural dimension of sin.”

Read the entire piece here.

Helen Rhee‘s argument about premillennialism has some validity.  There is a reason why Noll has a whole chapter on dispensational premillennialism in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.  But I think there is an even larger issue here about education, learning, and good Christian thinking.

“The State of the Evangelical Mind” Conference

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Learn more here.

Here is the schedule:

Thursday, September 21, 2017

  • 5:30 PM to 7:00 PM – Opening Dinner, Welcome – Jay Hein (Sagamore Institute), Opening Remarks and Tributes to John Wilson – David W. Wright (Indiana Wesleyan University)
  • 7:00 PM to 8:00 PM – The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind: A Tripartite Review John Fea (Messiah College), Jay Green (Covenant College), & Eric Miller (Geneva College)
    Session Host — David W. Wright
  • 8:00 PM to 9:00 PM – Reflections upon the Past Address – Mark A. Noll (University of Notre Dame) 
    Session Host – David W. Wright

Friday, September 22, 2017

  • 7:30 AM to 8:30 AM – Continental Breakfast
  • 8:30 AM to 10:00 AM – The Church 
    Keynote Address – Jo Anne Lyon (The Wesleyan Church) 
    Paper Overviews – Andrew Draper (Urban Light Community Church & Taylor University), Christopher Smith (The Englewood Review), & Maureen Miner Bridges (Excelsia College)
    Session Host – Mark Bowald (Christian Scholar’s Review)
  • 10:00 AM to 10:30 AM – Break
  • 10:30 AM to 12:00 PM – Para-Church Organizations 
    Keynote Address – David Mahan/Don Smedley (Rivendell Institute & Yale University Divinity School)
    Paper Overviews – Rachel Maxson (John Brown University), Mark Stephens (Excelsia College), & Tim Dalrymple (Polymath Innovations) 
    Session Host – Jon Boyd (InterVarsity Press)
  • 12:00 PM to 1:30 PM – Lunch
  • 1:30 PM to 3:00 PM – The University 
    Keynote Address – Timothy Larsen (Wheaton College) 
    Paper Overviews – Rick Ostrander (Council for Christian Colleges and Universities), David Johnstone (George Fox University), & Jack Baker/Jeff Bilbro (Spring Arbor University)
    Session Host – Stacy Hammons (Indiana Wesleyan University)
  • 3:00 PM to 3:30 PM – Break
  • 3:30 PM to 5:00 PM – The Seminary 
    Keynote Address – Lauren F. Winner (Duke University Divinity School) 
    Paper Overviews – Karen Johnson (Wheaton College), Erin Devers (Indiana Wesleyan University), & Grant Taylor (Beeson Divinity School, Samford University)
    Session Host – Jerry Pattengale (Indiana Wesleyan University)
  • 5:00 PM to 5:30 PM – Break
  • 5:30 PM to 6:30 PM – Dinner
  • 6:30 PM to 7:30 PM – Prospects for the Future Address – James K. A. Smith (Calvin College) 
    Session Host – David L. Riggs (Indiana Wesleyan University)
  • 7:30 PM to 8:00 PM – Closing Remarks – Mark Galli (Christianity Today)

Review of Gideon Mailer’s *John Witherspoon’s American Revolution*

MailerMy review of this important book is in the Summer 2017 issue of New Jersey Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal.

Here is a taste:

Prior to John Witherspoon’s American Revolution, the received wisdom from historians of Witherspoon’s thought was that the Presbyterian divine was the perfect representation of how evangelical Protestantism had either merged with, or was co opted by, the enlightened moral thinking emanating from the great Scottish universities. Historians Ned Landsman and Mark Noll argued that Witherspoon’s ethical sensibilities drew heavily from moralist Francis Hutcheson and the moderate wing of the Scottish Presbyterian Church. Landsman coined the phrase “The Witherspoon Problem” to describe how Witherspoon strongly opposed Hutcheson’s human-centered system of morality prior to arriving in the colonies in 1768, but then seemed to incorporate these same ideas in the moral philosophy lectures he delivered to his students at Nassau Hall. Noll forged his understanding of Witherspoon amidst the intramural squabbles in late twentieth-century evangelicalism over whether or not the United States was founded as a “Christian nation.” Since Witherspoon was a minister with deep evangelical convictions, many modern evangelicals claimed him as one of their own and used his life and career to buttress the Christian nationalism of the Religious Right. In a series of scholarly books, Noll challenged his fellow evangelicals to understand Witherspoon less as an evangelical in the mold of First Great Awakening revivalists such as Jonathan Edwards or George Whitefield, and more as a product of the Scottish Enlightenment who drew heavily from secular ideas to sustain his understanding of virtue.

Mailer’s revisionist work challenges much of what we have learned from Landsman and Noll. 

Read the entire review here.