Sean Penn is confused

Some might say Sean Penn has been confused for a long time. There are indeed times when I can’t distinguish Penn from Jeff Spicoli. But in this post I am specifically referencing his recent tweet:

First, the passive voice!

Second, evangelical leaders are not under the authority of the Vatican. In fact, most of them are not under kind any religious authority. At this point, it might be worth referencing Molly Worthen’s book Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism.

*Harper’s Magazine* publishes “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate”



This letter will appear in the October 2020 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

Signers include Anne Applebaum, Margaret Atwood, David Blight, David Brooks, Noam Chomsky, Gerald Early, David Frum, Francis Fukuyama, Todd Gitlin, Anthony Grafton, David Greenberg, Jonathan Haidt, Michael Ignatieff, Gary Kasparov, Mark Lilla, Damon Linker, Dahlia Lithwick, Greil Marcus, Wynton Marsalis, John McWhorter, George Packer, Nell Irvin Painter, Orlando Patterson, Steven Pinker, Claire Bond Potter, Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, J.K. Rowling, Salman Rushdie, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Paul Starr, Gloria Steinem, Michael Walzer, Sean Wilentz, Garry Wills, Molly Worthen, and Fareed Zakaria.

Here is a taste:

The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.

Read the entire letter here.

How Impeachment is Shaping American Religion and Vice-Versa


Jack Jenkins has some good reporting on this at Religion News Service.  Great stuff from R. Marie Griffith and Molly Worthen:


R. Marie Griffith, director of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics, agreed. She argued that “the intensity of this moment and the genuine feeling among people of faith (that they) must approach it prayerfully seem to be part of what’s thrust religious language into such public view…”

…Griffith noted that the preponderance of liberals calling upon their religion in public over the past few months is abnormal — at least when it comes to impeachment.

“I don’t remember hearing a lot of prayer talk around the impeachment of Bill Clinton — on either side but especially the Left — or in relation to the crimes of Richard Nixon,” she said. “There does seem to be something new about public talk regarding ‘prayerfulness’ among liberals as it relates to something so seemingly secular as impeachment.”


Molly Worthen, scholar of religious history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said that while the Christianity Today editorial is unlikely to create a “sea change” and trigger a mass rejection of Trump among evangelicals, it might embolden evangelicals who have long been reticent to voice their discontent.

Indeed, social media reacted swiftly to the Christianity Today editorial calling for Trump’s ouster, with #christiansagainsttrump quickly trending on Twitter.

“They will draw encouragement from this, and they might use that editorial as a set of talking points around family dining tables this Christmas,” Worthen said, speaking of evangelicals who are frustrated with Trump. “Maybe it’s a small signal flare of common moral sense that will help these dissenters stay in the game and resist the temptation to give up on conservative evangelicalism entirely.”

Singh predicted such religious tensions are likely to persist throughout the impeachment process but pointed out that the current discourse is disproportionately Christian.

“What does it mean to think about America as becoming increasingly theocratic?” he said. “When we put Trump on a pedestal comparing him to Jesus, then what does that do to one’s theology, and their vision of what an American democracy actually looks like?”

Read the entire piece here.

CBC Ideas: “The Pulpit, Power & Politics: Evangelicalism’s Thumbprint on America”

Trump court evangelicals

I recently joined Jemar Tisby and Molly Worthen on Canadian Broadcast Corporation’s “Ideas.”  You can listen here.

Here is a taste of the accompanying article:

John Fea has written an entire book about the apparently contradictory relationship of evangelicals and Donald Trump, basing the title on one of Trump’s oft-repeated catch phrases: Believe Me.

He sees the championing of Donald Trump by evangelicals through two lenses — as an historian, and as a committed evangelical himself.

Historically, evangelicals began courting agents of secular power in the Reagan era. The trouble he finds in this trajectory is that the evangelical church’s fixation on abortion, appointments to the Supreme Court, and supporting politicians they see as a means to a theological end, opens up the risk of losing credibility both to a generation of younger believers, and their own capacity to bear witness authentically.

The root of “evangelical,” he points out, means “good news, which in turn means a commitment to social justice and harmony. He dubs those seeking to curry favour and influence with the president “court evangelicals.”

Christian belief, he posits, doesn’t entail posing for a photo op and aligning oneself with power, but — like the prophet Nathan — telling the truth to it. 

Read the entire piece here.

Are American Evangelical Students Really Interested in the History of American Evangelicalism?

Boyer Hall

I am not in Dallas this week for the 2018 CCCU International Forum, but I have been following along via Twitter.  (Thanks to all of you who are tweeting from the conference!)

I was struck by a couple of tweets:

I really wish that Molly Worthen was right about this.  I really do.  But I just don’t see it.  With a few exceptions, I rarely encounter evangelical students (or students of any faith for that matter) who “crave a sense of knowing who they are….”  If there are students who are “hungry for a historical renaissance,” I have not met them yet.  I am sure that there are professors at other CCCU institutions who might be able to tell a different story.

I wrote about this at length in a May 2014 post after I learned that only a handful of students signed-up for a class I offered at Messiah College on the history of American evangelicalism.  The course had four regularly enrolled students and two auditors.  Here is how I would describe the students:

  • A female Catholic history major who knew nothing about evangelicalism but was intellectually curious.
  • A female non-traditional student and an employee of Messiah College who was interested in the topic.  (She was an auditor)
  • A male religion major who was basically there to criticize the evangelicalism of his childhood.  (He was also an auditor)
  • A male history major who was raised in evangelicalism but didn’t know it until he started recognizing some of the ideas we discussed.
  • A female history major who knew very little about evangelicalism.
  • A male history major who was a progressive Christian curious about American evangelicalism.

These were great students, and I enjoyed teaching them, but most of them were just there to fulfill a history requirement that fit their schedules.

I am sure there a lot of reasons why this course, which was capped at 25 students, was so under-enrolled, but I am guessing that lack of interest in the subject was at the top of the list.

I doubt many students will ever be interested in this subject at Messiah College.  Yes, we have A LOT of evangelical students, but we have very few professors in the humanities and liberal arts who self-identify as evangelicals or who might be interested in exploring evangelical identity with students.  This is just not how we assimilate our students into the life of the college.  Evangelical identity not a priority.  Sadly, we do a disservice to hundreds and hundreds (thousands?) of students from evangelical backgrounds.  They will learn very little about their heritage. For most of the students at the Christian college where I teach, a course on evangelicalism will be viewed as just another elective–a course that students think about in the same way that they think about a course on the American Revolution or world religions.


The Anabaptist Turn in American Evangelical Historiography

50f82-worthenIn some respects we are all Anabaptists these days–at least those of us who are bothered by the way politicians tend to conflate the church and the United States of America.

I don’t know what the prevalence of Christian nationalism today has to do with recent trends in the historiography of American evangelicalism, but I am confident that future historians will make this connection.

My colleague Devin Manzullo-Thomas, the Director of the Sider Institute at Messiah College and a Ph.D student in American history at Temple University, has a nice review in The Conrad Grebel Review of three important books on the history of American evangelicalism.  They are David Swartz’s Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism; Brantley Gasaway’s Progressive Evangelicals and the Pursuit of Social Justice, and Molly Worthen’s The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism.

Here is a taste of his piece, “The Not-So-Quiet in the Land: The Anabaptist Turn in Recent American Evangelical Historiography.”

In the historiography of North American Anabaptism, evangelicalism typically functions in one of two ways. Some Mennonite-produced analyses have depicted evangelicalism as a threat to Anabaptist distinctives, infiltrating and infecting thought and practice on peace, simple living, and the gathered church—a so-called declension thesis. By contrast, other scholarship—often produced by Anabaptist groups outside the denominational orbits of the (Old) Mennonite and the General Conference Mennonite churches—has envisioned evangelicalism as an ally to Anabaptist values. It Gasawayargues that shared convictions have guided the two traditions toward mutual influence and fruitful dialogue—a kind of integration thesis.  Whether focusing on corruption or cordiality, though, these two divergent historiographical models share at least one conviction: Given evangelicalism’s demographic and cultural dominance within North American Christianity throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the Anabaptist story cannot be told without some reference to this larger tradition.

Yet for all the attention paid to evangelicalism by scholars of Anabaptism, scholars of evangelicalism have paid little to no attention to Anabaptists. Mennonites and Brethren in Christ rarely feature as actors in narratives of evangelical experience in America.  A variety of factors shapes this historiographical reality, including Anabaptists’ own ambivalence about their status as evangelicals. Perhaps the most significant factor in the absence of Anabaptism in evangelical historiography is what historian Douglas A. Sweeney has termed the “jockey[ing] for historiographical position” among two factions of scholars that he terms the Reformed and Holiness schools of evangelical history.  The historiographical models proposed by these two schools have dominated the literature on evangelicalism as it has emerged over the last three decades. In effect, they have so determined the actors in histories of evangelicalism that related groups—including groups like Anabaptists that do not always claim the evangelical label yet nevertheless moved through the 20th century in related ways—have been excluded from the narrative.

7b96a-swartzEven so, in recent years the prevailing models of evangelical historiography have proven too limiting. Several studies of post-World War II American evangelicalism published since 2012 exemplify the emergence of a new trajectory that moves beyond the “essential evangelical dialectic” of the Reformed and Holiness schools. It constitutes an Anabaptist turn in recent evangelical historiography, as scholars have inserted Anabaptists as key figures in the history of American evangelicalism.

Read the rest (with the footnotes) here.

Miriam Burstein Responds (Indirectly) to Molly Worthen’s Essay on Lecturing

Get up to speed here.

Burstein‘s post is titled “How to write an essay about teaching that will not be published in the NYT, Chronicle, IHE, or anywhere else.”

From “The Little Professor” blog:

1) There are many pedagogical techniques.

2) These techniques vary in usefulness, depending on the discipline, class size, role in the major/GE program, level of instruction, content, classroom layout, time of day, available technology, instructor’s skill set, the university/college environment, and student demographics.  

3) Depending on changes to any or all of these variables, these techniques may or may not work from one course to the next.  They may or may not even work across two sections of the identical course taught during the same semester/quarter.

4) Not all techniques are suited to all instructors.  

Read the rest here.

Molly Worthen Defends the Lecture

Is the lecture dead?  

Not according to Molly Worthen, the University of North Carolina history professor and the author of Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism.  

In today’s New York Times she defends the lecture.  Here is a taste:

Those who want to abolish the lecture course do not understand what a lecture is. A lecture is not the declamation of an encyclopedia article. In the humanities, a lecture “places a premium on the connections between individual facts,” Monessa Cummins, the chairwoman of the classics department and a popular lecturer at Grinnell College, told me. “It is not a recitation of facts, but the building of an argument.”

Absorbing a long, complex argument is hard work, requiring students to synthesize, organize and react as they listen. In our time, when any reading assignment longer than a Facebook post seems ponderous, students have little experience doing this. Some research suggests that minority and low-income students struggle even more. But if we abandon the lecture format because students may find it difficult, we do them a disservice. Moreover, we capitulate to the worst features of the customer-service mentality that has seeped into the university from the business world. The solution, instead, is to teach those students how to gain all a great lecture course has to give them.

When Kjirsten Severson first began teaching philosophy at Clackamas Community College in Oregon, she realized that she needed to teach her students how to listen. “Where I needed to start was by teaching them how to create space in their inner world, so they could take on this argument on a clean canvas,” she told me. She assigns an excerpt from Rebecca Shafir’s “The Zen of Listening” to help students learn to clear their minds and focus. This ability to concentrate is not just a study skill. As Dr. Cummins put it, “Can they listen to a political candidate with an analytical ear? Can they go and listen to their minister with an analytical ear? Can they listen to one another? One of the things a lecture does is build that habit.”

Listening continuously and taking notes for an hour is an unusual cognitive experience for most young people. Professors should embrace — and even advertise — lecture courses as an exercise in mindfulness and attention building, a mental workout that counteracts the junk food of nonstop social media. More and more of my colleagues are banning the use of laptops in their classrooms. They say that despite initial grumbling, students usually praise the policy by the end of the semester. “I think the students value a break from their multitasking lives,” Andrew Delbanco, a professor of American Studies at Columbia University and an award-winning teacher, told me. “The classroom is an unusual space for them to be in: Here’s a person talking about complicated ideas and challenging books and trying not to dumb them down, not playing for laughs, requiring 60 minutes of focused attention.”

Read the entire article here.

Quote of the Day

The Resolutions of the National Association of Evangelicals’ Commission on Evangelical Action, organized early in the NAE’s history, give some measure of what “social action” meant to mainstream evangelical leaders in the early 1960s.  At the commission’s September 1960 meeting, members discussed the top challenges facing American evangelicals:  communism, “the Roman Catholic situation,” IRS pressure on ministers who preached politics from the pulpit, the provision of alcohol to passengers by airlines, and Hollywood’s recent “attacks on evangelical Christianity in such films as “Elmer Gantry” and “Inherit the Wind”

–Molly Worthen, Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism, p. 178

I should add that my students got some good laughs yesterday when they read the line about alcohol and airlines.

*Christianity Today*: Volume 1, Number 1

Today my History of American Evangelicalism course at Messiah College is reading chapter three today in Molly Worthen’s stimulating treatment of post-war evangelicalism: Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism.  (Stay tuned for some forthcoming “Office Hours” episodes covering the book).

Much of chapter three focuses on Christianity Today, the flagship periodical of the neo-evangelical movement.  So this morning I went to the Messiah College library and asked the librarian if I could borrow the original issue of the magazine. (Thanks, Michael Rice!)  It was published in October 1956.

When I tweeted the picture below, one of the current CT editors, Ted Olsen, responded:


Defining Evangelicalism at the Conference on Faith and History: Part Two

For part one of this series click here.

After Darren Dochuk offered this thoughts on the Bebbington Quadrilateral, Mark Noll of Notre Dame University took the lectern.  It was fun watching these two giants in the field–Bebbington and Noll–debating the history and definition of evangelicalism.

Noll argued that there was no such thing as a monolithic movement known as “evangelicalism.” (Yes, you read that correctly!)  The term is not helpful when it comes to writing historical narratives.  Noll preferred to say that many Christian groups have certain evangelical “traits,” but it is very difficult to think about some kind of unified movement.  He thought that Bebbington’s Quadrilateral was a helpful tool for identifying these “traits” or “essences,” but could not bring himself to embrace the idea that evangelicalism exists.  Throughout the talk and the Q&A that followed, Noll suggested that many Catholics, for example, exhibited evangelical commitments to the authority of the Bible, the centrality of the cross, and the need for evangelism, but they historically have had little in common with folks like Billy Graham.  When John Wilson of Books & Culture asked the panel how African-American conservative Protestants fit into the discussion, Noll concluded that they were a vibrant Christian movement who shared evangelical traits, but were not part of any specific movement known as evangelicalism.  He concluded: “There is no such thing as evangelicalism and David Bebbington has provided the best possible definition for it.” Needless to say, this brought loud chuckles from the audience.

Bebbington began his remarks in response to Noll by saying “I have a firm principle: Whatever Mark Noll says is right.”  He then went on to argue with Noll’s claim that evangelicalism does not exist. Bebbington said that evangelicalism exists because evangelicals have thought that evangelicalism exists.  It was another great laugh line.  But despite the humor, Bebbington was basically challenging Noll to explain organizations such as the National Association of Evangelicals or magazines such as Christianity Today who have taken the label “evangelicalism” seriously.

In response to Wilson’s question about African-American evangelicals, Bebbington argued that most conservative Protestant African-American churches uphold the four prongs–biblicism, activism, conversionism, crucicentrism–of his Quadrilateral.  They could thus be viewed as part of evangelicalism.

Following Noll, Molly Worthen offered her thoughts on Bebbington’s Quadrilateral.  Rather than focus on the more traditional theological definition of evangelicalism, Worthen wanted to push Bebbington to consider a more social or cultural definition.  She argued that evangelicalism is defined by anxieties over the relationship between faith and reason–anxieties that are inevitable in a movement that lacks no real ecclesiastical authority.  How does one form a movement without an appeal to reason or a magisterium of some type?  Bebbington largely agreed with Worthen on this point, but still clung to the theological components of the Quadrilateral to define the movement.

Worthen then wondered if Bebbington’s Quadrilateral was still useful now that the center of evangelicalism had moved to the Global South.  I wish that there was more conversation on this issue because it is a very important one.

Worthen ended her talk by suggesting that evangelicalism is not going away anytime soon.  She may be right, but I have also found that many of my students at Messiah College do not identify with the term.  Some of them have never even heard of it.  Several tweeters who teach at Christian colleges tended to agree.  This leads me to wonder just how long the term (or the movement) “evangelicalism” will last.

In the end, perhaps Noll is correct.  Evangelical “traits” such as the New Birth, evangelism and social action, the centrality of the cross, and a belief in the authority of Bible are not going away anytime soon.  But what about evangelicalism?  This session made me wonder if “evangelicalism” is really little more than a movement founded by Baby Boomers in the wake of World War II that has just about run its course.

For example, the college where I teach–Messiah College–is certainly evangelical in essence, but it is also diverse enough–both in terms of student body and faculty–that it does not seem to identify with “evangelicalism” in the way that a place like Wheaton College might identify with the term or the movement.  While some of our students and faculty might find a theological and ecclesiastical genealogy in the organizations and churches affiliated with the National Association of Evangelicals or Christianity Today or Billy Graham, others come from Anabaptist, Pentecostal, theologically conservative or moderate mainline Protestant, or even Roman Catholic backgrounds.  Messiah is a very evangelical place.  It strongly adheres to the authority of the Bible, the belief that Christians should be sharing their faith and addressing social problems, the centrality of the Cross, and the need for conversion (although not everyone would completely endorse a belief in the New Birth).  But is it part of a movement known as “evangelicalism?”  Maybe.

Molly Worthen On Jimmy Carter

Molly Worthen of the University of North Carolina reviews two new books on Jimmy Carter.  One of them is actually written by Carter.  

They are: Randall Balmer, Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter and Jimmy Carter, A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence and Power.

Here is a taste:

In the early 1970s, the Christian right was not yet the political juggernaut it would become. Fundamentalists like Jerry Falwell were still wondering if activism was compatible with the Gospel. But then Paul Weyrich, a Catholic from Wisconsin who had been trying to organize conservative Christians since the Goldwater campaign, struck political gold when the I.R.S. revoked the tax exemption of whites-only Christian “segregation academies.” Conservative evangelicals felt victimized by court decisions and new regulations that policed their private schools — and they blamed the evangelical in the White House. The call to defend “religious liberty,” not the legalization of abortion, first summoned them to politics.

“Weyrich finally had discovered the issue that would persuade evangelical leaders of the importance of political activism: defense of racial segregation, albeit framed as a defense of religious expression,” Balmer writes. For all of Carter’s personal piety, he was out of touch with his fellow believers’ rightward tilt. In 1980, televangelists mobilized their media empires in the Republican cause. Balmer charges that the culturally conservative, fiscally libertarian platform of the Christian right “bore scant resemblance to evangelical activism in the 19th and early 20th centuries.”

In April we interviewed Balmer as part of our “Author’s Corner” series.  Check it out here.

Molly Worthen: The Southern Baptist Conservative Resurgence Was a Failure

Has the conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention failed?  Molly Worthen, a member of the History Department at the University of North Carolina and the author of Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism, thinks so.  
I am sure that folks like Al Mohler and Russell Moore will have something to say on this front.  Should be an interesting day in the blogosphere and social media.  Stay tuned.
In the early decades of the twentieth century, American liberals and fundamentalists fought over missionary tactics abroad as well as the accommodation of secular learning and culture at home. When liberal mainline denominations began to shrink in the 1960s, conservative Southern Baptists and other evangelicals took this as proof that God had abandoned churches that adulterated his Word with Darwinism, progressive politics, and permissive sexual mores. In a book called The Churching of America (1992) sociologists Rodney Stark and Roger Finke argued that in the American religious “free market,” the churches that grow are the strictest, most demanding churches, the ones that permit no “free riders,” require members to live in constant tension with the wider world and promise a big payoff for sticking to the one Truth. “Humans want their religion to be sufficiently potent, vivid, and compelling so that it can offer them rewards of great magnitude,” the authors wrote. By contrast, those religious communities that concede too much to the world are bound to decline.
Except it hasn’t. True, the conservative SBC revolution has produced a vanguard of impressive young leaders: charismatic, handsome pastors like Birmingham’s David Platt and Charlotte’s Steven Furtick (whose Elevation Church has recently taken heat for planting volunteers to come forward for “spontaneous” baptisms). J.D. Greear leads The Summit Church down the road from me in Durham, North Carolina. These pastors wear stylish jeans and wireless mics; they usually have gorgeous wives and children, numerous advanced degrees, and personal websites. Their megachurches are growing, spilling over onto satellite campuses where congregants can watch their pastor-gurus by streaming video. They combine conservative theology with a trendy Mac-user ethos that shows you can be both a cool Millennial and a Christian culture warrior. My classes at the University of North Carolina are full of students with Summit Church stickers plastered on their laptops and water bottles.
But these poster-children of the SBC’s future can’t make those gloomy national statistics go away. Stark’s and Finke’s book was panned by historians, largely because they cherry-picked statistics to divide American churches into “winners” and “losers” without nuanced attention to historical context.  If you step back and assess the big picture, few conservative churches are growing anymore (the Assemblies of God is, but by less than 2 percent per year). Evangelicals’ recent strategies—ranging from a hipster makeover to appeal to the Millennial crowd to the mistaken hope that millions of Latinos are leaving Catholicism and becoming conservative Protestants—cannot hold off the world-historical forces of secularization. As the historian David Hollinger has argued, even if liberal churches have lost the battle for butts in the pews, the steady advance of civil rights, the sexual revolution, and gay liberation suggests that they are winning the wider culture.

"Christian Century" Spring Book Issue: Marsden, Balmer, Schultz, and Worthen

The best reviews are behind the paywall, but it is definitely worth going to your library and looking at the hard copy for these two reviews alone:

Kevin Schultz reviews George Marsden’s The Twilight of the American Enlightenment

A taste:

Among those historians who openly identify as believing Christians, George Marsden stands alongside perhaps only Mark Noll at the pinnacle of the profession. Every scholar of American history, believer or not, knows who Marsden is.
What has been so remarkable about his professional fame is the way he has blended the demands of the secular academy with his Protestant faith. By using the methods of the secular profession to answer questions provoked by his Chris­tianity, he has written transformative books on American evangelicalism, the place of Christianity in higher education, and Jonathan Edwards, his biography of whom is the definitive one on America’s greatest theologian. Marsden has won all the big awards, too, including the prestigious Bancroft Prize and even a Guggenheim, and he served as the crown jewel in the University of Notre Dame’s free-spending attempt to gather the most talented Christian scholars in all of academia.

A taste:

In the spring of 1980 when I learned the improbable news that I had been accepted into a doctoral program, two people I much admired weighed in with their reactions. My adviser, for whom I had written a master’s thesis on biblical inerrancy, warned me darkly that the people at Princeton would “come after me” on the inerrancy question. I hoped that my father, an evangelical minister, might betray even a hint of pride that his eldest son had been admitted to study at an elite university. Instead, he became very quiet before expressing his fear that my intellectual pursuits would jettison my piety.

D.G. Hart on Molly Worthen

I was hoping Darryl Hart would weigh-in on Molly Worthen’s Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism.  My hopes were realized last night when I checked Religion in American History.  I have posted a small taste of the review below.  Hart’s review revolves around evangelical boundaries.  Who is an evangelical and who is not?  And who gets to decide?

And so the theme of who or what to include in a historical narrative returns.  As mentioned above, born-again Protestants over the last seventy years have beefed up their academic credentials and done so in part by imitating the professional academic organizations of the university world.  The Society of Christian Philosophers and the Conference on Faith and History were two expressions of this evangelical initiative.  Both relied significantly on the leadership provided by Dutch-American Calvinists who taught at Calvin College, intellectual descendants of Abraham Kuyper, the man who popularized the concept of Christian worldview.  And these organizations became platforms for some of the most significant work (at least as the mainstream academy judges it) by evangelical scholars – George Marsden, Mark Noll, Nick Wolterstorff, and Alvin Plantinga.  Yet, as important as these institutions may be in answering the questions that Worthen uses to define evangelicalism, they do not appear in her narrative, while Marsden, Noll, Wolterstorff and Plantinga at best make cameo appearances.   This was a missed opportunity since Worthen did so much work on the constellation of contexts that allowed made these scholars’ careers plausible.  And since several of them have retired from teaching, historical assessments of their work – both in writing projects and in forming associations of like-minded scholars and students – is now possible in ways it had not been in the heyday of their work.  At the same time, because these scholars used Kuyperian themes, sometimes mediated directly through Cornelius Van Til (as in the case of Marsden), to question epistemological assumptions of the mainstream academy, Worthen had a chance to test her assessment of evangelicalism’s crisis of intellectual authority not against the two-dimensional characters of Francis Schaeffer or Hal Lindsey but against academics whose scholarship is highly regarded and whose Christian commitments have not been questioned. 
Yet, Worthen did not take this turn.  Because she did not her history of post-World War II evangelicalism has more the feel of a study of evangelical exoticism than of evangelical normalcy.  If she had followed carefully the evolution of serious evangelical academic life – from Fuller Seminary to the University of Notre Dame – rather than the popularizers who incite the evangelical mob, she might have produced a study of people who are apostles of reason in ways much more profound than talking heads at religious assemblies or marches on the National Mall.

Art Remillard’s Interview With Molly Worthen

Over at Marginalia: A Review of Books in History, Theology, and Religion, Art Remillard interviews Molly Worthen about her new book, Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism.

I have been giving a lot of attention to this book here at the blog, but I still need to read it!  Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought is next in the queue, but I think I may try to get to Worthen’s book before I tackle Howe’s Pulitzer-Prize winning tome.

Here is Art’s interview: