Remembering Donald Dayton

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Theologian and church historian Donald W. Dayton has died.

While I was a student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School pursuing an M.A. in American church history, I read a lot of Dayton. As a young evangelical, I was passionate about exploring the roots of the movement that I embraced as a sixteen-year-old kid. I read Dayton’s Discovering an Evangelical Heritage as well as his unpublished essays that circulated among evangelical scholars and graduate students.

One of those unpublished pieces was a paper Dayton read in January 1988 at the Wesleyan/Holiness Study Project First Fellows Seminar at Asbury Theological Seminary. It was titled, “An Analysis of the Self-Understanding of American Evangelicalism With a Critique of its Correlated Historiography.” The paper criticized what Dayton believed was a Reformed bias in evangelical historiography.

At the time I encountered Dayton’s work in the early 1990s, Reformed historians such as George Marsden and Mark Noll were at the height of their scholarly game. Their books and articles were shaping our understanding of American evangelicalism in profound ways. Dayton did not have the funding Marsden and Noll enjoyed. He did not publish his work in places that would have been respected by the larger academy. But he was relentless. He insisted that modern evangelicalism was a Protestant movement with roots in the Pietist, Wesleyan, and Holiness traditions. Evangelicals, he argued, were abolitionists, feminists, reformers, and defenders of social justice. While Marsden and Noll wrote about Jonathan Edwards, revolutionary-era Calvinists, Old and New School Presbyterians, common sense realism, Princeton theologians, and J. Gresham Machem, Dayton called attention to Jonathan Blanchard, Charles Finney, Theodore Weld, the Tappan brothers, Phoebe Palmer, and A.B. Simpson. Much of his work provided a historical foundation for the Evangelical Left.

To be fair, Marsden’s work on fundamentalism and evangelicalism did take into consideration the revivalist tradition. His books covered D.L. Moody, Billy Sunday, Billy Graham, and the Keswick Movement. (I seem to remember hearing or reading a story somewhere about Dayton giving Marsden a bag of books on Holiness and Wesleyan church history as he was writing either Fundamentalism and American Culture or his history of Fuller Theological Seminary, Reforming Fundamentalism). But I always thought Dayton’s work did not get the attention it deserved. While Marsden and others privileged a Reformed interpretive lens, Dayton tried to imagine what the story might look like if told through a Pietist/Wesleyan/Holiness lens. Dayton believed that this lens offered a clearer vision of the subject at hand.

Much of this debate is covered in Doug Sweeney‘s 1991 Church History essay, “The Essential Evangelicalism Dialectic: The Historiography of the Early Neo-Evangelical Movement and the Observer-Participant Dilemma” (now republished in this book) and in a 1993 issue of the Christian Scholars Review. At the time of Sweeney’s essay (which drew heavily on his own Trinity Evangelical Divinity School M.A. thesis–Sweeney was a few years ahead of me at TEDS), I was corresponding with Dayton about my thesis on separatist fundamentalism. At the moment, I do not have access to that correspondence (no time to find a box of correspondence in the basement for a blog post), but I was able to dig up a July 14, 1991 handwritten letter on Northern Baptist Theological Seminary stationary:

John,

I just got your letter of June 23. I’m in the Orient most of the summer, but was back for a couple of days, before [I’m] off again ’til about Aug. 8. Hence this hurried, informal response.

You have permission to quote my paper. I’ve enclosed a copy plus a couple other articles along the same line. I plan to finish  in Aug. or Sept. a major statement in critique of George’s history of Fuller. I’ll try to remember to send you a copy.

I’ve mixed feelings about Doug Sweeney’s published essay. I liked the thesis better. I wonder if [Carl] McIntire is as “Reformed” as you indicate. Certain features (revivalism, premillennialism, no-smoking, drinking, etc.) would not be as classically Reformed, would they? 

I’ll be back August 8 or so–and would be glad to get together sometime.

Don Dayton

A few notes on this letter:

  • I asked Dayton for permission to quote from the aforementioned “An Analysis of the Self-Understanding of American Evangelicalism….”
  • Dayton’s response to George Marsden’s Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism eventually appeared as “The Search for Historical Evangelicalism: George Marsden’s History of Fuller Seminary as a Case Study,” Christian Scholars Review, 23 (1993).
  • Presbyterian fundamentalist Carl McIntire played an important role in my M.A. thesis. Dayton was trying to get me to see him as a more complex theological figure.
  • Dayton never elaborated on why he liked Doug Sweeney’s Trinity M.A. thesis more than his Church History article.

Nine years later, we resumed our correspondence while I was a post-doc in the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts at Valparaiso University.  I wrote Dayton after a Monday afternoon colloquium devoted to a discussion of Alan Wolfe’s October 2000 Atlantic cover-story titled “Opening the Evangelical Mind.” I was interested in how the road to evangelical “openness” (to use Wolfe’s term) ran through Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper and the broader Reformed tradition. At the time of Wolfe’s piece, the discussion among evangelical academics (especially among historians) had shifted from the debate over the theological roots of fundamentalism/evangelicalism to the state of evangelical thinking and the implications of Mark Noll’s 1994 book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.

Noll, Marsden (his 1997 book The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship was part of the discussion), and others advocating for a renewal of the evangelical mind were building their case on the assertion that American evangelicalism–at least in its 19th and 20th-century manifestations– was a a largely anti-intellectual movement. American evangelicalism, Noll argued, had been so focused on personal piety, activism, evangelism, and acts of social justice that it ignored or downplayed Christian thinking. To me it seemed that in order for these Reformed evangelical historians to make a case for the revival of an evangelical mind, they needed to embrace Dayton’s historiography.

In an October 2000 e-mail, I asked Dayton if he thought the 19th-century Pietist/Wesleyan/Holiness tradition had become the bogeyman for what Wolfe described in The Atlantic as the “opening of the evangelical mind.” I wondered if the current Reformed push for a renewed intellectual life among evangelicals meant that Dayton had won the historiographical battle. In other words, evangelical thinking was necessary in 1994 because 19th-century evangelicalism was defined by the people, ideas, and actions that Dayton had always put at the center of his story. Evangelicalism was more about Finney, Palmer, and Weld than it was about Edwards (and his theological descendants), Warfield, and Machen and this is why renewed Christian thinking was now necessary.

Here is Dayton’s response to my e-mail, sent from his Drew University e-mail account:

I was intrigued by your note and wished I could have been present for your discussion. I tried to call last night and left a message on your voice mail. I may try again. I just saw the Wolfe article as I passed through the airport over the weekend and just read it late last night.

As you probably know, I resist the word evangelical not only because it usually carried the “reformed” connotations but because it fails to convey the historical and sociological reality of what seems to me is really going on.

For me it is noteworthy that we have had pentecostal seminaries only for a couple of decades and holiness seminaries only a generation before that (Asbury took off after WW II, followed by the Nazarenes, Anderson, Western Evangelical, etc.). Part of the issue is whether to see the evangelical seminaries in that line and revealing a similar dynamic of constituencies moving into the middle class (like Pentecostals) and needing a seminary. This is clearly true for Trinity (carried by the Evangelical Free Church–and holiness-like founder [Rev. Frederick] Fransen), and I would argue Gordon (rooted in the ministry of holiness Baptist A.J. Gordon, a major figure in the development of “faith healing”), and even for Fuller, as I argued in my dialogue with Marsden in Christian Scholars Review. If this is true, it seems odd to me to compare the emergence of these very young traditions of theology and intellectual activity with Reformed and Lutheran [which have] half a millennium of university theological tradition. I don’t even know how to dialogue with people like Wolfe who don’t seem to me to see what is going on.

Nor do I know how to enter a discussion with people like Mark Noll (his SCANDAL book). It seems very odd to me to stand in a college that was founded by the Wesleyan Church in the Holiness Movement (ala Jonathan Blanchard), to claim that it is the best available, and then blame the holiness movement for the fact that it is not better. [Noll was at Wheaton College at the time]. The holiness folk founded a majority of the Christian College Coalition schools–especially the better ones (Wheaton, Seattle Pacific, Azusa, Houghton, Gordon–both branches, etc.)  Mark [Noll], Rich Mouw and others were raised in baptistic fundamentalism, went to holiness schools and then grafted themselves into the Reformed tradition (Princeton Theological Seminary for Mark,  CRC & Kuyper for Rich) to do their intellectual work. I understand this; my own theological formation is essentially Barthian and I teach Calvin regularly. But I do object to reading these personal pilgrimages back into the history and confusing genealogy with teleology (Marsden on Fuller or the usual interpretations of the history of Wheaton, emphasizing Blanchard’s Presbyterianism and ignoring the fact that it is “Oberlin Perfectionism” that is at issue).

It is the failure to understand “evangelicalism” historically that leads to such strange claims as those of [Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary theologian] David Wells that there is an intellectual “decline” in “evangelicalism” since Edwards that has not been recovered. But here again we are comparing apples and oranges–Yale and Princeton with “new” schools founded in the 19th and 20th centuries that have NO historical or theological continuities except as products of the latter engraft themselves into the theological traditions of other cycles of theological tradition to enter the intellectual world to achieve a sort of intellectual respectability that involved the betrayal of both their class interests and their theological traditions in which they were reared and/or educated! 

Whatever one thinks about this letter, it was classic Donald Dayton. He was less concerned about defending the theological convictions of the Pietist-Wesleyan-Holiness tradition than he was about getting the history correct. He did not hesitate to call out other scholars for their supposed ambition. This latter claim was the reason why so many Christian academics saw Dayton as a real pain in the ass (and I say this as compliment). The debate continues.

Here is a reflection on Dayton’s life from his former Drew University student Christian Collins Winn:

On May 2, the theological world lost one of its most unique voices, the Wesleyan Methodist Church lost one of its most ardent sons, and hundreds of students and colleagues lost one of their fiercest friends.

Donald (“Don”) W. Dayton was by all accounts brilliant, a voracious reader and lover of books, and one of the foremost interpreters of American religious history. Very few scholars produce work that shapes their generation, even fewer break genuinely new ground that has the potential to shape generations to come. Dayton’s work rose to this level of significance. As a scholar, his contributions in both the historiography of evangelicalism and in the historiography and theological interpretation of the Holiness Movement and Pentecostalism have fundamentally altered our interpretation of American religious history.

Not without controversy—in keeping with the nature of any truly groundbreaking perspective—Dayton had a striking genius for reading against the grain of accepted scholarship, unlocking alternative construals and opening up new pathways for interpretation and appropriation often taken up by later scholars. Many of his early proposals were rejected by established scholars, only later to be embraced; others continue to wait for the academy to catch up. Don also made major contributions through his extensive ecumenical work, where he advocated for marginal voices and traditions to be taken seriously and given a seat at the table. Moreover, his influence can be discerned in the lives and ongoing scholarship of the hundreds of students whom he mentored with his hallmark generosity and loving patience.

Read the rest here.

Rest in peace, Don.

Is the Christian Right to Blame for the Coronavirus?

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As some of you know, earlier this week I participated in a conversation with Katherine Stewart, author of The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationism.  I think you can still watch the conversation here.

Today at The New York Times, Stewart has a piece titled “The Road to Coronavirus Hell Was Paved by Evangelicals.”

Here is a taste:

At least since the 19th century, when the proslavery theologian Robert Lewis Dabney attacked the physical sciences as “theories of unbelief,” hostility to science has characterized the more extreme forms of religious nationalism in the United States. Today, the hard core of climate deniers is concentrated among people who identify as religiously conservative Republicans. And some leaders of the Christian nationalist movement, like those allied with the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, which has denounced environmental science as a “Cult of the Green Dragon,” cast environmentalism as an alternative — and false — theology.

This denial of science and critical thinking among religious ultraconservatives now haunts the American response to the coronavirus crisis. On March 15, Guillermo Maldonado, who calls himself an “apostle” and hosted Mr. Trump earlier this year at a campaign event at his Miami megachurch, urged his congregants to show up for worship services in person. “Do you believe God would bring his people to his house to be contagious with the virus? Of course not,” he said.

Rodney Howard-Browne of The River at Tampa Bay Church in Florida mocked people concerned about the disease as “pansies” and insisted he would only shutter the doors to his packed church “when the rapture is taking place.” In a sermon that was live-streamed on Facebook, Tony Spell, a pastor in Louisiana, said, “We’re also going to pass out anointed handkerchiefs to people who may have a fear, who may have a sickness and we believe that when those anointed handkerchiefs go, that healing virtue is going to go on them as well.”

By all accounts, President Trump’s tendency to trust his gut over the experts on issues like vaccines and climate change does not come from any deep-seated religious conviction. But he is perfectly in tune with the religious nationalists who form the core of his base. In his daily briefings from the White House, Mr. Trump actively disdains and contradicts the messages coming from his own experts and touts as yet unproven cures.

A couple of quick thoughts:

First, most op-ed writers do not write their own titles. The title of this piece is misleading. As Stewart noted in our conversation this week, and repeats in the Times piece, she is writing about a particular kind of evangelical, not all evangelicals.  Her focus is on the anti-science, Trump-loving parts of the Christian Right.

Second, those who are upset by Stewart’s piece should get a copy of Mark Noll’s book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Stewart is essentially making the same argument about evangelical anti-intellectualism.

Here is conservative writer Rod Dreher:

 

I don’t think Stewart is scapegoating anyone. If one reads the piece carefully, it is hard to argue with the fact that people like Guillermo Maldonado, Rodney Howard Browne, Tony Spell, Jerry Falwell Jr., and others have been reckless. I think it is also fair to say that the white evangelicals who empower Donald Trump bear some of the indirect blame for his bungling of this crisis. Dreher obviously has a beef with The New York Times, but Stewart’s piece, and much of her book Power Worshippers, is pretty accurate.

Teaching Stanley Hauerwas’s “Go With God”

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Yesterday was our first day of discussion in Created and Called for Community (CCC). The students read Stanley Hauerwas‘s 2010 First Things essay “Go With God: An Open Letter to Young Christians on Their Way to College.”

After some conversation about how to read critically, I asked the students what this article was doing.  We would discuss what the article was saying eventually, but I wanted to start by identifying why Hauerwas decided to write this article.  What were the problems he was trying to address?

We concluded that Hauerwas was trying to address four major issues with this piece:

  1. Too many Christian undergraduates are losing their faith in college.
  2. Too many Christian undergraduates see college solely in terms of career preparation and the pursuit of wealth or, at the very least, a comfortable middle-class life.
  3. Too many Christians do not value intellectual work as a way of worshiping God.
  4. The Christian church is characterized by anti-intellectualism, which is why it needs Christian students to take their college studies seriously.

We identified the fact that Hauerwas wrote this essay in 2010.  Were the problems he identified in 2010 still relevant ten years later?  The overwhelming answer among my Messiah College students was “yes.” In fact, most students thought the problems Hauerwas identified were even more acute than they were a decade ago.

By this point, we were running out of time.  But we still had a few minutes to reflect on two key issues in Hauerwas’s piece.

First, we talked about what it might take to think about college as something more than the pursuit of a career.  What might it mean to understand college in terms of calling or vocation?  (We will pick-up on this theme later in the course).  Hauerwas writes:

In a world of deep injustice and violence, a people exists that thinks some can be given time to study.  We need you to take seriously the calling that is yours by virtue of going to college. You may well be thinking, “What is hethinking? I’m just beginning my freshman year. I’m not being called to be a student. None of my peers thinks he or she is called to be a student. They’re going to college because it prepares you for life. I’m going to college so I can get a better job and have a better life than I’d have if I didn’t go to college. It’s not a calling.”

But you are a Christian. This means you cannot go to college just to get a better job. These days, people talk about college as an investment because they think of education as a bank account: You deposit the knowledge and expertise you’ve earned, and when it comes time to get a job, you make a withdrawal, putting all that stuff on a résumé and making money off the investment of your four years. Christians need jobs just like anybody else, but the years you spend as an undergraduate are like everything else in your life. They’re not yours to do with as you please. They’re Christ’s.

We talked about the counter-cultural nature of Hauerwas’s view of college.  Some students did not feel comfortable with the claim that the college years were not “yours to do with as you please. They’re Christ’s.”  Some said God gave us free will.  But others pointed out that for a Christian, the goal is to bring one’s free will more and more in conformity with the will of God.

Second, we talked about cultivating friendship in college.  Hauerwas writes:

You can’t do this on your own. You’ll need friends who major in physics and biology as well as in economics, psychology, philosophy, literature, and every other discipline. These friends can be teachers and fellow students, of course, but, for the most part, our intellectual friendships are channeled through books. C. S. Lewis has remained popular with Christian students for many good reasons, not the least of which is that he makes himself available to his readers as a trusted friend in Christ. That’s true for many other authors too. Get to know them.

Books, moreover, are often the way in which our friendships with our fellow students and teachers begin and in which these friendships become cemented. I’m not a big fan of Francis Schaeffer, but he can be a point of contact—something to agree with or argue about. The same is true for all writers who tackle big questions. Read Plato, Aristotle, Hume, and John Stuart Mill, and not just because you might learn something. Read them because doing so will provide a sharpness and depth to your conversations. To a great extent, becoming an educated person means adding lots of layers to your relationships. Sure, going to the big football game or having a beer (legally) with your buddies should be fun on its own terms, but it’s also a reality ripe for analysis, discussion, and conversation. If you read Mary Douglas or Claude Levi-Strauss, you’ll have something to say about the rituals of American sports. And if you read Jane Austen or T. S. Eliot, you’ll find you see conversations with friends, particularly while sharing a meal, in new ways. And, of course, you cannot read enough Trollope. Think of books as the fine threads of a spider’s web. They link and connect.

I asked the students how they made friends during their first semester of college.  They mentioned that their friendships were built on a variety of things: sports fandom, musical tastes, common tastes in video games, membership on athletic teams, proximity to one another in the dorms, etc…  Very few students said that they were building friendships around the kinds of common intellectual pursuits Hauerwas describes above.  I challenged them to go back to their dorm rooms, find some CCC students who also read Hauerwas today, and go get some coffee and talk more about the essay. Some students seemed to be inspired by this idea.  Others thought I was crazy.

By this point it was time to go. Stay tuned. In the next several class periods we will be doing some reading on the history and mission of Messiah College.  Follow along here.

Is Evangelicalism Populist? Should it Be?

Noll Scandal

After I wrote my recent post on Chris Gehrz’s treatment of evangelical populism, I pulled Mark Noll’s Scandal of the Evangelical Mind off the shelf.  Some critics of Mark Galli’s Christianity Today editoral have suggested that evangelicalism has always been a populist movement.  Matthew Schmitz, for example, claims that evangelicals cease being evangelical when they break from its populist, anti-intellectual base.

Noll has some things to say about this premise.

For example, evangelicalism has a rich intellectual heritage:

p.4: Modern evangelicals are the spiritual descendants of leaders and movements distinguished by probing, creative, fruitful attention to the mind. Most of the original Protestant traditions (Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican) either developed a vigorous intellectual life or worked out theological principles that could (and often did) sustain penetrating, and penetratingly Christian, intellectual endeavor.  Closer to the American situation, the Puritans, the leaders of the eighteenth-century evangelical awakening like John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards, and a worthy line of North American stalwarts in the nineteenth century–like the Methodist Francis Asbury, the Presbyterian Charles Hodge, the Congregationalist Moses Stuart, and the Canadian Presbyterian George Monro Grant, to mention only a few–all held that diligent, rigorous mental activity was way to glorify God.  None of them believed that intellectual activity was the only way to glorify God, or even the highest way, but they all believed in the life of the mind, and they believed in it because they were evangelical Christians.

But the populism of the 19th and 20th-century have led to the “scandal of the evangelical mind”:

p.12: To put it simply, the evangelical ethos [at the time Noll wrote in 1994] is activist, populist, pragmatic, and utilitarian.  It allows little space for broader or deeper intellectual effort because it is dominated by the urgencies of the moment.”

p.23: For an entire Christian community to neglect, generation after generation, serious attention to the mind, nature, society, the arts–all spheres created by God and sustained for his own glory–may be, in fact, sinful.

p.24: Fundamentalism, dispensational premillennialism, the Higher Life movement, and Pentecostalism were all evangelical strategies of survival in response to the religious crises of the late nineteenth century.  In different ways each preserved something essential for Christian faith.  But together they were a disaster for the life of the mind.’

It is telling how many court evangelicals come from these traditions.

More from Noll on the scandal:

p.52: …Manicheans divided the world into two radically disjointed sections–the children of light and the children of darkness.  Evangelicals have often promoted a Manichen attitude by assuming that we, and only we, have the truth, while nonbelievers, or Christian believers who are not evangelicals, practice only error.

p.71: The long-term effects of evangelical republicanism in America was to short-circuit political analysis.  So deeply entwined were republican and Christian themes that there seemed to be no need for reexamining the nature of politics itself.  It could simply be assumed that the American way was the Christian way.

p,124: One of the additional consequences from the dogmatic kind of biblical literalism that gained increasing strength among evangelicals toward the end of the nineteenth century was reduced space for academic debate, intellectual experimentation, and nuanced discrimination between shades of opinion. 

p. 125: …the fundamentalist movement reinforced the dogmatic power of populist teachers.  With the universities and their formal learning suspect, the spokesperson who could step forth confidently on the basis of the Scriptures was welcomed as a convincing authority.

This quote sums up much of what we see today–25 years later–in American evangelicalism’s embrace of Donald Trump.

p.141: In general responses to crises, evangelicals in the late twentieth century still follow a pathway defined at the start of the twentieth century.  When faced with a crisis situation, we evangelicals usually do one of two things.  We either mount a public crusade, or we retreat into an inner pious sanctum.  That is, we are filled with righteous anger and attempt to recoup our public losses through political confrontation, or we eschew the world of mere material appearances and seek the timeless consolations of the Spirit.

And this:

p.173: 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 other political reflection nonexistent.

I think Mark Galli is a champion of the evangelical mind who knows what happens when Christians stop thinking deeply about politics.  He is concerned about what happens to the church when anti-intellectual populism gets out of control.

Is *First Things* a Populist Magazine?

FirstThingsCoverI check the First Things website every day and often link to pieces I find interesting.  But I stopped reading First Things regularly after Richard John Neahaus passed away. (I used to subscribe and read each issue cover-to-cover).

On Friday,  I responded to Carl Trueman’s piece at First Things suggesting that Mark Galli, the editor of Christianity Today, was an “elite” and “out of touch.” Read it here.

Last night I read a piece at The New York Post by First Things senior editor Matthew Schmitz.  It is titled: “Elite Evangelicals once again belittle their pro-Trump co-religionists.”  Here is a taste:

Evangelicalism has always been a populist movement, and its piety has always been closely tied to suspicion of religious and political elites. Movements as various as circuit-riding Methodism, Bible-thumping Baptists and black churches all encouraged the very American idea that the common man knows best.

This populist energy helps explain evangelicalism’s broad appeal, but it causes problems for the evangelical leadership class. It makes the phrase “evangelical elite” almost a contradiction in terms, like “Bilderberg proletarian” or “blue-collar Aspen attendee.” Those evangelical leaders who are recognized as leaders by the evangelical base possess a populist streak. They tend to have gained prominence through electoral politics, mass media or entrepreneurial forms of evangelism — all activities that require a sense of the crowd and a common touch.

By contrast, evangelical leaders who have come up through established institutions tend to acquire the training and tastes of the wider American elite. They often disdain the religious and political populism of the base. Whatever their theological convictions may be, these elites have ceased to be evangelical in a sociological sense. And evangelicalism is more exactly defined sociologically than theologically.

Christianity Today is a case in point. Ask an editor there what she thinks about Israel, Trump, feminism or Fox News, and you will get a very different answer than you would from most American evangelicals. The magazine’s young contributors more ardently desire to freelance for The New Yorker than to appear on Tucker Carlson, despite the fact that their parents would be more impressed by the latter.

These people hold less sway among evangelicals than the editors of liberal publications do among their constituencies.

They also have functionally ceased to be evangelical. There is no dishonor in that. As a former evangelical-turned-Catholic, I am well aware of the drawbacks of the evangelical movement. But writers who trade on an evangelical identity that they no longer really share ought to do the decent thing and admit it.

Read the rest here.

It’s late, and I still have grading to do, but I got some time last night to write a few tweets about this trend at First Things:

Again, I don’t read First Things regularly.  I have heard things about new editorial directions at the magazine and its new commitment to Christian nationalism.  If the magazine’s move toward populism is well-known among the conservative intellectual world, please forgive my ignorance.  I am just noticing this for the first time.

Maybe I am reading this the wrong way, but it seems like Schmitz is saying that once the people at Christianity Today (or some other evangelical institution) start thinking, they cease being evangelical.

Noll was a longtime contributing editor of Christianity Today. 

 

Is Mark Galli an “Evangelical Elite?” Is He “Out of Touch?”

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Carl Trueman, a theologian who teaches at Grove City College in western Pennsylvania, thinks that Mark Galli, the editor of Christianity Today and the author of this editorial, is an “evangelical elite” who is “out of touch” with ordinary evangelicals.  Here is a taste of his piece at First Things:

Galli sees the situation as urgent: “If we don’t reverse course now, will anyone take anything we say about justice and righteousness with any seriousness for decades to come?” Yet, to ask the obvious question, what is the alternative? Now, that question can be used as a lazy, rhetorical way of justifying a vote for Trump—or for any status quo, however wicked. But I intend it as a serious inquiry: When someone calls for Trump to be thrown out of office by impeachment or the ballot box, it is reasonable to ask what the available alternatives are. As Mother Theresa is unavailable for the White House, we are really looking at Biden, Warren, or Sanders. I can’t speak to the personal moral qualities of these people, but would voting for them or their policies give Christians any more credibility? Given the role of abortion and LGBTQ rights in their respective campaigns, this is surely something any Christian has to address.

Trueman’s piece seems to suggest that the reduction of abortions in the United States will happen by electing the right POTUS. The implication is that Christians should tolerate Trump because he will appoint anti-Roe v. Wade justices.  I am not convinced that overturning Roe v. Wade will reduce abortion in America any faster than what is already happening.  I made this case in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.

Trueman’s piece also suggests that LGBTQ people should not have rights. Is he implying that we should tolerate Trump because he will make sure they don’t get these rights? If so,  I disagree. This is why I, along with the CCCU and NAE,  support Fairness for All.

Trueman continues:

Indeed, he [Galli] goes so far as to say that he believes the removal of Trump “is not a matter of partisan loyalties but loyalty to the Creator of the Ten Commandments.” That is an astounding claim for the editor of Christianity Today to make, for it involves him accusing every Trump voter of heinous sin, however reluctant or conflicted he may be.

As noted above, Galli is not playing some sanctimonious Pharisee, standing in the Temple of Twitter, thanking God that he is not like other evangelicals—white supremacists, misogynists, or even this Trump supporter over here. But his editorial is symptomatic of the same underlying pathology. Evangelical elites are clearly as out of touch with the populist evangelical base as is the case in society in general. And lambasting populist evangelicals as hypocrites or dimwits will simply perpetuate the divide.

I don’t think Galli is calling anyone a hypocrite or a dimwit.  Nor is he accusing evangelicals of committing a “heinous sin” for supporting this president.  But I have witnessed a lot since Galli’s editorial appeared last night.  Today I saw Trump evangelicals on social media react positively, sometimes with great vigor, to Donald Trump’s Twitter attacks on CT.  I read CT editor Ted Olsen’s call for prayer in the wake of the hate mail and threats the magazine has received from pro-Trumpers.  I listened to Franklin Graham, a man with millions of followers in the evangelical community, claim that Galli’s piece does not contain even a kernel of truth.

All of this makes me wonder if it is Trueman who is out of touch. Earlier in his piece, Trueman says, “I live in the heart of Trump territory and know many who voted for the Donald, almost none of whom took any pleasure in doing so.” Yes, the folks he describes exist.  I have met many of them.  The 81% is a diverse group–men and women who pulled the Trump lever for a variety of reasons.  But Trueman fails to recognize, or at least underestimates, the millions of Trump evangelicals who go to MAGA rallies, think that the president is God’s anointed one, and believe that Trump’s policy on Israel will somehow hasten the return of Jesus.

Let’s not pretend that anti-intellectualism is not at work in the evangelical support for Donald Trump.  I have wrestled with the “evangelical elitism” critique for a long time.  As the product of a working-class family who pursued a Ph.D in American history and became part of the ivory tower, I bristle when people call me “elite.” All of my extended family are Trump supporters.  Like Trueman, I also live in the heart of Trump country.  I am forced to engage with pro-Trump neighbors in my largely lower-middle-class neighborhood and in my church.  As I wrote here yesterday, I have worked hard at being a translator.  I fail often.

But somewhere along the way we need to say, like Mark Galli did, that those who defend this president need to engage in a deeper level of Christian thinking. We need to acknowledge that there is a “scandal of the evangelical mind“and it helps explain why so many evangelicals voted for Donald Trump.  To quote Galli, we need to “call a spade a spade.”  And most importantly, we need to bring attention to the fact that the evangelical support of Donald Trump is hurting the witness of the Gospel.  After spending a year traveling with Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, I have collected enough stories to believe that this is true.

If “evangelical elitist” means that I want to think deeply as a Christian about public life and challenge others–perhaps those of another social class–to do the same, then I gladly accept the label. I am, after all, an educator.  Smart evangelicals challenged me to worship God with my mind when I was a young, working-class, new convert to evangelicalism.  I listened to them and it changed my life.  It made me a better Christian.  When we challenge our fellow evangelicals in this way we must always do so with empathy, compassion, and love, but there are other times when such challenges must come in a Mark Galli-like prophetic voice.

Read the Trueman’s entire piece here.

Liberty University Falkirk Center Announces “Falkirk Fellows”

Liberty U

What is the Falkirk Center?  Get up to speed with these posts.

This new center at Liberty University, which is designed to promote a Christian nationalist view of the United States, has now chosen its first group of “Falkirk Fellows.”  They are:

Erika Lane Frantzve: She was Miss Arizona USA.  I am not sure what qualifies her as a “fellow” at a think tank.

Josh Allen Murray: He apparently was a winner on the ABC reality show “The Bachelorette.”

Antonia Okafor Cover: She runs a non-profit organization that teaches women how to use guns and advocate for their Second Amendment rights.

David Harris Jr.: He is the author of a book titled Why I Couldn’t Stay Silent: One Man’s Battle as a Black Conservative

Jaco Boovens: Runs a film company

I am sure all of these people are good Christians and generally nice people with some degree of influence in their given professions, but if these are the five inaugural “fellows” of the Falkirk Center I would probably stop calling it a think tank.

The bottom line is this: no serious Christian intellectual would sign-up to work in such a think tank because it is built on a faulty view of the American founding and its implications for contemporary American life.

There will also be 60 “ambassadors” who “have joined the project to educate high school and college-age students about the “inseparable intersection of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and American first freedoms and liberties.”

“Inseparable?”  I think it’s time for a third edition of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.

Learn more at the Lynchburg News & Advance.

ADDENDUM: After I published this post I came across a similar one from Adam Laats.  Read it here.

The Collapse of Evangelicalism’s Cultural Center

Lifeway

Over at Slate, Ruth Graham writes about the decline of the Christian bookstore.  Here is a taste of her piece:

The Christian publishing industry, and its distribution arm in Christian bookstores, plays a central role within evangelical culture, even for those who don’t read “Christian books.” Since evangelicalism has no central authority, the publishing industry’s self-defined borders have a huge impact on the people, ideas, and practices that get publicly promoted—and eventually accepted—as “true” Christianity. “Publishers have been really central to granting authority within evangelical culture … and for evangelical celebrities to be created,” said Daniel Vaca, a historian at Brown University whose book Evangelicals Incorporated: Books and the Business of Religion in America will be published later this year. “Publishers have provided a cultural center for evangelicalism.”

Read the entire piece here.

This is so true.  As I read Graham’s piece, I was reminded of how little evangelical churches do to help their congregations navigate the evangelical culture–books, videos, television shows, movies, “Jesus junk,” and music–that they encounter online and in Christian stores.  A lot of evangelical churches have libraries, but they are usually not curated very well and have limited access to funds.  (There are exceptions to this rule!).

These Christian bookstores served as evangelicalism’s “cultural center” in the sense that they connected local believers to a broader evangelical world shaped by booksellers and other market-oriented forces.  The curators of this world brought us Joel Osteen, Paula White, Beth Moore, Rick Warren, Hal Lindsey, Josh McDowell, Tim LaHaye, Jerry Jenkins, Frank Peretti, Joyce Meyer, Max Lucado, Dave Ramsey, Lee Strobel, Eric Metaxas, Ben Carson, T.D. Jakes, David Jeremiah, Sarah Young, John Eldridge, Chuck Swindoll, John MacArthur, Kay Arthur, Anne Graham Lotz, Andy Stanley, and Joni Eareckson Tada, to name a few.

The evangelical world created by Christian publishing and bookstores largely centered on personal piety, Bibles and bible studies, self-help, and products that fused evangelical Christianity with the American dream.  (I have actually read and benefited from a few authors on the list in the previous paragraph, but I find that most of this stuff does not feed my soul or help me navigate my world in a thoughtful way).  In other words, these Christian bookstores rarely had large sections devoted to serious theology, biblical scholarship or books on how to bring serious Christian thinking–the kind produced at Christian colleges and seminaries–to social issues.  (This is why places like Hearts & Minds Bookstore in Dallastown, Pennsylvania or Baker Book House in Grand Rapids, Michigan are so important).

Now that the Christian bookstores are going away, and since it is unlikely that the church will replace the publishing industry’s curating function, the Internet and social media will become the cultural center of evangelicalism.  (One could probably argue that this has already happened).  In some ways, this is like jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.  Individual websites, tweeters, and “influencers” will now serve as curators, resulting in the increasing fragmentation of American evangelicalism.

Alan Jacobs: Most Evangelicals “are simply not *formed* by Christian teaching…”

jeff-sessions

Alan Jacobs on Jeff Sessions‘s use of Romans 13:

The lesson to be drawn here is this: the great majority of Christians in America who call themselves evangelical are simply not formed by Christian teaching or the Christian scriptures. They are, rather, formed by the media they consume — or, more precisely, by the media that consume them. The Bible is just too difficult, and when it’s not difficult it is terrifying. So many Christians simply act tribally, and when challenged to offer a Christian justification for their positions typically grope for a Bible verse or two, with no regard for its context or even its explicit meaning. Or summarize a Sunday-school story that they clearly don’t understand, as when they compare Trump to King David because both sinned without even noticing that David’s penitence was even more extravagant than his sins while Trump doesn’t think he needs to repent of anything. But hey, as a Trump supporter once wrote to me: “Now we are fused with him.” 

And that’s it, that’s the law, that’s the whole of the law

But I think Jeff Sessions actually knows that the position he and Sanders articulate is inadequate. In his statement he lets slip one dangerous word: “I do not believe scripture or church history or reason condemns a secular nation state for having reasonable immigration laws. If we have them, then they should be enforced.” 

Read the entire piece here.  I like Jacobs’s final line: “Start going down this road and you could end up sitting at your kitchen table trying to parse the way Martin Luther King Jr. distinguishes just and unjust laws in his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.”

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.

The End of *Education and Culture*

Wilson JohnI recently learned that thebestschools.org pulled the plug on John Wilson’s latest project Education & Culture: A Critical Review.  (See our May 2107 post celebrating the launch of this new venture by the former Books & Culture editor).

I am obviously disappointed by this, but I am even more upset that the evangelical community could not step up to fund Books & Culture before it was forced to shut down operations last year.  What does this say about the state of the “evangelical mind?”  (If you were at the “State of the Evangelical Mind” conference in Indianapolis last month you heard me say this publicly during the Q&A session following my presentation).

Here is Wilson’s final post: “Endings and Education & Culture“:

“There is no real ending. It’s just the place where you stop the story.”–Frank Herbert

Beginning. Middle. Ending. In a good book, all three rush by and you turn that final page satisfied, disappointed, or wanting more.

Today marks the end of Education & Culture. The beginning was unexpected, the middle rushed by, and now with the final page reached unexpectedly, the hope is that you turn it wanting more.

More will need to come from elsewhere, though, and where that familiar landscape may be . . . well, we as yet do not know. Many talented people contributed to Books & Culture, many of them journeyed here to Education & Culture, and surely some will be present at the future not yet. At least that is the hope. And as the master of sandworms notes above, endings cannot endure the life of an epic story, so hope abides.

Thank you. Find more of the narrative thread unspooling at Twitter through @JWilson1812 and @Ed_Cult.

Is There an Evangelical “Faculty Lounge?”

Lounge

The “Faculty Lounge.”

This is what Fred Clark, aka “Slacktivist,” calls the “Books & Culture crowd” or the “evangelical clergy, academics, and educated laypeople who read Mark Noll’s Scandal of the Evangelical Mind and nodded in sad agreement.”  Check out his post on the recent “The State of the Evangelical Mind” conference: “The faculty lounge meets to discuss the faculty lounge.”

Here is a taste:

The term is descriptive. It’s my attempt to sketch the outlines of an actual thing that simply is. The term “faculty lounge” is not in any way — on its face or in its intent — disparaging or judgmental. It’s just a description. One can dispute the accuracy of my description, certainly, but it would be just … weird to decide that the offering of any description at all is some kind of attack.

Read the entire piece here.

So here is my question for Fred:  Are you a member of the faculty lounge?  If not, why not?

Brief Thoughts on Paper Presentations at the “State of the Evangelical Mind” Conference

Indy

The last few days I have been posting on some of the keynote lectures at the “State of the Evangelical Mind” conference held last week in Indianapolis.  You can read all the posts here.

In this final post I want to offer brief snippets from some of the presentations I heard at the conference.  (I am sorry I cannot cover them all here).

JoAnne Lyon (General Superintendent Emerita of the Wesleyan Church): She traced the history of the evangelical movement in America with a particular focus on the movement’s attention to race and social justice issues.  It was an excellent and informative presentation, but I could not help but wonder how it fit with the “evangelical mind” discussion.  Part of Mark Noll’s diagnosis in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind was that the evangelical church has always had a strong history of doing the kinds of things Lyon talked about in her lecture.  In response to a question I asked from the floor, Lyon made it clear that this kind of activism must take place in conversation with Christian thinkers who study the systemic and structural issues that under-gird racism, poverty, and other social ills.  I appreciated the clarification.

Andrew Draper (Assistant Professor of Theology at Taylor University and pastor of the Urban Light Community Church in Muncie, Indiana):  His talk was titled “Christ the Center and Evangelical Hope.”  This talk did not particularly address the “state of the evangelical mind” conversation, but offered thoughts about the theological vision of “hope” in the works of Jurgen Moltmann, St. Paul, James Cone, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Draper concluded that “hope is not moral, it is Christological.”  Echoing Stanley Hauerwas (although I don’t think Draper actually mentioned him by name), Draper argued that the church is not the “priest of civil religion.”  He challenged us to live as if history was moving toward the return of Christ.  This was a great talk, and Draper delivered it with passion, but if he framed his talk in the context of the “scandal” or “state” of the evangelical mind, I missed it.

Christopher Smith(Editor of The Englewood Review of Books): Smith’s paper focused on the work of Englewood Christian Church, a congregation located in a poor, working-class neighborhood of Indianapolis.  The church publishes The Englewood Review of Books (we received a free issue in our conference “swag bags”).  Smith talked about the way his church and his publication seek to challenge the idea of a “disembodied mind.” Englewood Christian Church is committed to engaging Christian scholarship and cultivating a Christian mind from its particular urban location.  Englewood Review of Books is excellent. A new issue appears online every week and the print issue is published four times a year. Check it out.

David Mahan and Don Smedley (Rivendell Institute at Yale University):  These veterans of campus ministry discussed the role of the evangelical mind in para-church organizations.  Mahan suggested that campus ministries are seldom included in discussions of the “evangelical mind” because commentators assume that not much thinking goes on in them.  Mahan did not disagree.  Historically, campus ministries have focused on evangelism and spiritual growth.  But this is not the entire story.  Smedley compared Mark Noll’s work on the “scandal of the evangelical mind” to the work of Christian apologist J.P. Moreland.  He argued that the evangelical mind is cultivated on secular campuses through  apologetics and intellectual discipleship. While Noll suggests that the work of Christian apologetics and evangelism has been detrimental to the development of an “evangelical mind,” Smedley believes that work in these areas on secular campuses should not be dismissed as somehow anti-intellectual.

Mark Stephens (Excelsia College in Sydney, Australia).  After listening to Stephens it was clear to me that Australian evangelicals are a lot like American evangelicals when it comes to promoting an evangelical mind.  Stephens said that Australian evangelicals do a lot of good things, but he is not sure that they think very hard about what they do.  He asked, “if we did ever think about it, where would we think about it?”

Jack Baker and Jeff Bilbro (Spring Arbor University English professors): I have been attending “Christian scholarship” and “evangelical mind” conferences now for about twenty years and it seems like there is always a presentation about what Wendell Berry can offer the Christian academy.  (I remember listening to Steven Bouma-Prediger and Brian Walsh at the “Christian Scholarship for What? conference at Calvin College.  I am guessing that this was either in 2000 or 2001).  Listening to Baker and Bilbro reminded me of the late night conversations on Berry and “place” that I used to have at the Advanced Placement American History reading in San Antonio with Eric Miller, Jay Green, Russ Reeves, and many others.  Don’t get me wrong, I am thrilled that we are still reckoning with Berry.  Baker and Bilbro urged Christian colleges to craft place-centered narratives to define their missions, “inhabit” the particular places and regions where those colleges are located, and teach students to “practice the Sabbath.”

Erin Devers (Indiana Wesleyan Seminary): Devers is a social psychologist who wants us to not only think, but “think well.”  At the heart of good Christian thinking is the idea of empathy, a virtue that must be cultivated through repetition and daily spiritual practice. There were a lot of similarities between her talk and some of the best studies in historical thinking, especially the work of Sam Wineburg.  Our “psychological condition at rest” (Wineburg’s term) is not geared toward empathetic understanding, but the daily work of teachers challenging their students to think historically can reverse this condition.  This is why historical thinking is such an “unnatural act,.”  Unlike Wineburg, Devers introduced spiritual practices as a means of developing empathetic thinking in students. As some of you know, this is the argument I made in chapter seven of Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  Most scholars interested in the “scandal of the evangelical mind” tend to be humanists, but Devers’s social science approach was a breath of fresh air.

I  recently exchanged e-mails with one of the conference attendees and she said that she enjoyed the event, but it was sort of like “drinking from a fire hose.”  I think all of us could have used a little more time to reflect and digest.  As you can tell from these posts, we all left with a lot to think about.

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.

John Hawthorne Reflects on the “State of the Evangelical Mind” Conference

Spring Atrbor

Spring Arbor University has some serious grass

One of the joys of attending the “State of the Evangelical Mind” conference last week was the opportunity to meet fellow Christian scholars in person that I have only interacted with via social media.  One of those scholars is John Hawthorne, Professor of Sociology at Spring Arbor University in Spring Arbor, Michigan.

Over at his blog “Sociological Reflections,” Hawthorne offers his take on the conference. Here is a taste:

Just under thirty years ago, sociologist Robert Wuthnow wrote a prescient little book titled The Struggle for America’s Soul. The book documented the separation between the religious right concerned about massive social change and the educated elite who championed it. I remember that he ended the book with an optimistic hope: that scholars at faith-based institutions might play a unique role in bridging that chasm because they understood both groups. They could play something like the role of translator explaining each group to the other side. This would be done, he suggested, by conducting and reporting research in their role as evangelical scholars.

I found myself thinking of Wuthnow’s book last week when attending a gathering on “The State of the Evangelical Mind” in Indianapolis. The gathering focused on a book written five years after Wuthnow’s: Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.

In part a retrospective on Noll’s book and in part a recognition of the service John Wilson performed as editor of the journal Books and Culture, it involved a series of papers reflecting on issues both deeply related to the conference question and some slightly more tangential (yet still interesting).

The evening began with a paper from Noll himself (at the last minute he wasn’t able to attend so his paper was read but he did participate via speakerphone in the q&a session). Noll reflected on the book and highlighted four successes that demonstrated an advancement in the evangelical mind: The Reformed Journal, the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicalism, the Pew Scholars Network, and Books and Culture.

I was struck that, like in Wuthnow’s book, the evangelical minds being developed were those of academics. There is real value in seeing the evangelical perspective engaging broader scholarship, but unfortunately too much of it happens in isolation from everyday evangelicals.

Read the entire piece here.

You can find my ongoing reflections on the conference here.

Can Evangelical Christian Colleges Learn Anything from John Henry Newman?

Newman

Some evangelicals at Christian Colleges do not believe that John Henry Newman is useful today because his famous book The Idea of a University is addressed to Christian “gentlemen.”  I understand this critique. I also think it is short-sighted.  Indeed, Newman wrote the lectures that became Idea in 1854–a time when the most prestigious British universities were only open to men.  But his lectures on the university also offer a lot of interesting insights for anyone who works, teachers, or leads a Christian college.

In a plenary address at “The State of the Evangelical Mind” conference this past week, Tim Larsen, the McManis Chair of Christian Thought at Wheaton College, applied Newman’s work to the task of cultivating the evangelical mind on Christian college campuses.

Drawing from Newman, Larsen offered several characteristics of a Christian liberal arts college:

  1. Christian liberal arts colleges must pursue “substantial knowledge.”  Students should study those things that distinguish us from other animals.  Larsen argued that money should be used to pursue this kind of “substantial knowledge” and not the other way around.
  2. Christian liberal arts colleges are about “formation,” not careerism or the pursuit of monetary comfort.
  3. Liberal arts colleges must promote “the entire circle of knowledge.”  They should embrace and celebrate the fact that psychologists, biologists, historians, sociologists, economists, and theologians, among others, all offer useful ways of understanding the world.
  4. Students at Christian liberal arts colleges should not be sheltered from “unsettling realities.”  When students are sheltered from certain ideas they are only “delaying their education” and, in essence, turning their education over to the world.
  5.  Theology must be a core discipline at a Christian liberal arts college and it must inform all the other disciplines.

The Q&A was lively.  I was interested in how Larsen’s model might work at a college without a denominational or Christian confessional core or specific doctrinal statement beyond the basic historic Christian creeds. At the college where I teach there is no particular theological system that can serve as a starting point for how theology might inform the work we do in our fields.  Jay Green followed up on my question by asking Larsen how to balance disciplinary-specific ways of thinking with the integrated model Larsen proposed in his lecture.

I liked Larsen’s lecture and have always been attracted to the kind of Christian liberal arts institutions that he described (with a lot of help from Newman).  I do wonder whether such a vision would only work at a handful of Christian colleges.  At most Christian colleges the humanities (the study of the things that separate us from other animals) are in decline, professional programs prevail, and students decide what to study based on economic considerations. Some Christian colleges even prevent students from engaging with certain texts and ideas that are considered dangerous by the administrators in charge.

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.

The State of the Evangelical Mind: Opening Plenary

Sag

The Sagamore Institute (Indianapolis) was the site of the “State of the Evangelical Mind” conference

The organizers of “The State of the Evangelical Mind” conference in Indianapolis chose to open the festivities with a session titled “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind: A Tripartite Review.”  Jay Green, Eric Miller, and yours truly served as the warm-up act for Mark Noll. We offered reflections on the current state of the evangelical mind and how evangelical intellectual life is faring at the Christian schools (Covenant College, Geneva College, Messiah College) where we currently teach.  Our “review” will be published in a forthcoming issue of Christian Scholar’s Review, so I cannot share the content here.  But I can offer a very small taste of what I said in this session.  Here are two disconnected paragraphs from the presentation. If you want context you will need to wait until the talk appears in print:

Today, as a college professor working at a Christian college, I pray that my students–whether they are first-generation college students or not–will experience something similar to my own intellectual transformation.  I also want them to know that whatever awakening of the mind I experienced in my early 20s happened WITHIN evangelicalism.  It was believing scholars–mostly historians–whose work created something akin to an evangelical republic of letters for me.  I know I speak for my other panelists up here, and even some of you in the audience as well, when I say that this community was sustained through the medium of e-mail, conversations at the Advanced Placement U.S. history readings and academic conferences that lasted well into the night, and the on-going sense that our work was somehow going to make a difference in the world.

And this:

I am sure many of you have heard this kind of jeremiad before.  It’s an old story.  But that doesn’t mean we should give up, or stop telling it.  Those inspired to press onward by Noll’s manifesto will find that the journey can be a tiring and lonely one.  Indeed, those who speak prophetically about the need to worship God with our minds will find themselves in lover’s quarrels with fellow evangelicals, and we will no doubt suffer emotional and psychological wounds along the way. (I am playing here off of Noll’s “wounded lover” metaphor). But in the end, these are the burdens we must bear when we follow what Noll, in another context, has called the “Christ of the academic road.”

Stay tuned.  More posts on the “State of the Evangelical Mind” conference are forthcoming.