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.

Is There an “Evangelical Mind?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I will keep thinking.

“The State of the Evangelical Mind” Conference is Underway

Scandal

Eric Miller, Jay Green, and yours truly were part of the opening panel of the “State of the Evangelical Mind” conference (Photo credit: Matt Lakemacher)

It is unusual for The Way of Improvement Leads Home blog to go silent for a full day. I spent most of Thursday traveling to Indianapolis for the “State of the Evangelical Mind” conference.  Today will be another busy day.  Unfortunately, the conference format is not very conducive to live tweeting.  I have, however, been taking good notes and hope to do multiple posts on the conference over the course of the next week.  Stay tuned!

Quote of the Day

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

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

The State of the Evangelical Mind Conference

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

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

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

Here is that schedule:

Thursday, September 21, 2017

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

Emcee – Jerry Pattengale (Indiana Wesleyan University)


Friday, September 22, 2017

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

Emcee – Jerry Pattengale (Indiana Wesleyan University)

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the entire piece here.

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

“The State of the Evangelical Mind” Conference

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Learn more here.

Here is the schedule:

Thursday, September 21, 2017

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

Friday, September 22, 2017

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

Getting the Band Back Together To Discuss the State of the Evangelical Mind

eac22-scandalI am happy to announce that in September I will be participating in a conference in Indianapolis titled “The State of the Evangelical Mind: Reflections upon the Past, Prospects for the Future.

Here is a description from the conference website:

Evangelicalism, however one defines it, finds itself at the intersection of a host of crossroads.  After decades of relative prosperity in North America, the churches, universities, and seminaries that evangelicals cultivate, populate, and depend upon for leadership are wrestling with legal, social, and ultimately theological questions on a wide variety of fronts. 

For many, the financial challenges that compelled Christianity Today to close Books and Culture after twenty-one years were tangible expressions of those challenges.  Caught between fear and hope, some observers proposed the evangelical mind is now on the threshold of another “scandal.”  In contrast, others propose the opportunities for faithful intellectual engagement and witness are greater now than in recent history.    

This symposium offers a context in which participants can reflect upon that past but also think critically about the prospects for the future of the evangelical mind.  Those prospects will depend in many ways upon the influence of evangelical churches, universities, and seminaries.  What role then will each one of those institutions play?  What kinds of relationships will they need to share with one another?  What kinds of relationships will churches, universities, and seminaries need to forge with other institutions? 

By drawing upon the wisdom of the past, perhaps some of these questions might be best navigated by reflecting anew upon the common and respective purposes animating the church, the university, and the seminary.  Please consider joining us as we explore these questions at “The State of the Evangelical Mind: Reflections upon the Past, Prospects for the Future,” on September 21-22, 2017.Confessing History Available for Pre-Order

I am even more excited to announce that I will be joining my old partners in crime, Jay Green (Covenant College) and Eric Miller (Geneva College), for a plenary panel titled “Mark Noll’s Scandal and the CCCU: A Tripartite Review.”  If you are a regular reader of The Way of Improvement Leads Home you will know that we co-edited Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation.

(Our session was just added to the conference program. At the time I am writing this post it does not yet appear on the conference website.  The conference organizers at the Lumen Research Institute tell us that we will be presenting at 7:00pm on Thursday evening as the lead-up to Mark Noll’s plenary address).

The other conference speakers (in addition to Noll) are Jo Anne Lyon (Wesleyan Church), Timothy Larsen (Wheaton College), Lauren Winner (Duke Divinity School), and James K.A. Smith (Calvin College).  The conference will also honor former Books & Culture editor John Wilson.

I hope to see some of you in Indianapolis in September!

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with Green (left and sporting the nice argyle sweater vest) and Miller (center)

 

Mark Noll Talks Trump, Hawkins, and the Evangelical Mind

NollCheck out this interview with Noll at The Wheaton Record, the student newspaper of Wheaton College.  As many of you know, Noll taught at Wheaton for 27 years before moving to Notre Dame for the final decade of his teaching career.  In this wide-ranging interview Noll talks about Donald Trump’s election, the Larycia Hawkins case at Wheaton, his retirement plans, and the state of the evangelical mind.

Here is a taste of editor Ciera Horton’s interview:

C: The word “evangelical” took center stage in the presidential election and continues to do so. However, there does seem to be a disconnect between Trump’s policies such as the now-blocked travel ban, immigration and sole support for Israel which Christians are divided on — so how do you explain the evangelical support and winning the evangelical vote?

M: I think what’s called “evangelical support for Trump” had to do with the pro-life position of the Republican party, it had to do with a lot of antagonism against some of the cultural steps taken by the Obama administration. It certainly had to do with the memory of Bill Clinton’s immorality in the White House, and a lot of white evangelicals were concerned about economics…I do think we have increasing numbers of Christian academics who would have a much more sophisticated approach to political life than, “I’m angry at Hillary so I’m voting for Trump.” But I’m worried about the Christian populace at large listening all the time to their media go-to and never being concerned about folks who are trying to see things more broadly.

Read the entire interview here.  It appears just in time for Nollstock (Nollfest?, Nollapalooza?) next month.

Evangelical Fear and Anti-Intellectualism in the Age of Trump

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Here is a taste of my latest column at Religion News Service:

(RNS) Seventy-six percent of white American evangelicals supported President Trump’s recent executive order temporarily banning travelers from seven predominantly Muslim nations as well as all refugees, according to Pew Research (59 percent of all Americans disapproved of the order).

The strong evangelical support for Trump’s action is telling in light of a recent letter sent to him and Vice President Mike Pence from 500 evangelical leaders who condemn the executive order.

The letter was signed by Tim Keller (author and pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church), Richard Mouw (former president of Fuller Theological Seminary), Max Lucado (author), Bill Hybels (founder of Willow Creek Community Church) and Shirley Hoogstra (president of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities),  to name only a few of the prominent evangelicals who endorsed its message.

Read the rest here.