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.

The Seminary and the “Evangelical Mind”

Divinitychapelduke

Lauren Winner is Associate Professor of Christian Spirituality at Duke Divinity School. Her lecture on Christian thinking in theological seminaries was one of the highlights of “The State of the Evangelical Mind” conference in Indianapolis.

First, Winner observed that evangelical students often arrive at Duke Divinity School (and presumably other seminaries) hostile to the idea that Christians are shaped by “the great tradition” of the church.  She urged seminary professors to show their evangelical students that Christianity is not “extractable” from Christian tradition and history.  Too often evangelicals arrive at seminary ignorant of the fact that the Bible was shaped by, and is the product of, centuries of theological conversation and debate.

Second, Winner argued that evangelical seminaries must combat “instrumentalism,” or the idea that the purpose of reading Biblical passages or practicing spiritual disciplines is to get satisfactory solutions for pressing problems and concerns. For example, the purpose of prayer, Bible reading, and other spiritual disciplines is not always about “getting something.”

Third, Winner called for an attentiveness to reading.  She quoted a passage from Anselm’s Meditation on Human Redemption: ”

Consider again the strength of your salvation and where it is found.  Meditate upon it, delight in the contemplation of it.  Shake off your lethargy and set your mind to thinking over these things.  Taste the goodness of your Redeemer, be on fire with love for your Savior. Chew the honeycomb of his words, suck their flavor which is sweeter than sap, swallow their wholesome sweetness.  Chew by thinking, suck by understanding, swallow by loving and rejoicing. Be glad to chew, be thankful to suck, rejoice to swallow.

On this point Winner appeared to be echoing her former colleague Paul Griffiths on spiritual reading.  When Christian scholars read they tend to “cannibalize”  the text.  Is it possible for scholarship to be read in a “delightful way?”  Winner also encouraged seminaries to assign fiction and poetry because these genres can tell us things about God and the world that traditional theology is incapable of communicating.

Fourth, Winner argued that seminaries should teach students that “thinking is an action.”  Activism is good, but it is shallow unless supported by serious thought.  For example, Winner wondered why every sermon has to end with a charge to “do something.”  Why can’t a sermon, she asked, challenge hearers to “think differently about something.”  In the end, “thinking differently about something” is a form of action.

Fifth, Winner reminded pastors that they have a responsibility to the life of the mind. They are faced with the task of inviting the members of their congregations to see the world Christianly. Winner, who in addition to her work at Duke serves as an Episcopalian priest in a North Carolina congregation, said that she is less concerned that her parishioners understand the different views of the atonement and more concerned that they can think about “naptime” or “grocery shopping” in a Christian ways.  What would it mean, she asked, “to see the world, the whole world, through a Christian eyeball” in such a way that we “see Jesus” in every aspect of daily life?

In the end, Winner’s words for evangelical seminaries and seminarians apply to anyone trying to live out the claims of Christianity.  But I also wonder if we need to do a better job as Christian scholars to engage in scholarly work and practice informed by the kinds of spiritual practices she discussed in her lecture.  I have been thinking about this for some time now.

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.