Public intellectuals deploy their thinking as a way of exercising power and influence. Simply put, their aim is to change the world through spreading ideas and winning debates. An evangelical approach to being a public intellectual involves redefining that power through the lens of the cross. In deliberate conformity to the example of Christ, evangelical public intellectuals influence the world according to a cruciform pattern. This template, which recurs across multiple streams of New Testament tradition, enables power to be exercised through weakness, and influence through sacrifice. Mark Stephens is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity and a Fellow of the Lumen Research Institute. He was previously Director of Integrative Studies and Research at Excelsia College. His primary research areas are the Book of Revelation, the practice of Christian higher education, and the intersection of theology and popular culture. He is the author of Annihilation and Renewal: The Meaning and Function of New Creation in the Book of Revelation.
In 2017, Alan Jacobs released How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds.1 Within this slim volume, Jacobs offers practical strategies for improving thinking and conversation in a fractious age. Drawing upon his many years of experience as a humanities professor, Jacobs appropriates insights from an eclectic mix of psychologists, anthropologists, journalists, and essayists. The aim throughout is to build our capacity to disagree charitably, to counteract our cognitive bias, and to learn the art of virtuous conversation. The value of Jacobs work to all public intellectuals seems immediately apparent, and his work sits as one amongst many helpful volumes which diagnose the parlous state of public discourse throughout Western democracies.2
One prominent lacuna in How to Think is the lack of theological reflection upon the practice of thinking in public. Despite Jacobs own prominence as a Christian intellectual,3 How to Think does not intend to offer biblical or theological insights. This statement is offered as an observation, not as a criticism, in order to highlight that a space remains to consider how a distinctly Christian approach might contribute to being a public intellectual. Accordingly, this article is dominated by one overriding question: what is the manner and means of the evangelical public intellectual?
In order to answer this question, we shall proceed in three distinct sections. First, we need to briefly define what we mean by the terms “evangelical” and “public intellectual.” Second, in view of our working within an evangelical frame, we will articulate a cruciform ethic for intellectual practice which is grounded in a synthesis of various New Testament texts. Finally, we offer some summary thoughts on how a cruciform approach makes a distinct contribution to the practice of public thinking, in which power, weakness, and influence are redefined by the Scriptural imagination.
The Evangelical Public Intellectual
Our preferred term – “evangelical public intellectual” – is by no means self-interpreting. Each of its constituent elements is subject to debate and discussion. For reasons of brevity we cannot offer a full-orbed exploration of the issues, but we can at least make clear the definitions in play. We begin by considering the last part first: what should be foremost in our minds when we think of a “public intellectual?”
Richard Posner, in his influential work from 2003, posited that [public intellectuals are] “intellectuals who opine to an educated public on questions of or inflected by a political or ideological concern.”4 What this definition gestures towards is that public intellectuals stand in proximate relationship to power.
Here we are working with Michael Gorman’s generic definition of power: [Power is] “understood as the ability to exercise significant control or influence, either for good or for ill, over people and/or history. Power, we might say, is the ability to form or to transform.”5 We define the public intellectual as a thinker who aspires to the exercise of power, authority, and public influence, through the instrumentality of ideas. Thus, the essential criteria for being a public intellectual is the substantive impact of one’s ideas in arenas beyond academia.6
Such a definition of a public intellectual in terms of proximity to power inevitably leads us to consider a related phenomenon—that of the public intellectual’s proximity to celebrity. Changing forms of media led to a reconfiguration and democratization of public intellectual power. It is commercial media, in its diverse forms (print, televisual, and digital), which now constitutes much of the public sphere within which intellectuals must seek their influence.
Accordingly, Marshall and Atherton point to the emerging significance of TED talks and YouTube videos as a prime location for public intellectual discourse.7 But the compressed forms of communication which are favored by such sites, along with the global possibility for any piece of content to go “viral,” lends itself to the association of the public intellectual with the domain of popular celebrity. Rare though it may be, public intellectuals can achieve a measure of fame and glory, from Ta Nehisi-Coates through to Jordan Peterson, from Cornel West through to Sherry Turkle.8
Yet such celebrity is inextricably embedded within a contemporary political context that has become more fractious and tribalized, and an ideologically segmented media environment, in which the work of the public intellectual is easily coopted for broader partisan causes. If we draw these threads together, it can be seen that our definition of a public intellectual is one which stresses the practice of thinking in public as an (attempted) exercise of power and influence, which may in turn lend itself to the reception of public honor and celebrity. The general aim is to influence the world, to change the world, through spreading ideas and strong debates.
Having defined something of the “public intellectual” in general, we now need to define what we mean by the adjective “evangelical.” In our politicized times, where “evangelical” seems more sociological than theological,9 it may reasonably be argued that we should jettison the label for something less aggravating, such as classical, orthodox, or even the more generic “Christian.” As an Australian, it is somewhat horrifying to have Collin Hansen open up his 2011 discussion of evangelicalism with the statement: “Americans have little trouble identifying an evangelical: someone who stayed loyal to George W. Bush before transferring allegiances to Sarah Palin.”10 The fact that this outdated remark would substitute the name “Donald Trump” brings even greater discomfort.11 My point here is not partisan; it is the horror that a word pertaining to the gospel could be easily reduced to a political preference. However, for the purposes of the ensuing analysis, the evangelical label remains pertinent, for reasons we shall unpack in the next few paragraphs.
“Evangelical” and “evangelicalism” have always been contestable terms, and debates over the essence of the movement show no signs of abating.12 Indeed in modern Christian discourse the term often requires additional nuance by supplying further adjectives such as “conservative,” “progressive,” “reformed,” and “charismatic.” In a generic sense, perhaps the most widely used definition of evangelicalism was developed in the 1980s by the British historian David Bebbington who articulated a quadrilateral of priorities that map the essential emphases of the movement. These include “conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed; activism, the expression of the gospel in effort; biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible; and what may be called crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.”13
For our purposes, the utility of this quadrilateral lies primarily in its third and fourth priorities. Biblicism matters because evangelicals are to be identified by their high valuing of Scripture. Hence, our exploration of evangelicals as public intellectuals needs to focus on individuals who prioritize the resources of Scripture as the primary source of guidance for praxis. With a view to crucicentrism, we must first acknowledge that evangelicalism mostly focuses on the cross in terms of its soteriological effect.14 It might therefore be expected that to exhort an evangelical public intellectual to be crucicentric would entail that thinker prominently and regularly featuring the atoning death of Jesus in their public contributions.
However, our concern here is not primarily with the thematic content of a speaker, as important as that might be. Rather, our focus is the manner and mode of thinking in public. Accordingly, we will argue that evangelical crucicentrism should affect the shape of a thinker’s practice, such that their contribution to the common good is definably cruciform. Such “cruciformity” lies at the essence of what it means to think in and for Christ, within the public square. To a biblical consideration of what that means we now turn.
The New Testament Pattern of Cruciformity
As with salvation, so with sanctification, the New Testament’s vision of a believer’s praxis is predominantly focused on Christ. As Ben Witherington states in his recent work Biblical Theology: “…what needs to be stressed is the Christological shape or pattern the Christian life is supposed to take. One is called to the imitation of Christ, the replication of Christ’s character and also his chosen behavior in the life of the believer.”15 The broad rubric of “Christlikeness” effectively summarizes the substance and goal of New Testament ethics. The “Christlike” label, however, can be somewhat domesticated, whereby the vagueness of behaving “like Jesus” is reduced to a polite focus on manners, rather than revolutionary reformation of character and practice.
The general notion of Christlikeness thus needs to be clarified by a term such as “cruciformity.” Cruciformity is a term made prominent by Michael Gorman as a way of describing Paul’s narrative spirituality of the cross.16 Although he limits it only to Paul, Gorman’s rubric proves fruitful in labeling the essential paradigm of the Christian life across the whole of the New Testament. In simple terms, the specifics of Christlikeness are that it involves conformity to the crucified Christ.17 To demonstrate this, we shall examine the dynamics of cruciformity in three separate New Testament sources: the Gospel of Mark, the letters of Paul, and the Apocalypse of John. In each instance we will see that crucicentric faith inevitably manifests in cruciform living, and that the Christ who is savior is inevitably the Christ who is exemplar.18 Yet, the aim here is not merely exegetical. On the contrary, our discussion is ultimately geared to our framing question: what is the manner or mode by which the evangelical public intellectual deploys their power?
Gospel of Mark
We begin where the New Testament begins—with stories of Jesus. The Gospels serve a variety of theological functions in the life of the church, primarily with regard to Christology and soteriology. However, such theological functions can never be wholly separated from the ethical functions of these narratives, for the Gospels are documents written to shape the character and praxis of the Christian community to which they are addressed.19 Nowhere is this nexus between theology and ethics more to the fore than in the Gospel of Mark, whose rich Christology is ultimately programmatic for discipleship.
The opening statement of Mark is boldly Christological: “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God…” (Mk 1:1).20 Yet the ensuing narrative is notable for the way human characters regularly misperceive the true messianic identity of Mark’s central character.21 Indeed, even when Jesus’ identity begins to dawn upon the disciples, Mark makes clear that they still do not understand the meaning of this identity (Mark 8:31-33; 10:35-45). So it is that Peter initially interprets Jesus’ Messiahship in conformity with standard notions of power and glory, and entirely misses the messianic vocation of Jesus as God’s suffering servant.22
For Mark, Jesus can only be truly known as a crucified Messiah. This is best appreciated through considering the plot and structure of Mark. In the opening chapters of the Gospel we see Jesus presented as a powerful wonder-worker, through a rapid series of episodes containing the highest proportion of miracle stories among all the canonical Gospels.23 Jesus is the inaugurator of God’s kingdom (1:15), whose authority is utterly unique (1:22, 27; 2:10; 3:15), even to the point of commanding nature (4:39). Yet, in the first eight chapters, no human truly knows Jesus. As Richard Hays so eloquently states: “The juxtaposition of Jesus’ mighty works with the disciples’ incomprehension invites us to recognize that power is not self-attesting. Those who know Jesus only as a worker of wonders do not understand him at all…”24 Indeed, it is not until chapter fifteen that a human character confesses Jesus as “Son of God,” when a Roman centurion sees him die upon a cross (15:39). Mark’s point is both narratively subtle and yet supremely clear: it is only by seeing Jesus as a crucified Messiah that humanity can ever understand him at all.25
Crucially, Mark’s presentation of Jesus as a suffering servant is not just theological, it is aretological (virtue-forming). As David A. deSilva encapsulates it, “the shape of Messiahship is also the pattern of discipleship.”26 Hence, the frequent episodes and teaching throughout Mark in which the disciples are called to embrace the path of suffering, humility, and status reversal, in conscious imitation of their Lord (Mk 8:34-38; 9:30-37; 10:13-16, 28-45). Here Hays is again worth quoting at length:
The narrative strategy of Mark challenges the reader to draw the conclusion, to answer the question, “Who do you say that I am?” by acknowledging Jesus as the crucified Messiah. That acknowledgement, however, carries with it a corollary of somber significance for Markan ethics: to be Jesus’ disciple means to allow one’s identity to be stamped by the identity of the one who died forsaken on the cross. When we embrace Mark’s answer to the question, “Who do you say I am?” we are not just making a theological affirmation about Jesus’ identity; we are choosing our own identity as well.27
All of this has crucial relevance to the way power is understood and deployed in Mark’s narrative world.
As a result, divine power is not surrendered by suffering, rather God’s power is made effective through the suffering and humiliation of God’s royal Son.28 The Suffering Servant is the one who brings the kingdom. That basic Christological fact carries with it a profound parenetic force for the exercise of power by disciples who imitate their Lord. Christian power cannot be used to oppress, dominate, or impress, it can only be used to serve (Mk 10:45). Moreover, the locus of power does not reside in the privileges of wealth and status, indeed such things might need to be surrendered in order for God’s power to be shown (10:29-31).
Cruciformity in Paul’s Corinthian Correspondence
We turn now from the Gospels to the epistles of Paul, whose theology of the cross is justly famous. Even more so than Mark, Paul’s crucicentrism is first of all soteriological. It is in the cross that Paul boasts of his justification and reconciliation (Rom 3:25; 5:10-11). But the priority of the cross as a means of atonement should not occlude other elements in Paul’s crucicentrism. For Paul, the story of Christ established a pattern of life to which believers are meant to conform. One of the dominant descriptors for the present existence of the believer is the phrase “in Christ” (for some examples see I Cor 1:30, 15:22; II Cor 5:17). This union of the believer with Christ spills over with all manner of implications, not the least of which is the motif of “inheritance” in which the blessings accorded to the Son are liberally poured out upon those who are in the Son (Eph 1:3-14).
The believer’s union with Christ, however, is also manifested at the behavioral level as the disciple’s personal story becomes conformed to the story of Christ. Believers are said to participate in the death and resurrection of Christ, not merely in terms of enjoying salvific benefits, but through intimately imitating the same pattern of suffering, death, through to vindication via resurrection (Rom 6:4-5, 8:17; II Cor 13:4; Gal 2:19; Phil 3:10).29 Lest we be misconstrued, the believer’s story and Christ’s story is never entirely identical. For example, there is no sense in which Paul contends that believers can recapitulate the atoning work of Christ. Nevertheless, Paul does contend that Christ’s representative humanity inaugurates a new way of being human (I Cor 15:49; Eph 2:10) for which cruciformity is the basic template.30
In order to demonstrate these emphases, there is no better set of exemplar texts than Paul’s Corinthian correspondence. Across these two epistles Paul engages with a congregation whose love of status, power, intellectual sophistication, and rhetorical flair are now colliding with faith in a crucified Messiah.31 This collision emerges early in I Corinthians. Paul’s opening salvo boldly asserts the foolishness and weakness of the Christian message, insofar as Christ crucified is equally offensive to both Jews and Gentiles (I Cor 1:18-25). Yet Paul is at pains to show that this message which appears fragile and ridiculous is actually the power and wisdom of God.32
As with the Gospel of Mark, Christ crucified is both an atoning sacrifice and a pattern by which to live. In I Corinthians 2:2 Paul speaks of his resolve to know nothing except the crucified Christ. While at first blush this may seem to only be a confession of saving faith, as the letter moves on we see Paul immediately state “I came to you in weakness…” (v.3). For Paul, Christ crucified is his portion and his pattern. This is abundantly evident throughout the remainder of the Corinthian correspondence. Therefore, in I Corinthians 4, true apostleship is described as being put on public display at the end of a triumphal procession, humiliated and condemned to die in the arena (4:9).
Note here that the Christian’s public engagement is described in terms of being made a spectacle, to go through an experience of dishonor, concluding with a series of phrases deeply redolent of the teaching of Jesus: “When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. We have become the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world—right up to this moment” (I Cor 4:12-13).
If I Corinthians lays down a paradigm for cruciform weakness, II Corinthians unpacks that paradigm in all its experiential intensity. II Corinthians is perhaps Paul’s most gut-wrenching letter. In the inimitable words of R. P. C. Hanson, “Here, broken sharply off, with none of the jagged edges filed down, is a chunk of Paul’s life – authentic, uncensored, bewilderingly complicated, but amazingly interesting.”33 Lying somewhere near the center of II Corinthians is the cruciform example of the apostle himself, whose experience is an overwhelming mixture of certainty and bewilderment. The letter opens with a reference to Paul’s pressure and troubles in Asia, experiences so troubling that he “despaired of life itself” (II Cor 1:8-11). Throughout the remainder of the letter, weakness is closely associated with the way of Jesus.
For Paul, this is no accident or surprise. It is inextricably intertwined with being conformed to the image of the Son. Thus, in II Corinthians 3:18 Paul announces that, through the Spirit, believers are being transformed into the image of Christ with ever-increasing glory. But this is immediately followed by a large section demonstrating that such conformity will inevitably appear weak, for it is in weakness that the glory and power of God shine brightest. Paul’s description in II Corinthians 4:7 should only ever be quoted, not paraphrased:
7But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. 8 We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; 9 persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 10 We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. 11 For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. 12 So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you. (II Cor 4:7-12)
To be transformed into the image of the Son means to be a fragile jar of clay, experiencing vulnerability in the public arena. Addressed to a Corinthian culture of sophistry, Paul claims Christian power means nothing if it is not publicly and privately cruciform.
As with Mark, so for Paul, weakness is not powerlessness. Paul does not speak as a pathetic victim, who cries out with despair that his life and actions are ineffectual. For Paul, cruciformity is the pattern through which divine power is unleashed. Hence power discourse is a regular feature of the Corinthian correspondence (I Cor 4:20, 6:14; II Cor 6:7; 10:4). It is just that power is intimately paired together with suffering and foolishness, no more so than in II Corinthians 12 where he states that “[Christ’s] power is made perfect in weakness.” (II Cor 12:9). Indeed, for Paul the importance of deploying power and wisdom in a cruciform way is so vital that he baldly states that one’s manner of speech can empty the cross of Christ of its power (I Cor 1:17).
Apocalyptic Discipleship: Following the Lamb Wherever He Goes
Having surveyed both Gospel and Epistle, we bring our attention to Revelation or the Apocalypse of John. Traditionally this text has served as a repository for eschatological speculation and theological debate. Yet the tragedy is that the Apocalypse was crafted in service of discipleship. 34 At the heart of any notion of “apocalyptic” discourse is the idea of revelation, in which an alternate map of reality is unveiled, both spatially and temporally.35 But for the Apocalypse of John, this reframing of reality is intended to resource a different way of being, through encouraging its audience to live well in the present in light of the eschatological future.36
The rhetorical situation of Revelation is that it is addressed to early Christian communities wrestling with the demands of Christian identity in a hostile culture. Prima facie, John’s text appears to prioritize motifs of victory. Indeed, one of the chief metaphors for discipleship in this text is that of “conquering.”37 But what is noticeable throughout the vision narrative is how images of victorious discipleship are usually collocated with images of suffering (Rev 11:11-12; 12:10-11; 20:4-6). Here we encounter what David Barr calls “symbolic transformation.”38 This is where images are “transvalued” by having traditional symbols of power and conquest associated with images of suffering and weakness. As a consequence, John’s imagery unveils a new perspective on what constitutes triumph, for in John’s symbolic world the “sufferer is the conqueror.”39
Crucial to appreciating how this works for John is that his perspective is Christologically grounded and then ecclesiologically manifested. In terms of Christology, the dominant image for Christ is that of the Lamb.40 The first instance of Lamb imagery, in Revelation 5, is quite definitive for its usage throughout the whole work. Revelation 5 unveils Jesus as the key to God’s kingdom plan, leading us to expect a figure of great power and glory.41 This expectation is then heightened by an audition in verse 5, which announces: “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals” (Rev 5:5).
But having heard of a lion, what John sees is a lamb, and what is more, a lamb looking “as though it had been slain.” Indeed, for the remainder of this episode, the Lamb is repeatedly identified as the one who was “slain” (v.6, 9, 12).42 The point here is not that Jesus is sometimes a lamb and other times a lion – the point is that the lion is the lamb, and the lamb is the lion. This juxtaposition of lion and lamb lead to a redefinition of both conquest and weakness. On one hand, the Lamb is clearly powerful, pictured as he is with seven horns (5:6).43 On the other hand, his depiction as a slaughtered lamb indicates that he does not conquer according to conventional paradigms. Rather, this is a picture of conquest by means of a sacrificial death, in that Jesus is being portrayed as triumphing through self-giving love.44 Jesus is not a pathetic victim, instead he conquered through being slaughtered, and then raised (cf. 1:18).45
In terms of ecclesiology, this presentation of Jesus has programmatic significance for the Lamb’s disciples.46 As indicated earlier, John’s rhetorical goal is to form conquerors. But the way a disciple conquers is in conscious imitation of the Lamb’s “curious mode of conquest.”47 Building upon his portrayal of the suffering-and-victorious Christ, John defines the vocation of Christians through a combination of military images and martyr images.48 In some instances, the people of God are described as a messianic army. This has already been suggested by the language of “conquering.” But these martial overtones are then furthered by certain images such as 7:4-8 and 14:1-4, where the people of God are pictured as 144,000 sealed from the tribes of Israel. As Richard Bauckham argued, this image alludes to a military census, leading to the conclusion that the 144,000 are an army.49
This martial imagery, however, is counterbalanced and reframed by another recurring pattern—that of the people of God as the “martyr church” (6:9-11; 11:3-13; 12:10-12; 16:5-7; 20:4-6). Through the presence of numerous intratextual links, these martyrs are connected with the ideal descriptions of faithful believers as articulated in the seven messages of chapters two and three.50 At this point, two comments are worth making on this martyr ecclesiology. First, it is not the case that John is saying every Christian will definitely be martyred. But such imagery vigorously asserts that the people of the Lamb are “defined by a willingness to sacrifice [their] life.”51 Second, the rhetorical function of these images is not primarily to describe what is presently happening, or even to precisely predict what will happen, so much as to create a vocational image with which the audience can identify.52
Therefore, we see the same broad pattern as we find in both Mark and Paul as regards the exercise of Christian power. In imitation of the Lamb they follow (Rev 14:4), the people of God are called to triumph through their suffering, to conquer through their sacrifice. What is being pictured in the Apocalypse is not despairing hope for future power to somehow make up for present powerlessness. The far more radical thing idea is that the church is pictured as already in possession of power to conquer and triumph (Rev 12:10-11). But that power, like the Lamb’s, is exercised in cruciform love. It is hard to improve upon Bauckham’s eloquent summary:
The martyrs are the real victors. To be faithful in witness to the true God even to the point of death is not to become a victim of the beast, but it is to take the field against the beast and win. But only in a vision of heaven (7:9-14; 15:2-3) or a voice from heaven (11:12; 14:2) can the martyrs be recognized as victors. The perspective of heaven must break into the earth-bound delusion of the beast’s propaganda to enable a different assessment of the same empirical fact: the beast’s apparent victory is the martyr’s–and therefore God’s–real victory.53
Applying Cruciform Power as a Public Intellectual
At this juncture it is useful to review the stages of our argument. First, we argued that the public intellectual aspires to exercise power through the instrumentality of ideas, but that an evangelical public intellectual will seek to ground their vocation on the basis of Scripture and with a focus on the cross. Second, we argued that the diverse witnesses of the New Testament evince a basic template for the exercise of power. In conscious imitation of their Lord the Christian disciple is called to practice a cruciform weakness, yet such weakness is never understood as powerlessness, but rather the distinct manner and mode through which the people of God participate in the victory of God. What some desire to separate, the New Testament wants to marry: vulnerability and the reign of God go together. The crucified Messiah, the Lion who is the Lamb, has both suffered and triumphed, because it is sacrificial love that is the way of the kingdom. What, then, does this say to the contemporary public intellectual?
In his seminal 2010 volume To Change the World, James Davison Hunter argued the desires of American Christians to be world-changers had been a manifest failure. In a searing analysis of both the Christian Right and Left, Hunter argued all of these paradigms surrendered themselves to unChristlike models of politics.54 This leads to the disturbing phenomenon of Christ’s disciples seeking to use power for the cause of Christ in a manner opposed to the pattern of Christ. As Hunter himself says “That power will be wielded is inevitable. But the means of influence and the ends of influence must conform to the exercise of power modeled by Christ.”55
However, this can seem harder to apply in the world of the intellect. The evangelical love of truth, indeed the knowledge that we are proclaiming him who is the light of the world, seems to inherently authorize a posture of domineering arrogance towards the world. The Canadian theologian John Stackhouse speaks of being raised in an evangelical tradition which taught “apologetics as martial arts,”56 where the intended goal might be gospel victory, but the regular outcome is further estrangement from Christians because their manner of speech has become so thoroughly boorish.57 And let it be said that there are any number of worthwhile reasons why such a posture might be adopted. Chief among these is the fact that the Christian Scriptures can include examples where martial rhetoric is applied to the cause of Christian thinking such as II Cor 10:5, where it speaks of “taking captive every thought.” But it must be remembered that this particular statement is set within a letter that mostly stresses Paul’s suffering and weakness.
Lest the above discussion be regarded as too abstract, we might cite here an example where such considerations have potential relevance. The recent debate between conservative thinkers Sohrab Ahmari and David French over the posture Christians should take towards liberal democracy is potentially illustrative of much we have discussed.58 For Ahmari, the culture of classical liberalism is functionally dead, and Christians should no longer “fight” on the basis of liberal principles. Instead, believers should battle for the governmental power to enforce order for the common good. In reply, French maintained his belief that classical liberalism remains viable, and therefore the appropriate Christian posture is one which defends and protects a pluralist public square.
For our purposes, what is intriguing about their conflict is the way martial discourse is deployed within a broader paradigm of social and political power. For Ahmari the language of power and war necessitates a strategy in which godliness might define the goal, but it has very little to say about the means. No Scripture is cited by Ahmari. The language of self-giving is absent. Few, if any, limitations are articulated. The weapons of our warfare are obtaining sufficient political power for righteous government to intervene. That is the way Christians conquer.
For French, the language of war needs to be eschewed. Unlike Ahmari, he seeks the guidance of Scripture that whatever path we take cannot violate love of neighbor and love of enemy.59 Thus, French appears ambivalent that the martial language of triumph and victory can easily be paired together with Christlikeness. In this sense, neither of these two thinkers manage to capture the paradoxical vision of the New Testament, although our sympathies lie far more with French. Within the Scriptural imagination to love one’s enemy, to practice cruciform self-giving for the common good, is the pathway of conquering.
So how might one reimagine intellectual power in the public square in a cruciform manner? Here we shall limit ourselves to three basic rubrics: humility, hospitality, and sacrifice.
First, the Christian public intellectual should be characterized by humility from start to finish. Rejecting the love of honor (philotimia) that is endemic within both the ancient and modern worlds,60 the Christian intellectual seeks for the public because they love the public, rather than because they love praise. Importantly, humility is not powerlessness. Here we adopt the definition of humility advocated by John Dickson in his book Humilitas, where he states: “Humility is the noble choice to forgo your status, deploy your resources or use your influence for the good of others before yourself. More simply, you could say the humble person is marked by a willingness to hold power in service of others.”61 Throughout Humilitas Dickson is at pains to point out that humility is not necessarily the same thing as humiliation, even though the terms draw from the same ancient roots. It is, after all, the noble choice to lower oneself.
The story of Christ, however, is not one in which humiliation and shame are absent. The cross is an instrument of humiliation and public scorn, and the victory and vindication of Christ is only established through such a path.62 We should describe the cross as an action of divine humility, but we should not ignore that it involves a temporary humiliation. For the public intellectual there may be no greater fear than that of being publicly shamed.63 To endure a ‘public’ loss seems altogether definitive and destructive. And yet the one who is our pioneer was the subject of public ridicule.
Second, the Christian public intellectual should be characterized by hospitality towards the enemy. Across the Old and New Testaments, hospitality functions as a central practice of Christian virtue.64 In contemporary discourse, hospitality is all too often used as a cipher for dinner parties with friends.65 But the language and examples of hospitality in Scripture prioritize a far more challenging concept: loving and welcoming the stranger, including one’s enemy (Rom 12:13; I Tim 3:2; 5:9-10; Tit 1:8; Heb 13:2; I Pet 4:9; III John 8).66
The traditional sites for hospitality have been the home, in general, and the meal table, in particular. The value of hospitality as a broader social idea or motif, however, has come to be recognized in the works of political theologians like Luke Bretherton who regards hospitality as a structuring concept which can define the posture Christians should generally adopt towards those with whom they disagree.67 Crucial to Bretherton’s project is that hospitality constitutes a far superior mode than tolerance. Tolerance works from the language of permission and acceptance, but the call to tolerance struggles to be framed in ways that can encompass generosity and blessing. On the other hand, hospitality is about welcoming the stranger and loving enemies.
The application of hospitality to the domain of public thinking involves conceiving one’s opponents as image-bearers to be welcomed. The richness of hospitality lies in its capacity to both acknowledge strangeness and yet maintain generosity and welcome. Indeed, the hospitality of Christ deliberately seeks to think with those whom we disagree, just as we might eat with those whom we do not know.68 For welcoming does not constitute affirmation, but it does constitute witness to the reign of God. It is not simply the content of our message, but the manner of our welcome, which adequately demonstrates cruciformity.
Third, cruciform praxis seeks to reframe the public intellectual encounter as an opportunity for sacrificial self-giving. Here the language we use to describe the actions of Christ matter. It is possible to describe Christ’s death on the cross in terms of him being a victim. Yet the connotations of that term tend towards the domain of being helpless and powerless. Far better it is to see Christ’s action in terms of voluntary sacrifice, in which the divine Son gives his life away in powerful service to others (Mark 10:45; John 10:11-18).
Hence Jesus actively brings the kingdom through being slaughtered, he triumphs through sacrificing himself. By appreciating this dynamic we can avoid two opposite, yet related errors. The fear that sacrifice leads to powerlessness prompts some Christians to seize power for Christ by any means, on the presumption that being nice simply does not cut it.69 At the opposite extreme, the ugliness of power leads some to stress that faithful sacrifice means a kind of quiescent resignation and perpetual ineffectiveness. Within the Scriptural imagination, however, power and weakness can and do go together.
What if part of the unique contribution of an evangelical public intellectual is the preparedness to lose debates as an act of sacrificial witness?70 What if the manner with which one might endure public scorn or derision is itself a most vital contribution to the common good? For minds formed by a biblical imagination, there must be an awareness that “death” may be necessary, albeit temporary, and that suffering can be effectual. The evangelical public intellectual is not called to wait for the moment when all will be sunshine and light; rather, we are called to offer ourselves according to the shape of the cross, and in the sure hope of a vindicating resurrection.
Our present secular moment is characterized by a polarized public square in which ideological victory is seen as paramount. The role of the public intellectual has always been to exercise power through guiding debates and thereby influencing policies and practices. But in a polarized age the public intellectual easily becomes coopted as a combatant in a culture war, whose job is to succeed in debates, triumph in the courts, and win elections.
An evangelical who aspires to the task of public intellectual must resist these cultural traits. If the New Testament functions as the supreme compass for evangelical behavior, then the entire corpus consistently affirms that crucicentric faith necessarily leads to cruciform practice. This means the deployment of intellectual power must conform to the pattern of the crucified Christ. Embracing that pattern will involve love towards one’s enemy, but it will also mean embracing a counter-cultural paradigm in which victory is achieved through sacrificial self-giving. The belief that Christian influence triumphs through seizing power, denigrating opponents, and avoiding ridicule misunderstands the subversive vision of the New Testament, where we see Christ triumph through sacrificing himself for the good of his enemies.
Cite this article
- Alan Jacobs, How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds (New York: Convergent, 2017). The British version of this work is titled How to Think: A Guide for the Perplexed (London: Profile, 2017). To what degree this reflects a broader cultural divide, where the rest of the world is perplexed, but the United States sees threat, I leave the reader to adjudicate.
- Arthur C. Brooks, Love your Enemies: How Decent People can save America from the Culture of Contempt (New York: Broadside, 2019); Ben Sasse, Them: Why we Hate Each Other – and How to Heal (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2018); Tim Muehlhoff and Richard Langer, Winsome Persuasion: Christian Influence in a post-Christian World (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2017); Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (London: Penguin, 2013).
- Alan Jacobs, “The Watchmen: What became of the Christian Intellectuals?” Harper’s Magazine 333.1996 (November 2016): 54-60.
- R. A. Posner, Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003), 2.
- Michael J. Gorman, Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 269.
- Here I am adopting the definition attributed to the Australian historian Stuart McIntyre in P. David Marshall and Cassandra Atherton, “Situating Public Intellectuals,” Media International Australia 156 (2015): 76.
- bid., 73-75. See also Glenn D’Cruz and Niranjala Weerakkody, “Will the Real Waleed Aly Please Stand Up? Media, Celebrity and the Making of an Australian Public Intellectual,” Media International Australia 156 (2015): 142-151.
- For one such example see Kelefa Sanneh, “Jordan Peterson’s Gospel of Masculinity,” The New Yorker, March 5, 2018, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/03/05/jordan-petersons-gospel-of-masculinity.
- So Michael Gerson, “The Last Temptation,” The Atlantic, April 2018, 42-52.
- Collin Hansen, “Introduction,” in Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism, ed. Collin Hansen (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), Kindle Locations 24-25.
- “The 2016 presidential election would become the most shattering experience for evangelicals since the Scopes Trial.” (Thomas Kidd as cited in Alan Jacobs, “Evangelical has lost its Meaning,” The Atlantic, Sep 22, 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/09/the-end-of-evangelical/598423/ (accessed 31/10/2019).
- See Mark A. Noll, The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield, and the Wesleys (Leicester: Apollos, 2004), 13-18; Thomas S. Kidd, Who is an Evangelical? The History of a Movement in Crisis (Yale: Yale University Press, 2019).
- David W. Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from 1730s to the 1980s (London: Unwin & Hyman, 1989), 2-3.
- See Ibid., 14-17.
- Ben Witherington, III, Biblical Theology: The Convergence of the Canon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 434.
- Gorman, Cruciformity, 4.
- An alternative has been suggested by Scot McKnight, namely “Christoformity” which seeks to magnify the conformity of the believer to the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ (see Pastor Paul: Nurturing a Culture of Christoformity in the Church [Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2019], 4). I remain convinced that our moment calls for a continuing stress on the cruciform dimensions of Christian imitation.
- See for example 1 Peter 2:21-25.
- Note the comments of Jonathan Pennington, “…we cannot simply stop at the revelation in them but must press on to their virtue-forming (aretological) purpose and effect.” (Reading the Gospels Wisely [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012], 160).
- All quotations are from the NIV (2011).
- Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, and New Creation (San Francisco: Harper, 1996), 75.
- Mark L. Strauss, Mark (ZECNT; Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2014), 364; Hays, Moral Vision of the New Testament, 78.
- B. L. Blackburn, “Miracles and Miracle Stories,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, eds. Joel B. Green and Scot McKnight (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1992), 550.
- Hays, Moral Vision of the New Testament, 76.
- David E. Garland, Mark (NIVAC; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 596.
- David A. deSilva, An Introduction to the New Testament: Contexts, Methods, & Ministry Formation, 2nd ed (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2018), 184.
- Hays, Moral Vision, 79 (emphasis mine).
- Which is hinted at in the various intertextual references in Mk 1:11, which draws upon both Psalm 2 and Isaiah 42.
- Gorman, Cruciformity, 45-46.
- Ibid., 400.
- Brian Rosner and Roy Ciampa, The First Letter to the Corinthians (PNTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 71.
- Gorman, Cruciformity, 275-281.
- R. P. C. Hanson, II Corinthians (London: SCM, 1954), 7.
- Harry O. Maier, Apocalypse Recalled: The Book of Revelation after Christendom (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002), x.
- Wayne Meeks, “Apocalyptic Discourse and Strategies of Goodness,” The Journal of Religion 80 (2000): 465; John J. Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature, 2nd ed (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 4-5; Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 7.
- Note Wayne Meeks’ pertinent question: “But what kind of life follows, if the reversed images and torn language of John succeed?” (Wayne A. Meeks, The Moral World of the First Christians [Philadelphia: Westminster, 1986], 146).
- David A. deSilva, Seeing Things John’s Way: The Rhetoric of the Book of Revelation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 70. See the repeated usage throughout chapters 2 and 3.
- David L. Barr, “The Apocalypse as Symbolic Transformation,” Interpretation (1984): 39-50.
- Ibid., 41.
- Bauckham, Theology, 66.
- The vocation of the Lamb is to take a scroll from the one who sits upon the throne. Following Bauckham, the scroll is best seen as as a heavenly book containing God’s secret purpose for establishing his kingdom on earth. See Bauckham, Theology, 74, 80.
- From this point onwards in the vision-narrative, Jesus will be predominantly identified as the Lamb, all the way into the new heavens and earth (see Rev 21:9, 14, 22-23, 27; 22:1, 3). Gordon Fee, Revelation: A New Covenant Commentary (NCCS; Eugene: Cascade, 2011), 80.
- Craig Koester, Revelation (Anchor; Doubleday: New York, 2015), 377. For biblical examples, see Deut 33:17; Ps 18:2; 89:17, 24, 1 Sam 2:1. In later passages we find references to the Lamb’s “wrath” (6:6) and his ability to “conquer” (17:14; cf. 5:5).
- Mitchell Reddish, Revelation (SH; Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 2001), 25.
- Gordon Fee, Revelation, 80.
- Stephen Pattemore, People of God in the Apocalypse: Discourse, Structure, and Exegesis (SNTS 128; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 216.
- J. Daryl Charles, “Imperial Pretensions and the Throne-Vision of the Lamb: Observations on the Function of Revelation 5,” Criswell Theological Review 7.1 (1993): 94.
- See Pattemore, People of God in the Apocalypse, passim.
- Richard Bauckham, Theology, 76-80. Indeed, in Rev 15:2, the faithful are described as having “conquered” the beast. This helps to explain the reference to “non-defilement” with women (14:4), which may allude to the Israelite army’s practice of sexual abstinence in contexts of holy war. However, see Koester, Revelation, 610, for some cautions regarding this reading.
- Pattemore, People of God, 114-115. For two examples of intratextual links to the seven messages, note that Antipas is praised for his martyrdom (2:13), the white garments of 3:4-5 are echoed in 6:11; the suffering predicted for Smyrna (2:10) is seen fulfilled in the martyrs (cf. 20:4).
- Ibid., 114.
- Ibid., 115; Hays, Moral Vision, 173.
- Bauckham, Theology, 91.
- James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 109-110.
- Ibid., 254.
- ohn Stackhouse, Humble Apologetics: Defending the Faith Today (New York: Oxford Uni- versity Press, 2002), ix.
- See for example Stackhouse’s anecdote concerning an unnamed apologist who swept the floor with his logical argumentation, but whose manner caused one audience member to respond: “I don’t care if the son of a bitch is right. I still hate his guts.” (Humble Apologetics, xvi; emphasis original)
- Sohrab Ahmari, “Against David French-ism” First Things, accessed 01/11/2019, https:// www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2019/05/against-david-french-ism; David French, “Politics is Not War: A Defense of Frenchism,” National Review 71.11 (June 24, 2019): 13-14.
- French, “Politics is Not War,” 13.
- For more on this see Mark B. Stephens and Georgiane Deal, “The God who Gives Generously: Honour, Praise, and the Agony of Celebrity,” Scottish Journal of Theology 71 (2018): 54.
- John Dickson, Humilitas: A Lost Key to Life, Love, and Leadership (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), Kindle Location 167.
- See Phil 2:5-11 for perhaps the most poignant narration of this.
- On contemporary shame, although not primarily for intellectuals, see Jon Ronson, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (London: Picador, 2016).
- Christine D. Pohl, “Hospitality is a Way of Life Fundamental to Christian Identity,” in Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), Kindle Locations 20. For a survey of the biblical evidence, together with the witness of Christian history, see Pohl, Making Room, Kindle Locations 215-685.
- Pohl, Making Room, Kindle Location 77.
- The standard NT noun for hospitality, philoxenos, together with verbs like xenodocheo (1 Tim 5:10) or xenizo (Heb 13:2) all draw attention to the xenos (stranger, foreigner) as the object of love and the recipient of gift.
- Luke Bretherton, Hospitality as Holiness: Christian Witness Amid Moral Diversity (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006), 123.
- Diana Pavlac Glyer, “Intellectual Hospitality,” available at https://www.apu.edu/articles/ intellectual-hospitality/.
- Michael Gerson, “As Jesus Said, Nice Guys Finish Last,” The Washington Post, Oct 2 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/as-jesus-said-nice-guys-finish-last/2018/10 /01/22b954ea-c599-11e8-b1ed-1d2d65b86d0c_story.html.
- For one reflection on this in terms of recent Australian political debates, see John Dickson, ‘The Art of Losing Well,’ Accessed Apr 19, 2019 at https://www.eternitynews.com.au/ opinion/the-art-of-losing-well/.