Editor’s Note: The William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company releases an updated edition of Mark A. Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind today. Reflecting upon that book’s longstanding influence, Indiana Wesleyan University’s President David Wright offers this morning’s post, focusing on the impact Noll’s book had since its original release in 1994, his hopes for this updated edition, and his hopes for Christian scholarship.
In addition, a panel will gather this afternoon at Wheaton College (4:00 PM in the Billy Graham Center’s Barrows Auditorium) to discuss how Noll’s analysis and critique look from the perspective of 2022. Panel members will include Theon Hill, Karen Johnson, Matthew Milliner, and Christa Tooley. Mark Noll will offer a response. Provost Karen An-hwei Lee will serve as the moderator and President Philip Ryken will serve as the host.
With great appreciation to Wheaton College, Christian Scholar’s Review will distribute a link to a recording of that discussion this Saturday, March 19, along with a discussion guide to this edition of The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. We hope all of you will take time to watch the panel discussion as well as consider forming reading and discussion groups this spring with colleagues and friends.
“A crossroads is not a campground. It is a place of choosing. It is a place of discernment—to mark out a pathway into the future.”
A PERSONAL REFLECTION
I had no business aspiring to a career in the academy.
Throughout my primary and secondary schooling, I was a marginal student at best. No, let’s be blunt. I was a poor student. Due to my dyslexia, I learned to read long after most children gain that skill. I didn’t know how to study. Most school subjects were relentlessly opaque to my intellect and imagination. School itself was something I endured.
Two things changed the course of my life. The first: When I was a junior in high school an English teacher saw something in me that I had never imagined myself and that apparently no other teacher had either seen or had the patience to develop. Mrs. Lelia Dawalt decided I was to be her project. She taught me to write. More importantly, she kindled in me an interest in the process of research and writing. My capstone research paper for her course was both a painful and liberating experience. It introduced me to success in a world at which I had always failed. She decided that I was going to go to college and began orchestrating the process that would see me enrolled as a freshman at what became my alma mater.
The second: I was going to be a missionary pilot. I had been fascinated with airplanes since I was a child. To get into missionary aviation programs I had to have some Bible courses in-hand. My enrollment at college was intended to be a temporary stop, a means to an end. But then I met Dr. David Thompson, Professor of Bible. I enrolled in his Old Testament history class completely unaware of what was about to happen to me. He began to teach Old Testament history using John Bright’s The Kingdom of God. It was a dense, intense, no-frills, no entertainment dive into the best historical scholarship of the Old Testament. It was way over my head but not beyond my heart’s reach. For reasons I cannot quite describe, I was enthralled. While I grew up in church among godly, intelligent people, no one unfolded the Scriptures for me in the light of the best existing scholarship in the way Dr. Thompson did.
Day after day Dr. Thompson used the insights of scholarship to illuminate the Book I had been around all my life. Little by little, the hook was set. Though I didn’t know it at the time, a man who loved the Book even more than I did (my love was childish and uninformed) was using the best scholarship available to introduce me to a world I never dreamed existed. The idea of being a missionary pilot (a noble calling in itself, of course) began to recede as a new question took shape, “I wonder if I could do what Dr. Thompson is doing?”
Two scholars who were the best kind of teachers set the trajectory of my life, and my subsequent 35-year career in the academy, in motion. One taught me the fascination of research and writing. The other showed me the majesty and power of the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of careful scholars dedicated to the pursuit of their craft.
Those lessons opened for me a world of discovery and began an enduring fascination with all that is best, most magical, and most captivating about the life of the mind.
I begin with this personal reflection because I believe we must situate a discussion of Mark Noll’s watershed work on Christian scholarship in the context of the lives of real women and men who are called to the life of the mind.
THE SCANDAL OF THE AMERICAN MULTIVERSITY
Almost fifty years ago, Clark Kerr, while Chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, delivered the Godkin Lectures at Harvard University that proved to be a seminal set of reflections on the emergence of the modern research university in the American landscape. Published in 1963 as The Uses of the University, this little volume began a conversation that continues until today. In a number of ways, it prefigures and helps set the stage for Mark Noll’s equally brilliant The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.
Kerr made several trenchant observations, both about the place of knowledge in the national landscape and the ways in which universities were changing, to serve as the central hubs of the emerging knowledge industry. According to George Keller, a prominent higher education scholar who served on the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania:
Kerr’s thesis was logically explosive. He contended that new knowledge had gradually become the key propellant in the growth and improvement for a nation’s health, military might, economic competitiveness, artistic excellence, social harmony and political stability . . . . Intellect has…become an instrument of national purpose, a component of the “military-industrial complex”1
To illuminate one of Kerr’s central ideas, Harold Taylor, then President of Sarah Lawrence College, offered a view that has only grown in importance since that time.
The big universities have changed in precisely the ways Mr. Kerr has described. They have become corporations for producing, transmitting, and marketing knowledge, and in the process have lost their intellectual and moral identity. At the time that they should have been creative centers for the development of strategies for peace, disarmament, and world unity, they were busy with defense department contracts . . . . The major component missing in Mr. Kerr’s conception is the use of the university to inform, enlighten, and enrich the lives of the students.2
It is not much of a stretch to call Kerr’s critique the “scandal of the American multiversity.” It is also striking how Taylor’s comments prefigure a version of the argument that Mark Noll would take up approximately 30 years later in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.
At the moment in history when the work of the university became central to the promotion of the public good, universities lost their unifying center. They began “multiversities” held together by a brand and money, instead of “universities” committed to a common conception of the public good and the ways in which the work of scholars contributed to that good.
During this same period that Kerr contemplated, the broader academy had been making a shift from classical colleges highly influenced, if not defined, by religious impulses and vision. As the modern American research university came into being, and then took over the global mantle of university learning, religious colleges moved away from their sponsoring agencies and downplayed if not abandoned their religious mission and character.
In any case, few Christian institutions had the resources to compete with land grant and elite private universities in the scholarship of discovery that emerged in the 1950s and 1960s (see Ernest L. Boyer, Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate, for a discussion of different forms of scholarship such as discovery, integration, application, and teaching and learning). Even fewer recognized this pursuit as a legitimately Christian calling.
This transformation of the university that Kerr described coincided with the academy’s departure from a Christian imagination. Christianity was increasingly an anachronism at best or a hindrance at worst to an academy and society firmly convinced of the eventual dismissal of religion from the public sphere.
MARK NOLL’S LETTER FROM A WOUNDED LOVER
It comes as no surprise that 30 years after Kerr’s explosive exposition on the modern American multiversity Mark Noll published what proved to be an equally provocative set of reflections (at least for evangelical Christians) about the state of Christian scholarship. For Noll, the scandal was that evangelical Christianity had retreated from the academy at precisely the time when the academy became crucial to the life of the nation.
The scandal of the evangelical mind, he said, was that there wasn’t much of an evangelical mind. He offered evangelical Christians a “letter from a wounded lover,” one who loved the evangelical Christian faith and the calling of the academy to “discover and teach truths about serious things” to use a phrase borrowed from Edward Shils, a prominent member of the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought.
Noll called evangelical Christians to task for retreating from serious intellectual engagement with the great questions of history and the demanding challenges of the day. If the modern American multiversity abandoned the unifying vision of intellectual life that gave birth to the great universities of the west, evangelical Christians exercised their own version of abandonment.
For many Christians of the generation that came of age during the years Kerr described, what many consider the golden age of American higher education, our churches had taught us well about the life of the heart and the life of the hands but had not called us equally to the life of the mind and of the imagination. Noll offered a call for engagement in those neglected arenas, a legitimation of the work to which we had been drawn, but which our churches all too often viewed with suspicion if not outright hostility.
With Noll’s help we began to realize that though we did not have the kinds of institutions that could pour billions of dollars into the scholarship of discovery, particularly in the physical and applied sciences, the Christian faith should compel us to embrace the forms of scholarship available to us. Furthermore, we could undertake this task both in our Christian institutions and in secular research universities.
Perhaps one of the most valuable correctives Noll offered was to breathe life into the realization we offered the academy a unifying vision of knowledge, a view of history as having purpose and meaning, and a conviction that the world could be a better place through the pursuit of learning grounded in a recognition of the Creator.
Twenty-eight years later, where do we stand? Well, the world has turned.
THE SCANDAL OF THE CRUCIFORM MIND
For Kerr the scandal was the academy’s loss of a unifying vision of the public good and commitment to the role of universities in describing and implementing that vision.
For Noll the scandal was the wholesale retreat of evangelical Christians from that endeavor.
The dilemma for our generation of evangelical Christian scholars is how to engage while navigating between a militantly polarized and suspicious church and an academy that increasing views historic Christian faith itself as scandalously benighted in its convictions.
Thanks in large measure to Noll’s work, a generation of Christian scholars pursued the life of the mind as never before. Perhaps there is no more compelling question before this generation of scholars, however, than this one: For what are we willing to be a scandal to the academy and the world?
In Brave by Faith, Alistair Begg contended, “What the world most needs from the church is our gospel, not our approval.”3 At the heart of the gospel is the cross of Jesus Christ.
Our society and our world stand today at one of those crossroads to which the events of history sometimes bring us. While our future will not simply be a continuation of our past, today it seems that the values, the non-negotiable commitments that will define our way forward as a society and as an academy, are unclear.
A crossroads is not a campground. It is a place of choosing. It is a place of discernment—to mark out a pathway into the future. What role will scholars whose hearts and minds are shaped by the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who see their work as the necessary expression of their faith, play in this defining moment?
If we have anything of transformational value to offer, it is the quiet and steady pursuit of our academic craft as faithful followers of Jesus Christ. Our work is first to do excellent scholarship. Then, we must illuminate for the public the good news that the Gospel of Jesus Christ brings to the arts, to science, to our reading of history, to economics, to the social sciences, and to the professions. This, I would argue, is the one primary work of a Christian scholar in the fractured age of multiversities.
More precisely, I believe what is most needed today is the evangelization of our collective imagination. The heartbreak of the world today is we seem unable either to imagine or to hope for a better self, a better country, and a better world. We have eyes that cannot see the light, ears that cannot hear the music, hearts that cannot feel the love of God, and minds that have become inured to the bracing allure of truth.
We need imaginations awakened to the grandeur, hope, and beauty of a new life that begins in the fear of God and a right understanding of God’s creation. To animate those imaginations, we need teachers and scholars such as Mrs. Dewalt and Dr. Thompson to open the eyes, ears, hearts, and minds of students that are otherwise closed.
Artists can often see in broken and drab communities what others cannot. Perhaps it is not too much of stretch to think of Christian scholars as artists of the mind, imagining what is not yet here but what might one day emerge in our darkness.
The most radical thing about Christian scholars and universities is not their stance on any particular social issue—it is the belief that the creator God took on flesh and moved among us, died and rose again to be the propitiation for the world’s sin, and is the one way for the world to be saved. This beautiful, life-transforming, world-shaping truth lies at the heart of our Christ-centered academic communities.
Jesus is the most compelling figure in history. Faith in Jesus Christ furnished the world with the presuppositional foundations for scientific knowledge, the emotional and spiritual energy behind much of the world’s artistic beauty, and anchors a basis for shared morality. Far from merely subjective opinion, that truth forms the basis of the narrative that cruciform minds and institutions exist to offer the world.
We live in a time when the most important contribution Christian scholars have to offer the world is the beautiful scandal of a cruciform mind, a mind shaped by the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
On this anniversary of his ground-breaking text, perhaps Noll’s work may yet call us to the scandal of a Christ-formed mind, to pursue the life of the mind and of the imagination grounded deeply in the truth of God’s revelation in creation and in Christ. To have a mind that is shaped by the cross of Jesus Christ, the good news of the Gospel, is the call of every Christian scholar. To pursue the many avenues of scholarship with this purpose is to give to the academy and the world something it has lost.
Perhaps this may yet be the beautiful scandal that saves the world.
- George Keller, “Review of The Uses of the University,” The Journal of Higher Education, 74:2 (2003):
- Harold Taylor, “The Uses of the University, by Clark Kerr” (Commentary, December 1964) https://www.commentary.org/articles/harold-taylor/the-uses-of-the-university-by-clark-kerr/.
- Alistair Begg, Brave by Faith: God-Sized Confidence in a Post-Christian World (Epsom, UK: Good Book Company, 2021), 87.