As we near the twenty-fifth anniversary of Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, those who wish to make sense of its legacy confront a rather curious puzzle. If the book aimed to energize a generation of evangelicals to establish themselves in elite universities, to produce credible, meaningful scholarship, and to leave a record of thoughtful reflection on modern culture, then mission accomplished! However, if its goals extended to revitalizing the culture of thought among ordinary evangelicals, its legacy is much less clear; especially in light of the public witness of American evangelicals in the age of Donald Trump. As someone who has enjoyed the fruits of a post-Scandal evangelical intellectual renaissance since 1994, I am perplexed and troubled by its seeming lack of penetration among “folks in the pew.” This seeming paradox has led me to reflect anew on features of my own story.
I was raised in small-town Ohio within a Moody-radio-listening, Dobson-reading, PTL-supporting, Republican-voting, evangelical Christian household. At 18, I headed off to a Christian college, followed by an evangelical seminary, and finally a state university where I earned a Ph.D. in history. After that, I went to work at a Christian college where I have been teaching evangelical undergraduates for almost 20 years. My wife and I have raised our three children within our neighborhood evangelical church located in what the Barna Group recently called “the most Bible-minded city in America.1
My adult life has been lived in the strange borderlands between the evangelical subculture and the elite professional class of American academia. I have been shaped by simultaneous efforts to remain connected in some kind of authentic way to my evangelical heritage, while pursuing a life of scholarship and intellectual seriousness demanded by my discipline. If there is a “scandal of the evangelical mind,” I believe I have had a better than average vantage point from which to see it.
Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind could not have emerged at a more auspicious moment in my life. Six years prior, this young culture warrior had headed off to college in a car sporting a bumper sticker that read “I DON’T BELIEVE THE LIBERAL MEDIA.” A Christian college education, I was sure, would solidify and deepen my already well-developed but narrow vision of the world. But four years of being inducted into the splendor of a liberal arts education by learned, thoughtful, and faith-formed men and women opened my eyes to the glorious potential of high-level scholarship in a Christian context. It was here I first saw the potential of what Noll would call the evangelical mind. It was here also that I felt my first twinges of contempt for my evangelical heritage.
After graduation I enrolled in a rigorous, seminary-based MA program in Christian thought, hungry for more of the same. Midway through, in February 1993, several classmates and I trekked to Wheaton College, where we heard Mark deliver his inaugural lecture for the McManis Chair, “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.” His talk seized my imagination like few I have heard, before or since. It made those of us who made the trip that night feel as though we were a part of something much bigger than ourselves. It is not an exaggeration to say that we felt as if Noll was speaking directly to us, presenting a challenge for our generation.
A year and half later, on a long car ride to my first academic conference as a PhD student, I carried along a copy of Mark’s just-published book by the same name. I read it from cover to cover. Its prophetic challenge functioned over the next four years as a gentle reminder of why even my modest work in the academy might have consequences. Its central arguments served as a springboard for a group of far-flung Christian doctoral students in history programs from around the country. We learned the protocols of the new-fangled technology known as email that magically enabled us to discuss and debate in real time what it might mean to be “Christian historians.” While we deliberated over every imaginable feature of our discipline, “the scandal of the evangelical mind” was never far from our thoughts.
By God’s grace, I landed a job teaching at a Christian liberal arts college, an ideal location for me to explore and express the best that the evangelical mind had to offer. Allen Guelzo has more recently described Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU) schools such as Covenant as the “intellectual pumpingstations of Evangelical creativity.”2 Working at the only official college of the Presbyterian Church in America, I hoped my station would provide me with larger venues for serving the church, perhaps even in confronting some of the lingering vestiges and sources of anti-intellectualism among folk in our wider constituency.
Still fueled by a young man’s idealism, I went to work confronting “the scandal” within the small learning community and the broader denomination to which I had been called. I engaged the issue in my classes, in chapel, on campus discussion panels, in General Assembly seminars, and occasionally in print with a naïve confidence that my graduate training and my keen intellect could play a modest but strategic role in helping my brothers and sisters embrace a more sophisticated vision of thinking and living in the world.
Within a few short years, however, I began to question some of my basic assumptions about the problem of the evangelical mind as I understood it from Noll’s book, along with my own posture toward “fixing” it. Although I could still agree that the long-standing evangelical resistance to sophisticated reasoning and nuanced thought owed something to the obsessions and theological idiosyncrasies of fundamentalism, I wondered if ordinary evangelicals saw something in this dynamic I was missing. I wondered if their tradition of mistrusting “the life of the mind” might be rooted in deeper, more legitimate sets of concerns.
Writing at about the same time that Noll was framing The Scandal, historian Christopher Lasch laid out a devastating critique of America’s “new elite,” those, in his view, “who control the international flow of money and information, preside over philanthropic foundations and institutions of higher learning, manage the instruments of cultural production and thus the terms of cultural debate.”3 He went on to show the various ways he believed these elites threatened American democracy and Western values.
From the vantage point of ordinary evangelicals, I slowly came to see that the project of rebuilding the evangelical mind relied quite heavily and somewhat uncritically upon the world dominated by those same elites; a world that beckoned those of us mobilized by this project to adopt their perspectives, their postures, and their overarching sensibilities toward the nation’s “unwashed masses.” I myself had become, far more than I realized, a creature—or at least a wannabe creature—of its professional class. I had the audacity to view myself as a potential redeemer of evangelical culture even as I was increasingly alienated from its rhythms and its deeper concerns. When I endeavored to “fix” their problems of intellectual obtuseness, waxing eloquent about better and more nuanced ways of reading the world, the ordinary evangelicals I encountered in doing so did not have any trouble interpreting my well-meaning efforts as a species of contempt. And, more often than not, they were right in thinking so. In this light, it is not hard to understand their misgivings about our project.
A populist impulse fueled by deep suspicions of secular elitism is baked into evangelicalism. Evangelicals have long drawn strength from feelings of marginalization and embattlement. Although some of these attitudes might be chalked up to an “evangelical persecution complex,” they must not all be dismissed as wholesale illusion. In this same book, Lasch describes the prevailing attitudes that America’s elite opinion makers hold toward the ordinary folk of Middle America: “hopelessly shabby, unfashionable, and provincial, ill-informed about changes in taste or intellectual trends, addicted to trashy novels of romance and adventure, and stupefied by prolonged exposure to television.”4 Fanatically religious. Sexually repressed. Irrationally patriotic. And obsessed with their guns. I could recognize in Lasch’s description my own disposition toward my “anti-intellectual” students and their families, to say nothing of my outlook on my own family and the people back home in the church in which I was raised.
By highlighting Lasch’s observations here, I do not mean to suggest I think there is not or never was an actual “scandal of the evangelical mind” or to dismiss the past generation’s project aimed at enhancing critical reflection among believers as a sham effort at social climbing. That is not my point. I am trying merely to confess that the problem of the evangelical mind has been a good deal more complicated than at least I was willing to admit or acknowledge. It has been in many ways at least as much one of disposition as one of ideas or theological perspective.
The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind did not merely lay out a critique of evangelical shortcomings. This cry from a “wounded lover” also contained a needed prescription for the health and welfare of the evangelical subculture; strong medicine that most in its rank-and-file have not been inclined to take. Thanks in large part to Mark’s book (and to the many dozens that it spawned), to herculean institutional supports that came from many directions, to publications such as Books & Culture, to intellectual and institutional leaders such as Mike Cromartie and John Wilson, and to many dedicated academics in the trenches, the “evangelical mind” is by many measures in the best shape that it has ever been. Over the past quarter century, a multitude of young evangelical scholars has risen to meet the challenge of engaging the academic disciplines and of entering the highest spheres of scholarship and public service. In this sense, I do not think anyone can now legitimately say that “there is not much of an evangelical mind.”
But I do not think a very sophisticated autopsy of evangelical engagement amid our recent presidential election is needed to conclude that we are not exactly living in a golden age of healthy, thoughtful, clear-minded evangelical thought and action. We simply are not. As beneficial as many of the developments seen over the past 25 years have been, I wonder if we have considered all the lessons from The Scandal that we might have. I wonder if our priorities were always entirely where they should have been.
“What has Athens to do with Jerusalem…the academy with the church?” Tertullian’s ancient question echoes through centuries. Tensions between the power centers of learning and the work of Christian faithfulness are not new, and they are not going away anytime soon. If we hope to address the ongoing and deeper-than-ever challenges of the evangelical mind, we need to attend to those tensions both in our thinking and in our attitudes toward ordinary believers. It is clear that we are not trusted by the very people we claim to love and whose culture we hope to reenergize. It is little wonder that we do not have much of a hearing among them, and that they are more apt to see us as part of “the problem” than as offering anything like a solution.
In a famously controversial essay in 1859, future cardinal John Henry Newman challenged the elite Roman Catholic hierarchy to stop dismissing the views and experiences of laity of the Catholic Church and, instead, urged them to develop a more generous, reciprocal relationship to ordinary “people in the pew.” The fate of the church, Newman believed, depended on responsive leaders that were willing to “consult the faithful.”5 Just as Catholic leaders were troubled (at best) at Newman’s proposal, evangelical scholars likewise remain uneasy about conferring authority to the insights and experiences of the evangelical masses. Perhaps we need to take a page from Newman’s playbook. We have long been persuaded that the evangelical world would be better off if its members listened to the insights and wisdom of scholars; perhaps they would. But it also may be the case that we would benefit if we spent a little more time listening to and learning from the wisdom of the faithful.
Cite this article
- “2017 Bible-Minded Cities: Infographics in Faith and Christianity”; “‘For the Second Year in a Row, Chattanooga, TN (50%) Is the Most Bible-Minded City in America. In Fact, since 2013, Chattanooga Has Won Every Year with the Exception of 2015, When It Was Runner up to Birmingham / Anniston / Tuscaloosa, AL.’”
- Guelzo, “Whither the Evangelical Colleges.” Touchstone (May/June 2011), http:// www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=24-03-029-f.
- Christopher Lasch, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (New York: W.W. Norton, 1996), 25–26.
- Ibid., 29.
- John H. Newman, On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine (London: Sheed & Ward, 1961).