Skip to main content

This essay appeared first at Mere Orthodoxy:

Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind turned twenty-five last year. If we know a classic by its ability to speak across eras, one single event from this past summer is enough to assure everyone of the continuing tragic relevance of Noll’s book.

In late July, Spring Arbor University, a Free Methodist institution affiliated with the evangelical Council of Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), gave Jeffrey Bilbro his one-year notice. A tenured English professor in his mid-thirties, Bilbro had just completed his eighth year at Spring Arbor. He had also just completed his sixth book: three written solo, one co-authored, and two co-edited. Three of these are published by mainstream presses and three by Christian houses. The journals for which Bilbro has written—essays, scholarly articles, poems—range from The South Atlantic Review to Early American Literature to Radix. To boot, less than three years ago Bilbro stepped forward to become the editor of a once-thriving website, The Front Porch Republic; under his direction the weekly hits have leapt sixty percent. To top this strange tale off, just before he was blindsided by Spring Arbor’s decision Bilbro had received word that a team of scholars of which he is a part has been awarded a $30,000 grant by the CCCU. Their project? “Between Pandemic and Protest: The Future of the Liberal Arts in Higher Education.” Bilbro is the project director.

You may at this point have Bilbro pegged as an absentee professor. Not the case. He is the president of Spring Arbor’s Faculty Forum, elected by his colleagues. He directs the university’s Writing Center and teaches English and Writing classes. He is twice the winner of the Faculty Merit Award. He and his department chair have launched the Oak Tree Almanac podcast. And he has been instrumental in bringing an array of guest lectures to campus.

Bilbro, only nine when Noll’s book was published, is a child of the renaissance in Christian thinking of which Noll’s book counterintuitively bears witness. It takes a live and nourished mind to identify intellectual scandal, and the heady reception of Noll’s book within the evangelical academy was a sign that something like an evangelical mind was actually coming to life—as Bilbro’s own trajectory shows. He took his PhD in literature at Baylor after attending George Fox University, a CCCU institution in Portland, Oregon. At Baylor, Bilbro specialized in American nature writing, and has since emerged as one of the nation’s leading scholars of Wendell Berry, the Kentucky writer whose outsized influence on Christians at large and evangelicals in particular is widely known. In short, Bilbro would seem to be precisely what Noll was calling for: scandal-antidote itself, a distinctly Christian thinker and writer with the acuity not only to speak to the broader world but also to draw other Christians alongside him, empowering and shaping their voices and minds.

Surely any dean, provost, or president devoted to the ideal of university, and particularly Christian university, would battle hard for the chance to have a scholar like Jeffrey Bilbro on their faculty. Right?

But just as surely every dean, provost, and president in America has to remember just who she or he, every single day, is serving, and it’s pretty evident who that is. No students, no college.

They don’t come from an educational vacuum, these students, be they evangelical or not. In our post-Great Recession, neo-liberal world they come having learned one lesson and learned it well: Whatever else college is for, it’s not for learning English. Or history. Or music. Or physics. Or theology. Or French. Or philosophy. Or any of the other endangered fields that over centuries have come together to establish what Noll means when he refers to the robust ideal of a “mind.”

It’s worth pointing out: Not everyone has a mind, in this high sense of the word. That is what Noll meant when he led off his book with what has become its most famous line: “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there isn’t much of an evangelical mind.” By the twentieth century evangelicals had become famous for their absence of mind, for their failure to develop comprehensive, coherent, compelling arguments and visions of the sort that would force a reckoning with attentive human beings anywhere. The Christ who is the Word had been silenced by their witness—or lack of it, as Noll charged. In their intellectual indolence evangelicals had rendered Christ mute before the logic and ambition of a God-defying, God-indifferent world. Those with eyes to see saw spiritual disaster. But of course sight was exactly what evangelicals had lost.

In a powerful, intricate case, Noll detailed many reasons for this failure, internal factors like pietism and external factors like Darwinism. But, writing in the immediate aftermath of communism’s collapse and capitalism’s victory, Noll neglected what over the past three decades has become impossible to miss: the utter domination of market-think on not just the minds but the souls of Americans everywhere.

The theologian Kathryn Tanner warns that capitalism has developed “the power itself to shape people in its own image.” It is an image that basks in market-share. It dissolves authorities that would limit its reach. Above all, it requires allegiance to a way of life. As Tanner eerily puts it, under capitalism’s aegis “no future can be imagined that would be radically different from the present.  The result is a kind of totalization of capitalism itself; no future exists outside present capitalist arrangements.”

Whatever goods those arrangements have delivered, they do not include the cultivation of minds that reach toward the triune God, that know themselves only in relation to God, and that see all in light of an ancient garden, a coming Jerusalem, and a towering cross. Such coordinates are gone, replaced by algorithms and stock shares and plastic cards and sleek screens: touchstones of what we might call the market mind—in a decidedly jejune use of the term.

The market mind is not the Christian mind. And it’s the market mind that students come to college to gain (whether they want to or not), and for one obvious reason: They believe they need it.

That is why “The market made me do it” has become the excuse that covers every sin, whether it’s voting for a candidate or tearing up the earth or terminating the tenure of an unusually talented, devoted, accomplished professor. The market’s inability to measure the actual historical loss that such decisions effect on the most crucial traditions we have—political, intellectual, ecclesiastical, ecological—is simply one more sign that our grand global system is yet another idol blind to the devastation in its wake. How many will go unformed, or mis-formed, in the absence of teachers like Bilbro and the hundreds of others he is joining—including the three theologians, the art historian, and a second English professor exiting with him from Spring Arbor?

We need another direction. And we need those who will use what power they have to take us there.

“Ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus,” declared Martin Luther King, Jr. on the last Sunday before his assassination. He stood within a church speaking to the world, a higher authority beneath his feet, and it propelled him in a different direction. A new consensus needed to be formed, he knew. He gave his life trying to mold it. We need a new consensus, too, and it begins like this: Our minds matter. The Christian mind matters. It’s time we—parents, pastors, presidents, philanthropists—take the sacrificial action required to show it.

For more in CSR about the Scandal of the Evangelical Mind see:

Eric Miller

Geneva College
Eric Miller, Ph.D., is professor of History and the Humanities at Geneva College, where he directs the honors program. His most recent book is Brazilian Evangelicalism in the Twenty-First Century: An Inside and Outside Look (Palgrave, 2019, co-edited with Ronald J. Morgan).