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Essay on new book on evangelical culture

Intellectual Affairs
Opening of the Evangelical Mind?
November 23, 2011

When Mark A. Noll published The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind in 1994, his opening sentence went to the heart of the matter: "The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind."

The point has often been made, of course, usually by godless wiseacre. But what lent Noll’s critique great force was that it came from within the fold.

At the time, Noll was a professor of history and theology at Wheaton College (the evangelical one in Illinois, that is; he’s now at the University of Notre Dame) and his book was published by Eerdmans, a house best known for its strong list in theology and Biblical studies. Scandal did not assume that the evangelical mind was a contradiction in terms. In none of the parables does Jesus encourage stupidity. But what Noll called “the intellectual disaster of fundamentalism” had created a milieu in which faithful scholars produced “virtually no insights into how, under God, the natural world proceeded, how human societies worked, why human nature acted the way that it did, or what constituted the blessings or perils of culture.”

Randall J. Stephens and Karl W. Giberson revisit that complaint in The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age, published by Harvard University Press. They write from within the faith: Stephens is an associate professor of history at Eastern Nazarene College, where Giberson is a former physics professor. And they exhibit much the same frustration with their co-religionists evident in Noll’s book.

It’s easy to sympathize. The first of the best-selling Left Behind novels -- in which the Book of Revelation is rewritten as pulp fiction -- appeared in 1995, one year after Noll published Scandal, as if to corroborate his point. In 2007, the Creation Museum opened in Petersburg, Kentucky, offering visitors a chance to ponder a diorama in which Adam and Eve’s offspring frolic near the dinosaurs striding the earth, roughly 6,000 years ago. The scandal of the evangelical mind might rather be that it does exist, but sustains itself on the intellectual equivalent of a diet consisting of Cheez Doodles and Pepsi. It would be surprising if this led to anything but a state of permanently arrested development.

Neither an expose nor a screed, The Anointed is the work of educated evangelical Christians who reject the kitsch and anti-intellectualism that outsiders tend to equate with the faith itself. If the book has a hero (and the authors don’t call him that, but still, you can tell) it would be Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, who spent a decade heading the Human Genome Project. In 2003, he published The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (Free Press, 2006). And Collins didn’t mean some deistic clockmaker, either. As Stephens and Giberson note, he grappled with the arguments made by C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity, which “many evangelicals consider … to be the most important text written in the 20th century,” and underwent a conversion. “Collins speaks openly about his faith,” they write, “affirming his belief in the Bible, the resurrection of Jesus, and the virgin birth.”

What he doesn’t believe is that little Cain and Abel got to ride around on the dinosaurs who later died off because Noah didn’t put them on the Ark.

It might be a good moment to clarify the distinction between evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity, which are not the same thing even though the labels are often taken as synonymous. The evangelical Christian has had a transformative inner experience (Collins writes about how he “knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered to Jesus Christ”) and then communicates the message of the gospels to others. The fundamentalist regards the scriptures as literally and timelessly true. The Bible was dictated by God in plain terms requiring no interpretation at all, except in a very few places where He has laid the symbolism on so thick (beasts, crowns, horsemen with names like War and Famine, etc.) that nobody can miss it.

Someone can be both evangelical and fundamentalist, of course. Each perspective plunges a believer right into the absolute. But they are ultimately distinct. To put it one way, the evangelical stance is ethical (it defines a way of living) while the fundamentalist claim is not just about interpretation but about access to knowledge (which is certain, unchanging, and immediately available).

In that regard, it’s worth stressing two things about the case of Francis Collins. One is that, while being completely orthodox with respect to evangelical doctrine, he played an important role in one of the great advances in the history of human knowledge. And that was possible only because of the gap between the evangelical and fundamentalist perspectives. An advance such as the mapping of the human genome is only possible on the basis of previously developed knowledge -- of which evolution is a part, and so-called “creation science” is not.

Nor can it be. It produces no new information or analyses because its purpose is simply to confirm something already written down and taken as correct. As Stephens and Giberson write, the trend among creationists has been to move “away from a scientific emphasis that at least paid lip service to the importance of research, and toward the populist promotion of creationism in the absence of a scientific model."

The other striking issue in the matter of Francis Collins is how much authority his combination of scientific eminence and religious conviction give him within the evangelical world. Which is to say, not much. That he accepts evolution provokes the suspicion that he is under the devil’s influence. Bogus creationist “experts” criticize his work on specious grounds. People walk out on his talks in protest, and his worst hate mail comes from fellow believers.

Most of The Anointed is devoted to the forces within the evangelical world that marginalize believers like Collins who make significant intellectual contributions. Besides the publishing houses, summer camps, and Christian colleges, there are pseudoscientific institutes promoting the “young Earth theory,” televangelists naming universities after themselves, fundamentalist child-rearing experts who point out that if God didn’t want you to use a belt on a kid’s behind then He wouldn’t have put the extra fatty tissue back there….

These figures constitute “a loosely configured network of overlapping leaders,” write Stephens and Giberson, skilled at “finding themes around which to rally their followers, playing on common fears, identifying out-groups to demonize, and projecting confidence.” The result is a parallel cultural world, bigger than any religious denomination but regarding itself as deeply threatened.

At the same time, it is not homogenous: there are evangelicals who reject fundamentalism, find apocalyptic revenge fantasies distasteful, and don’t see any reason why God wouldn’t bless same-sex unions. The Anointed seems to be written for such readers -- to explain the history and internal dynamics of the evangelical subculture, perhaps as a step towards changing it. As a report on the parallel culture of evangelical Christianity, the book is well-researched and intelligently composed, yet somehow not that eye-opening, as such. What made it absorbing was a strain of self-confidence, as if the authors knew they were writing for other believers like themselves who were getting tired of seeing the desire for knowledge treated like a sin.

 

 

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