The Church has always struggled with what question of how to be in the world but not of the world. The question might better be asked: How engaged should a Christian be in the things of this world? Throughout history, numerous responses have been given to this question, from one of extreme of total withdraw from society (as seen in the Amish-style sects and some monastic movements like the desert fathers) to extreme association that was witnessed in the social gospel and the moral majority. The often misguided attempts at world engagement by modern evangelicals that Mark Noll highlights in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind suggests that evangelicalism has not been tremendously successful influencing society nor in gaining a hearing in the world of ideas. “Notwithstanding all their other virtues, however, American evangelicals are not exemplary for their thinking, and they have not been so for several generations.”(1) He goes on to suggest that evangelicals “have largely abandoned the universities, the arts, and other realms of ‘high’ culture.”(2) In this book, he documents how the Church has moved away from its long, rich history of leadership in areas of academia and arts, science and discovery to now stand on the sidelines of modern culture.
Noll argues that the American milieu that cultivated modern evangelicalism “is one in which careful thinking about the world has never loomed large. To be sure, it is also a culture where intense, detailed and precise efforts have been made to understand the Bible. But is not a culture where the same effort has been expended to understand the world, or even more important, the process by which wisdom from Scripture should be brought into relation with knowledge about the world.”(3) The result is that Christians are less engaged and are unable to bring Scriptural understanding to the very real issues, research and problems of today. Its strong Biblicism did not translate into cultural or intellectual influence.
In his sequel, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind, Noll provides a brilliant apologetic for Christian engagement in the world based on the biblical understanding of the person of Jesus Christ as defined in the creeds of early church. In reviewing the Apostles’ Creed, Noll suggests that this provides “a particularly important foundation. It brings together in an entirely fruitful way confidence in God the creator of the material realm and God the Father of believers through the saving work of Christ.” He goes on to say that this “combination offers precisely the tension Christian scholarship requires between life focused on this world and life convinced of the world to come.”(4) In other words, historical Christianity, based on the incarnation of Jesus into the material world, “offers full cause for taking seriously the fact of the physical world” as well as “relativizes all terrestrial realities in eternal perspective. In short, an ideal place from which to approach the task of Christian learning.”(5) What Noll argues in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind is that modern American culture’s influence on the democratization and tradition-less approach to the Bible (“no creed but the Bible” thinking), created an evangelical mindset that detached the Bible and Christianity from the world. Lacking its historical and traditional moorings, which provided the foundation for centuries of Christians who led the way in scientific, philosophical, and social learning, the Church disengaged from active participation in worldly matters. Noll suggests in this second book: “if what we claim to about Jesus Christ is true, then evangelicals should be among the most active, most serious, and the most open-minded advocates of general human learning.”(6) Recapturing the foundational understanding of Jesus as laid out in the early assemblies provides the basis for reconnecting the Bible and Christianity with all aspects of life.
Why is this important? This then take us back to James Davidson Hunter’s book, To Change the World(7), in which he argues that changes in culture comes through “elites,” people often on the periphery, though in positions of influence, such as artist, scientist and intellectuals who provide imaginary for a different way. These intellectuals whose new ideas or critique of existing culture are those who bring change because of their engagement and their voice in society. He argues that it will be Christians of influence (again, artist and intellectuals, or, as Noll suggests, Christians engaged in the world), that evangelicalism can influence and ultimately bring change to society. Because of the bleak situation that Noll describes, it is little wonder that Christian have little or no voice in these centers of influences. Both Noll and Hunter agree that it isn’t because there is no room for an evangelical voice in today’s culture–because the post-modern mindset seems more open to any voices than at any other time in history. It is because Christians have backed away from these very institutions and centers of influence, based on their failure to understanding God’s affirmation of and desire to redeem the world and their misguided use of the Bible. Both authors seem to be calling for Christians to bring their voices to be heard in places where they might again bring a Christian perspective to a world that has been detached from its creator and is ever more adrift in its search more what matters most. Thankfully, Mark Noll concludes his second book by suggesting that there is a positive movement in this direction in a number of fields (especially history, philosophy and science). There is an important need for the Christian life of the mind.
1Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994), 3.
4Mark A. Noll, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2011), 14.
7James Davison Hunter, To Change the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).