Some years ago the dynamic duo of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler returned to Saturday Night Live, their skit replicated an interview that Katie Couric had done w/ then Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin. I could not stop laughing; it was (and remains) a classic comedy sketch. Tina Fey as Sarah Palin bounced from topic to topic. Economic bailout to job creation she changes subjects changes as quickly as you might take a breath. The audience did not know quite where she was going to go next in her answers. I had missed the original (by that I mean “real”) interview, so I thought what I was hearing was a parody. And then I saw the original interview, the real life one. I was stunned and in a strange sort of way I felt sorry for Sarah Palin, crammed with too much information everything seemed to spew out in a dialog that made no sense. Tina Fey’s rendition revealed how painful the event was in real life.
Mark Noll, history professor now at Notre Dame, presents in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind and Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind a compelling image of the Christian faith, in particular the evangelical expression of Christian faith as in dire straights because we have failed in our intellectual task. Why would I begin by describing an old Saturday Night Live skit from 2008, events that took place in my early seminary studies? In some strange way that image of speaking what we do not know is what came to mind as I read Noll’s work this week. It also reminds me of my latent fear: that I might “know” a little about a lot of things, but my ability to speak intelligently or even adequately about those things might be more compromised than I imagine. I also remembered that I had not ever heard of Mark Noll until I was in seminary. When I did hear of him and the title, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind I feared that he might be describing me. Of course, I understand now that he was revealing my experience in an evangelical faith that had as its basis a latent fundamental perspective. I did not know any of that until I truly began to “see” my condition (if I can paraphrase John Wesley) through seminary studies.
For me these books have provided connection points, which lead to more questions, and therefore more points of connection. Noll quotes Charles Malik’s address at Wheaton College in 1980. “The problem is not only to win souls but to save minds. If you win the whole world and lose the mind of the world, you will soon discover you have not won the world. Indeed it may turn out that you have actually lost he world… The greatest danger besetting American Evangelical Christianity is the danger of anti-intellectualism.” The correlation to Jesus words, “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit your soul” (Mark 8:36) has perhaps, another layer of meaning. Our prior and even current emphasis on winning souls has had an opposite and even unintended consequence.
Acknowledging the evolution of life in America in the eighteenth and nineteenth century and society’s focus on creating and establishing a stable society, Noll connects the evangelical response whether it was Fundamentalism, dispensational premillennialism, the Higher Life movement and Pentecostalism as “evangelical strategies of survival in response to the religious crises of the late nineteenth century.” Each response preserved essentials of the Christian faith. However evangelical faith rather than take the avenue to integrate holistically isolated into parts and ultimately factions. Noll minces no words when he states, “together they were a disaster for the life of the mind.”
Seeing my own faith journey Noll’s words have found their landing place. I was established in an evangelical faith that was skeptical of academics. I can recall the resistance and skepticism my pastor encountered when he tried to lead the church leadership team by bringing back what he was learning in seminary (a seminary that touted its commitment to the Bible). The culture was fixated on Jesus, the return of Christ, and getting people saved.
It would just make sense then that I was intrigued by Noll’s assessment of Fundamentalism. The impact of Fundamentalism’s teaching was indeed my framework. Belief in dispensationalism? I was right there. But there is a sentiment, which seems to have remained a lingering influence. “The key to dispensationalism’s popularity has been an ability to render the prophetic parts of the Bible understandable to ordinary people and applicable to current circumstances.” This ability to make prophetic parts of the Bible understandable reduced and simplified. With simple formulas why do you need to apply critical thinking or even reason? The effect is that the markers definitive of the movement, which also morph into evangelicalism become the orienting factor from which faith is measured and authenticated, including academic endeavors.
In reading through both books it seems clear that we have failed in some ways as followers of Christ. Is there a possibility that the dilemma we are presently facing in the Christian church in the west may well be coming in the years ahead among faith’s resurgence in the southern hemisphere? Noll writes, “Christian bodies that claim to follow ‘no creed but the Bible’ put themselves at an enormous disadvantage for many purposes, not least for promoting Christian learning, because they cut themselves off from the vitally important work that has been accomplished by the numberless assemblies making up the communion of saints.”
Much has been written and supported in the reassertion of the Church’s mission rooted in God who has a mission. There are important and needed inroads that are developing related to incarnational presence. Concern has been voiced that serving your neighbor cannot alone be the means to the end. So it is Mark Noll’s offering of a “place to stand” rooted in the historic Creeds of the Church that at once surprised me and made total sense. To re-establish the Creeds provides the historic boundaries for an exploration and discovery of Christian faith. Could the Creeds once again provide an orientation that would disarm the factions and fragmentation? Central in Noll’s succeeding work is Jesus Christ.
Although I began by referencing a funny political story, it does contain a metaphor. In Noll’s careful work we can see that the Church comes across perhaps in the same way that Sarah Palin did, everything lacked coherence in what she tried to communicate. Therefore the elements offered by Noll to turn the tide might sound somewhat surprising. At the very least there is an invitation to acknowledge that we do not know all truth. We need each other. The ingredients offered are familiar ones. “Prayer that returns to the source of forgiveness and hope, service that goes into the world in Christ’s name, Bible reading or preaching or catechesis that rehearses the story of salvation, sacraments that instantiate the presence of Christ, fellowship that draws believers to each other and to their Lord, singing that inspires love of God and neighbor, sympathy that turns hearts toward the suffering and meditation that draws the mind to God.”
 Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994), 26 quoting from Charles Malik, The Two Tasks (Westcheseter, IL: Cornerstore, 1980), 29-34.
 Ibid., 119.
 Mark A. Noll, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2011), 1.