Ten years after publishing his classic book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, historian Mark Noll was in a reflective mood. This is the book that he is best known for, and whose famous first line that, “the scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind”, has been quoted innumerable times.
Published in 1994, this book gave voice to many faithful evangelical Christians who felt trapped by the strictures of the self-imposed limitations of their tradition within the United States. Specifically, Noll asks “why the largest single group of religious Americans—who enjoy increasing wealth, status, and political influence—have contributed so little to rigorous intellectual scholarship in North America. In nourishing believers in the simple truths of the gospel, why have evangelicals failed at sustaining a serious intellectual life and abandoned the universities, the arts, and other realms of “high” culture?”
In The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Noll writes what he calls an “epistle from a wounded lover.” He is writing from inside the evangelical Christian world, a faith tradition that he loves and that nourished him, and yet, which has also disappointed him and even hurt him in many ways. Specifically, Noll tackles the reality of anti-intellectualism, fundamentalism, anti-science bias, among other ills.
In a Christianity Today article in 2004, Noll is quoted as saying, “I remain largely unrepentant about the book’s historical arguments, its assessment of evangelical strengths and weaknesses, and its indictment of evangelical intellectual efforts, though I have changed my mind on a few matters.”
Indeed, this book was a kind of jeremiad, laying out a multitude of shortcomings and flaws in the intellectual lives of evangelical Christians. But, after ten years, Noll strikes a more hopeful tone. In an article for First Things, he writes, “that being said, it must also be noted that were I to attempt such a book as The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind today, it would have a different tone, more hopeful than despairing, more attuned to possibilities than to problems, more concerned with theological resources than theological deficiencies.”
It is this kind of admission from the author that makes my ears perk up. As a pastor and preacher, it is always important to “plumb the depths” as we take seriously the problems of the world and the church as we find them. And at the same time, as the realities of broken places become clear, we also seek a redemptive word. Or a sign of hope. Or a promise of grace.
Mark Noll reflects that while the problems he raised in the book are tenacious and continuous realities for the evangelical Christian world, there are also reasons to hope.
As I reflect on my own tribe and tradition, of Reformed/Presbyterian theology and practice, this is what I want to focus on. We do not have the same struggles, especially when it comes to the life of the mind (“thinking the faith” is highly celebrated among Presbyterians). But my research area is about the pernicious way that racial/ethnic separation persists within Mainline churches and especially within the Presbyterian Church (USA).
To read Noll’s original diagnosis and then to delve further into his thoughts after 10 years, it is a reminder to me that my approach to my own research needs to be carefully and lovingly done. Indeed, there are hard realities to face and some hard conversations to have. In a parallel to what Noll is describing, I believe Presbyterians need to take much more seriously the problem of how we have remained more than a 90% White denomination, while all around us, our communities have changed complexion.
Noll writes, that even after much of the fundamentalist past of the evangelical church has been repudiated, that, “Fundamentalist intellectual habits, however, have been more resilient than fundamentalism itself.” What he is saying, is that even when problems are identified and named, that the patterns surrounding those issues can remain.
The scandal of the racial divisions within the Mainline churches in America today is not an idea that is foreign or unknown. It has been named. It has been explored. It has been “called out”. And yet, those habits, that praxis, somehow remains.
As I seek to find ways for Presbyterian Churches to better reflect the make-up of their communities, Noll’s example is important. In 1994, he came out with a powerful book that laid bare the problem. And by 2004, he stood by his work, while also acknowledging that there was more reason to hope than he had previously indicated.
I want to hold both of these realities in my hands as I do my research and work. To challenge and push the church on this hard topic, while also and always bringing forward possibilities and practical suggestions as a way forward. This is important for authors and for preachers: to take seriously the fallen-ness and brokenness of our world, and yet, proclaiming the good news of what God has done and is doing still.
“Product Preview,” accessed February 21, 2019, https://www.eerdmans.com/Products/4180/the-scandal-of-the-evangelical-mind.aspx.
Ted Olsen, “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, 10 Years,” Christianity Today, October 1, 2004, https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2004/octoberweb-only/10-18-50.0.html.
Mark Noll, “The Evangelical Mind Today,” First Things, October 2004, https://www.firstthings.com/article/2004/10/the-evangelical-mind-today.