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An evangelical and cultural thought problem

Written by: on February 1, 2015

god said it

That little quote has always driven me nuts. It’s not that it isn’t necessarily true. It is the false attribution by far too many Christ followers about what God really said. All too often, we attribute our interpretation of what God said to be the actual fact without leaving any room for debate. Evangelical Christian culture has come to accept tradition and slogans as fact over actual wisdom and knowledge. I am reminded of Stanley Grenz and Roger Olson’s definition of “folk theology: a kind of theology that rejects critical reflection and enthusiastically embraces simplistic acceptance of an informal tradition or belief and practices composed mainly of cliche’s and legends.”[1]

Mark A. Noll argues that the “dumbing down” of critical evangelical thinking is a scandal. Writes Noll, “American evangelicals experience relative intellectual poverty.” [2] Noll provides a historical overview of how this loss of credible thought and thought leaders occurred as embedded in cultural, institutional and theological dimensions. Contributing factors include American values of pragmatism, separation of church and state, republicanism, and a specific (liberal) idea of the economy, as well as the influence of celebrity preachers and fundamentalism. While each of these values have significant merit, they have contributed to unintended consequences of simplicity and practicality as priorities over intellectual debate. For example, the goal of a college education was once more connected to the goal of developing an educated mind and a balanced understanding of arts, literature, social sciences and physical sciences. In the current culture, the goal of a college education is to prepare the student to obtain a higher paying job.

Noll follows up “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” with “Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind.” [3] The book offers a Christ centered motive and framework to develop evangelical thought. Noll writes that his message is simple and his conviction profound:

“…if what we claim about Jesus Christ is true, than evangelicals should be among the most active, most serious, and most openminded advocates of general human learning. Evangelical hesitation about scholarship in general, or about pursuing learning wholeheartedly is, in other words, antithetical to the Christ-centered basis of evangelical faith.”[4]

Noll’s argument for the profound need for solid intellectual development grounded in Christ is timely. I decided to do a brief search on critical thinking quotes as I was preparing for this post, thinking I might stumble upon some gem. What I found, saddened me. At the top of the list were multiple quotes about the lack of thought among Christians and the religious. Many were quite harsh, but I found this statement by Anais Nin most appropriate: “When we blindly adopt a religion, a political system, a literary dogma, we become automatons.” [5] I would suggest that the world assumes that evangelicals and other religious people accept a faith or religion without thought. We have come to be perceived as not merely anti-intellectual, but unable to think independently at all.

I have been wrestling with some of the challenges of what good, critical, evangelical thought looks like over the past several days. My actual writing of this post was delayed by my slowly healing shoulder which decided using a computer was going to be untenable for a few days. I came to also consider that the challenge of evangelical thought is not merely a Christian concern, but an American challenge. This week the local news was abuzz about Oregon’s high school graduation rates: We ranked the poorest in the nation (49th) with Idaho not reporting. [6] Meanwhile, one of my colleagues shared an article about the impact of standardized testing on American education. The author argues that efforts to be inclusive and unbiased have led to the eradication of anything that might be considered offensive from our instruction, such as religious history or literature/arts that reflect any oppressive or prejudiced ideas (think “Huckleberry Finn”). The effort to equalize has led to a neutralization of difference.

“Once college attendance became a key to success, and standardized tests were made a determinant of it, their terrain had to be homogenized. The more all Americans needed higher education, the less could they be tested on history, religion, literature, and art. Bias and sensitivity review was conceived as a way to ensure equal opportunity, but the knowledge on which we evaluate students, the traditions we pass on, are now subject to a bureaucratic screening… If you have a chance, read through two dozen passages on recent exams. If you find little in them that is inspiring, curious, pointed, provocative, funny, or sobering; if there is no illumination of a specific group experience; no acknowledgement that a particular culture, faith, politics, or country has pluses and minuses; no hint of religious truth . . . then the reviewers have done their job well.”[7]

Noll posits that there are ten indicators of movement toward an improving evangelical intellect. I will not repeat them other than to say that I also see improvements in some arenas over the past twenty years since Noll first published “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.” But I fear that our challenge is not merely Christian, but cultural. Cultural values and perceived truths are shaped more rapidly than ever through social media such as Twitter and Facebook. Here the arguments are simplistic, emotional, and seem to assume a greater absolutism. Christians, non-Christians, evangelicals, fundamentalists, liberals, and others often refuse to consider a perspective other than their own. Time and again I have seen people simply unfriend someone rather than engage in any meaningful conversation. I find myself considering whether, if I accept a certain friend request, the individual will be “ok” with my Christian and evangelical posts, AND my human rights, compassion and less traditionally “religious” posts.

I find that my best option is perhaps too simplistic. I am called to be faithful and obedient. I ask the Lord to search and to know my heart. I pray for wisdom, rooted in the knowledge of who He is. I hope to be able to articulate my ideas and thoughts, as  shaped by a solid knowledge of our God , while maintaining a humility of thought. I hope to develop solid arguments, while recognizing the possibility of error in my thought. I hope to be able to share those arguments with others in a manner which can be heard. And finally, I hope to challenge my students to ask questions and seek knowledge, not just settle for the common sense of the day.

[1] Stanley J. Grenz and Roger E. Olson, “Who Needs Theology? An Invitation to the Study of God,” Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1996, p. 27.
[2] Mark A. Noll, “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind,” Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994, pp 23-24.
[3] Mark A. Noll, “Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind,” Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011.
[4] Ibid, loc. 27.
[5] Anais Nin, “The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 4: 1944-1947”, Goodreads.com, http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/critical-thinking
[6] Betsy Hammond, Oregon posts nations worst graduation rate for class of 2013, “The Oregonian”, http://www.oregonlive.com/education/index.ssf/2015/01/oregon_posts_worst_graduation.html, Jan. 26, 2015.
[7] Mark Bauerlein, Standardized Culture, “First Things”, January 2015, http://www.firstthings.com/article/2015/01/standardized-culture

About the Author

mm

Julie Dodge

Julie loves coffee and warm summer days. She is an Assistant Professor of Social Work at Concordia University, Portland, a consultant for non-profit organizations, and a leader at The Trinity Project.

2 responses to “An evangelical and cultural thought problem”

  1. Richard Volzke says:

    Julie,
    Great post and thank you for your honesty. “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” I really don’t believe that, because many times I find that God did not say whatever is being discussed as individuals (including preachers) often take His Word out of context. The truth is that there are many things in the Scriptures that God has said, and some of those things won’t be clear to us until we get to heaven. Like you, I believe that there needs to be room for healthy debate within the body of Christ. I often find that I need to have the debate in order to process my own thoughts and opinions.
    Richard

  2. mm Julie Dodge says:

    Thanks Richard. I appreciate your comments. I think one of the additional challenges of developing good evangelical critical thought is engaging in the debate in a healthy manner. Can we do it from a position of humility, acknowledging that this is what I think now, and the logic, but allowing the space to honestly consider the other? Sometimes we can come across as all settled in our opinion (or at least I can) and not open to hearing the other at all. It’s tough to find that balance.

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