I’m sure that this cartoon will ruffle a few feathers for some members of our cohort. For me, this cartoon is not funny. As a satire, it is a bit sad and actually mostly true. The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind by Mark Noll explains why this is the case. Even given the fact that the evangelical mind “never relished complexity” (12) and Noll’s own admission that he is writing this historical meditation as a “wounded lover” (Preface), this book, like this cartoon, is a tough critique on the critical thinking of evangelicals in the United States. Using Charles Malik’s lament and prophetic call for evangelicals to not just win souls, but minds as well, Noll sums up the current (1994) situation the we evangelicals do not have much of an evangelical mind. Ouch!
If the members in the plethora of denominations under the Lewis and Pierard evangelical umbrella can maybe move past the initial emotional reaction to this book we can learn much and be better equipped to grow into the leaders we desire to become. Stated differently, we can find a way to be Christians in America (like the cartoon) and not neglect the widow, orphan, and stranger.
One of Noll’s culprits of the current scandal is evangelicals have fallen into reactionary stances. When there is a crisis, evangelicals have tended to fall back on the didactic writers of the Enlightenment. He mostly blames Fundamentalists, Pentecostals, and Holiness streams for this. Writing about the history of evangelicalism in the United States he states that the last real thinker was Jonathan Edwards. Using Edwards as example, Noll points out that Edward’s sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is how the last great evangelical thinker is known. This is true in my world as the curriculum for American Literature students in my school district includes this infamous sermon as an example the quintessential Edwards and earl American evangelicalism.
We have learned and reviewed Bebbington’s Quadrilateral and Noll’s research results in adding a fifth dimension, appropriationism, to our focus on the Bible, Cross, Conversion and Activism. Contextual appropriation has taken place at the loss of tradition (mainly the Creeds for Noll) and scholarly pursuits. The losing of the evangelical mind is the consequential result of where we are all living.
This is an extremely important assertion given today’s political climate of high level emotionalism, anxiety, fear, and American Exceptionalism. The lack of great evangelical universities is a result of a type of “brain drain” because the “fundamentalist movement was a response to general changes in American life, of which the transformation of the universities was only one among many” (114).
Okay, point taken, now what?
1. Get A Global Perspective
By titling this book “the Evangelical mind” and only writing about America’s evangelicals, Noll equates American evangelicals with evangelicals around the world. Admittedly he clarifies this point in the first chapter, nonetheless that title stands. We’ve read books like Global Pentecostalism and learned about some amazing and intelligent evangelicals around the world. However, this does illustrate an important concept that I am learning. American evangelicals hold a lot of power because the United States is a powerful country. A few weeks ago while discussing Jewish-Palestinian reconciliation the person with whom I was talking made a statement that poor evangelical theology coming from the U.S. is hugely to blame for the apartheid policies suffered by so many in the Middle East. As I pushed back, he expanded my knowledge on the horrible results of the American brand of Christian Zionism.
2. Ask the Hard Questions
Noll asks, “Who will be our tutors, the ones who teach us and our children about life?” (33) and “How will we live in the world?” (34). I agree with him that evangelicals need to vacate our evangelical ghettos and embrace learning and research found in all areas of life. This morning the Book of Common Worship called for Psalm 24. The earth is the Lords and everything in it. When we ask the hard questions, usually we end up looking in the mirror and not liking what we see. Is it really biblical that in some denominations women are the teachers of the children who are most unbiased but are not allowed to be ordained pastors? Hard question.
3. Don’t Be Afraid
It is difficult to open one’s self to new ideas because it can feel so jarring. Fear can come in like a wrecking ball. As I read Peter Enns, The Bible Tells Me So last summer, I started to feel a wave of anxiety over me at all the ramifications of what Enns writes. Scandals are fear inducing! The scandal of the cross caused Peter to deny Jesus three times and even his best students to flee. As leaders in the 21st Century we have to cast out all fear of being bilingual and speak the language of scripture and the dialect of our world.
4. Reframe How We View Technology
Noll says that evangelicals stopped building universities and built television networks instead. Talk about amusing ourselves to death! During last week’s Zoom we discussed how to view technology in leu of Stephen Garner. Appropriate technology is economically productive, ecologically sound, socially just, personally fulfilling and spiritually nourishing. Let’s add, as Jason Kennedy added, solid theology by reframing the question from, “Can we do this?” to “Theologically, should we do this?”
5. Give Up The Power Pursuits
A quick review of the headlines coming out of Christian universities in America has more to do with political endorsements than with scholarship. In the book Noll talks about Billy Graham and his early intellectual pursuits and prowess. However, as illustrated in the cartoon above, recently there seems to be a highjacking of the evangelical mind by a political party. Noll does mention the New Left and the New Christian Right, but it is time evangelicals stop pursuing a seat at the power table and swallow the hard pill of exile and humility.