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Hope for American Evangelicalism

Written by: on February 22, 2018

There is no longer a Christian mind. Harry Blamires[1]

The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind. Mark Noll[2]

That is why I say that, though of course the issues have been important elsewhere in the world, Americans seem to have had a particularly hard time of it, and that state of affairs continues to this day. N. T. Wright[3]

I read Harry Blamires’ book, The Christian Mind, over forty years ago. It has been interesting to live through the changes in evangelicalism throughout that time. Steve and I were already aware that the evangelical ambivalence towards “secular” education was due to Fundamentalist influence. That is why we welcomed the change in our bible college when they decided to start offering something besides classes in the bible. In 1979, Steve was a member of the inaugural graduating class in Elementary Education. We were thrilled to see many other bible colleges changing too.

In his 1994 book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Mark Noll describes the background and history of evangelicalism mostly in America. He criticizes evangelicals for failing to think like Christians about the whole world including nature, science, government, economy, and history. Noll made the distinction between “evangelical” thinking, as it is practiced in America, and Christian thinking as he would like to see it. He asked if there was a way that evangelical thought can become more Christian without abandoning what is distinctive about American evangelical heritage. My question too.

Nearly twenty years later Noll re-examined the “evangelical mind” with a view to answering the question of how to have a Christian mind. In Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind, Noll proposes that knowing Christ provides the basic motive for pursuing the tasks of human learning. If Jesus is the creator and sustainer of the universe, then “evangelicals should be among the most active, most serious, and most open-minded advocates of general human learning.”[4] In other words Christians should be leading the efforts in all fields of learning because we say it is our Lord’s world.

We have already had several interesting accounts of the history of evangelicalism by Bebbington, Noll, Taylor, Lewis & Pierard, and Luhrmann. Rather than rehash those accounts, I would like to reflect on a current problem for the evangelical mind in America – equating Christian thinking with a political stance.

First of all, speaking from a more global context, I am happy that it doesn’t seem that evangelicals in the rest of the world are identifying themselves with political parties to push an agenda. In his book on current issues, N. T. Wright (an Anglican bishop) makes an interesting point about American politics. I enjoy reading perspectives on American politics by outsiders. Wright’s analysis seems to be spot on. If we should think Christianly about government or politics as Blamires and Noll suggest, what should that look like? What happened in the United States to make Christians go off the track? Can we as evangelicals go back to working together to bring justice to our country?

Wright explains,

Indeed, if an outsider may venture a guess, I think the religious Right in the United States (we have really no parallel in Britain) may be construed as a clumsy attempt to recapture the coming together of God and the world that remains stubbornly in scripture but which the Enlightenment repudiated, and which fundamentalism continues to repudiate with its dualistic theology of rapture and Armageddon. It is as though the religious Right has known in its bones that God belongs in public but without understanding either why or how that might make sense; while the political Left in the United States, and sometimes on both sides of the Atlantic, has known in its bones that this God would make radical personal moral demands as part of his program of restorative justice, and has caricatured his public presence as a form of tyranny to evoke the cheap-and-gloomy Enlightenment critique as a way to hold that challenge at bay.[5]

Sorry for the long quote but I can’t say it any better. Are we evangelicals in America able to look in the mirror and see ourselves and how we must look to others? How is our fighting demonstrating the gospel of peace and love?

In the last few months, since the Trump election, evangelicals have been at war over who is the better Christian. Both Left and Right make assumptions about each other and throw rocks. In recent weeks, thanks to many scandals, some have decided to denounce the label of “evangelical”. But I don’t think distancing ourselves from what should be a beautiful identification is the answer. Instead, why don’t we just start living up to the name Evangelical?

How can we look to Jesus Christ for the life of our minds about politics? May we perhaps start with pulling the log out of our own eyes before we take the speck out of the others’ eyes?

My friends on the Left, those 80% of white evangelicals who voted for Trump were not voting for racism, misogyny, and neglect of the poor and the stranger. They were voting for equal rights to life for the unborn and a less invasive government. Though they sometimes act like they “have no mind”, they sincerely believe that liberals are to blame for the secularization of our culture. Accusing those on the right of being racists or misogynists is not going to get us together at the table.

My friends on the Right, those who are angrily lashing back at Trump do not want to ruin America. Their hearts are breaking because gains made in caring for the marginalized have been rolled back. Refugees are not terrorists. They are the poor and the strangers that Jesus wants us to care for. Stop complaining about high taxes if you are not willing to obey Christ’s commands to take care of the poor yourselves. America does not have a manifest destiny. Please rethink what you mean by “Make America Great Again”. Just when was that and was it great for everybody including non-whites, immigrants, and women?

Is it possible for us to become one community that loves and worships Jesus as our Lord? Maybe if we all strove for the mind of Christ, it would be a start.

Mark Noll lists the ingredients that are essential for Christian scholarship, including involvement with politics – prayer, forgiveness, hope, service that goes into the world in Christ’s name, bible reading, sacraments, and fellowship that draws believers to each other and to their Lord, sympathy that turns hearts toward the suffering, and meditation that draws the mind to God. (Noll, Jesus Christ, 148)

As we renew our minds to have the mind of Christ may we remember that our mission as evangelical Christians is to take the gospel message of love, peace, comfort and joy to the whole world. Our citizenship is not in our country; it is in heaven. Part of our new “minds” as Christians is to see ourselves as members of an intercultural, worldwide church. Yes, we are always going to have disagreements about the best way to go about the task of bringing justice to the world. Can we stop fighting and start talking to each other? Can we unite on Jesus? (Photo is of the Lausanne Conference in Cape Town in 2011.)

 

 

 

[1] Harry Blamires. The Christian Mind: How Should A Christian Think? Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Books, 1963. 3.

[2] Mark A. Noll. The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994. 3.

[3] N. T. Wright. Surprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues. New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2014. 5.

[4] Mark A. Noll. Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2011. X.

[5] Wright. 172- 173.

About the Author

Mary Walker

7 responses to “Hope for American Evangelicalism”

  1. Jim Sabella says:

    Mary, what a powerful statement: “But I don’t think distancing ourselves from what should be a beautiful identification is the answer. Instead, why don’t we just start living up to the name Evangelical?” This is a great goal for all of us. Thank you Mary!

  2. Lynda Gittens says:

    Well that was a mouth full. (smile)
    Mary your statement “Is it possible for us to become one community that loves and worships Jesus as our Lord? Maybe if we all strove for the mind of Christ, it would be a start.” are words of hope but not reality.
    I am reminded of the men building the tower to heaven and God struck them to speak different languages. We Christians have so many denominations. We all think we are right in our views. May this I God’s method of keeping us from conspiring together to overtake heaven. Remember, Lucifer.

  3. mm Jennifer Dean-Hill says:

    Mary what powerful statements: “As we renew our minds to have the mind of Christ may we remember that our mission as evangelical Christians is to take the gospel message of love, peace, comfort and joy to the whole world. Our citizenship is not in our country; it is in heaven. Part of our new “minds” as Christians is to see ourselves as members of an intercultural, worldwide church.” This sounds like a sermon we all could stand to be inspired by and you of all people have earned the right to preach it. As you have adopted children from around the world, you can speak to our mission to be intercultural and to spread a gospel of love and peace. Yes, uniting through Jesus is simple and profound. Thank you for your inspirational post/sermon. It felt like I just went to church. Preach on sister.

  4. mm Katy Drage Lines says:

    Nice integration of current events and Tom Wright’s reflections with our texts for this week! Your challenge: “In recent weeks, thanks to many scandals, some have decided to denounce the label of “evangelical”. But I don’t think distancing ourselves from what should be a beautiful identification is the answer. Instead, why don’t we just start living up to the name Evangelical?”– is such a good question. It made me think of Noll identifying himself as a “wounded lover” of evangelicalism (Scandal, ix). Rather than departing from the term, he seeks to reform it with new life, as you suggest here as well.

    One more thing to chew on. You write, “Our citizenship is not in our country; it is in heaven.” We may be not too far off on agreement with this, so bear with me. I agree that our loyalty is not primarily to our country of birth or residence. However, by talking about “citizenship in heaven” we run the risk of sounding like we’re just biding our time on earth until we can escape. I much prefer to talk about my citizenship in the Kingdom of God, as that reminds me that the Kingdom of God is both *now* and *not yet* and is a present reality for us to loyally live in now. How compatible is that way of thinking to what you suggest?

  5. Kristin Hamilton says:

    Thank you for this beautiful call to unity, Mary. Your statement, “As we renew our minds to have the mind of Christ may we remember that our mission as evangelical Christians is to take the gospel message of love, peace, comfort and joy to the whole world” is spot on. When 45 was first elected, many of my friends from the far right and I talked about what it could look like if we dwelt in the mind of Christ loved each other anyway. Sadly, only one of those friends remains. She and I have struggled, but we have never devolved to name-calling or insinuating that the other isn’t a Christian. We argue and debate, but we trust that we both love people and Jesus. The other friends are not here. Some now jeer at me because I say I am both pro-choice and anti-abortion. Some have questioned my faith. Others have simply disappeared from my life while telling others that people “like me” are the problem with America. I would still never question their Christianity, but I certainly question their love.

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