Signs of Life
It is hard to believe that Mark Noll’s groundbreaking shaming of evangelical culture, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, is now 10 years old. I first read it in 2000 at Dallas Theological and for many of my professors and classmates it was a clarion call. To be clear, Noll was not saying that evangelicals were not serious about biblical and theological scholarship, but “to think within a specifically Christian framework- across the whole spectrum of modern learning (7).” In a sense, evangelicals had become anti-intellectualist, utilitarian, and escapist, living in a well constructed evangelical ivory tower, at best, or a ghetto, at worst. The scandal of the evangelical mind, was that there was no mind. Noll however in 1994 saw glimpses of change, and in a very real sense a new generation of scholars, artists, and intellectuals have emerged from the evangelical wasteland.
My own organization Cru, made significant changes in how it understood ministry and engaging culture during this time period. Before, all students were either just future staff or future supporters. But, about 8 years ago, the organization made a massive change… attempting to encourage, train, and launch not only student movements, but also movements by graduating students in the worlds of law, medicine, art, music, and business. In many ways, Noll’s vision is starting to come to fruition. Evangelicals can now be found throughout the music, arts, film and film industries as well as across academia. Francis Collins headed up the Human Genome Project. Miroslav Volf is one of the most respected theologians and public thinkers at Yale. His Center for Faith and Culture is a bastion of thinking about the intersection of religion and public life, and is populated with other evangelicals. I have two friends who are evangelicals on the faculty of the University of Texas (one in science and the other in business), an institution in Texas known as a bastion of liberalism and secularism. At the same time, dispensationalism is a spent force, sidelined by irrelevance. And even the religious right has gone the way of the buffalo, dying out with its progenitors.
Evangelicalism has had a widening affect across the board. U2, with deep Pentecostal and evangelical roots, (what other rock band travels with a pastor?) has created popular rock and social movement with a Christian ethos. They were well ahead of their time, and have inspired an entire generation of Christians to do great work and make great art that is both Christian and accessible and relevant. Two of our most acclaimed actors have evangelical roots and connections: Tom Hanks and the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Hanks grew up as an evangelical and is currently a practicing Orthodox Christian. Hoffman was a practicing Catholic enamored with Jesus whose sister was an evangelical, and who often brought him to church. His connection to the faith of his sister led him to discover faith, Jesus, and Catholicism in new ways. The connection was profound for one of the greatest actors of our time: “’There was something that was so heartfelt and emotional,’ he said. ‘Nothing about it felt crazy at all. And my sister was certainly the sanest person you could ever meet. It all felt very real, very guttural, even rebellious. My time with my sister and her circle of friends is something I still think about today.’ He noted that he is often defensive about the way that many actors react to the idea of evangelical Christians.” (see more here: http://bustedhalo.com/features/the-gospel-according-to-philip-seymour-hoffman) It is not difficult to observe the redemptive threads running through the characters they have played. Then there is Tony Hale, an Emmy award winning comedic actor who starred in one of the most critically acclaimed comedies of all time: Arrested Development. Hale has worked hard to be a force for opening the door to more and more for dedicated Christians into the arts to do their craft professionally and excellently while living out their faith. From Volf to Hale, all of this would have been scandalous in the evangelical world 10-20 years ago. The reality is that evangelicals are more and more, doing art and scholarship well and with the mind of Christ.
A Word of Caution
One thing that Noll might be missing in his survey of American evangelicalism is that evangelicalism has often grown on the margins of society. It is easy to see why those on the margins, often without access to education and advancement, have not had the ability to advance the life of the mind. I don’t think this is the case across the board, but it needs to be explored. Conversely, the mainline denominations have done an excellent job of being engaged in the pursuit of a Christian intellect. Presbyterians and Episcopalians tend to have high levels of education, and access to academic, political, artistic, business, and literary influence. In my home Presbyterian church you can just as easily sit in the pew next to business tycoons, assorted Ph.Ds, university professors, Hollywood actors, and noted artists. For the conservative evangelicals in the mainline, Noll’s thesis seems quaint and far off.
However, there is of course a dark side to the pursuit of intellect. My past denomination is witnessing it firsthand. Christianity always functions best when it is a movement, when it is orthodox in its application of faith, when it is active and practical, and when it is centered on Jesus. In the great mix of things, one can lose their soul in the pursuit of intellect for intellect’s sake. Within my previous denomination, the PCUSA, this very much had become the case. The pursuit of intellectual menagerie became unmoored from an orthodox faith, evangelism, and vision for practical application. These things are now belittled as oppressive and colonial, while the denomination teeters ever closer to a one sided secularist agenda that by their own admonition is identical to that of the wider liberal culture. The denomination now spends more time and resources on divestment from oil companies and condemnations of Israel, than it does on church planting and evangelism. Not to say that those things are necessarily wrong, but one has to ask if the denomination has lost focus. The reality is telling, of the 10,000 churches, half don’t have a pastor, and each year hundreds are closed or flee to a more vibrant denomination. At the current rate, the denomination will cease to exist within a generation or two. Hoffman may have been onto something, Christianity is powerful when it is emotional and guttural. Perhaps we need to develop a faith that is fully orbed, neither reticent of emotions or the mind.
What we must strive for is excellence of the academy and the mind, but not lose our activist and evangelistic zeal. Above all, here we find Noll’s admonition in his follow up to Scandal, Jesus Christ and The Life of the Mind. True Christian intellectualism and scholarship will come only when it is deeply rooted in the life, incarnation, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the traditional creeds of the historic faith. This is the way forward.
Noll’s contribution to evangelicalism as movement is without hesitation, excellent. Any serious evangelical should read both of these books both as a reflection and a calling to a greater intellectual mission.