One of my great regrets is that I have not studied enough. I wish I had studied more and preached less. People have pressured me into speaking to groups when I should have been studying and preparing. – Billy Graham
It’s somewhat both illuminating and embarrassing to think back to your high school self. But perhaps my personal journey parallels what historian Mark A Noll hopes and dreams for (American) evangelical churches and Christians, as he explores the lack of a robust evangelical intellectual theology in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind and a Christological basis for pursuing academic endeavors in Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind (hereafter Scandal and Life).
I grew up at First Christian Church, Any Suburb, USA. Like other expressions of what Noll terms “Restorationist” churches (we call ourselves the Restoration Movement or Stone-Campbell movement), our churches are fundamentally American in origin and ideals, founded in independent, individualistic revival-era frontier principles. As a youth, I embraced all things “apologetic”, looking for scientific support for literal creationism and archeology to “prove” the accuracy of the Bible. I even [whispers this] went through a period of devouring Peretti’s This Present Darkness novels, looking for literal demons hanging on our shoulders, and believing all of American culture was attacking Christians (or was about to, in the near future), similar to how Jews had been treated in Europe in previous generations. I also loved scripture and memorized huge swaths, believing someday soon our Bibles would be taken from us and I needed to “hide it in my heart.” And (this is the best part), I took such great pride in all of this.
Looking back on my teenage self, I feel uncomfortable (and not just because of that awkward adolescence we all go through) about who I was and how I represented my faith to my peers and teachers (I really really needed to defend my faith to them, to prove I was right… I thought).
But why didn’t all this “take” for me? How did I evolve from that mindset to one of open exploration, discovery, and hope? Two things went hand in hand to answer this. First, I attended a Christian liberal arts college that challenged me to learn how to think, to consistently ask “what does it mean to be human?” While Noll berates Christian colleges and universities for not funding, encouraging, and producing research scholars, I would counter that my science and Bible professors consistently and humbly helped me imagine alternatives to creationism that could still be faithful to God and scripture. And my Bible and anthropology professors gave me language for heresy and eschatology to move past poor Biblical interpretations.
Second, I truly desired to know and serve God as a disciple of Jesus Christ with my entire being. Noll (Scandal) writes, “The gospel properly calls the whole person;” that it is “the nature of God and his loving work… that requires cultivation of the mind.” It was in that spirit, of seeking to faithfully serve God with my mind, that I found myself thinking deeply about how I’d always seen the world. It was also this spirit that allowed me to develop a deep love for church history and the rich traditions of the deep and wide Church.
Noll rightly challenges academics to humbly resist the tendency towards pride and idolatry themselves. But without scholarship, we are prone to heresy, and poor theology leads to incompetent praxis of relating to God, God’s creation, and one another. I was challenged (repeatedly) that God was big enough to handle our scholarly explorations.
What Noll recognizes in Scandal (1994) and continues to identify (to a large extent) in Life (2011) is the continued “intellectual weakness” of the evangelical mind. In general, while evangelicals have much going for them and do many things well, evangelicals are for the most part, still “tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind” (Eph 4:14) and are not convinced of the value of critical thinking and intellectual study. He challenges American evangelicals to take the long view of history, slow down and invest in real, thoughtful pursuits. He also challenges evangelicals to look carefully at the past generations and traditions, to learn from them.
I am thankful now to be part of a church community that has learned the value of study and academic pursuits… for the purpose of bearing faithful witness to the Kingdom of God (notwithstanding our church movement, which generally continues down the path critiqued by Noll). For our part, our tiny congregation (150) has a well-respected book review (Englewood Review of Books) and has produced a couple of titles that address specifically some of what Noll laments: Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus and Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish.
I’d like to believe that, like God being present in the midst of our dark and silent times, as Luhrmann posited in Isolation, God is also present and at work in our studies and explorations of the world around us as well. When we study and explore, we offer our minds as gifts to God and the people of God, allowing the Holy Spirit to use our gift for the kingdom of God.
 Billy Graham, “Taking the World’s Temperature”, Christianity Today (Sept. 23, 1977), 19. I also understand Graham said in an interview that he wished he’d studied for a PhD in Anthropology so he could understand people and culture more.
 Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 46, 50.
 Mark A. Noll, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), ix.
 Noll, Life, 51.
 Ibid., 152.