DMINLGP

DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

The Life of the Mind Begins … Right Here

Written by: on January 30, 2015

Some years ago the dynamic duo of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler returned to Saturday Night Live,[1] their skit replicated an interview that Katie Couric had done w/ then Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin. I could not stop laughing; it was (and remains) a classic comedy sketch. Tina Fey as Sarah Palin bounced from topic to topic. Economic bailout to job creation she changes subjects changes as quickly as you might take a breath. The audience did not know quite where she was going to go next in her answers. I had missed the original (by that I mean “real”) interview, so I thought what I was hearing was a parody. And then I saw the original interview, the real life one. I was stunned and in a strange sort of way I felt sorry for Sarah Palin, crammed with too much information everything seemed to spew out in a dialog that made no sense. Tina Fey’s rendition revealed how painful the event was in real life.

 

Mark Noll, history professor now at Notre Dame, presents in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind and Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind a compelling image of the Christian faith, in particular the evangelical expression of Christian faith as in dire straights because we have failed in our intellectual task. Why would I begin by describing an old Saturday Night Live skit from 2008, events that took place in my early seminary studies? In some strange way that image of speaking what we do not know is what came to mind as I read Noll’s work this week. It also reminds me of my latent fear: that I might “know” a little about a lot of things, but my ability to speak intelligently or even adequately about those things might be more compromised than I imagine. I also remembered that I had not ever heard of Mark Noll until I was in seminary. When I did hear of him and the title, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind I feared that he might be describing me. Of course, I understand now that he was revealing my experience in an evangelical faith that had as its basis a latent fundamental perspective. I did not know any of that until I truly began to “see” my condition (if I can paraphrase John Wesley) through seminary studies.

 

For me these books have provided connection points, which lead to more questions, and therefore more points of connection. Noll quotes Charles Malik’s address at Wheaton College in 1980. “The problem is not only to win souls but to save minds. If you win the whole world and lose the mind of the world, you will soon discover you have not won the world. Indeed it may turn out that you have actually lost he world… The greatest danger besetting American Evangelical Christianity is the danger of anti-intellectualism.”[2] The correlation to Jesus words, “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit your soul” (Mark 8:36) has perhaps, another layer of meaning. Our prior and even current emphasis on winning souls has had an opposite and even unintended consequence.

 

Acknowledging the evolution of life in America in the eighteenth and nineteenth century and society’s focus on creating and establishing a stable society, Noll connects the evangelical response whether it was Fundamentalism, dispensational premillennialism, the Higher Life movement and Pentecostalism as “evangelical strategies of survival in response to the religious crises of the late nineteenth century.”[3] Each response preserved essentials of the Christian faith.[4] However evangelical faith rather than take the avenue to integrate holistically isolated into parts and ultimately factions. Noll minces no words when he states, “together they were a disaster for the life of the mind.”[5]

 

Seeing my own faith journey Noll’s words have found their landing place. I was established in an evangelical faith that was skeptical of academics. I can recall the resistance and skepticism my pastor encountered when he tried to lead the church leadership team by bringing back what he was learning in seminary (a seminary that touted its commitment to the Bible). The culture was fixated on Jesus, the return of Christ, and getting people saved.

 

It would just make sense then that I was intrigued by Noll’s assessment of Fundamentalism. The impact of Fundamentalism’s teaching was indeed my framework. Belief in dispensationalism? I was right there. But there is a sentiment, which seems to have remained a lingering influence. “The key to dispensationalism’s popularity has been an ability to render the prophetic parts of the Bible understandable to ordinary people and applicable to current circumstances.”[6] This ability to make prophetic parts of the Bible understandable reduced and simplified. With simple formulas why do you need to apply critical thinking or even reason? The effect is that the markers definitive of the movement, which also morph into evangelicalism become the orienting factor from which faith is measured and authenticated, including academic endeavors.

 

In reading through both books it seems clear that we have failed in some ways as followers of Christ. Is there a possibility that the dilemma we are presently facing in the Christian church in the west may well be coming in the years ahead among faith’s resurgence in the southern hemisphere? Noll writes, “Christian bodies that claim to follow ‘no creed but the Bible’ put themselves at an enormous disadvantage for many purposes, not least for promoting Christian learning, because they cut themselves off from the vitally important work that has been accomplished by the numberless assemblies making up the communion of saints.”[7]

 

Much has been written and supported in the reassertion of the Church’s mission rooted in God who has a mission. There are important and needed inroads that are developing related to incarnational presence. Concern has been voiced that serving your neighbor cannot alone be the means to the end. So it is Mark Noll’s offering of a “place to stand”[8] rooted in the historic Creeds of the Church that at once surprised me and made total sense. To re-establish the Creeds provides the historic boundaries for an exploration and discovery of Christian faith. Could the Creeds once again provide an orientation that would disarm the factions and fragmentation? Central in Noll’s succeeding work is Jesus Christ.

 

Although I began by referencing a funny political story, it does contain a metaphor. In Noll’s careful work we can see that the Church comes across perhaps in the same way that Sarah Palin did, everything lacked coherence in what she tried to communicate. Therefore the elements offered by Noll to turn the tide might sound somewhat surprising. At the very least there is an invitation to acknowledge that we do not know all truth. We need each other. The ingredients offered are familiar ones. “Prayer that returns to the source of forgiveness and hope, service that goes into the world in Christ’s name, Bible reading or preaching or catechesis that rehearses the story of salvation, sacraments that instantiate the presence of Christ, fellowship that draws believers to each other and to their Lord, singing that inspires love of God and neighbor, sympathy that turns hearts toward the suffering and meditation that draws the mind to God.”[9]

 

            [1] Saturday Night Live is an American television program that airs on Saturday Night after the late night news.

[2] Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994), 26 quoting from Charles Malik, The Two Tasks (Westcheseter, IL: Cornerstore, 1980), 29-34.

            [3] Ibid., 24.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 119.

[7] Mark A. Noll, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2011), 1.

[8] Ibid.

            [9] Ibid., 148.

About the Author

mm

Carol McLaughlin

Carol walks this DMin journey from her locale in Gig Harbor, WA (USA). She is preparing for pastoral ministry in the Presbyterian Church (PC-USA), as well as teaches in the Online Learning Community programs at GFES. Part of the DMin Leadership & Global Perspectives 4 cohort (dminlgp4) her research and dissertation focus is exploring why baby boomers leave the church and what it means for their faith development. The views expressed here are her own.

8 responses to “The Life of the Mind Begins … Right Here”

  1. Ashley says:

    Carol, only you could work in Saturday Night Live and Tina and Amy into a blog post about stretching the mind and drawing close to Jesus. I LOVE IT! I think this whole academia/mind/brain/learning could, in fact, be the missing piece, the missing connector. Some denominations do not require education for ordained clergy, citing the Spirit and calling are sufficient. In fact, one church in my town became enraged by the lack of education and grappling of those in our Bible-belt town that they created a billboard campaign with the following advertisements:

    “Where faith and reason aren’t mutually exclusive”
    “Energy, Imagination, Intelligence, Love.”
    “You are invited. So are your questions.”
    “Historic Church. Modern Mission.”
    “Come as you are, but you won’t leave that way. Learn.”

    Indeed, they host a weekly “Scholar’s Dinner” as opposed to the “Wednesday Night Fellowship.” They saw a gap, a missing piece, and they have it in their mission to meet minds and create a space for learning.

    Your ending point – we all need each other – is spot on. We are a better body of Christ when all parts are working together. Indeed, each part of the body needs to the other to function wholly. And so it is with the mind and soul and heart and strength.

  2. mm John Woodward says:

    Carol, what a brilliant illustration from Saturday Night Live! Indeed, I have often pondered how the world must look in at the church and just scratch their head. What I found interesting as I read your post was to consider how each of us found ourselves in the story that Noll wrote, finding something of their own church background in the story. I come a “no creed but Christ” tradition that had Bible colleges for undergrads, which always seemed like a dumbing down of the preachers who had never had to confront the real world in all its variety and (often times) ugliness through a university education. Often discussions with these ministers ended in pat-answers that gave no room argument or consideration of alternatives. There was much in Noll’s book that I saw myself and my church tradition in. But your question in your post about the emerging churches in the global south is a pertinent one, which I had not considered. It will be tremendously interesting in the coming years to see the trend will again be a less historical, less creedal, and less world engaging form of faith. I think it easily go that direction…what do you think? As always, you’ve stimulated my thinking…which Noll will be pleased with! Thanks Carol.

  3. mm Deve Persad says:

    I wonder sometimes, Carol, if we sometimes confusing learning with knowing. Your post certainly reminds me of the fact that there is a distinct difference. As evangelicals, we have gone so far with the presumption of knowing that we have neglected our capacity to be continually at the feet, in a learning posture, from Our Teacher, Jesus. You said, “At the very least there is an invitation to acknowledge that we do not know all truth.” What I appreciate about that statement is the return to embracing “the mystery of the Gospel” together, as a body of believers, united under the credal truths. In fact it may do us well to write a Creed for ourselves…something to think about.

  4. Carol,

    I love the connections you made with Sarah Palin. I always felt sorry for this lady; she talked a lot but never said anything. Also, she can possibly be seen as the button that was pushed to begin the fall of the Republican Party. I know there are those who would disagree, but that is how I feel.

    You say in your post, “The culture was fixated on Jesus, the return of Christ, and getting people saved.” This describes my dad to a tee. Because I am way more liberal than he is, he is afraid that I have lost my moorings and that I am a backslidden Christian at best, apostate at worst. Thus, never does a visit or phone conversation pass where I do not get a forceful sermon on getting back to Jesus, especially through “end times” disaster scenarios of the world’s impending doom. But in 30-40 years his message hasn’t changed. There is nothing fresh or alive; it is more like listening to a pre-recorded message. I know my dad thinks ho is doing the “work of the Kingdom” and I will never steal that from him, but the reality is that we don’t have much of a relationship, probably never will. I think this is a sad example of what Noll refers to in his books. I pray that I will never be like that to my kids. God help me to be a good thinker and a true lover of others, no matter where they are.

  5. Michael Badriaki says:

    Carol, thank you so much for this thoughtful post. I love reading you r post, even better when you incorporate you own story. I enjoyed listening to you story with in Cape and I believe you tell your story well in such a way that a person like with a background like mine can learn a lot about the boomer christian perspective, the fundamentalist point of view which you have since reversed and the present tradition you’ve embraced. You story is inspiring.

    I really appreciated your use of Sarah Palin’s typology and Evangelicalism. It seems like people with Palin’s worldview, are also proponents of a particular theological orientation like fundamentalism. You write, “In Noll’s careful work we can see that the Church comes across perhaps in the same way that Sarah Palin did, everything lacked coherence in what she tried to communicate. Therefore the elements offered by Noll to turn the tide might sound somewhat surprising. At the very least there is an invitation to acknowledge that we do not know all truth.”

    At the very least, we can be ok with admitting that we do not know it all.

    Thank you

  6. Telile Fikru Badecha says:

    Carol, Brilliant illustration from Saturday Night Live! A great reminder at the end, “At the very least there is an invitation to acknowledge that we do not know all truth. We need each other.” I love the ingredients: prayer, Bible reading, sacraments, fellowship, and etc. I believe these ingredients will help us build cohesion and positively impact one another.

  7. mm Julie Dodge says:

    Carol,

    Recently I heard Sarah Palin being quoted that she knew all about illegal immigrants because of the Eskimos in Alaska. Her downfall was not merely knowledge about a lot of stuff, but misapplication of that knowledge which revealed her ignorance of … fact.

    My church recently parted ways with an elderly woman who reads Scripture nearly constantly but would directly say that study (education) kills the Spirit. Her theology was greatly flawed, and she could not engage in any dialogue about it because she was simply right. God told her. Sadly, her perspective may be an extreme but is sometimes viewed as typical Christian thought. Like Palin, there is an element of truth (indeed there are indigenous peoples in Alaska) but the truth is distorted through faulty logic, arrogance, and pat answers.

    I too loved Malik’s comments about saving minds. We are whole people, made in God’s image. The Holy Spirit is our Teacher. Our learning must be rooted in him, but just as excellent as our commitment to glorifying God in any other aspect of our lives.

    Excellent post.

  8. Carol great point: “I might “know” a little about a lot of things, but my ability to speak intelligently or even adequately about those things might be more compromised than I imagine.”

    I feel that way about this DMin program when people ask me what I am learning. “Well, there is Diamond and the way that civilization evolved, and Weber who talked about Social Imaginaries, no, wait that was Taylor. And Weber was something about evangelicals taking over like zombies in Britain. And then Lincoln came and fixed it all with his gang of rivals using social technology. And that is how we become a nation of heretics. Yea. That’s what I have learned. I think?”

    All joking aside, if that is even possible, your point of Malik’s address reminds me of Rwanda. Supposedly a great revival took place. Many came to christ, i.e, they were “saved souls.” Unfortunately, the savagery that took place there after the so called Christian revivals called such revivals into question. One of the main questions was through the “revivals and conversions” if the minds and culture were truly “baptized” in the conversion to Christ and His Kingdom. Something was amiss when pastors were some of the ones who led some of the tribal fighting. Do you think the Rwandan Christians lacked some mental influence which led to such savagery of brother against brother?

    Great amalgamation of the material this week. Great post.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *