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The Mourning and the Moving On

Written by: on January 23, 2020

In his book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind Mark Noll is quick to admit that the scandal is in fact the lack of an Evangelical mind.i Tracing much of the issue back to Evangelicalism’s fundamentalist roots he mourns the lack of desire to explore how the many facets of God relate to the world. Several years later he wrote the sort-of follow up Jesus Christ and the Mind where he explores or, better yet, he provides an example for how the sort of thinking he mourns in the previous book could be done. Focusing in on how Jesus Christ can be seen at the center of multiple academic disciplines. At the end of the first book he is optimistic that Evangelicals could develop the intellectual curiosity necessary to have a fully realized mental experience. And the second book gives a delightful example of how Evangelicals could achieve his hopes. Alas in the United States, where Noll does the majority of his work, it seems that Evangelicalism has seemingly shrugged of his call to study.

This summer our dog Smokey passed on. It was soul crushing for all of us, he was indeed part of our family. For months I would spontaneously burst into tears because I missed him so much. Grief is indeed an odd beast and it stayed firmly on my shoulders for months. As a family we agreed that we would wait six months before finding another dog for our family to allow ourselves to fully grieve. So we waited and grieved and hugged each other and felt really embarrassed that all of this was over a dog. Then as the six month marker approached I started looking for Smokey’s successor. Through a quirky set of events I ended up talking to a really great breeder who just so happened to have a great dog he needed to part with. Within weeks our family was once again complete, dog and all. I still miss Smokey, but the dark cloud of sadness that had hung over me for those six months has cleared. Did the new dog fix things, possibly, but we also needed that time to let Smokey go. It was hard, but necessary.

Noll makes the argument that Evangelicals must be fluent in the words of scripture and be able to translate those words into the public sphere.ii There is a trap in this idea in that if the translation is wrong it will prove to be deeply damaging to Evangelicalism. I believe this is what we have seen happening to Evangelicalism in the United States. The passion for Christ is real and the desire to see Christ lifted high is the same as always, but the translation of those tenets of faith within the public sphere has been inaccurate. The tragedy of it all is that the translation could have been fixed if Evangelicals had heeded Noll’s call to recovering our history and understanding the historic faith – not through the fundamentalism of the early twentieth century, but through the Evangelical voices that came before them.

The question that now lies before so many of us is whether to stick with Evangelicalism and see if it can be revived or cut our losses and allow American Evangelicalism to go the way of the dinosaurs before us. Many people have made their choice and have decided to allow Evangelicalism to die in order to wait for something new. Those of us who have made that choice continue to grieve the church that we grew up in, where the very seeds of faith were first planted. We cry and remember, but we have to acknowledge that the thing we once hoped for will not be. So we wait, the cloud of what could have been sits on one shoulder while we wait to see what is next. Some are finding what’s next in a place they never expected, the mainline historical churches we were told were dead while we were growing up. Finding a living faith that is tied to the past and steeped in study is allowing many former evangelicals to see the future they hoped for as they graduated their Evangelical youth groups.iii

As compelling as Noll’s call to study is, there is little evidence that the call is being heeded. Perhaps it is time to allow Evangelicalism to pass, grieve its loss, and hope for what is next. Whatever is next will not replace what we knew and it will not take away the pain of its passing, but by the grace of God it will be good.

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i Mark A. Noll, The Scandal Of The Evangelical Mind. (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1995), 3.

ii ibid 251-252.

iii ibid 246.

About the Author

mm

Sean Dean

An expat of the great state of Maine where the lobster is cheap and the winters are brutal I've settled in as a web developer in Tacoma, Washington. As a foster-adoptive parent of 3 beautiful boys, I have deep questions about the American church's response to the public health crisis that is our foster system.

11 responses to “The Mourning and the Moving On”

  1. mm Tammy Dunahoo says:

    Excellent, Sean. When I was looking for a seminary I was focused on one that would teach thoroughly about the first 1500 years of the Church, not just the last 500 years for all the same reasons. Short term memory is a terrible disease and it seems much of Evangelicalism struggles with it. I appreciated Noll’s take on tradition in describing this. It will be interesting to see what unfolds with Evangelicals in the next few years.

    • mm Sean Dean says:

      Indeed, connecting with both the recent past and the ancient past is important to help us see our way forward. I know for me, one of the things that shored up my faith was becoming a student of the history of the church. Getting tied into a tradition that was more than the last 10 years old was steadying and I think necessary to get where I am now.

  2. mm Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    Sean,
    Thanks for the moving imagery of Smokey’s passing and your sense of the evangelicalism that you hoped for passing away. Your powerful imagery indicates to me your profound grief and I grieve that with you and for you. As you can tell from my present and previous posts I am very much a Christian mutt who is not a scholar but is inspired by Noll to action, to do the hard work of putting down roots in Christian scholarship rather than evanelical heritage. I wonder if I am not grieving what I never had and therefore why I see the future as promising and hopeful? Perhaps that is why I connect less with the evangelical label and more with just being part of His church. Thanks again for a very moving and thoughtful post.

  3. mm Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    Sean,
    Thanks for the moving imagery of Smokey’s passing and your sense of the evangelicalism that you hoped for passing away. Your powerful imagery indicates to me your profound grief and I grieve that with you and for you. As you can tell from my present and previous posts I am very much a Christian mutt who is not a scholar but is inspired by Noll to action, to do the hard work of putting down roots in Christian scholarship rather than evangelical heritage. I wonder if I am not grieving what I never had and therefore why I see the future as promising and hopeful? Perhaps that is why I connect less with the evangelical label and more with just being part of His church. Thanks again for a very moving and thoughtful post.

    • mm Sean Dean says:

      I know many people who grew up in the evangelical church who feel deeply betrayed by what they have seen over the past decade or so from the “leaders” of the evangelical movement. I think that what happened is we were taught the truth and find a strong dissonance with how leaders are purporting themselves. That being said, going along with what Jacob commented, we are a resurrection people, so we need to always expect things to die only to be resurrected as better things. Hopefully that is what we see happening now.

  4. mm Rev Jacob Bolton says:

    Sean, your posts always are so intriguing. If we are a resurrection people we shouldnt be afraid of seeing things in the church (movements, churches, schools, communities) die. Our faith should point us in the direction that something will rise.

  5. mm Mary Mims says:

    Sean, thank you for your post and the picture you painted with Smokey passing. I found comfort as you said in the traditional Baptist church after seeing racism in the evangelical church. Although the Baptist are technically evangelical, the Black Baptist church is very distinct. It is interesting to see where this will all go but the fact that so many evangelicals are aligned with racism is causing that branch to suffer and possibly die. So sad; its the biggest scandal of all.

    • mm Sean Dean says:

      Yeah, white evangelicalism has to have a “come to Jesus” moment with their history of racism, both explicit and implicit. If our current president has done anything good, his own vulgarity has revealed the vulgarity of much of white evangelicalism in their support of him. Perhaps this is the light that needed to be shined in order to bring healing to the body. I kind of doubt it, but I hope it is.

  6. Sean, I really appreciate your perspective of Mark Noll’s view on the need for intellectualism. You highlight a big problem of misinterpretation of scriptures in public, that is the result of ignoring intellectualism or “shutting off the mind, In my research on biblical financial literacy that is culturally appropriate to empower Christians in vulnerable communities, I have to contend with wrong doctrines of the “prosperity Gospel” that is a direct result of ignoring the discipline of study that, Noll is calling the church to embrace. It is my hope that I will contribute positively by developing a readily available tool for pastors and church leaders to economically empower Christians, thanks to my pursuit of intellectualism.

    • mm Sean Dean says:

      I grew up with the prosperity gospel, so I can relate to the difficulty of helping people to see that there is nuance within the scriptures to what is being said. It’s particularly hard because the prosperity gospel is so enticing. Of course we all want to be rich! Perhaps the answer is in helping people to redefine rich in other terms rather than monetary.

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