The Mod | “The State of the Evangelical Mind: Reflections on the Past, Prospects For the Future”

Wednesday, 30 Jan 2019

Thirty years on from the publication of The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, author Mark Noll and other interested parties reflect on how things have and haven’t changed. The result—The State of the Evangelical Mind: Reflections on the Past, Prospects for the Future—provides an assortment of essays that do not so much assess evangelicalism as provide a snapshot of the current mood of evangelical intellectuals.

Noll’s chapter reads very much as an end-of-career address, complete with mild humor and thanks to the academy (quite literally).  His attempt to wrest some larger meaning from what are ultimately reminiscences about projects he’s worked on does not entirely succeed. The most telling reflections come at the end, when he acknowledges that, after all, there is not much distinctively evangelical about the efforts he’s described. They are, rather, the involvement of self-identified evangelicals in more broadly Christian intellectual activity.

Jo Ann Lyon’s history of evangelicalism is a deliberately idealized look at what she argues is evangelicalism at its best, meant to encourage those downcast by recent political developments. The evangelical experiment has not failed, she argues; it has always been a mixed bag, but by drawing inspiration from its best moments we can chart a way forward towards new successes. This style of history has its strengths, but the benefits are experiential rather than analytical, and it strikes an odd note here.

By contrast, David Mahan and Donald Smedley offer a spirited defense of the value of parachurch campus ministry, which they argue has been neglected in discussions of the “evangelical mind.” Smedley, in particular, takes issue with Noll’s original Scandal, constructing an elaborate philosophical argument that first of all, there is no scandal because Noll has not properly handled his categories; second, J. P. Moreland’s Love Your God With All Your Mind provides a better account of the situation; and third, Noll’s use of theological categories rather than biblical exegesis, and his dismissal of evidentialist apologetics, has led him to overlook the very important work that campus ministries have always done to foster evangelical intellectual life.  If this sounds bewildering, that’s because it is; it was apparent that few efforts have been made to render this article useful for general readers.

Timothy Larsen summarizes and applies the work of John Henry Newman, Roman Catholic theologian, to evangelical Christian liberal arts colleges.  This essay belongs to a very common genre of apologetic for liberal arts schooling, especially of the broadly Christian sort.  Rather than acknowledging this background and reflecting on what it has or has not accomplished, Larsen chooses instead to retread the same ground.

Lauren Winner’s essay follows in much the same vein, addressing pedagogical issues in seminaries from a distinctly non-evangelical perspective.  She advocates for contemplative practices and approaches, which she argues will soften the unnecessary rigidity of so much evangelical thought.  As with Larsen, it’s not clear what this tells us about the state of the evangelical mind, rather than Christian pedagogy broadly considered.

The five essays that make up the majority of the book are by turns congratulatory, defensive, and overly broad. Smedley’s painstakingly argued critique of Noll is made in the service of a turf war over his favored mode of parachurch activity. The historical reflections frankly ignore failures in favor of encouragement.  The discussions of Christian liberal arts and seminary formation seem to have wandered in from some other anthology on Christian education.

James K. A. Smith’s essay provides a startling contrast, therefore.  Instead of genial reflections on past successes or narrow cases for his own pet projects, he takes a sweeping and largely critical view of the vista of the “evangelical mind.”  First he argues that the successes celebrated by his fellow authors, while substantial enough, have not penetrated beyond the circle of the academy.  He goes further, contending that there may not really be any such thing as a coherent, distinctive “evangelical mind.”  Whatever it is that we mean when we say “evangelicalism,” it is a loose tradition unable to support any serious intellectual engagement. What is needed, instead, is a return to “thicker” forms of churchly life and a concerted effort by evangelical scholars to popularize their work—however detrimental this may be to their academic standing.
Mark Galli’s conclusion seems positioned to relativize Smith’s polemic.  Galli wonders whether there ever was a “scandal of the evangelical mind,” or if those called to the life of the mind are overthinking their ongoing calling to leaven the rest of the Christian community.  He identifies unique challenges in evangelicalism at this particular moment, but insists that these “Jesusy people” have something of value to contribute.  However, his argument rests on such broad definitions of evangelical distinctives that it’s hard to see how the virtues of evangelicalism are really that unique.

One question with which almost every author grapples is that vexingly simple one: what is an evangelical, anyway?  For some, it represents a particular Anglo-American Christian tradition, for others a sociological category in contemporary society, for others an ideal of the most energetic forms of Christianity.  Theological categories get some play, but they are—perhaps fittingly—very much on the sidelines.  Nobody much believes any more that being an evangelical entails a coherent set of beliefs, but if it does not, then how do we understand any such thing as an evangelical mind?

Finally, there is a specter haunting this book; the very lively ghost of Donald Trump (or, more precisely, Donald Trump and the staggering number of self-identified evangelicals who voted for him).  Just about every author in this volume makes clear their distaste for Trump, which renders evangelical enthusiasm for him a problem for their assessment of the evangelical mind.  A few attempts are made to offer a “no true Scotsman” defense, but these fare about as well as such attempts generally do. Smith is the only author who addresses the Trump problem directly, but the defensive mood of the rest of the book can be partly explained by the sense that evangelicalism has fallen into disrepute by association.  Lyon’s essay, in particular, can be seen as an attempt to rehabilitate evangelicalism from Trumpism.

What makes The State of the Evangelical Mind most interesting—and ultimately, rewarding—is not, after all, the individual merits of its component essays.  You may agree or disagree with their assessments of the landscape—indeed, you must disagree with at least some, as they offer incompatible views—but this is less about a survey of where evangelicalism finds itself and more an analysis of the state of evangelical intellectual life.  The book is a mirror of it—not bound by a commitment to doctrinal fundamentals, unsure of its own identity and merits, defensive and self-congratulatory by turns.  Its edges are made ragged by a host of fellow-travelers and sympathetic dissenters of all sorts.  At times it is not even sure that it is—or should be—a distinctive community.

The State of the Evangelical Mind is in its own way a valuable book, and anyone interested in the idea of evangelical intellectual life should read it. They will find much that is troubling and some insights well worth considering; and (transcending any particular arguments made by the authors), will gain a perspective on the confused mood with which evangelicalism faces the next quarter-century.

 

 

Leslie A. Wicke graduated with a degree in history from Patrick Henry College. She is a writer and artist whose work can be found at www.leslieawicke.com and www.tbjeremiah.com. She and her husband currently live in Virginia.

 

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