Shortly before the turn of the millennium, Mark A. Noll (then Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College) penned what amounted to a manifesto scolding the intellectual shallowness of American evangelicalism. He writes in his preface to his famous Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, “the thought has occurred to me… that… it is simply impossible to be, with integrity, both evangelical and intellectual.” This, of course, is not Noll’s stance, but a temptation that he confesses to as faced with a severe spiritual and intellectual crisis. Is it legitimately possible to live both these worlds?
Perhaps I come to this book self-implicated, as a person brought up through the evangelical world and yet, as I presently find myself, striking out to live more fully in the intellectual / academic world, I too find Noll’s questions and concerns worth asking, even two decades on. As such, it is well past time that we re-consider the claims of Noll’s Scandal and ask whether the evangelical mind is still scandalously vacant, or if the cultural, social, and theological shifts of the early 21st century have proved beneficial for the movement? This new collection from IVP Academic seeks to address this question of contextualizing Noll twenty-five years later.
The Scandal, Reversed?
Perhaps the first question proposed by the interlocutors in this collections is the question of the very possibility of an evangelical mind. Mark Noll himself points for hope beyond the shuttering of Christianity Today’s Books & Culture. In the wake of Books & Culture‘s (premature, we say!) demise, new culturally-adept, intellectually-advanced sources of Christian thought and engagement have arisen, with several (here one thinks of Image Journal and Comment Magazine) that are either explicitly or implicitly evangelical in lean. The communities of evangelical thought whose minds were prepared by Books & Culture (and, so Noll notes, Reformed Journal) still exist in the wake of its demise, and they are still intellectually hungry.
So, too, we see, are the minds of the young evangelicals coming to college campuses and being prepared for study and for the world (and for mission) by organizations like Cru and InterVarsity. Here David C. Mahan and C. Donald Smedley’s essay on parachurch organizations serves as a useful insider-look for those unfamiliar with such ministries. (It should be noted that, as of the time of this review-writing, all reviewers at Theologian’s Library are present or former InterVarsity staff members.) Whereas the local church has struggled in preparing young people for the existential, epistemic, and ethical quandaries that present themselves in the university world, these ecumenical evangelical campus ministries invest tools and strategies that allow students to grow not only in their faith-walks but also in their intellectual development. (And Pew has some incredible statistics to this point as well.)
Beyond the secular university, Lauren Winner speaks laudably regarding the future of the Christian seminary, as well she should, representing Duke Divinity School, perhaps the only major seminary in the United States that lives at the boundaries between evangelicalism, mainline Protestantism, and the secular academy. In the church, Jo Anne Lyon, former general superintendent of the Wesleyan Church, speaks proudly of evangelical churches picking up, once again, those core Christian commitments to justice, mercy, radical generosity as a result of a renewal in Christian theology.
Is Evangelicalism… Healthy, Then?
That being said, there are some troubles underneath the thesis of a “renewing” evangelical mind. Sure, movements like InterVarsity or intellectual magazines like Image or institutions of Christian education like Duke or Seattle Pacific may represent some of the best and the brightest that evangelicalism has to offer, and, yet, … it does not necessarily follow that the evangelical mind is free from “scandal.”
Easily the best essay in this collection is the penultimate one written by James K.A. Smith. After five chapters of broadly positive contributions, uplifting and hopeful thoughts, Jamie Smith antagonizes the whole project. His challenges here, I think, are worthy ones that evangelicals need to highly consider, especially in light of the culminating corruption of our political gods. With an ever-growing #Exvangelical movement amid young adults (including those who loved, for instance, their campus ministries or university church groups), a serious question looms on the horizon for the evangelical church: is it worthwhile to be “evangelical”?
After all, as Smith reminds us, evangelicalism doesn’t hold the corner on Christian faith, let alone orthodox Christian faith (narrowly defined as creedal belief). There is a worldwide Christianity that is far more diverse, far more complex, and far less caught up in America’s self-importance than this subdivision we find ourselves within. Smith’s contention is that the future of the evangelical mind is actually a rediscovery of the catholic Christian mind, a Christianity defined by our core confession rather than our debated peripherals.
This, in some sense, challenges the notion that there should be an “evangelical” mind, however. If the growths in evangelical intellectualism has moved more evangelicals toward, for instance, Anglicanism or Catholicism or Orthodoxy, or the strides made by evangelical academics have been made in, as another example, mainline institutions like Duke or Yale, then the question remains whether these count as victories for the “evangelical” mind or for the Christian mind, the catholic mind? Could it be that what Noll sought as an “evangelical” mind is really just a Christian mind beyond the narrow confines of evangelicalism? Or is this just the result of the complicated wrestling for the identity of evangelicalism that is currently being fought?
To put it in perhaps more stark terms, is [American] evangelicalism simply the non-denominational Baptist theology of Billy Graham propagated for a wide variety of communities, or is it deeper than that? can it include the Presbyterians, the Lutherans, and the Anglicans? can it include its liberal / progressive political wing? can it include theories of atonement beyond the penal variety of substitution? This is really what is at stake in Smith’s essay: is “evangelical” a broad term, or a narrow one? And if narrow, then should we be seeking its intellectual renewal, or, instead, seek to re-insert ourselves into the continuity of the Church catholic?
As I finished this collection, I found myself in two minds. As an evangelical thinker formed by my time as a student and staff member in InterVarsity, I have seen firsthand the fruits that Mahan and Smedley have pointed to in their essays. And, yet, I too, like Smith, question [American] evangelicalism’s capacity to move beyond its present spiritual and intellectual quagmire. But the debate is a live one, still unfolding, and I appreciate this volume and these voices who are continuing to wrestle with the future of the evangelical mind. In another twenty years, who knows what may happen? Image Journal (currently lead by Smith as editor-in-chief), Comment, Christianity Today, the academic printing presses (IVP, Baker, Eerdmans, etc.) may yet save the evangelical mind; or it may change beyond recognition, either into further politicized corruption or into catholicity.
The State of the Evangelical Mind
ed. Todd C. Ream, Jerry Pattengale, Christopher J. Devers
IVP Academic, 2018. 180pp.
I would like to thank InterVarsity Press for sending me a review copy of this work. As with all these reviews, I was not required to write a good review, and all the opinions expressed within are my own.