The State of the Evangelical Mind | Book Review


In 1994, Prof. Mark Noll published The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind which opened with this arresting sentence: “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” For Noll, the word mind pointed to “serious intellectual life,” “the effort to think like a Christian…across the whole spectrum of modern learning.” The book offered a historical explanation for the scandal, outlined its effects on how evangelicals approach politics and science, and suggested that an “evangelical renaissance” might be underway.

The State of the Evangelical Mind picks the story up twenty-five years later, assessing the quality of evangelical intellectual life across four sets of institutions: churches, parachurch organizations, colleges and universities, and seminaries. Noll himself kicks off the volume with an essay titled, “Reflections on the Past.” His paradoxical conclusion? “The evangelical mind…seems to be fading fast, even as more and more evangelicals cultivate with more and more integrate the life of the mind.” In other words, while many evangelicals are making contributions to “serious intellectual life,” their contributions are not “specifically evangelical.”

Jo Anne Lyon, former superintendent of the Wesleyan Church, argues that evangelical churches need to recover “the [historic] evangelical commitment to works of love, mercy, and justice,” even as they recognize that it is an “imperfect tradition” All movements are guided by a “strong narrative,” she points out, but when they lose that narrative, “it becomes very difficult to resist the seduction of political power that results in moving from prophetic to partisan to nationalism and civil religion.” Additionally, it leads to “seclusion and hopelessness,” on the one hand, and the attempt “to find hope in secularism,” on the other. Lyon’s analysis seems to me to perfectly capture the current state of white evangelicalism.

David Mahan and Don Smedley survey the state of the evangelical mind in parachurch organizations. Both work with the Rivendell Institute at Yale University, which is part of the Consortium of Christian Study Centers. Mahan investigates “the impact of secular university-based parachurch organizations on the growth and development of evangelicalism” as well as how these organizations might impact “the future of evangelicalism and evangelical thought.” Smedley critiques aspects of Noll’s thesis in Scandaland suggests that “evangelicals move more of the focus [on forming an evangelical mind] from the public square to the pew.”

Drawing on John Henry Newman’s classic work, The Idea of a University, Timothy Larsen outlines the five foundational ideas of a university and shows how Christian schools contribute to them. His conclusion: “Not only students, but the entire academy will be better off throughout the twenty-first century if there continues to be a thriving sector of Christian liberal arts colleges embodying the best ideas offered in John Henry Newman’s classic text.”

In her chapter on seminaries, Lauren Winner argues that “the most basic thing seminaries [should] do” is “teach people to speak Christian language as the primary language through which all else is arranged and construed, and serve as a space where people practice seeing with Jesus-adapted eyes.”

Whereas Noll offered “Reflections on the Past,” James K. A. Smith forecasts “Prospects for the Future” in his chapter. Like Noll, Smith sees evangelical intellectuals making serious contributions to the life of the mind. “But now the problem: we simply have to recognize and confess how utterly disconnected all of this is from the vast majority of evangelical congregations and the networks that comprise ‘evangelicalism’ in the United States.” Smith goes on: “The chasm between the aspirations and hopes of ‘the evangelical mind’ and the habits and dispositions of the celebrity cult that is evangelicalism is no smaller now than it was in 1994. If anything, it is worse.” The solution? “We need a generation of Christian scholars who articulate a fundamental critique of evangelical assimilation [to American culture] but who nonetheless are invested in reform. You cannot be a prophet on your way out the door.”

This book will hold special interest for those who lead evangelical institutions such as churches, parachurch ministries, and graduate and undergraduate schools. Other readers will have to catch as catch can. While all the chapters in The State of the Evangelical Mind have something interesting to say, in my opinion, the essays by Noll and Smith are worth the price of the book.

Book Reviewed
Todd C. Ream, Jerry Pattengale, and Christopher J. Devers, eds., The State of the Evangelical Mind: Reflections on the Past, Prospects for the Future (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2018).

P.S. If you liked my review, please vote “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

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