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.

The World Wide Religious Web for Thursday, January 12, 2012

PERSECUTED IRANIAN CHRISTIANS: Wood personally requests release of Iranian pastors, church members.

After paying respect to the country of Iran through recognizing its prominent reference in the Bible, Wood states his letter is born out of concern for followers of Jesus who are being detained for reasons that violate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that Iran has signed. He then requests the release of Rev. Farhad Sabok Rouh; his wife, Shahnaz Jizani; and two other members of the Assembly of God in Ahvaz, Iran, who were arrested on December 23, 2011. Wood follows this request by asking for the release of Rev. Youcef Nardarkhani, who has been held since October 2009 and faces execution.

RELATED: With the Help of God They Dare… by yours truly.

HAITI, TWO YEARS LATER: God and Suffering: Remembering the Haitian Earthquake of January 2010. And you can do something to feed Haitian children by donating to Convoy of Hope.

UNANIMOUS DECISION: Church Wins Firing Case at Supreme Court.

“This is a huge win for religious liberty,” said Douglas Laycock, a University of Virginia Law School professor who represented the church at the Supreme Court’s oral arguments in October. “The Court has unanimously confirmed the right of churches to select their own ministers and religious leaders. It has unanimously held that the courts cannot inquire into whether the church had religious reasons for its decisions concerning a minister. The longstanding unanimity in the lower courts has now been confirmed by unanimity in the Supreme Court.”

See also What Comes After Hosanna-Tabor, The Administration’s Embarrassment.

IN OTHER RELIGIOUS FREEDOM NEWS: Court Deems Sharia Law Ban “Unconstitutional.”

This fight over the Oklahoma Sharia law ban isn’t over by a long shot, but this decision definitely highlights its futility. If Sharia opponents can’t name a single instance of Islamic law being used in the state courts, what exactly is the point of banning it — beyond vague and unsubstantiated fears?

THE SCANDAL OF THE EVANGELICAL MIND? Service Is Not Scandal: Responding to Mark Noll.

Instead of taking a tradition-building approach to intellectual life, I hope we evangelical scholars celebrate and deepen our current practices: teaching undergraduates, popularizing academic insights, working directly to change the world through service and applied research, and offering institutional and personal support to the small number of evangelical scholars who excel at theoretical and basic research. And along with all this, we should continue to worship and serve through our churches, provide hands-on care to our loved ones, and do good works in the world. From the vantage point of the modern academic prestige structure, this may not look like an exemplary life of the mind, but it may be one way to enjoy “the life that truly is life” (1 Tim. 6:19). In a time in which work tends to overtake life, an approach that both relishes the intellect and keeps it in its place is a pearl of great price, and we should display it readily even in settings where it is not recognized as such.

PENTECOSTALS & THE NATURALISM BIAS: Counting Christian Noses. (By the way, what’s up with the photo of snake handlers? These people aren’t representative of Pentecostals.)

Behind all the numbers collected so assiduously by Lugo, Johnson et al. looms a vast challenge to the taken-for-granted naturalism in Europe and North America: The majority of global Christians (and, needless to say, the majority of all religious people in the world) question this naturalism, and behave accordingly. Will this challenge diminish with greater affluence and higher education?  Possibly.  Thus far it doesn’t look like it. Thus it would seem that an important dialogue is still outstanding.

PROBABLY NOT, BUT IT’S STILL BAD: Presidential Politics at Its Worst?

Just because American politics has always been uncivil and negative does not mean that we have to like it. Toxic political discourse and personal attacks might help candidates win elections, but it will not solve the multitude of problems that we face as a nation.

I am growing increasingly skeptical about whether a Christian can win a national election without compromising his or her faith. Humility, charity, and a commitment to the common good will not get anyone elected in our present political culture. Yet this is precisely what our culture needs. Unfortunately, such an approach to politics would probably come across as quite foolish to most Americans, including many Christians.

YEP: Be Missional, Not Superficially Contextual.


RELIGIOUS AFFECTIONS MEETS SURPRISED BY JOY: The Case for “Sense of the Heart” Apologetics.

WHAT A DIFFERENCE A DAY 10 YEARS MAKES: Ten Years of Changing Attitudes on Gay Marriage.

DON’T TELL MY MOM: Clothing Matters: What We Wear to Church.

BUMMED I DIDN’T MAKE THE LIST: Top Ten Sermons of 2011.

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