Getting Public Intellectuals Out of the Ivory Tower


Who Are These People?

This week The Chronicle of Higher Education ran an article on “The New Intellectuals” (premium content that may be unavailable) that contended that the academic jobs crisis may be a boon for the growing of a new group of young public intellectuals. What was curious to me is that for most, their primary means of expression was in literary journals, concerned with progressive issues.

What occurred to me is that most outside the humanities probably don’t know the names of any of these people and probably have not heard of the journals for which they write. Most of the journals had subscription bases of 5,000 to 10,000 (or less). What all this suggests is that these “public” intellectuals are only talking to a select group, probably an “echo chamber” of their views.

I think there is a similar phenomenon in intellectual Christian circles. On the one hand, it is encouraging that there is a vibrant group of thoughtful Christians seeking to think Christianly about contemporary society and writing articles and thoughtful books (some of which I’ve reviewed here). Once again, my sense is that with rare exception, particularly with some of those covering religion for major news media, most of these people are writing in journals with circulations under 10,000 subscribers (Books & Culture, which recently published its final print issue never had more than about 11,000 subscribers).

There are a few exceptions, yet I suspect many in the wider American public, let alone the Christian community have precious little knowledge of these folk. I am thinking, for example of Alan Jacobs, who recently wrote an article in Harpers asking what became of Christian intellectuals. There are others, like Marilynne Robinson, whose work was heralded by President Obama. Russell Moore from the Southern Baptists has had articles in major news media. Yet I wonder how many in either our churches or the general public would recognize other influential thinkers and writers like Nick Wolterstorff, Yale philosopher, or Miroslav Volf, a Yale theologian, or Makoto Fujimura, artist and writer, or English professor and film critic Alissa Wilkinson, to name a few?

You might ask, why does it matter? Most of us seem to be getting along without knowing who these people (or other Christian thinkers and writers) are. Or are we? There are many charges currently being leveled at white evangelicalism for its political captivity to one political party, and the implications this has for a loss of credibility among youth, ethnic minorities, and the wider culture. While I think further analysis is going to reveal a more complicated picture, what is troubling to me is the lack of a theological and intellectual framework in most of our churches that speaks into both parties and into our national (and local) life, as some like Russell Moore, Robbie George, Richard Mouw, Thabiti Anyabwile and others have sought and continue to seek to do.

Why aren’t we listening to people like these? I suspect it is because most of them have never appeared either on PBS or Fox. Many of us do give time to various media streams, but many do not choose to include thoughtful sources from the Christian community. I would suggest beginning with sources like Englewood Review of Books, Christianity Today, or First Things. 

I also wonder about the role of local congregations in our lives. At one time, pastors were considered a kind of public theologian or public intellectual. They fused biblical and cultural exegesis with a knowledge of their people with the aim that their people “be not conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of their minds” (Romans 12:2). I can’t help but think that pastors and other teachers in our congregations can do a huge job of bridging the gap between those serving the people of God as public intellectuals on a national scene and the people in our seats. Tools as simple as a Facebook page, a Twitter feed, or a podcast may provide a vehicle for posting articles augmenting weekly teaching in the church that provide a thoughtful Christian perspective–a third way of thinking transcending the polarized conversations in our culture. Inviting church leadership to read and discuss one or two stretching books (chosen carefully) can enrich the perspectives leaders bring to congregational mission.

It has always been vital for Christians to understand their times and how they should live. We need to give more thought as to who or what is shaping that understanding. In my own tradition, the scriptures illumined by the Spirit of God are paramount, personally reflected upon, and taught, studied and lived in our communities. I consider Christian thinkers as simply part of the “cloud of witnesses” who amplify and enrich the understanding being shaped in each of our communities, who also bring us into a broader conversation, set apart from the many other media voices clamoring for our attention.

*Left to right: Alissa Wilkinson, Makoto Fujimura, Miroslav Volf, and Nicholas Wolterstorff, all mentioned in paragraph 4 of this post.

[Tomorrow, I will continue on this theme, reflecting on the “formation” of a Christian public intellectual.]

2 thoughts on “Getting Public Intellectuals Out of the Ivory Tower

  1. Excellent essay here Bob and much needed. I read stuff by all your examples, but only Alissa Wilkinson has broken into the larger secular marketplace of publications beyond the small circles of Christian publications and groups, and that only recently.

    You might want to interview her about the process by which she made this happen.

    Liked by 1 person

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