Review: The State of the Evangelical Mind

The State of the Evangelical Mind, Edited by Todd C. Ream, Jerry Pattengale, and Christopher J. Devers. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018.

Summary: A collection of essays surveying the state of evangelical thought twenty five years after Mark Noll’s Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.

In 1994, Mark Noll ignited something of a firestorm of conversation, particularly among evangelicals working in academic circles, when his book Scandal of the Evangelical Mind was published. It didn’t take much past the opening line to get the conversation started: “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” It was around this time that I joined what was then Graduate Student Ministry (later Graduate and Faculty Ministry) of InterVarsity, and we saw ourselves on the vanguard of trying to change this situation in our work with those preparing for academic careers. Mark Noll even spoke for a couple of our conferences, encouraging our efforts.

This book came out nearly twenty-five years later and serves as kind of a survey of the landscape, assessing where we’ve come–or not.

Mark Noll contributes an essay to this collection recounting both the fascinating history of the Reformed Journal and noting a number of more recent developments that give him cause for encouragement, noting evangelicals in many fields publishing at academic presses, the growth of Baylor as a Christian research university, Christian study centers on many campuses, and Christian professional organizations. Sadly, though, we’ve witnessed the passing both of the Reformed Journal and Books & Culture. Noll sees silver linings in these losses.

That’s less the case with Jo Anne Lyon’s essay. Lyon, who has an exemplary career in leadership of evangelical social action and justice organizations. She traces the history of evangelical social action from Wesley to the present, citing the historic Chicago Declaration of 1973 (on which I recently wrote). She remains hopeful but believes evangelicals need to recover their narrative of being on the forefront of efforts of justice, mercy, and love, a narrative co-opted by political alliances and nationalism.

David Mahan and Don Smedley’s two part essay contend for the place of campus ministries in the recovery of an evangelical mind, and, for Smedley, a sharp critique of Noll’s approach that criticizes Scottish Common Sense philosophy and apologetic approaches to evangelical intellectual engagement. Smedley prefers the apologetic approach of J. P. Moreland that affirms the very things Noll critiques as vital for evangelical engagement.

It is hard to discuss the Christian presence in higher education without reference to John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University. Timothy Larsen contributes the requisite paper discussing Newman’s relevance to the present day university, addressing the formation of persons and not just minds, Newman’s apologetic for a liberal education when career training is a focus, and the vital role theology plays within the university.

If theology is important, what then is the role of seminaries? Lauren Winner addresses these questions focusing on the cross-shaped formation of both pastors, and of those in the pew. Winner makes the proposal that in our activist-oriented churches, it sometimes may be a win if someone thinks differently about something after worship.

James. K. A. Smith is perhaps the most explicit of the contributors to address the parlous state of evangelical churches. He contends that the independence and unconnectedness of so many of these churches ought be addressed by an embrace of the catholic character of the church, a rediscovery of cardinal doctrines offering a far more bracing vision of life than our political illusions.

Mark Galli concludes this collection with the observation of the uniquely “Jesusy” character of evangelicalism. He argues that this is what drives the uniquely evangelical presence in places like the garbage dumps of Cairo, and contends for the need to re-embrace this quality. He also recounted his own formative years in InterVarsity inductive Bible studies, and how they taught him how to read, not only scripture but other works as well.

This was my own experience at an urban university. Similar training taught me to read carefully, to pay attention to the text, to question the text. As much as any other discipline, this taught me to think Christianly, not only about scripture but about anything I read, or heard. It raises questions for me as I think about this survey of the state of the evangelical mind. Mark Galli suggests we need to be more “Jesusy” and I would agree. The embrace of the one, holy, catholic church and her historic beliefs (catholic in the sense of universal, not specifically the Roman Church) is important. But the Bible is another aspects of Bebbington’s quadrilateral. There are naive and destructive readings of the Bible, to be sure. But the careful reading of scripture, tested by the faith once received, seems foundational to me for an evangelical mind, and it concerns me that both traditional and new forms of media have increasingly been substituted for lives saturated by careful reading and thought, first about scripture and then all things.

What both this collection and my own reflections suggest is that while there are bright spots and resources, there is much work to be done. While I remain a person of hope because I believe in a God who redeems and revives, I am saddened by what seem large swaths of Christians in America who are politically captive and convictionally compromised. This may be the work of a remnant, and yet one that must never fall into an enclaved remnant mentality. It may be that such work is not one of awakening a church that may be in large parts apostate but engaging a culture in search of it knows not what, and an academy struggling with the fragmentation of increasingly specialized knowledge and the multiplication of identities. This was the work of Christians in the Middle Ages that led to the rise of the universities. It may be our work in this time.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.