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.

Review: Public Intellectuals and the Common Good

Public Intellectuals and the Common, Edited by Todd C. Ream, Jerry Pattengale, and Christopher J. Devers. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021.

Summary: A collection of presentations defining, articulating the need for and practice of Christian public intellectual work that pursues the wider good.

Public intellectuals? We don’t have any of them around here. That seems the verdict of many who struggle to name a good example of a Christian public intellectual since the time of Reinhold Niebuhr or Martin Luther King, Jr. George M. Marsden discusses this sense in the foreword to this volume and contends that the size of the audience isn’t the only criterion for a being a public intellectual. What is critical for Christians is that they do this, reflecting not only excellence of thought but also the sacrificial work of Christ in love for those who may differ for this.

In their introduction the editors identify the challenges for evangelicals in considering public intellectual work. Do we see ourselves as our brothers’ keepers? We are both politically divided and as an evangelical movement, fragmented and amorphous. We’ve been distracted from the hard work of excellent scholarship and so our engagement is often mediocre, with some exceptions. We’ve not created the mechanisms of rigorous critique to develop better ideas common in the public environment. And they introduce us to a Catholic scholar of the last century who exemplified loving excellence for the common good, Jacques Maritain.

The contributors of this volume (originally conference presentations) lay the groundwork for a vision of public intellectual work for the common good. The first two essays are theological reflections. Miroslav Volf articulates the need for and character of the public intellectual, pointing us back to Sarah and Abraham through whom “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Of any essayist he articulates most clearly the challenge of public intellectual work in the time of disorienting change:

“To negotiate all these changes, we need at least three things: (1) to understand the seemingly chaotic world around us; (2) to discern, articulate, and commend visions of the good, flourishing life in diverse and largely pluralistic settings, and (3) to find navigable paths to reach together the goals aligned with those visions.

Amo Yong turns us to the apostles and emphasizes both the discursive and performative acts of their ministry and the essential element of the work of the Spirit. He contends that theologians as public intellectuals should not jettison their theological insights but be resolutely theological in their speech and activities, even as they recognize their pluralistic setting.

The second part includes messages from those in the marketplace. Linda A. Livingstone, president of Baylor University, insists on the importance of presidents of Christian institutions leading in public intellectual work within their institutions as well as facilitating that work among faculty. Heather Templeton Dill, president of the John Templeton Foundation, considers three of their Templeton Prize winners as exemplars of public intellectuals working for the common good, King Abdullah II of Jordan, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, and Professor Alvin Plantinga. All three are unapologetic adherents of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity respectively. Yet all three are characterized by humility that builds bridges to other faith leaders and scholars who differ with them, exemplifying what John Inazu calls “confident pluralism.” Katelyn Beaty, a former editor at Christianity Today, closes out this section describing the role of journalists in a post-truth era, offering her own example in covering the fall of Bill Hybels, and how Willow Creek addressed allegations against him.

The last section consists of two reflections. One, by Emmanual Katangole, describes his personal transformation when he worked with Chris Rice at the Center for Reconciliation, moving from theoretical work to public engagement around racial reconciliation. Then the concluding presentation is an interview with John Perkins and the centrality of his relationship with Christ to all his reconciliation and community development work.

I traced several themes running through these essays. One is that public intellectual work by Christians must always be grounded in Christian piety and conviction that refuses to mute this in public engagement. Second is the vital character of moral and intellectual excellence rooted in Christian humility. Third is that public intellectuals offer and embody sense and clarity in our divided and fragmented world rather than perpetuating the confusion. Finally, their work is moved neither by animus nor fear but by love that seeks the flourishing of all human beings, and not just the ones in agreement with you.

I appreciated the mix of presenters from academia and the public realm–emphasizing the work of philanthropy, journalism, and community development in particular. This is not a “how to” book but in it we encounter both theory and exemplars. Perhaps the most helpful word is from George Marsden at the beginning: this is not work for a select few, but one for all Christians who recognize the vital role of the life of the mind to bring greater clarity to our disorienting times, to the end of the good of our neighbors–all of them. In this collection, the editors combine vision, urgency, and hope for this noble and much needed work.

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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.