Review: Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism

Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism
Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism by Molly Worthen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Reading Apostles of Reason was kind of like reading a family history written by someone outside the family (although I am unaware of Molly Worthen’s faith commitments). I consider “evangelicalism” to be the family with which I most closely identify, much as I would take issue with some of the expressions of some of my family members.

On the whole, I thought Worthen gave a balanced and illuminating account of American evangelicalism, spanning the period from after World War II to the present. She charted the tension between the efforts of those like Carl F H Henry to articulate an intellectually rigorous Christianity and evangelicalism’s continued commitment to biblical inerrancy. She also elaborates the varieties of expression that develop through the charismatic movement, growing tensions to confront questions of the role of women, questions of justice, and the beginnings of the political engagement of evangelicals in the 80s and 90s. She also does a good job of representing the intellectual renaissance of evangelical scholarship within public universities, one of the most promising trends of evangelical engagement. She concludes by suggesting that the tensions and diverse expressions within the evangelical movement (whatever that means in our present time) may actually be an asset enabling the movement to reach into various segments of society and balance disparate parts of this movement.

Through all this, she helps us both understand what figures and movements are trying to accomplish in their own terms while also showing the tensions, both internal and with the culture these create. The one thing I found myself wrestling with at times was a feeling that the evangelical community was being scrutinized critically while the larger cultural context it was seeking to engage was more or less “given a pass” and at times the larger culture was implied to be intellectually the superior. That may be true in some of the ivy-ed halls of academia at times but what about the banal, consumeristic, violent, and hyper-sexualized mass culture of early 21st century America? Still, to do what I propose may have meant a much longer work and I must say that I found Worthen’s portrayal of “my family” fair and well-supported.

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My Books Are Talking to Each Other!


My books are talking to each other.  Some of you suspected I was a little crazy–now you know!  Seriously, have you ever had the experience of reading a couple works that either directly, or via your own thoughts, were in a conversation with each other?

I am currently reading Rodney Stark’s Victory of Reason and Molly Worthen’s Apostles of Reason (reviews in the next couple weeks).  Stark argues that medieval Christianity in fact was responsible for the rise of universities, the scientific enterprise, European capitalism, and human rights–all before either the Reformation or the Renaissance. Stark contends that Christianity, among all the religions, has an openness to reason that is reflected in the development of doctrine over time–that belief is not etched in stone but evolves over time responding to different social situations.  This openness to reason and progress in Stark’s mind accounts for this remarkable development of civilization during the supposed “Dark” Ages.

Worthen is addressing a very different period–the post World War II period up to the present and the neo-evangelical movement led by Carl F H Henry, Billy Graham and others that sought to maintain doctrinal ties with late 19th-early 20th century fundamentalism while promoting an intellectual and social engagement with the broader American culture.  I am only part way into the book but it appears that Worthen is exploring the fault lines that develop in this movement as the tension between its view of biblical inerrancy and authority and its attempt to articulate a reasonable faith become apparent.

The interesting conversation for me is around the differing perceptions of Christianity’s engagement with reason at different points–at some times, a friend, at others, an enemy or at least a bugbear.   I’m considering several questions as I read:  is Stark’s account of faith and reason in early Christian history accurate? is Worthen’s of American neo-evangelicalism?  is there a difference in the ways Christians engage society dependent on whether authority resides in the “magisterium” or in an inerrant or trustworthy scripture personally interpreted by a priesthood of all believers? When does orthodoxy foster creative engagement with the world and when does it stifle it?

While the authors (at least as far as I’ve read) don’t engage each other, their shared discussion of authority, faith, and reason and their differing perspectives provoke hard and good thinking.  That, it seems to me, is one of the important reasons for reading good and significant books.

Years ago, Robert Hutchins of the University of Chicago and Great Books fame wrote an article (available as a free .pdf here) on The Great Conversation.  His contention is that the Great Books explore perennially great ideas and that over time, the different writers are engaged in a conversation with each other regarding these ideas.  By reading, we get to join in.

When have you found your books talking to each other?  And how have you been changed by that conversation?