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.

“Popularizer” is a Dirty Word.

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C. S. Lewis, Public Domain via Flickr

If you are an academic, one of the worst things you can be called is a “popularizer.” It means you are not a serious scholar, even if you have published serious scholarly work.

This came up in Donna Freitas newly published Consent on Campus. She urges her colleagues to engage students in classes about questions about sexual ethics as it relates to course content. But she observes that academics are their own worst enemies. Faculty who refuse to remain detached but talk about the personal and real-life implications of their scholarship run the risk of criticism from colleagues as “popularizers.”

This is not a new problem. It was one that faced one of the most significant writers and Christian apologists of the twentieth century, C. S. Lewis. Lewis graduated with a triple first and published landmark works on Paradise LostThe Allegory of Love, and The Discarded Image. Yet he never progressed beyond the rank of Fellow and Tutor at Magdalen College, Oxford. Only late in life, in 1954, was he awarded the Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge.

Why? He was a popularizer. His radio addresses during World War II made “mere Christianity” understandable to ordinary listeners. He addressed pressing issues that were barriers to Christian belief in clear and carefully argued best-selling books. He wrote creative science fiction. Perhaps his worst offense was writing children’s stories.

A continued source of longing I’ve encountered among thoughtful Christians is for the rise of another C. S. Lewis. What if the real issue is not intellectual brilliance or theological knowledge or spiritual devotion, but a willingness to descend from the ivory tower and risk being called a popularizer and judged as less than a serious scholar? What if the real issue is a willingness to risk career success?

I’m not sure how to distinguish a public intellectual from a popularizer. I suspect these may be positive and negative labels for the same person. It does assume someone whose public work is marked by intellect, serious thought translated into terms any thoughtful person may grasp. Such people are not limited to the academy, but the rigor of their training and credentials, and their regular practice of teaching students do qualify them for this work.

I wonder if it comes down to conviction and courage. For such persons might “popularizer,” “associate professor,” and “not serious” become badges of honor? I suspect it is not right to set out to be the next C.S. Lewis. But I suspect it will not come to pass unless a person accepts these badges.

The Formation of Public Intellectuals

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Jacques Barzun — A Public Intellectual (Painting by E.R. Morse, Public Domain)

I wrote yesterday about the question of how we get the “public” into “public intellectuals” and particularly the role such persons might have in the Christian faith community. But this begs the question of how does one become a “public intellectual”?

My short answer to this is that rather than one seeking such a role, I suspect many who begin to exercise this kind of influence would say the role has sought them as they have sought to exercise their gifts and sense of calling with diligence. That said, my own sense is that Christians who exercise this particular influence have life experiences that have formed and cultivated certain inherent qualities and gifts.

Formation of character: The danger of a role with the term “intellectual” in it is that it is possible to be smart and yet not wise. Intellectual gifts may be used in divisive or hurtful ways or in ways that foster insight, spiritual growth and human flourishing. Proverbs says that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” A healthy sense that one’s words and actions are carried out before One with whom we will reckon seems a vital requisite for the Christian public intellectual. Likewise, I would hope for someone who values all persons as made in the image of God, leading to the respect of anyone engaged, even the intellectual opponent. And lastly, though this is not sought, people who have experienced pain and failure, and have been formed redemptively through these experiences may be safeguarded from intellectual hubris and arrogance. Abraham Lincoln stands out to me as an example of such a person.

Formation of the intellect: Sheer intellectual gifts are not enough without intellectual discipline. C.S. Lewis writes about “the Great Knock”, his tutor W. T. Kirkpatrick, who forced him to reason rigorously and clearly. Public intellectuals are not dilettantes but careful thinkers as well as reflective cultural observers who appeal to us, not by sentiment or emotional appeal but through disciplined thought clearly expressed. Training in logic, the history of ideas, as well as one’s disciplinary focus are all important. Hand in hand with this goes intellectual curiosity. Jacques Barzun, pictured above, found baseball and classical music, as well as cultural history and educational philosophy of great interest. I think this curiosity extends to people as well, understanding what they think and the sources of their passion for life. And it probably goes without saying, but most of these people are insatiable readers!

Theological formation: Hand in hand with character and intellectual formation is the cultivation by the Christian intellectual of a profound, deeply embedded, and personally embraced understanding of the Christian faith. The idea is a faith that has become a way of seeing the world that brings unique perspectives and unique questions to any topic of conversation. The Christian public intellectual does not apply their understanding of the faith as a veneer over the general knowledge of a topic, trying to “Christianize” it, but rather understands any question within the framework of God’s purposes and ways in the world–whether we are talking about music, or educational philosophy, or community development, or emerging technologies.

Communication skills: Any public intellectual not only thinks about matters of public concern. They also express themselves publicly–through writing, through teaching, through public addresses and public conversations. They know not only how to make an argument but how to communicate in terms their particular audience will grasp. They can adapt communication to the occasion, from the rigor of an academic journal, to an informal pub conversation, to an op-ed, to a public dialogue. In this age, this probably includes the media savvy to communicate in various online fora.

In some sense, one never stops developing these requisite qualities and skills. Most will never become “Christian public intellectuals” on a national or international scale. It may be, as I discussed yesterday, that the local pastor who exercises this ministry within his or her parish, both within the church and in the broader community, may be doing the most important work. Likewise this applies to the local academic, the local journalist, the local business leader, doctor, or lawyer. Public intellectuals arise from all these professions–consider for example the role a person like Bill Gates exercises in global conversations, and the influence he and Mark Zuckerberg and even Oprah have when they share book recommendations.

How do people rise to prominence? There seems to be a philosophy today of “building one’s platform” on social media. I wonder if, while this may be a part of the equation, whether a more important piece is simply devoting oneself to the excellent exercise of one’s gifts in producing good work. With that comes the crucial requisite of engaging others in various public fora around that work, from town councils to academic symposia to publications in newspapers, magazines and journals. There is something of mystery why some gain increasingly large audiences who recognize the worth of their work. Sometimes, it seems simply a fortuitous convergence of opportunities. Sometimes, it is clearly the result of long and excellent hard work. What one hopes is that this never goes to one’s head, that one simply pursues this calling with a sense of amazement wondering, “why would anyone listen to what I say?” and even more amazement when that proves helpful to another human being or constructive in advancing the public good.

Getting Public Intellectuals Out of the Ivory Tower

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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.]

To Change the World

This is the title of a book I am reading by James Davison Hunter (written in 2010) that I will  post a full review on in the next week. But the title and some of his introductory material caught me up short. “Changing the world” is rhetoric I’ve lived with one way or another since my high school days. Hunter talks about this language and how many causes use this language in their rhetoric. I really cringed then waiting for him to cite the organization I work with which has in its vision statement “world-changers developed”. Thankfully, he didn’t, but he definitely caught my attention.

to change the world

What Hunter is exploring in this book is how culture changes and he says some challenging things that I am chewing on as I read the book and await the conclusion of his argument. He believes that the approaches  taken by many groups are misguided because they focus on individual change–either in ideas or practices–change the individual and you can change the world sort of stuff.

He makes a series of assertions (eleven in all) at the beginning of the book about culture change that challenge this idea. I won’t list all of them but here are several that caught my attention:

Proposition Five: Cultural production and symbolic capital are stratified in a fairly rigid structure of “center’ and “periphery”.  For example, a publication from Oxford University Press, even if it sells 1000 copies has far more “capital” than a publication from Zondervan that sells 100,000.

Proposition Six: Culture is generated within networks. He argues against the “great man” theory of culture change and suggests that relationally dense networks, especially interlocking networks among elites bring about culture change. Wilberforce is an example, working within a network of politicians, industrialists, ministers, and social activists at the top of British social hierarchy to abolish slavery.

Proposition Ten: World-changing is most concentrated when the networks of elites and the institutions they lead overlap. One of the implications of this is such overlapping networks take time to form. We often want change and we want it now, or in the next three to five years. Yet it may take thirty years of patient work of a network of people to effect such change.

Hunter, speaking of, and implicitly to, contemporary Christian efforts of various stripes believes that most of these have occurred outside the cultural centers of influence, and have been oblivious to how elite networks actually shape culture. This reminded me of a discussion of the question of who were the public intellectuals who represented Christian faith in the world of higher education and in the wider culture. We discussed what qualities we might look for in such people. Here were my thoughts:

  • A fundamental belief in and commitment to faith in the public square and Spirit-given passion and courage for this work.
  • Credentials that give credibility. 
  • This has to be supplemented with quality work in their field of endeavor whether it be science, technology, the arts or public policy.
  • A broad fluency in the wider world of knowledge in areas of science, economics, sociology, technology, and more. I don’t think someone can be a public intellectual without being a voracious and omnivorous reader!
  • Articulateness in the idioms of the culture evident in written, oral, (and in many settings) social media settings. They must be able to speak to without speaking down to thoughtful non-academics.
  • Theological acuity that can translate the great truths of redemptive history and the kingdom of God into the political, cultural, social realities.
  • Cross-cultural competence that consists both in a growing cultural self-awareness, and a growing engagement with the cultural diversity in one’s own country and the wider world community. (I think this last is vital in transcending the political punditry that passes for much “public intellectual” work in my own country.
  • For someone who exercises this role at a national level, it involves those whose presence is regularly welcomed in our national media, both more popular and more serious. In the US this can range from Times op-eds and magazine articles in The Atlantic to visual media such as The Charlie Rose Show for serious conversation and Colbert  for more popular influence (I think of N.T. Wright’s interviews on this last outlet).

What is striking as I look at the list is that the one example of a person who I think might qualify is from Great Britain. It is troubling that for most thoughtful American Christians, their only other candidate might be C.S. Lewis, and he has been dead fifty years and is also British!

A word at this point might be in order about the “Christian” framing of this discussion, particularly for those who don’t identify as such. Any thoughtful and moral person wants the world to be a better place and cares about human flourishing. In a pluralistic context such as ours, what this looks like will certainly be contested and negotiated and all of us will pursue the flourishing of people and society according to our own lights. Often Christian efforts have been pre-emptive on the political fringe  rather than participative with others in the culture-shaping centers of our society. As Mark Noll argued a number of years back in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, we simply haven’t done the intellectual and professional work necessary to enter the public discourse. In other words, I am not proposing some effort to “Christianize” society but simply that we not settle for short cuts to avoid the hard work of joining others in seeking social and cultural goods.

As I reflect on Hunter’s book and my list, it seems at least two conclusions are apparent. One is the need for scientists, artists and those who work in business, law, and public policy and other disciplines who will give themselves to faithful excellence in their work and who skillfully use whatever platforms they have to exercise influence toward “the good society” (whatever that is, which is a challenging question for “world-changers”). As I noted earlier, this is not something that happens overnight but over a lifetime. Faithful excellence often leads to greater and greater spheres of influence.

The second conclusion for me was the vital importance of cultivating cross-professional networks of like minded people who engage with each other and and develop their influence in the wider culture. We often think individually when we need to think “network”. I think an effort promoted by my own organization called the Emerging Scholars Network a good beginning for those who work in academia. Equally, I think it important to develop skill and facility in sharing one’s work and ideas in appropriate networks outside the faith community, not in an adversarial sense but in the sense of “what am I missing and how could this be better” which is good intellectual discourse at its best.

In that spirit, I would love to interact more with others who think about this “world-changing” stuff to know what you think of these ideas, what’s missing, and what could be better. And if you’ve gotten this far, thanks for reading a longer-than-usual post from me.