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.

Review: Campus Life

campus life

Campus Life: In Search of CommunityEdited by Drew W. Moser and Todd C. Ream, Foreword by David Brooks. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: An expanded version of a 1990 Carnegie Foundation report on the basis for community on college campuses, with contributions from pairs of academic and student development leaders at six Christian universities.

Ernest Boyer, from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, published several important reports roughly thirty years ago on higher education. Perhaps one of the most profound of these that expressed a concern for the soul of the American university was Campus Life: In Search of Community. Out of his research findings he elaborated six principles that characterize flourishing learning communities on campus:

  1. Purposeful community: where students are intellectually engaged and where academic and co-curricular aspects are integrated.
  2. Open community: a place where freedom of thought and expression coupled with an awareness of the power of words to heal or hurt, a “sacred trust.”
  3. A just community: where dignity, equality, and equity are affirmed and practiced in bridging widening gaps between rich and poor.
  4. A disciplined community: where university governance protects the common good. Boyer advocated for clear codes of conduct developed by the community.
  5. A caring community: places where every student is supported, and where there is opportunity for engagement across generations.
  6. A celebrative community: a place held together by more than complaints about food or parking, but by remembering and celebrating traditions, including the traditions and contributions of its diverse student population.

Many of us who work around universities would concur that this still serves as an outstanding vision for and description of healthy university communities, and an agenda worth pursuing by all those who are stakeholders in an academic community. Thankfully, we don’t have to search online or in libraries for copies of this report. It has now been reprinted as part of an updated and expanded version, directed particularly for those working in the Christian college context but relevant as well, for both student life and academic professionals more widely.

The update includes six chapters, each co-written by a student life and an academic leader from the same Christian college. These parallel Boyer’s six principles, updated and contextualized to Christian colleges, and framed by a prologue by the editors on the search for renewal, and an epilogue, describing the challenging work of walking the “narrow ridge” of Christian calling and academic excellence.

A few standout ideas:

  • In the chapter on “open community” the tension of academic freedom and Christian orthodoxy was acknowledge. The writers proposed a distinction between “core beliefs that the college affirms and must be shared by educators and “privileged beliefs” affirmed by the college, but on which educators may disagree while being supportive of the college. They also acknowledge neutral beliefs on which the college has no stance. It would seem that clarity on which is which prior to faculty hiring is key.
  • Under “just community” the writers talked about the importance in seeking diverse, multicultural communities that this cannot be an instance of “you are welcome, but don’t move the furniture.”
  • The chapter on “caring community” had what I thought a helpful discussion of faculty and staff awareness of student health, and a constructive section on what happens when uncaring moments occur on campus.
  • On “celebrative  community,” there was encouragement both to learn from institutional history and tradition, and to developing celebrations that reflect the current student body.

So why is David Brooks, The New York Times columnist writing a foreword for this book? In addition to affirming the communal values outlined in Boyer’s original report and their elaboration by these higher education leaders, Brooks believes Christian colleges uniquely help students flourish in the committed life. He comments:

“When I go to Christian colleges, the students there strike me as especially adept at making commitments–sometimes too adept; they want to make all their commitments by age twenty-two. But they know how to commit, and they’ve been taught how to think about commitments” (p. xii).

This contrasts with the “expressive individualism” Brooks observes in the wider culture and he attributes the difference to the formative communities he sees at Christian campuses where he has spoken.

Whether one accepts the Christian premises of the contributors in this expanded edition, Boyer’s six principles of community remain a challenge for all higher educators. These principles also provide a bridge for Christians working in public higher education to connect with what may be shared aspirations among student life and academic leaders. When Christians affirm purposeful and integrated learning, open and civil engagement, commitments to justice and equity in the university, to a disciplined yet caring community, and to sharing in and contributing to the celebrations of university life, they not only contribute to the communal health of their institutions, but they bear witness to the Christian distinctives that have helped shape flourishing institutions throughout history.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Restoring the Soul of the University

restoring the soul

Restoring the Soul of the UniversityPerry L. Glanzer, Nathan F. Alleman and Todd C. Ream. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017.

Summary: Traces the history of the fragmentation of the modern university including its loss of soul, the impacts that this has on various facets of university of life, and the role theology can have in restoring that soul and healing that fragmentation.

One of the clearest conclusions in reading contemporary literature and analysis of higher education is that there is no clear idea of what a university is for. Or rather, there are multiple contested ideas from educating for citizenship, to provide the skills needed to work in today’s knowledge economy, to serving as a critical adjunct to that economy by working alongside government and industry to tailor curriculum to aid economic growth. Then there are the rare individuals who still insist that universities have something to do with helping young men and women explore life’s larger issues, life’s meaning and purpose, helping them live into what it means to be fully human and part of the human community.

The authors of this work, following Chancellor Clark Kerr’s description of the multiversity, propose that all of this is indicative of an institution that has lost its soul, that there is no shared animating purpose, no story that frames its sense of mission and its values. All the different constituencies that are competing to shape the university have fragmented and there is nothing to mediate between these fragmented identities.

The book consists of three parts. The first part traces the history of the university from its beginnings with Hugh of St. Victor and the University of Paris. The vision began with a vision of the academic castle with theology preeminent over the disciplines, in which learning occurred through both meditation upon and disputation around authoritative texts. Unfortunately, making theology preeminent tended to isolate theology from engagement with the other disciplines. This flaw widened as theology and philosophy became separate disciplines, increasingly not in conversation with each other. Then in the late 18th through the 19th centuries, European universities were increasingly controlled not by church, but by government. The beginnings of American universities seemed to hark back to the early vision. But after the Civil War, the European ideal of the research university and the rise of science took over. From a set curriculum, the elective plan proposed by Charles Eliot turned the university into an academic buffet of courses rather than a common curriculum. Universities became simply a collection of departments competing for students attentions leading to the secular multiversity of the present.

Part two explores the impacts of this fragmentation. First of all is the fragmentation of the life of a professor, torn between teaching, research, publishing pressures, and service, between one’s institution, and one’s subdiscipline. With no common story to give curricular coherence, curriculum increasingly is defined by majors with general requirements a faint echo of a once common curriculum. The competition for students leads to a rise of student services outside the purview of the faculty and a tension between curricular and co-curricular life. The growing size of universities, the expansion and sophistication of services, and government requirements add a new group of people to the mix, administrators. Lacking a significant narrative to bind the university together, athletics, and particularly football at many institutions serves as the multiversity’s new religion. The rise of new technologies and entrepreneurial figures has resulted in new delivery systems in online and for-profit education, challenging traditional models.

The last part of this work re-imagines what a university, particularly a Christian university, might look like if theology was granted a central and formative role in the life of the university. To begin with this assumes a willingness of theologians to open up their conversation to other academics and for academics in the other disciplines to be open to explore theological implications for the paradigms and practices of their disciplines. It means not penalizing theologians whose academic work reflects this interdisciplinary engagement rather than narrowly focus in their own theological sub-disciplines. Their vision goes far beyond a virtuous veneer to the standard practices of teaching, research and service. They write:

“Although we agree with the importance of practicing virtue in the academic calling, we contend that any approach to integrating virtue must not prioritize teaching over scholarship or service but should instead prioritize the role of the triune God and God’s theological story in defining, directing, and empowering the virtues that sustain excellence in these practices and help promote flourishing academic communities. We doubt broadly defined virtues on which we all agree can sufficiently reorient the academic vocation. After all, professors need a compelling identity and story that will motivate them to acquire certain virtues. Instead, Christians must think about virtues such as faith, hope, and love as well as other fruits of the Spirit, in the light of a theological narrative and realities that usually do not enter standard secular reasoning” (pp. 245-246).

The authors then explore how this reconsideration of theological narrative and reality shape academic disciplines, co-curricular life and academic leadership. The authors’ vision is that it may be possible, at least within Christian universities to recover the “soul” of the university in understanding how the Christian story informs all of life in the university.

In assessing this work, one must first acknowledge the valuable work the authors have done both in summarizing the history of the university, helping us understand how we have reached our present place, and the shape (or shapelessness) of the fragmentation that is the defining realities of our present-day universities, Christian, private, or public. They give us a valuable survey, which some will dispute in detail, but in broad outlines does much to inform someone wanting to understand higher education today.

For those working in the Christian college and university setting, what the authors assert should not be cause for much controversy, in principle. In fact, the forces that have shaped these schools as mirror images of the secular university are not insubstantial–whether we are talking about the shape of the theological guild, the disciplines, athletics (as the authors, two of whom are Baylor faculty well know), and the rising co-curricular bureaucracy. There is a need for a combination of humility and vision shared by university faculty and leaders from these various sectors if this is ever to have a chance of being realized. Perhaps it might grow from “test plots” where people with a larger vision come together.

What hope is there for secular, public universities? I cannot visualize an institutional transformation that “Christianizes” such places. But might it first of all be helpful for Christians within these “academic villages,” whether students, faculty, staff, or administrations to begin to think more rigorously about how the narrative of their faith ought to shape their daily life and presence in this place? Might there be significant value in private and, when appropriate, public conversations that reflect how theology might inform and enrich our inquiry and practice in every dimension of life? Might students, trying to connect the various “reality bites” of their lives find in the Christian story, the “liberating arts” (in the authors words) that bring coherence to both their studies and their lives? Might this collaboration of students, faculty, theologians, and ministry leaders cultivate a counter-cultural, lived story that in proximate ways witnesses to “the restored soul” that is the mark of the Christian story?

I cannot guess what difference this might lead to with these institutions. But Christians in these places must consider what story will shape how they live. The paucity or richness of the theological narrative that shapes these lives will determine whether they will be fragmented or will flourish. The case these writers make is one all of us working around the world of higher education will do well to heed.