Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Book Write-Up: The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind

Mark A. Noll.  The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.  Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans/Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994.

I first learned about this book at a graduate school Intervarsity meeting that I attended.  It had a guest speaker, and she was talking about faith and academia.  In the course of her talk, she mentioned Mark Noll’s book.  Someone from the audience clarified what Noll believed the “scandal of the evangelical mind” was: that there was not much of an evangelical mind.  The point here was not that evangelicals are dumb, but rather that the American evangelical sub-culture has neither done a lot of rigorous thinking nor contributed significantly to the world of academia.

I have wondered for a while whether or not I wanted to devote my time to reading this book.  I thought that it might be dated.  Not only are we now approximately twenty years after the time that Noll wrote this book, but it also seems to me that a number of evangelicals are within academia.  This is true in biblical studies, but also in the natural sciences.  I was curious about whether or not the book was still relevant.  I then read a blog by someone who had a Pentecostal background, and he attested that the book helped him immensely.  He is a young adult: he was probably a small child when Noll’s book first came out!  Yet, what Noll had to say resonated with him, due to his religious background and his longing for a Christianity that would honor God with the mind.

Noll’s book was more nuanced than I expected.  It’s not the case that evangelicalism was completely outside of academia, even when Noll wrote.  After all, Noll quotes scholarly evangelicals!  Noll acknowledges that evangelicals have participated in academic biblical studies, theology, and philosophy (though, on philosophy, Noll seems to be arguing that evangelicals are not contributing anything distinctly evangelical, but are resting on the work of other versions of Christianity, such as the Dutch Reformed, who have differences with evangelicals on such issues as the emphasis placed on conversionism).  Noll does not believe that dispensationalism is particularly rigorous intellectually, contending that it does not make a habit of interacting with other ways to interpret the Bible, and yet Noll does note that evangelicals are in biblical studies, while giving his opinion that the evangelical contribution to theology has been better than the evangelical contribution to biblical studies.

Of particular concern to Noll is the dearth of evangelical contributions to social and natural sciences.  Whereas Protestant Christianity, including the Puritans and Jonathan Edwards, reflected on how Christianity can speak to the way society should be, American evangelicalism has largely backed away from this.  It turns to end-time scenarios and conspiracism rather than thoughtful reflection about why the world is as it is, and how Christians should address it.  Noll does identify what may be changes in this current, such as the religious right and left, but he is not sure where they will lead.  On the natural sciences, Noll laments the growing influence of young-earth creationism, contrasting that with the openness to science that existed among earlier American evangelicals or fundamentalists, including such conservative Christian heroes as B.B. Warfield.  Noll is also discouraged by the lack of evangelical contributions to literature.  Noll mentions Frank Peretti’s Darkness books, but he does not appear to care for them, contending that they disregard the complexity of human nature in favor of some spiritual warfare model.  The overall problem, according to Noll, is that many American evangelicals choose not to engage the world.  More than once, Noll calls their approach “Manichean,” as if they embrace dualism in their withdrawal from the world.

To what does Noll attribute this scandal of the evangelical mind?  Well, he mentions a variety of factors.  Revivalism coincided with a zeal that did not exactly promote the life of the mind.  Noll also appears to believe that American Christians hastily adopted democracy and capitalism without a whole lot of reflection, as a way to fill the void in American society after America seceded from the British empire.  The Scottish Enlightenment’s influence on the United States also played a role, according to Noll, and it seems to me that the role was two-fold.  First, by emphasizing knowledge through intuition more than Scripture, the Scottish Enlightenment was contributing to forces against which many American evangelicals would rebel, leading them to retreat from the world and wait for Christ’s Second Coming.  Second, the Scottish Enlightenment’s emphasis on intuition of self-evident truths would still impact American evangelicals in that it would discourage them from rigorously trying to figure the truth out: after all, they intuited it!  This is my understanding of Noll’s beliefs about the historical significance of the Scottish Enlightenment, and I am open to correction on this.  I should also note that, on some level, Noll has problems with American evangelical Baconianism: its modernist attempts to pick out truths in the Scripture to convey absolute truth about the world.  For Noll, such an approach disregards the historically conditioned nature of both the interpreter and the texts that are being interpreted.

For Noll, a way out of the scandal is to exalt Jesus Christ: to recognize that Jesus Christ did not forsake the world but became incarnate and died for it.  Therefore, Christians should be interested in the world and what goes on in it.  Noll also promotes a Christocentric approach to Scripture, thinking that this would discourage the prophetic speculation in which dispensationalists engage.

In my opinion, Noll was probably on to something.  Yet, I have reservations.  First, I do not think that Noll was entirely fair, for, while I can see Noll’s point that young-earth creationism in focusing on the Flood resonated with dispensationalists who believed in a coming catastrophe, I do believe that young-earth creationists can appreciate nature, which is a far cry from rejecting the world around them.  Second, I question whether a Christocentric approach to Scripture is beneficial to the life of the mind.  It strikes me as reductionist, and I believe that it could ignore the complexity and original contexts of the Hebrew Bible’s writings.  While I do believe that dispensationalism is a rather flat approach to Scripture, I wonder if it can have insights that could encourage the life of the mind in terms of biblical interpretation.  Noll notes a dispensationalist belief that Scripture serves not just to foreshadow Jesus but to glorify God, and perhaps this is how it seeks theological significance in the various ways that it believes God has dealt with humanity.  Maybe such an insight can be reconciled with attempting to theologically deal with the diversity and historically-conditioned nature of Scripture.  Third, while I admit that many dispensationalist views on current events are simplistic and us vs. them, I believe that they should be engaged within intellectual dialogue.  Rather than dismissing conspiracy theories about the UN or knee-jerk Zionism, engage them, as much as you can (assuming the dispensationalists want a dialogue, which may not always be the case).

I do not know what Noll currently believes, but I wonder: Are things better now than they were when Noll first wrote the book?  I would say “yes,” in areas.  Biologos is an evangelical attempt to address and interact with science.  While I would not label evangelical fiction as “literature,” I do believe that, on some level, it acknowledges the complexity of human beings.  There are more evangelicals who are politically progressive.  And yet, many of the phenomena that Noll criticizes still remain, and that is probably why the book continues to resonate with certain people.

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