A Cordial Rebuttal to Owen Strachan’s “Is Mark Noll Right? Is There No Evangelical Mind?”
Last night one of my friends, Alan Noble, who’s a PhD student with my wife at Baylor and also a regular contributor over at Christ and Pop Culture, tagged me in a link. It was to a Patheos post by Dr. Owen Strachan entitled “Is Mark Noll Right? Is There No Evangelical Mind?” This post is my cordial rebuttal. Before proceeding, however, Herbert Butterfield once wrote, “[T]he blindest of all blind are those who are unable to examine their own presuppositions, and blithely imagine therefore that they do not possess any.” Hoping to avoid that kind of myopic ignorance, not to mention uncharitable spirit, I want to be upfront about my perspective.
A college professor recommended I read Noll’s book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, in 2006. Unbeknownst to her I was in the midst of a profound spiritual crisis in which I’d secretly decided to abandon my faith. Having grown up among Christians who downplayed, dismissed, and denigrated the life of the mind as innately antithetical to faith,11.Noll identifies four distinct historical developments that are responsible for the scandal of the evangelical mind: Premillennial Dispensationalism, the Higher Life Movement, Pentecostalism, and fundamentalism. No wonder I was so screwed up. My church background was batting 1.000! I’d made my decision. For me intellectual honesty and the pursuit of truth was more important than devout belief and the pursuit of God. Noll’s book taught me that these two weren’t merely compatible, but for a Christian should be one and the same. This not only saved and transformed my faith, it gave me a sense of purpose. My life goal became to help Christians learn to worship God with their minds as part of a holistic faith.
It goes deeper. The Scandal is my favorite book and Mark Noll is my favorite author. I’ve even got a t-shirt that reads, “Mark Noll is my homeboy” above his curmudgeon portrait.22.Its double purpose is to serve as a satirical commentary on the “Jesus is my homeboy” t-shirt and adjoining evangelical culture as well as raise Mark Noll awareness. That being said, I’m not one for defensive posturing. Yeah, I’m an unabashed Noll fanboy, but that doesn’t mean I’m uncritical. For example, that aforementioned professor, concerned I was becoming too favorable toward Noll, once asked where I disagreed with him. I think she was trying to prove a point, but I quickly produced a fairly extensive list. My point? My perspective here is as a Noll supporter who’s more than familiar with his work, but my point isn’t to jump down Dr. Strachan’s throat. Kapeesh?
Without further adieu, here’s my eight points of cordial rebuttal:
- Dr. Strachan stumbles right out of the gate. His post is entitled, “Is Mark Noll Right? Is There No Evangelical Mind?” Noll never wrote that there’s no evangelical mind. That’s an inaccurate misrepresentation. The book’s very first sentence reads, “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” Key words: not much of an evangelical mind. They may seem virtually synonymous, but those assertions are not equivalent. Noll’s word choice exemplifies the exact sort of careful, nuanced thinking he commends and encourages throughout the work. It’s meta like that. To misrepresent him there is then to miss the point entirely.33.Even if it’s just well-intentioned shorthand.
- I could be wrong, but Dr. Strachan seems to think The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind was too critical whereas its sequel, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind, was more “edifying.” This raises a question of what it means to be edifying. The dictionary.com definition is “to instruct or benefit, especially morally or spiritually.” In my opinion, we too often haphazardly equate edify with positive and criticize with negative. It’s not that simple. As Noll wrote in the preface, the original work was “an epistle of a wounded love.”44.That is, the insights and reflections of one who loves both Christ and the life of the mind. Check out its fruit. The book has been profoundly edifying not just in my own life but in its tangible influence upon the larger evangelical culture.
- Dr. Strachan doesn’t seem to recognize that Noll’s book is almost two decades old. It was published in 1994. For example, Dr. Strachan mentions Baylor prominently, which is ironic.55.He writes, “But I think he does not go far enough, and indeed I think there is more to be said. It’s true that we have no ‘evangelical Harvard,’ no super-elite liberal arts college… or high tier one research university (Baylor comes closest). But I think Noll might miss something in positing such an exacting standard of scholarly achievement. Evangelicals, over the last 50-60 years, have succeeded in improving many of their schools.” In the early- to mid-’90s Baylor was essentially a sleepy-eyed university drifting toward secularism. It was and continues to be contested, but the Baylor 2012 vision transformed the institution. And that vision was largely and explicitly inspired by The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. To my mind it’s inconsistent to assert that Noll didn’t give evangelical educational institutions enough credit for their improvement, but then cite as his chief example of a quality evangelical university the very place that was inspired by Noll’s criticism and exhortation.66.That being said, I don’t think Dr. Strachan’s criticism is wholly off. While Noll was right that in 1994 there was no evangelical equivalent to a Notre Dame or a BYU, evangelical colleges and universities were already making significant strides forward. It’s a good and helpful nuance. That’s anachronistic nonsense.
- Dr. Strachan seeks to defend the fundamentalists of the early 20th century while commending them for upholding the faith. Here my mind goes in three different directions. First, Noll is a historian. He often likes to quip, “Philosophers rush forth where angels fear to tread.” His book isn’t an apologetic.77.In fact, I’ve repeatedly read Noll elsewhere offer a balanced commendation and criticism of those same fundamentalist figures for their labors. Second, Dr. Strachan is trying to create nuance where Noll already did. One of the major themes of the book is this paradox that the very things that allowed Christianity to flourish in the United States as opposed to its European self-destruction are the very things that were disastrous for the life of the mind. Third, as for my own perspective, while I can appreciate that those early fundamentalists were doing what they thought was their best against the cultural-intellectual onslaught of Modernity, in my opinion their methodology and tenor was often inexcusable. In further revealing my own sympathies, Fuller president Richard Mouw once said, “A lot of people today who have strong convictions are not very civil and a lot of people who are civil don’t have very strong convictions. What we really need is convicted civility.” Too many of those early fundamentalists88.And many conservative evangelicals today for that matter. only got the former half of the equation right.
- In the past 19 years a good deal of progress has been made academically by evangelical scholars as well as institutionally by evangelical colleges and universities.99.For all of that I’m most grateful. My experience tells me, however, that Noll’s assertion remains spot-on in two crucial ways. First, the dominant intellectual influence upon the evangelical culture remains a network of loosely associated colleges, ecclesiastical associations, parachurch organizations, and media outlets that do anything but encourage the life of the mind. If anything I would suggest that institutions like Baylor and Wheaton are the exceptions that prove the rule. Second, I think Noll’s critique that there’s not much of an evangelical mind rings painfully true in terms of the culture of the average evangelical Christian and their churches. I’ve hope that the chasm between the (improving) ivory towers and the pews will be increasingly bridged in coming years–a task to which I’ve dedicated my life–but there’s still a major disconnect.
- I disagree with Dr. Strachan’s assessment of a “culture of discouragement.” It’s always interesting to me how often people read in their own interests, temperaments, and those sorts of things.1010.In 2009 I put together an interdisciplinary academic conference. One day I had back to back meetings with two professors in which I led with almost an identical presentations both in terms of content and tone. The first professor, who was a natural optimistic, described me as a disillusioned cynic. The second professor, who was a natural pessimist, describe me as a hopelessly naive dreamer. What I took away from that experience is that their assessment said far more about them and their own temperaments than it did me. Once again, I could be wrong, but as I read read Dr. Strachan’s post I sensed an optimistically-inclined fellow who perceives sharp criticisms, even if accurate, to represent a culture of discouragement. I couldn’t disagree more. Noll’s sharp criticism gave the evangelical a much need kick in the pants, and it worked! The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind is replete with criticism. No doubt there. Yet I would suggest that in and through those criticisms is a powerful encouragement that has been absurdly successful.
- Dr. Strachan provides a list of scholars meant to evidence the present strength of the evangelical mind.1111.Noteworthy is that a significant majority are theologians, which is precisely what Noll observed almost 20 years ago. Has so much really changed? Just as Noll said, it continues to be that the majority of our best minds get sent down a theological track because of the realities of our educational system. That list gives me more than a little pause, though. Don’t get me wrong. Some, perhaps even a strong majority, of the names there listed are outstanding scholars. But there are others who, um, aren’t. I won’t bog things down by mentioning names, but not all are like Noll and Kevin Vanhoozer. Some of them have poor academic reputations because they primarily exhibit a pious Discourse of affirmation rather than scholarly Discourse of inquiry. That’s not to say that the two are necessarily mutually exclusive.1212.Dr. Strachan’s list includes N.T. Wright who, as a former bishop and renowned theologian, proves the point. Yet it remains the case that just because a person has a PhD, holds a respected position, has published a great deal, and is celebrated within certain spheres of influence doesn’t mean he or she excels in scholarship. Sometimes there is smoke without fire.
- I’d like to deal with a historiographical issue. Dr. Strachan writes, “I think there’s room for a counter-narrative here. The ‘neo-evangelicals’… actually did launch a theologically-oriented evangelical project in the mid-twentieth century. It didn’t succeed in spectacular fashion, but it did have many positive effects. Noll notes the neo-evangelicals in Scandal; he’s aware of them, of course, and he has some good things to say about them. But I think he does not go far enough, and indeed I think there is more to be said.”1313.Is it self-fulfilling prophecy that Dr. Strachan, a professor of theology and church history, sees success in the launch of “a theologically-oriented evangelical project”? Noll, by contrast, as an English major turned historian backed it out to include “the whole spectrum of modern learning, including economics and political science, literary criticism and imaginative writing, historical inquiry and philosophical studies, linguistics and the history of science, social theory and the arts.” I’m friends with Barry Hankins, a professor of history at Baylor who’s a peer of Noll, D.G. Hart, John Fea, etc. Though I confess I’ve not read it myself, Barry insists that there’s an alternative narrative forming that’s slowly replacing George Marsden’s framework.14 This new view apparently sees more consistency throughout the story arch. Admittedly, Noll’s thesis is framed upon Marsden’s framework and is becoming dated. This may well create room for persons like Dr. Strachan to cast a fresh historical picture as regards the evangelical intellectual life. My only push back is that I suspect such a view should be seen more as a nuanced-narrative than a counter-narrative.14.Namely, that evangelicalism thrived in the 19th century, ceased to exist in the early-20th century, and was reformed in the late ’40s as an alternative to fundamentalism. If Barry reads this, perhaps he’d be kind enough to give a citation or two in the comment section below.
Though strong in some of my points above, I hope Dr. Strachan and others have readily sensed my intended tone of convicted civility. I don’t claim to have all the answers. Perhaps he’ll offer a sound criticism of this post and we’ll continue to wrestle through these things together. What’s clear to me is that he, Noll, and a growing number of evangelicals today do care about the life of the mind. For that we can all be thankful, and I can be euphoric. I suspect where our ultimate difference comes down to is that Dr. Strachan is more of an optimist by nature whereas I definitely am not. As Cornel West once said, “I cannot be an optimist but I am a prisoner of hope.”