No Longer Scandalized?
Revisiting Mark Noll in 2016
Though it’s had an outsize impact on evangelical intellectual culture, I’d never actually sat down with Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind until this past week. Centrally, Noll (himself a Reformed evangelical) argues that the rise of fundamentalism drove a lasting wedge between mainstream academic inquiry and American Protestant communities. In Noll’s telling, this cleavage led to previously fringe theological positions (six-day creationism, flood geology, strict biblical literalism) seeping into the popular religious consciousness: because the secular academy had turned its back on God, fundamentalists reasoned, it was necessary to draw sharp doctrinal lines and police them vigorously.
The book’s critique, however, extends beyond the intellectual landscape into the institutional. Noll distinguishes between Christian liberal-arts colleges, which seek to synthesize and systematize research done elsewhere, and those major universities that actually produce the research in question. This divide, Noll posits, has resulted in a dearth of serious evangelicals engaged in research work. Having attended both types of institution Noll discusses–the Christian liberal-arts college and the secular research university–I find this analysis fascinating and thought-provoking, particularly given that the cultural landscape has shifted dramatically since Scandal’s 1994 publication.
More than twenty years after Scandal hit bookshelves, is evangelical culture still characterized by Richard Hofstadter’s “anti-intellectualism in American life”? I submit that several transformations–some positive, others less so–have occurred since Scandal’s initial release.
Most prominently, within some realms of social and political engagement, long-rancorous denominational divisions are being overcome: specifically, Catholic and Reformational thought has interpenetrated evangelical culture to an increasing extent. Debates over abortion and same-sex marriage have pushed theological conservatives to build on Catholic ideas about human dignity and natural law; Protestantism is no longer the monolithic sociopolitical force it once was (the “Moral Majority” is long gone) and accordingly a rigorous intellectual foundation is required to underpin evangelicals’ public engagement. Charles Colson’s “Manhattan Declaration”–a statement of principles regarding abortion, marriage, and religious liberty–is a particularly prominent example of this tendency toward collaboration.
More recently, the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, under the leadership of Russell Moore, has emerged as a major public voice on social issues. The ERLC’s work reflects a genuinely Protestant intellectual identity, yet one not wholly uncoupled from the broader Church tradition. This tendency towards ecumenism–in the context of public activism, if not doctrinal affirmation–has potentially gone a long way toward rectifying the problems Noll identified.
I am far less sanguine, however, about the current state of evangelical academic culture. In my assessment, the Internet poses a colossal threat to the species of evangelicalism Noll critiques. Thanks to information democratization, explicitly countercultural academic institutions can no longer exist in a hermetically sealed environment–and criticism has been prolific and venomous. An explosion of online support communities for disaffected ex-evangelicals has highlighted those who might’ve, in an earlier time, simply faded from view. Old figureheads are readily delegitimized: for example, a quick trip to Wikipedia reveals that prominent creationist Kent Hovind–“Dr. Dino”–has done prison time for tax fraud. Countless websites couple scientific data dumps with sharply worded attacks on critics of Darwinism, setting up a faith-versus-fact false dichotomy that directly threatens evangelical positions (this isn’t to suggest that criticisms of religion have substantively improved–Jerry Coyne is no David Hume–but they’re a good deal more popularly accessible). Before the Internet, young evangelicals might never have encountered these views: now, the critiques are everywhere.
Due to the collapse of information barriers between evangelical and secular culture, I submit that the type of evangelical academic entrenchment Noll discusses will no longer exist, in any culturally influential form, after another twenty years.
A comprehensive reflection on Noll’s book, in light of contemporary developments, is far beyond the scope of any one-off online piece. That said, here are few of my own suggestions for evangelical academic culture that don’t require systemic transformation, but rather incremental change:
- Evangelicals should firmly reject the persistent narrative that modern academia is, without exception, violently hostile to their faith. At least in my experience in the social sciences, this narrative is simply untrue. Thoughtful academic work reflecting a nuanced Christian worldview can find an audience; unfortunately, much academic work produced by Christians is neither thoughtful nor nuanced. Just because something is Christian scholarship does not make it good scholarship: bad arguments are bad arguments, regardless of who makes them.
- While recognizing that research activity may not be their primary function, Christian liberal-arts colleges of the type Noll discusses ought to provide students with the tools necessary to conduct graduate-level research. If the scholarship produced at Christian institutions and by Christian scholars is to conform to the broader quality canons of major academic disciplines, students must be equipped with an awareness of those canons and held to rigorous standards.
- Evangelical leaders should consider a moratorium on building new countercultural academic institutions. (I use the term “academic institutions” broadly, encompassing universities, colleges, associations, conferences, journals, and other fixtures of educational life). Rather, scarce resources should be devoted to making existing institutions as robust as possible, as well as encouraging considered engagement with mainstream secular academia.
In some ways, Noll’s argument is as searing today as it was two decades ago; in others, evangelical culture is beginning to properly internalize the wisdom of its history. Twenty years from now, the landscape will undoubtedly look different still.
Image courtesy of Nathan Rupert.