The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Mark Noll)

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The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.

So begins Mark Noll’s prophetic, sad, disturbing, and vitally important book.

This is a difficult post for me to write for a number of reasons. Not because I don’t know what to say. It’s more a question of where to start, because both The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind itself, and my reaction to it, are so multifaceted. First, because it hits so close to home, and feels so relevant at this particular historical moment in the United States. Almost everything about the American evangelical church’s current condition is explained here. (That “almost” is very important. More on that later.) At the same time, our current present is still unfolding: there are tectonic shifts underway as we speak. Some kind of new order will emerge from all this, and what exactly that will look like remains to be seen. Also still unfolding, on a personal level, are my own emotions of the past five years or so, and how they derive from and relate to this big picture. So yeah…where to begin?

I think it would be clearest – and healthiest – to follow the same procedure I used with Christine Leigh Heyrman’s Southern Cross: the author’s message first, my own commentary second.

Scandal is deceptively small for how much ground it covers. Noll first establishes what he means by the scandal: that evangelicals have largely abandoned deep, deliberate, systematic Christian thinking and scholarship in favor of a more activist, populist and issues-based approach. Noll doesn’t want to demean activism: he makes clear that evangelicals’ boots-on-the-ground ethic is actually a virtue in many cases. But activism cannot completely displace scholarship and deep thought, which are not only equally valid, but vital if activism is to be anything more than merely reactive.

This abandonment of thought is not a new problem. Nolls points out that American evangelicals haven’t produced a truly deep, thorough thinker since Jonathan Edwards. (Love or hate Edwards, you can’t accuse him of not thinking deeply.) And as we should expect when an unhealthy situation has persisted this long, things have become predictably warped. In lieu of thought, evangelicals have substituted simplistic views of science and the Bible; convoluted prophecy schemes; and a shortsighted over-identification with America and American populist narratives. Nor has there been any theological reflection on “the life of the mind” itself – i.e., thinking about thinking, and why we think. This is not only unhealthy and unwise, but morally wrong, because it devalues God’s creation – the world around us and our own capacity to reason:

For an entire Christian community to neglect, generation after generation, serious attention to the mind, nature, society, the arts – all spheres created by God and sustained for his own glory – may be, in fact, sinful.

(Personally I wouldn’t hedge that with a “maybe”: all that stuff about Wisdom in Proverbs is pretty clear on this point. But this is Noll’s book, not mine.)

Noll next points out that evangelicalism’s intellectual deficit, despite how normal it feels to those of us who grew up with it and how much of a “given” it is in the American religious landscape, is actually an aberration in the broad sweep of Christian history. And not just compared to, say, influential Catholic philosophers such as Augustine and Aquinas. Evangelicals’ own theological ancestors cultivated learning, education and deep thinking. Again, love or hate Calvin and the Puritans – but you can’t accuse them of not trying to think in a thoroughly Christian manner, even if you disagree with their conclusions. Noll also dug up an absolutely delicious Luther quote about parents who neglect their children’s education:

I shall really go after the shameful, despicable, damnable parents who are no parents at all but despicable hogs and venomous beasts, devouring their own young.

Oh, Luther, you can be so vulgar…but damn that’s good.

In what I think is one of the book’s most insightful moments, Noll connects evangelicals’ neglect of the mind to three ancient heresies. First Manichaeism, in which the world is starkly divided into good and evil. The modern evangelical version sees evangelical Christians as possessing all truth and insight, and non-Christians as utterly depraved. On this theory, of course, there is no benefit in studying non-Christians’ works, as they can only contain error. Next comes Gnosticism, in which divine secrets and formulas are passed only to the initiated. The evangelical equivalents are dispensationalism and creationism, which treat the Bible like a codebook whose primary purpose is to give evangelical “initiates” secret information about history and science (to which outsiders are blind, of course). And finally Docetism, in which the material world is evil and we must seek only the spiritual. There is no point in learning about, say, economics or biology in a Docetist universe; nor is there any reason to better the lot of the less fortunate. Better to just focus on heaven and your own inner spiritual life. In other words, neglect the love of neighbor for the love of God – despite the fact that Jesus Himself sets up those two commandments as equally important – and be “so heavenly-minded you’re no earthly good.”

The roots of evangelicalism’s intellectual problems ultimately lie in the 18th century, in a combination of forces derived from revivalism and the disestablishment of the Anglican church after the Revolution. Disestablishment had an instant democratizing effect, putting all churches on a level playing field. If you wanted to survive, you had to, as they say, get butts in the seats. Around the same time, the First and Second Great Awakenings – two huge waves of revivals, one before and one after the Revolution – heightened this effect by making emotions and personal salvation paramount (rather than intellectual problems or more corporate aspects of faith). George Whitefield, for all his positive qualities, is especially to blame, for kicking off evangelicals’ longstanding fascination with charismatic speakers. Noll explains the effect:

This was the situation that ultimately created so much difficulty for the life of the mind. American evangelicals never doubted that Christianity was the truth. They never doubted that Christian principles should illuminate every part of life. What they did do, however, in the years between the Revolution and the Civil War, was to make most questions of truth into questions of practicality. What message would be most effective? What do people most want to hear? What can we say that will both convert the people and draw them to our particular church? The heavy pressure for results meant that very little time or energy was available to think about God and nature, God and society, God and beauty, or God and the shape of the human mind. In the context of the early United States, with the pragmatic challenge of subduing the wilderness and civilizing a barbarian society – these traditional issues of Christian learning, these matters of primary importance to a Christian mind, became largely irrelevant.

Again, Noll is not saying that these trends had only ill effects; he is saying they were destructive specifically to the evangelical intellect.

At the same time evangelicals changed their methods, they adapted their beliefs as well – generally with little self-examination. They simply assumed that the post-Revolutionary American political and economic system was compatible with Christianity – or even further, that God had specially blessed “His people” (i.e., America) by freeing them from bondage to the British. And if God is on your side, well, there’s really no need to examine problems like the simmering tension over slavery, or how a capitalist economy can meet the needs of the poor. You’re just right. Noll’s point here is not that Christianity must be incompatible with democracy or capitalism, but that evangelicals never really took the time to justify why or how they were compatible.

The attitude toward the Bible that emerged from this situation was one of the most important developments:

One of the things this passion for liberty affected most was Bible reading. Many of the new denominations that sprang to life in America between the War for Independence and the Civil War – Disciples and “Christians” of several varieties, Adventists, Mormons, Cumberland Presbyterians, offshoots of the Methodists, and more – did so in large part because there were so many unfettered interpretations of Scripture. Americans in the early nineteenth century took to an earlier battle cry of the Reformation, “the Bible alone,” with a vengeance. The result was a blend of Christian fervor and democratic fragmentation.

Related to this, and equally important, was how evangelicals used Enlightenment philosophies to interpret the Bible. The entire philosophical background here is beyond the scope of this post, but in summary, evangelicals embraced the ideas of certain Scottish Enlightenment philosophers, which Noll sums up better than I can.

A fourth variety of Enlightenment, however, received a very different reception in Protestant America. This didactic Enlightenment, which has recently been the subject of fresh scholarly attention, was largely a product of Scotland. There three generations of philosophers and moralists…struggled to restore intellectual confidence and social cohesion to the Enlightenment idea. They achieved these goals by arguing that all humans possessed, by nature, a common set of capacities – both epistemological and ethical – through which they could grasp the basic realities of nature and morality. Moreover, these human capacities could be studied as scientifically as Newton studied the physical world. Such rigorous study, especially of consciousness, would yield laws for human behavior and ethics every bit as scientific as Newton’s conclusions about nature. In the United States this Scottish form of Enlightenment came to dominate intellectual life for more than the first half-century of the nation’s history.

Despite how much these ideas were at odds with evangelicals’ own theological heritage – no Puritan would ever have agreed that humans possess innate ethical capacities – they became wildly popular because, well, they were useful:

…the Scottish Enlightment offered evangelicals and other Americans exactly what they needed to master the tumults of the Revolutionary era. In the midst of an era marked by a radical willingness to question the verities of the past, the intuitive philosophy provided by the Scots offered an intellectually respectable way to establish public virtue in a society that was busily repudiating the props upon which virtue has traditionally rested – tradition itself, divine revelation, history, social hierarchy, an inherited government, and the authority of the religious denominations. … For evangelicals who wanted to preserve traditional forms of Christianity without having to appeal to traditional religious authorities, the common-sense reasoning of the Scottish Enlightenment (at least as that philosophy took on a life of its own in North America) was the answer.

This “common-sense” idea, faith in people’s moral intuition, covered a lot of bases. In the political arena, it was used to justify republican government and the rebellion against Britain. On its face, it wouldn’t seem to be conducive to deep examination of ethics, and in many ways it wasn’t. But remember, it also entails the idea that not only the natural world, but more abstract fields like ethics, theology, etc., can be empirically verified and systematized. And this is the point where evangelicals’ version of the Scottish Enlightenment intersected with their view of the Bible.

The type of Biblical interpretation encouraged by these ideas was a “scientific” one, best summarized by 19th-century theologian Charles Hodge’s contemporary description:

The Bible is to the theologian what nature is to the man of science. It is his store-house of facts; and his method of ascertaining what the Bible teaches, is the same as that which the natural philosopher adopts to ascertain what nature teaches. … The duty of the Christian theologian is to ascertain, collect, and combine all the facts which God has revealed concerning himself and our relation to him. These facts are all in the Bible.

In this view, the Bible is not a collection of various writings in various genres by various authors, written and assembled over a long period of time. It is a single book, set down by God and designed to be read as a unit, which contains everything we need to know about God and morality. All we have to do is systematize it, and the truth will become immediately clear. Problem solved. Similar methods prevailed in evangelical efforts to intellectually justify theism and Christianity, and herein lie the seeds of modern “apologetics.”

After the Civil War, however, this comfortable Enlightenment synthesis between religion and science began to break apart. New, more naturalistic ideas, such as evolution and “higher criticism” of the Bible, began to dominate American universities. Ironically, Noll points out, both the conservatives who rejected higher criticism and the liberals who embraced it viewed the Bible through a similarly “scientific” lens, and thus the stage was set:

Because it was an age of unquestioned hegemony for science – an age that fully embodied the optimism, this-wordliness, and scientific confidence of the early evangelical Enlightenment – and because evangelicals for a century had known no other world, it was second nature to address new problems with the old certainties of the first American Enlightenment. In the early American Enlightenment, evangelicals had been able to unite a commitment to democratic authority from the people and intellectual authority from science. In response to shifting academic conditions after the Civil War, conservative evangelicals tried to retain the old populist science, liberal evangelicals opted instead for an elite new science over against the old populism, but both, with the multitudes in between, did not challenge the older conceptions of self-justifying authority or the dictates of common sense.

Conservatives worried not only about naturalism, but also cultural shifts: rapid urbanization, and the huge numbers of immigrants who, in conservatives’ minds, threatened America’s Protestant identity. All this culminated in the fundamentalist movement, and its complete intellectual retreat from the broader world, in the early 20th century. This retreat was made possible by various Holiness and Pentecostal theologies, which stressed personal experience above all else (thus the inward turn), and dispensationalism – the clearest continuation of the “scientific” Biblical hermeneutic I’ve already discussed.

Because fundamentalists refused to give up older methods of scientific thought, the already flawed application of these ideas to the Bible only got worse on their watch. And dispensationalism was hands down the worst fruit of it:

A major impediment created by fundamentalism for a doxological understanding on nature, society, and the arts was its uncritical adoption of intellectual habits from the nineteenth century. Especially dispensationalism was heavily dependent upon nineteenth-century views of the goals and systematizing purposes of science. This overwhelming trust in the capacities of an objective, disinterested, unbiased, and neutral science perhaps was excusable in the early nineteenth century, but by the early twentieth century it was indefensible. Fundamentalist naivete concerning science was matched by several other nineteenth-century traits that also undercut the possibility for a responsible intellectual life. These included a weakness for treating the verses of the Bible as pieces in a jigsaw puzzle that needed only to be sorted and then fit together to possess a finished picture of divine truth; an overwhelming tendency to “essentialism,” or the conviction that a specific formula could capture for all times and places the essence of biblical truth for any specific issue concerning God, the human condition, or the fate of the world; a corresponding neglect of forces in history that shape perceptions and help define the issues that loom as most important to any particular age; and a self-confidence, bordering on hubris, manifested by an extreme antitraditionalism that casually discounted the possibility of wisdom from earlier generations. During the nineteenth century the broader, more historical concerns of leading theologians and lay intellectuals held these features of evangelical intellectual life in check. But they were traits that emerged unfettered in the fundamentalist era, especially among the proponents of dispensational theology.

That idea that an “objective” reading of the Bible will always produce the same answers on every topic (and that an objective reading of the Bible is even possible)? This is where it comes from. And dispensationalism is really the logical endpoint of all these assumptions, applied specifically to eschatology. If everything we need to know is already contained in the Bible, and all we have to do is read it “objectively,” apply our “common sense” (i.e. read it “naturally,” i.e. literally), and then systematize our results, then it actually makes sense to believe that you can produce a 100% accurate timeline of the Apocalypse using only the Bible. Because all the other considerations that should come into play here – the historical context of the Biblical authors, the genre in which they were writing, the reader’s cultural assumptions, etc. – have already been rendered irrelevant.

(Of course dispensationalists’ own results – infamously convoluted, and not in agreement about much at all – and decades’ worth of failed predictions, show how well this idea of an “objective,” “plain,” and “literal” reading works out in practice.)

Dispensationalism also encourages detachment from the world, and feeds the quasi-Gnostic impulse Noll pointed out at the beginning of the book. Because of course, if the world is about to end, there’s no need to engage with it; better to spend your time studying God’s Word, i.e. your carefully systematized “objective” prophecy scheme. Which, despite the fact that it is supposedly “plain” and “literal,” has always required a prophecy expert to explain. Thus the quasi-Gnosticism, as teachers pass the divine mysteries of the Bible as codebook on to their students.

Responses to Darwin fell out along similar lines. Though there was healthy debate among evangelicals in the late 19th century, this too eventually collapsed, and resulted in what we now call young earth creationism. Creationism, in essence, is the same process as dispensationalism, only applied to Genesis: read the Bible “objectively” and “plainly,” and it will tell you everything you need to know about science and the age of the earth. Creationism’s rise, however, happened later then you might expect. Most of the original fundamentalists, in the early 20th century, were more flexible on this point than I realized. Rather, “creation science” as we know it today today originally came from the work of Seventh-Day Adventists attempting to defend their founder, Ellen White. Adventists were promoting the idea of a 6,000-year-old Earth as early as the 1920s, but made little impact. Their ideas spread enough, however, that they were eventually picked up by some non-Adventists. Finally, in 1961, John Whitcomb and Henry Morris published the The Genesis Flood, which was a runaway success and marks the beginning of creationism as we know it today.

Returning to politics, up until the advent of fundamentalism, evangelicals continued the activist, populist bent already discussed – high on emotion, motivation and charisma, low on analysis. Around 1925, however, as in everything else, fundamentalists turned inward, and interest in politics was replaced by a gloomy dispensationalism that saw political developments mostly as warning signs of the impending Apocalypse. This, of course, provides no more motive for political analysis than before – even less motive, in fact. Because even if you’re not a thoughtful or a smart activist, at least you want to engage with society to solve a problem – whereas all a dispensationalist has to do is sit around and wait for prophecy to unfold. (Meanwhile, in the South, the idea that churches should stay out of politics discouraged political analysis via a different route, and was heavily motivated by a refusal to address glaring racial injustice.)

Evangelicals nowadays have essentially returned to their original activist-populist model of politics (with all its attendant weaknesses) – though it took until the 1970s and the emergence of the Religious Right for that to happen. This could have been, on balance, a good thing – or at least, a less bad thing than the fundamentalist model of complete separation. It hasn’t been, for a variety of reasons. But I’ll save that for my commentary section.

Noll tried to end Scandal on a positive note, by searching for signs that an “evangelical intellectual renaissance” might be underway (remember, this was published in 1994). Some of the trends he points to were genuinely encouraging at the time; others, even then, were grasping at straws (for instance, his extremely generous recasting of Christian Reconstruction as a move “toward a more self-conscious political reflection”). Even Noll, however, cannot quite bring himself to be wholeheartedly optimistic, and admits that any positive developments exist alongside problematic continuations of status quo.

The most interesting insight from this section is that most of evangelicals’ positive moves post-fundamentalism were, in fact, not derived from their own tradition. Instead, they resulted from collaboration and interaction with other groups, especially Mennonites, the Dutch Reformed and various British groups. In the end, then, evangelicals’ own resources were so scant that they could not fuel even their own halfhearted “renaissance.”

So…what to make of all this now, nearly twenty-five years later?

Before 2016, I probably would have answered that question more like Noll – frustrated and worried overall, but cautiously optimistic on a few limited points. I wasn’t really evangelical anymore, strictly speaking, even in 2016, but the tradition had its good qualities; I was (and am) still thankful for certain things I learned from it (mostly an appreciation of the Bible as important to the Christian life); and I knew evangelicals who I believed were good, sensible people in spite of the cultural problems.

But it’s 2018 now. That cautiously optimistic world is gone forever. Evangelicals themselves destroyed it (including some of those “good, sensible people” I thought I knew). And the reasons they destroyed it illuminate what I think is the only core weakness in Scandal: it mostly glosses over racial issues.

I shouldn’t be unfair to Noll: he does mention race a few times, mostly when he notes that evangelicals’ slow recovery from fundamentalism between the 1930s and the 1970s caused them to miss civil rights almost entirely. And he does bring up that early 20th-century fundamentalists were afraid that immigrants would change the Protestant identity of the country. But on the whole, if all you knew about the future was that something would go catastrophically wrong for evangelicals in 2016, and you tried to use Scandal to predict what that something would be, you would probably guess something more like a dispensationalist end-times mania. Of course, what really went wrong was a resurgence of racism, xenophobia and white nationalism; dispensationalism had basically nothing to do with it. That’s mostly a curveball as far as Scandal is concerned.

So given this blind spot, was it really lingering fundamentalist ideas about politics that made white evangelicals miss the boat on civil rights? In part – but there’s also a deeper reason. I can’t read Noll’s mind, so maybe he saw it even then, and didn’t want to go there. But he dates the re-emergence of evangelical political engagement to Roe v. Wade, rather than school desegregation. That’s a common enough idea – except the historical record is clear that it’s not the case. I get it: none of us wanted to believe it was that simple, or that ugly. Nevertheless, there it is.

(The gender and sexuality issues currently plaguing evangelicalism are also completely unanticipated by Scandal, but in this case you can’t really blame Noll. Same-sex marriage and LGBT issues weren’t really on any mainstream radar in 1994, and the push for egalitarianism in home and church roles wasn’t really a thing either. If Scandal were written now, however, it would certainly have to explore how evangelicals’ usual political and scientific problems have hamstrung them on these questions – for instance, the abject science denialism required to continually insist that intersexuality is so rare that you can have a coherent theology of sex and gender without addressing it.)

That said, even though Scandal misses the mark on race, the other habits of mind that would eventually turn evangelicals into servile lapdogs fawning at the feet of power are evident throughout the book.

As I’ve already mentioned, the xenophobia at work now is really no different than what drove fundamentalists the first time around. The definition of “Christian nation” has shifted with the times (John Fea’s Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? is an excellent overview of that idea), so the groups in the crosshairs are different – Muslims and Latinos this time, rather than European Catholics, Jews and Asians. But the driving fear of a threatened cultural identity is essentially the same.

The political faults are so obvious I shouldn’t have to explain (but I do). When you spend generations neglecting deep, principled political analysis – and feeding evangelical church culture’s worship of charismatic speakers and cults of personality – and instead merely react, you not only won’t have good answers to society’s most pressing problems, you are easy prey for a demagogue. And in a shocking turn of events, a demagogue came along, and evangelicals fell in line. They didn’t do this because of a policy program that lined up with some kind of principled belief system. The actual beliefs – such as they are – and the behavior of said demagogue never did matter, and many evangelicals will admit as much. What did matter was that he promised them power, and fed them their own fears and prejudices. Perhaps if evangelicals had taken the time, fifty years ago, to actually think about politics and formulate some kind of reasoned system of ethics, they might never have become so crass and easily bribed. But that’s a hypothetical universe we don’t live in.

Underlying both the political shallowness and xenophobia is the over-identification with America evangelicals committed to back in the 18th century. Again, if you really believe that America is a “Christian nation,” that God is on America’s side, no matter what – what’s left to analyze? This is why I’ve heard evangelicals, with my own ears, refer to America as “the light of the world.” (Here I thought that was Christ – you know, that guy whose name is in the word “Christian”…) This is why evangelicals can no longer separate their politics from their religion. They are one and the same – because America and God’s chosen Israel are one and the same.

Of course, if evangelicals had thought a bit harder about what it means to be God’s chosen people, they might have remembered that the Old Testament constantly bemoans the fact that God’s people have fallen away and predicts punishment for their sins. They might have realized that, if you claim to belong to God, you cannot get off scot-free forever when you decide to overlook injustice. Instead, we get shoddy prooftexting about how Donald Trump is King Cyrus, the heathen chosen by God to enable his “chosen people” to return to the Promised Land.

And lest the scientific end of things feel left out, creationism plays an indirect role here here too. Noll unintentionally chose a phrase that perfectly describes what I’m getting at (emphasis mine):

Doubtless a combination of factors accounts for what is one of the greatest innovations of recent evangelical history – the establishment of an alternative form of science to the form taught by the intellectual establishments of the culture.

“Alternative science” – or in current terminology, alternative facts. There seems to be a pervasive belief that Donald Trump invented alternative facts. Nope. The underlying logic was already alive and well in the GOP, and this was, at least in part, because it was alive and well in the evangelical church, in the form of creation science. The earth only looks old. Scientists know evolution is false, they’re just covering it up because they’re all atheists who hate God. Tyrannosaurus rex had sharp teeth because it ate melons in the Garden of Eden. You get the idea. Propaganda is all the same. And thus here, too, evangelicals were already primed to follow the Pied Piper.

Noll ended Scandal on a positive note, and I wish I could end this review the same way. But I can’t, because I no longer see any reason to hope for change, on a cultural level, from evangelicals. Not only do they refuse to self-examine about the real problem, if anything they’re liking their new leader better and better the longer they know him. Once you have so profoundly sold your soul, so thoroughly repudiated everything in your own religion – there is no going back. Only an act of God – and I’m talking a parting the Red Sea kind of miracle here – can save evangelicals from themselves now.

Individual evangelicals, of course, may not fit this pattern. Some of them met last month at Wheaton College, to discuss the future of evangelicalism. (Mark Noll was among them.) If there is an intellectual and moral future for evangelicals, it lies in these principled dissenters. But that future is murky, and far distant. For the moment, I’m forced to agree – for what I hope is the only time ever – with of one of Trump’s most loyal “court evangelicals,” Robert Jeffress:

 

“It’s a meeting that will have very little impact on evangelicalism as a whole,” Jeffress told CBN News. “Many of them are sincere but they are having a hard time understanding that they have little impact on evangelicalism.”

***

Do remember that dishonesty and cowardice always have to be paid for. Don’t imagine that for years on end you can make yourself the boot-licking propagandist of the Soviet regime, or any other regime, and then suddenly return to mental decency. Once a whore, always a whore.

-George Orwell

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