Tag: Mark Noll

Exploring Evangelical Complexity

As I’ve written before, there is a well-developed cottage industry organized around the question “who are the evangelicals and what are they thinking?”. While I’m pretty sure we aren’t getting closer to any definitive answer, it feels like we’re beginning to grasp why the question remains such a conundrum.

This past week, Ryan Burge and Paul Djupe addressed the variety of answers to the question on the Religion in Public blog. Written in partial response to a recent book edited by Mark Noll, David Bebbington, and George Masden — Evangelicals, Who They Are Now, Have Been, and Could Be — they attempt to explore the “blind men and the elephant” problem in studying evangelicals.

I read the Noll book last month and found it very helpful in understanding the development of the intellectual history approach to evangelicalism. The book reflects some coherence in that approach while still exploring the challenges inherent therein. Bebbington’s contribution focusing on four theological beliefs has merit but its applicability remains somewhat challenging in today’s marketplace. It is a very good book that involves some significant dialogue among the contributors.

There is real value in locating evangelicalism in a historical vein but there is often a disconnect between that view and how social scientists explore the question. I remember n the mid-80s being allowed to sit in as the token sociologist in a group of historians — including Joel Carpenter and the recently passed Don Dayton — at the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals. The intervening decades have not brought us closer to consensus.

Ryan and Paul explore three different approaches social scientists might use as definitional schemas. First, they look at “organizational attachment” most often measured by the RELTRAD variable in surveys. Second, they try to use theological variables (measured by agreement with some standard (although largely inadequate IHMO — see my previous post) survey formulations from respectable polling groups. Examining some data, they do not find major differences between evangelical and non-evangelical Christians. Their third approach focuses on the “born-again” identification. While those in evangelicals denominations are more likely to claim the identity than mainline denominations (but only marginally different from Black Protestants), one is left to wonder what exactly that means. In my years as an administrator in Christian Colleges, I found I had to prep prospective faculty from non-evangelical traditions. They had deep faith commitments but didn’t use the born-again language search committees wanted to hear.

Early in their blog post, they share the following insight:

Perhaps sadly, the citizenry does not conform to consistency and academic rules of classification, which leads to some strange combinations of religious attributes. That is, religion is not like a matryoshka doll.

The same day Ryan and Paul wrote their piece, Peter Wehner wrote a reflection on the Noll book for Cardus — I think they landed on twitter within minutes of each other. Peter quickly moves from contemporary politics to Bebbington and then to scripture. He writes of people whose lives were transformed by the Gospel which then gave them the motivation to address power and injustice. Instead we see faith used as a means to gain power and control over others. Yet today:

We are much more tribal than we care to confess, and far too quick to manipulate faith to support our worldly desires. Rather than having our sensibilities shaped by the ethic of Jesus, too many of us use Christianity to validate our preexisting attitudes, what we already believe, what we already want to do.

He then discusses Michele Margolis’ From Politics to the Pews which suggests that we are political first and religious second.

The difficulty in all of these approaches is that we still know far too little about what is happening in people’s minds when they are making decisions as evangelicals. Are they, in fact, acting as evangelicals or, as Peter suggests, are they simply validating prior positions with religious language. (There’s been a debate this weekend on whether abortion is a motivating force in evangelical voting or a rationalization covering other policy preferences).

Because these issues are so multidimensional, it becomes very difficult to make sense of causal order, intervening variables, and triggering factors. In a different series of posts this weekend, Ryan Burge was exploring the relationship between partisan ideology and denominational affiliation (in response to the “religious left” twitter discussions). He showed that there were very few religious traditions in which liberals outnumber conservatives, one of which was the United Church of Christ. Most show more of a mixed pattern. Then there are those like the Southern Baptist Convention was are more heavily on the politically conservative end of the scale.

But that made me think about how hard it is to unpack that descriptive data. I asked myself, where are UCC congregations located? So I went to my trustworthy source, The Association of Religion Data Archives (ARDA), and looked at the geographic distributions according to the 2010 congregations survey. What I found was that UCC congregations predominate in the Northeast and Midwest. I’ll let the reader figure out where the Southern Baptist congregation are.

If you consider what the infamous Blue and Red State maps look like, you’ll see the ways in which these maps would overlay. So are UCC folks politically liberal or do they reflect the dominant values of their region. By the way, the UMC — my own denomination — shows up in Ryan’s data as 25% liberal, 25% moderate, and 50% conservative. The congregational map for the UMC is dominant in the Eastern half of the US but more evenly distributed North and South. (I also looked at these maps by adherents per 1,000 population but it didn’t change much).

One could do the same analysis by age distribution, social class characteristics, or educational level. In any case, it’s very difficult to figure out where “evangelical” fits in the myriad factors influencing political identity and voting behavior.

I don’t have an answer, unfortunately. I simply keep wrestling with the gaps in our theoretical formulations and trying to figure out whether any classification system will give us a handle on this ever-puzzling phenomenon.

Engaging the Evangelical Mind

Just under thirty years ago, sociologist Robert Wuthnow wrote a prescient little book titled The Struggle for America’s Soul. The book documented the separation between the religious right concerned about massive social change and the educated elite who championed it. I remember that he ended the book with an optimistic hope: that scholars at faith-based institutions might play a unique role in bridging that chasm because they understood both groups. They could play something like the role of translator explaining each group to the other side. This would be done, he suggested, by conducting and reporting research in their role as evangelical scholars.

I found myself thinking of Wuthnow’s book last week when attending a gathering on “The State of the Evangelical Mind” in Indianapolis. The gathering focused on a book written five years after Wuthnow’s: Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.

Scandal

In part a retrospective on Noll’s book and in part a recognition of the service John Wilson performed as editor of the journal Books and Culture, it involved a series of papers reflecting on issues both deeply related to the conference question and some slightly more tangential (yet still interesting).

The evening began with a paper from Noll himself (at the last minute he wasn’t able to attend so his paper was read but he did participate via speakerphone in the q&a session). Noll reflected on the book and highlighted four successes that demonstrated an advancement in the evangelical mind: The Reformed Journal, the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicalism, the Pew Scholars Network, and Books and Culture.

I was struck that, like in Wuthnow’s book, the evangelical minds being developed were those of academics. There is real value in seeing the evangelical perspective engaging broader scholarship, but unfortunately too much of it happens in isolation from everyday evangelicals.

John Fea offered a wonderful reflection on the challenges of the evangelical mind within the context of a Christian college (Messiah). His two history colleagues shared somewhat more optimistic visions than John’s but his perspective stuck with me through the whole meeting.

Friday opened up with former Wesleyan General Superintendent Joanne Lyon reflecting on her role in seeing the development of the evangelical infrastructure. Part of her personal story involved being in the vanguard of a complex evangelical group that was engaging the larger world. She saw evangelical leadership move away from those options toward the goals of the Moral Majority and similar groups in the late 1970s. And yet Joanne remained hopeful, arguing that “love, mercy, and justice set evangelicalism apart from civil religion.”

My colleagues Jack Baker and Jeff Bilbro shared insights from their recent book, pointing out that much of evangelical subculture has generated a parallel structure to secular society (illustrating with stories about Christian bookstores and the market-orientation of Christian liberal arts institutions). They offered insights from Wendell Berry as an important alternative.

The keynote address (which sort of wrapped up the meeting) was given by Jamie Smith from Calvin College. He returned to the problem of the gap between academics and the evangelical subculture. His evidence: compare attendance at Bible Prophecy conferences with the attendance at academic-filled conferences. The way forward, he argued, was for academics and their institutions to embrace the role of evangelical public intellectual. For all of us bloggers, it was an encouraging challenge.

I came away recognizing three primary challenges in pursuing an engagement with the evangelical mind. First, I was stuck on John Fea’s earlier point about our Christian colleges. Even though I’m a tenured full professor with 36 years of experience and have served as a senior administrator, I wonder how the culture of Christian higher education can advance the call to address the evangelical mind. If I expand my public advocacy in addressing the complexity of contemporary issues that evangelicals need to engage, how will my students, their parents, my administration, and the trustees respond? Would they prefer that I keep these thoughts to my narrow blog audience? Would they see engagement as a legitimate role? Is there ever a possibility that such activity would take the place of one of my classes?

The second challenge I notice even in how I have written this reflection. I want the evangelical church to think more deeply about sociological and political issues. But I can’t simply show up to explain where they’ve been wrong on a host of issues. As Jamie challenged us, we have to use our role as educators to illumine where we’ve all fallen short. Hubris will kill any attempt at engagement.

The third challenge was present in Jack and Jeff’s analysis. It strikes me that the evangelical communication infrastructure is so balkanized that I don’t know how academic voices can even gain access. There are so many websites, magazines, blogs, videos, and celebrity books serving up a particularized version of the evangelical mind. This is what feeds the feeling among evangelicals that they are being actively discriminated against in modern society. Given the evangelical  infrastructure’s rhetoric about liberal bias and faith challenge endemic to higher education (even Christian higher education), we need real strategies to “seed the clouds” so that our message is receptive.

And yet I return to Joanne Lyon’s optimistic perspective. She pointed out our special role as academics to address the key issues in society. Advocacy, she challenged us, is part of discipleship.

I don’t have a clear path on how to better engage the evangelical mind. But I recognize that I have a responsibility to stay with it anyway.

Framing a Positive Vision for Evangelicals and Higher Education

Last weekend I drove from Michigan to Massachusetts to attend the North Shore Writers Retreat sponsored by Eastern Nazarene College. It was a great time, with presentations by Karl Giberson, Peter Enns, Alissa Wilkinson, Jonathan Merritt, Lil Copan, John Wilson, and hosted by Jonathan Fitzgerald. Some of these people I’ve followed over the years. Others were Facebook friends I’d never met in person.

There were some very good between-sessions conversations about Christian Higher Ed. We had attended such schools and/or taught at them. We all shared some similar questions about the unique challenges of the Christian university.

I came away from the last session with Jonathan Merritt reflecting on two ideas he shared. First, he said that the postmodern world is drawn to story and operates inductively where the modern world operates deductively through argument. I need to be far more attentive to the stories of my students and my colleagues to really build an image of what Christian higher education can look like in the future. Jonathan’s other point that struck home: It’s not enough to draw attention to a problem; you have to offer the compelling alternative.

On the drive home and in the midst of starting the Spring semester Thursday, I’ve been thinking of my arguments about Christian Higher Ed. What I’ve argued is that the past models aren’t sufficient and if we don’t change we run the risk of alienating a generation. But change to what? What does the non-negative vision look like?

The past few days have had me focused anew of the shortcomings of evangelical culture, and by extension, the universities that exist within that culture. On Thursday, Rachel Held Evans posted this blog titled The Scandal of the Evangelical Heart. Drawing on language from Mark Noll’s 1995 book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, she argues that there’s a real challenge with compassion when “right belief” fosters ambivalence to suffering. Friday, Peter Enns posted a blog also building on Noll’s book. Pete suggests that a problem for evangelical academics is that we can be “free” to pursue ideas as long as they don’t lead to uncomfortable conclusions. Last night I finished  The Great Evangelical Recession by John Dickerson. Dickerson makes some interesting points that have been made elsewhere but ties them together in some useful ways. He draws comparisons between the housing bubble and the exaggerated influence of evangelicalism and suggests a number of structural factors that present great risk (loss of youth, segmentation, financial strain, lack of discipleship, etc.). Today I read Ron Sider’s The Scandal of Evangelical Conscience. Sider effectively documents the statistical similarities between evangelicals and the broader culture on a range of issues like divorce, sexuality, abuse, finance, materialism, and so on.

Taking these pieces as a package, I’m left with a vision of American Evangelicalism which is 1) struggling, 2) culturally uncertain, 3) insufficiently prophetic, 4) interpersonally harsh or condemning, and 5) often very afraid. If these diagnoses are even half on track, this suggests some hard days ahead for traditional evangelical institutions.

So what’s the positive alternative? It’s fine to suggest “don’t be those bad things” but that doesn’t provide us much to go with.  Dickerson calls for a return to biblical authority and a focus on discipling. Sider (like N.T. Wright, Scot McKnight, and many others) suggests we need a better understanding of how Jesus was initiating a Kingdom and not simply providing a way to get to heaven.

There is something about Kingdom language that can be of value to Christian higher education. I’ll unpack some of these thoughts in future posts. For now, let me suggest that the key is to see the Christian university as a place where the Kingdom is in operation. This doesn’t occur in separation from the larger culture as it did in past times. It occurs because we embrace the theological significance of Jesus’ model of sacrificial love, of challenging pharisaicalism, of reaching out to the powerless, and of building a community that takes Paul’s body metaphors seriously. Toward the end of his book, Sider writes, “Indeed, the church ought to be not just different but far ahead of the rest of society.” That’s something I’m continuing to ponder about the Christian University.

Jonathan Fitzgerald, who did such a fine job organizing the Writer’s Retreat, just published an e-book titled Not Your Mothers Morals: How the New Sincerity is Changing Pop Culture for the Better. I really think his idea of the New Sincerity has power. It’s something for us to consider in Christian higher education. We need to present the world as sufficiently complex, to investigate our past positions without abandoning our faith commitments, and above all to tell the truth.

Spring Arbor’s Concept contains the phrase “total commitment to Jesus Christ as the perspective for learning“. I’m coming to realize that this phrase is far more complicated than “What Would Jesus Do?”.  It’s not just affirming a Christian identity. It’s really seeing about seeing the Kingdom that Jesus saw. The more we can learn to  do that, the stronger our educational perspective will be.