Tag: Robert Wuthnow

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.

Inspector Javert is not the hero of Les Mis: Grace and the Future of Evangelicalism

I spent a good part of yesterday doing one of my favorite things: trying to read the tea leaves on the emerging trends in evangelicalism. (Because of this, I turned on the soccer game about 22 minutes late which meant I missed the match!). It was an interesting day. I read a little of Soong-Chan Rah’s The Next Evangelicalism and considered his take on Western Cultural Captivity. I watched a great discussion on Ed Stetzer’s The Exchange featuring Sarah Pulliam Bailey, Jonathan Merritt, and Trevin Wax. I watched Brandan Robertson’s talk at the Wild Goose Festival on his journey through Moody Bible and evangelical subculture. I finished the day watching Andy Gill’s Skype interview with Peter Enns (which lets you look at Peter close-up for 30 minutes and see his Yankee pennants in the background).

There was a lot to process in here. Questions about what constitutes evangelicalism and according to whose criteria (Bebbington had better be getting royalties for each time his quadrilateral gets trotted out). Seeing Jonathan Merritt using John Wesley’s method to explain religious change. Sensing the tensions between tradition as we’ve understood it and contemporary realities (thankfully, no one referenced “slippery slopes”). Issues of scriptural authority, church attendance, and, of course, millennials.

Not everyone agreed. But what characterized the discussions was a spirt of grace and compassion. Something that is too often missing in religious discussions.

JavertIt made me think of the lead male characters in Les Miserables. Jean Valjean’s life is re-formed through an encounter with unwarranted favor. He lives his life to extend that to others at great personal cost. Inspector Javert is committed to the Law. In fact, the superstructure of his mindset is organized around it (check out the lyrics to Stars).

There are many versions of what happens to evangelicalism over the next decade or so. Some are optimistic, thinking that pragmatism may win out as it has on other forces of social change in the church. Some are ready to give up evangelicalism as representing a past social form so intertwined with culture wars and political parties that there’s no hope.

I tend to see a celebration of gracious faith from all sectors of the Christian church. That means that our old dividing lines may not be meaningful anymore. Dropping labels of evangelical vs. mainline vs. Catholic would be a good place to start. There’s been far too much finger pointing and facile explanation given (I’m amazed at how often we talk of mainline decline or rote ritual even today). We should be offering grace to all those who faithfully strive to follow Christ.

John Armstrong rightly expressed concern yesterday over comments (never read comments!) to an article about charismatic leaders meeting with Pope Francis. The quest for order and law on the part of the commenters was telling. As Ed Stetzer observed,  the focus on our ideas and practices as litmus test issues “obscures the gospel”

It must be admitted that there are Javerts on the progressive side as well. Too many of the comments I read on Facebook and Twitter seem utterly dismissive of traditionalists (who seem utterly dismissive of progressives). Still, if grace is our motto we need to take another look at our practice and open ourselves up to alternative views.

A few weeks ago, I watched the movie Einstein and Eddington starring Andy Serkis (not in motion capture) and David Tennant, respectively. Eddington is a physicist who is intrigued with Einstein’s work and sets out to prove the General Theory of Relativity via a solar eclipse. (I ran across a great quote while researching Eddington. An interviewer said that there couldn’t be more than three people who understood Einstein. Eddington replied, “who’s the other one?”). In the movie adaptation, Relativity is a threat because it undermines the whole of Newtonian structure, which was seen as a means of demonstrating order in the universe. This is even related to the gassing of British Troops at Ypres (which the screenwriter asserts, must have happened for a reason). The tension between the advances promoted by Eddington (a Quaker) and the established Newtonian order was fascinating.

I thought of this again the other day when reading Randall Balmer’s book on Jimmy Carter. Looking back on Carter’s loss of the White House, Ballmer suggests that Carter could have done more to reach out to establishment evangelicals. He had been given a list of possible cabinet candidates by Pat Robertson that got lost and wasn’t remade. The religion advisor Robert Maddox (a Southern Baptist at the time) came too late in the term. It made me wonder if Carter could have maintained alliances, even though he was more progressive, if he’d found ways of sharing his Christian commonalities with those who went before.

In this regard, I’ve been fascinated by the series Peter Enns has been running lately about Biblical Scholars and their “AHA” moments about the Bible. He’s now done six of them (here’s the most recent). In every case, the scholar has great regard for the church of origin and the importance placed on scripture even though questions led each to deep Biblical scholarship.

I’m reminded of a book on Culture Wars that Robert Wuthnow wrote in the late 1980s. After looking at the chasm then separating the conservative and mainline (this was problematic even then) he suggests that it was evangelical academics who stood in the gap and could bridge the chasm. They could affirm the heart of the conservatives while offering the insight of the progressives. Perhaps, he suggested, there was a way forward.

At the close of his interview with Andy Gill, Pete Enns talked of the importance of humility, both spiritual and academic. It was important to maintain that grace when dealing with the social changes around us.

The future of a vibrant Christian faith in this country lies not in battles over orthodoxy or symbols. It is not about who won which political race or court battle. It is about offering the grace necessary to really hear each other, to serve as the midwives who will bring forth whatever next phase of Church the Spirit is birthing.

The Joy of Professing

Last month I wrote that we needed to articulate an affirmative reason for Christian Higher Education instead of a defensive, separatist stance. Such an effort requires retraining our thinking from a number of perspectives. It calls for us to stand somewhat apart from the expectations of the academic disciplines. It requires us to stand in some prophetic space with regard to denominations. That’s the challenge Robert Wuthnow presented to evangelical faculty 25 years ago. He said that we have the ability to be bilingual: translating new cultural dynamics of academe to others while honoring the theological commitments and worries of the church.

I’m beginning my thinking about affirmation on what I know best: teaching. In a recent edition of Inside Higher Ed, George Fox English professor Melanie Springer Mock reflected on the joys of teaching. She titled her piece “Don’t Sweat the 4/4” and discussed how her career focus was directed towards the kind of institution that shaped her. She doesn’t talk about the unique role of Christian higher ed in explicitly evangelical terms but she does celebrate what it means to be part of a true college: a place where community can appear (even if one has to make small talk with that one guy who drives you nuts).

I shared Melanie’s piece with our administration and with a number of faculty. Why did I do that? Wouldn’t this just allow “them” to see if they could push the 4/4 to a 4/5 or a 5/5? Wouldn’t new technology, blended courses, and MOOC’s allow us to do more with less? And, some say, if we faculty are known to do this because we love it, won’t we lose all leverage?

As much as I appreciate Melanie’s piece, I think it misses the boat just a bit. It’s not about teaching loads, advising loads, credit hours generated, or returns on investments. If those are the important metrics, state universities and for-profits have long ago put us in a negative competitive position.

The real issue is impact. The reason I teach four classes a semester is because I have students multiple times over the course of their studies. I get to see their growth. I know when they’re slacking. We actually have conversations that go beyond “will this be on the exam?”

Students at universities like mine will say that they like the small size where they don’t feel like a number and people know their name. But that misses the boat, too. The strength of the Christian liberal arts institution is that they know me. Some have met Elton when he came along to pick me up after my night class. Others know of my travails at different institutions over the course of my career. We can talk about stuff. Last night I wound up in a great post-class dialogue over environmental economics with a business major in my general education capstone class. Yesterday I filled out a recommendation for one of our majors that asked me “how many times I’d met with the student outside of class“. I realized that I couldn’t answer because our interactions are too frequent.

Friday night we were blessed to have Ambassador Andrew Young on campus. It would have impressive if he’d just been with MLK or just been mayor of Atlanta or just been in Congress or just been UN Ambassador. To hear him talk of all of those was amazing. But toward the end of his Q&A, he reflected on the role faith-based institutions had played in the lives of his parents, of Young himself, and of King.

It reminded me that what we’re doing isn’t just about teaching four classes a semester. It’s about the mentoring/apprenticeship relationship with our students that someday lead to accomplishments on a par with Andrew Young’s. I dare the best MOOC class delivered to a couple of thousand students or the most innovative competency based program to pull that off!

One of the faculty members who got my Melanie Springer Mock e-mail was a new professor at SAU, Jeff Bilbro. While Jeff is as concerned as the next faculty member about teaching load, finding time to write, low pay, and being under-appreciated, he had a different read of Mock’s essay. Jeff had been Melanie’s student and considers her both mentor and friend. If Jeff is any indication of what Melanie does at Fox, it’s good stuff. It’s the only good reason to do what we do.