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The atrophying (or is it vulgarization?) of the evangelical mind

Almost seven years ago, Alan Wolfe published "The Opening of the Evangelical Mind", which described for the readers of the Atlantic Monthly the resurgence or renaissance (more precisely, the "surgence" or "naissance") of evangelical intellectual life. Here’s a characteristic passage:

In its own way, campus life at Wheaton College resembles that of the 1960s, when students and a few professors, convinced that they had embarked on a mission of eternal importance, debated ideas as if life really depended on the answers they came up with. Students at Wheaton, moreover, are as outstanding as any students in America. Wheaton’s rejection rate last year was higher than the University of Chicago’s. Its class of 2003 includes sixty-one National Merit Scholars. The average SAT score of last year’s entering class was 1,310, putting Wheaton in the same range as Oberlin College and the University of Virginia. One political-science major I met had just been accepted for the doctoral program at Yale, another for the one at the University of California at San Diego. Wheaton does even better in the hard sciences than in the social sciences, ranking among the nation’s leading colleges in the percentage of its graduates who go on to earn doctorates. Surprisingly, for a college deriving from a religious tradition that was hostile to Darwinism, Wheaton managed to recruit the chairman of its biology department--the first place where conservative alumni are likely to look for insistence on the Bible’s inerrancy--from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

Wolfe, of course, isn’t the only one to have noted this. Consider, for example,
Naomi Schaefer Riley and, much more authoritatively, George Marsden.

But despite some bright spots, there’s plenty to make one blanch. I haven’t seen Alexandra Pelosi’s new documentary, but Michael Linton’s commentary rings too true of at least a portion of evangelicalism:

Yes, we can see ourselves in Pelosi’s film, but a lot of what we see should make us wince. We’ve forgotten the Scriptures and allowed ignorance to characterize our preaching, and delirium our worship. In our confidence in God’s grace, we have become presumptuous in our salvation. And we’ve too often confused salvation in heaven with right voting on earth. We need to change. We need to repent.

I don’t know that evangelicals have to follow this all the way to David Kuo, but I think there has to be more to it than we get from Rick Warren (whose book I couldn’t bear even to skim), Joel Osteen, or (shudder) Ted Haggard, who comes off pretty badly in the film, even without the retrospective glasses.

Stated another way, I worry that the basically decent folks who populate the evangelical megachurches are much closer to the market-driven life than even to the purpose-driven life, and not, in any event, "nearer, my God, to Thee."

Hat tip: Wheat and Weeds.

Discussions - 5 Comments


This is an interesting post and much of it, I am sympthetic.

I am reading Christianity and the Soul of the University right now and there’s a particularly interesting passage in it:

"For the most part, evangelicals perceive moral vitality in terms of loyalty to various ideological positions...rather than as an...endeavor to resolve social dilemmas or to discern ethical duties. Among modern evangelicals, aesthetics run toward the commercial and pragmatic...they are far less concerned about the philosophical and belletristic assessment of film, music, and the visual arts. ....Sermons still routinely remind students of the dangerous lure of culture, encouraging avoidance rather than engagement, and offering occasional jeremiads on the debilitating state of postmodernity. Quite often discussion of morality in public life among evangelicals have been captive to partisan politics, which often discourage students from thinking beyond the conventional rhetoric about social problems and possible remedies."

Stated another way, I worry that the basically decent folks who populate the evangelical megachurches are much closer to the market-driven life than even to the purpose-driven life, and not, in any event, "nearer, my God, to Thee."

Really? I worry much more about the "basically decent folks" who populate the mainline and receive increasingly de-Christianized secular fare. I worry about the "basically decent folks" who don’t go to church at all and lead the decadent "market-driven life". Not that there is something to be said for this introspection, but I think on balance too much is being made of it...

Linton’s post was pitch-perfect and a great example of how evangelicals ought to react to (some forms of) criticism. I don’t think, though, that the David Kuo strategy makes much sense. Evangelicals’ problem is not that they’re too involved in politics (the fundamentalists of the mid-20th century stayed away from politics and they’re not exactly remembered as paragons of thoughtful reflection); rather, we’re too caught up in modern culture. Even if we reject some of the more vulgar things popular culture serves up (say, MTV, "reality shows" or Barney) we usually turn around and recreate them in "Christian" terms again - only with treacly sentiment instead of sex and violence.

Maybe the problem is - and I’m not sure how far it ought to be pushed - is that evangelicals need a reminder that American culture is not "our" culture.


Thanks for the reference, which I’ll have to order.


I agree that all the groups you mention have their own problems, and wouldn’t recommend, for example, fleeing from Rick Warren’s church to a denomination headed by Katherine Jefferts Schori, for example, but I think Michael’s point is well-taken.


I’m certainly not recommending a fast from politics, nor necessarily a crunchy disengagement from the culture. Above all, I think that what’s needed is a reengagement with the tradition in all its manifestations (and not merely its Christian strand).

Note that Linton’s post was made in First Things, a journal not timorous about Christian political involvement.

I tend to avoid the sorts of evangelicals Linton describes, and it would be painful for my denial/avoidance-instincts to sit through a movie that seems to have sought them out. I’d like to believe that A. Pelosi is basically a "friend," but I’m not as sure as Linton seems to be. Linton’s take-down of Focus on the Family’s attack on Pelosi’s doc is quite right, however.

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