John Fea has been reporting on his experiences at last week’s “State of the Evangelical Mind” conference. The gathering took as its theme a revisiting of Mark Noll’s classic book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (the scandal is that there is no such thing as an evangelical mind). In a post yesterday titled “Evangelicalism as a Mission Field for Evangelical Scholars,” Fea reports that Calvin College philosopher James K.A. Smith really brought the heat in the final plenary session:
Very early in his talk Smith announced that “everything going on in this conference has no connection whatsoever to evangelical churches.” He was right.
Smith began by addressing the “elephant in room.” Up until this point all of the speakers danced around the links between the the so-called “scandal of the evangelical mind” and Donald J. Trump. Smith called out the 81% of American evangelicals who voted for the current POTUS and even gave a shout-out to my work on the “court evangelicals.”
Smith was not optimistic about the state of the evangelical mind. The “evangelical mind,” he lamented, is a “minority report at best.” If such an evangelical mind does exist, it is found almost entirely in “confessional groups.” In other words, it is not thriving, or perhaps even existing, in non-denominational churches. These congregations have grown from 194,000 in 1990 to eight million today. According to Smith, those concerned about the evangelical mind should be devoted to closing the gap between the scholarly world and these churches. Evangelicalism, he argued, is a “mission field for evangelical scholars.”
Following Smith’s call will require boldness on the part of Christian scholars. Smith urged us to consider a “scholarship for the masses,” a “scholarship without condescension,” an “outreach scholarship, and a “translation scholarship.” Our work with the church should be something akin to the work we do in undergraduate classroom teaching. Smith imagined bringing our general education programs into the churches
Smith calls Christian scholars to critique American evangelicalism while at the same time working for reform. The Christian Right, he said, is “invested in the anti-intellectualism of evangelical churches.” They rely on non-thinking Christians in order to advance their political agendas. The fulfillment of Smith’s vision will require evangelical scholars to stay in their churches and engage in a “come alongside scholarship.” He reminded us that “you can’t be a prophet on your way out the door.” Such work will require scholars dedicated to the church, Christian colleges and universities willing to provide time to faculty who want to pursue this work, and patrons willing to fund such an effort.
This really resonates with me, but I’m not optimistic in the near term. It often seems that the space has all but closed for evangelical scholars to do work that is both appealing to ordinary evangelicals and committed to intellectual integrity. We want to serve a constituency that doesn’t want to be served. We want to serve God with our minds, and many of our co-religionists find the very idea absurd.
This is also an intellectual problem for my dissertation because part of what I’m exploring is evangelical colleges. At the outset of my work, I just assumed that they mattered, that they have real influence in evangelicalism. But I’ve become increasingly skeptical of claims of broad influence. It seems that most evangelical colleges are either largely impotent in their attempts to reach the evangelical mainstream and they’re actually training students for roles outside evangelicalism, or they are not actually fostering the intellectual and social environment they imagine themselves to be creating. Maybe it’s a little of both.
There is still hope for evangelicalism. The movement that has transformed into an anti-intellectual crusade of hatred and fear is—broadly speaking—the movement that contributed to America’s religious disestablishment in the 18th century and paved the way to abolition in the 19th century. And beyond its often positive social and political effects, evangelicalism has always captured something essential about the Christian life. It has scorned respectable religion and insisted that an encounter with Jesus radiates outward through the whole life, engaging the heart, the mind, and every dimension of our being.
We are witnessing the splintering and shrinking of evangelicalism, but what is being lost is dead weight, worse than useless for the Kingdom of God. And as any good evangelical should know, nothing is reborn until it dies.