The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age
Karl W. Giberson; Randall J. Stephens
Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press, 2011
384 pp., 41.00
Longtime readers may remember that Books & Culture originated in 1995 as a fairly self-conscious answer to what Mark Noll had recently dubbed "the scandal of the evangelical mind." His cri de coeur explored the roots and implications of American evangelicalism's failure to craft or sustain a robust intellectual tradition, and the pages of this review have since endeavored to foster a counter-narrative by energizing and exhibiting the best of Christian thinking. But Randall Stephens and Karl Giberson have penned what might be read as a progress report on the state of the evangelical mind, 17 years out. And their news is not encouraging.
The Anointed surveys conservative Christian discourse in four areas—human origins, American history, the family, and end times—and observes the persistent tendency of rank-and-file evangelicals to coalesce around certain charismatic leaders with scant academic training who tout poorly reasoned, ideologically driven theories that are almost universally rejected by credentialed scholars. Stephens and Giberson provide substantial but lively discussions of each sphere, showing the lengths to which evangelicals have gone to uphold commitments to Young Earth creationism, the biblical foundations of the American republic, the normativity of the traditional nuclear family, and the imminent, cataclysmic end of the world.
The authors offer useful historical surveys that help explain the cultural warfare that has long informed evangelical allegiance to these positions. In each case, "pseudo-intellectual" arguments are freighted with dire warnings of cultural and moral decline driven by an uncompromising secularist assault on Christian values. While there is a long history of evangelical demagoguery, Stephens and Giberson highlight four contemporary figures that best typify evangelical imperviousness to critical thinking: Ken Ham, president of Answers in Genesis and founder of the Creation Museum, whose rigid commitment to Young Earth creationism has few rivals; David Barton, president of Wall Builders, author, and television commentator, who champions the notion that America was founded as a Christian nation; James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, whose radio program and public advocacy of Christian child-rearing have made him a mainstay of the Religious Right; and Tim LaHaye, co-author of the Left Behind novels, among the bestselling religious titles in history.
These "anointed" leaders provide a significant occasion for exploring the nature of evangelical intellectual authority. Rather than granting legitimacy to intellectual leaders on the basis of genuine or proven scholarship, American evangelicals elevate leaders with charismatic, populist appeal, who happily speak on God's behalf. Moreover, Stephens and Giberson note, such leaders are certified by their urgent warnings of cultural disintegration if good Christians fail to resist the secular slide. Ham/Barton/Dobson/LaHaye all eagerly exhibit sham accoutrements of academic learnedness, but do so only in service to their predetermined agendas.
The authors repeatedly note their exasperation at evangelicals' slavish deference to the flimsy thinking of Ham/Barton/Dobson/LaHaye, especially given the evangelical thinkers with top-notch academic qualifications at their disposal. A key task here is to impress upon readers the flourishing of scholarship that is at once evangelical in conviction and palatable to thoughtful readers. For each "anointed" leader, the authors highlight an eminently more learned counterpart who supplies a powerful antidote to the evangelical party line: Francis Collins' erudite and unabashed embrace of macroevolution; Mark Noll's highly nuanced reading of religion in early America; David Myers' assimilation of Christian faith and gay marriage; and N. T. Wright's temperate biblical scholarship.
Stephens and Giberson here posit the existence of an evangelical "parallel culture" that insulates and inoculates its members from genuine intellectual discourse by creating its own self-regulating institutions, publications, and media outlets. They personalize this culture by telling the story of Paul Miller, a twentysomething who "has never had a secular friend." Raised fully enmeshed in the parallel culture of (notably Southern and Baptist) evangelical churches, schools, books, and worldview training seminars, Paul imbibed the whole complex of correct evangelical positions on key topics.
But after two years at Bryan College, Paul's commitment to the evangelical worldview began to unravel, because, according to the authors, "the assumptions anchoring the fundamentalist wing of the parallel culture simply cannot withstand much scrutiny." As he peered beyond his evangelical incubator, Paul encountered questions in science, history, and social science challenging much that he held sacred. "Evangelicals often abandon their childhood faith when they become free to explore issues on their own," the authors observe, but instead of rejecting the faith, Paul transferred to a more progressive school "within evangelicalism where [he could] reside more comfortably."
Paul's story is clearly presented as a triumphal (if exceptional) narrative of independent rational assertiveness over an upbringing in retrograde populism. He underwent a good and natural "liberalizing" of his faith, "whereby specific beliefs—biblical literalism, young earth creationism, homosexuality as perversion, eternal torment of the damned in a literal hell, the sinfulness of abortion—are abandoned and other beliefs—the Bible as literature, concern for the environment, racial and cultural equality for oppressed groups, universality of salvation, an emphasis on social justice, tolerance for diversity—move to the center as animating ethical and theological concerns."
But there's an alternate reading of Paul's journey that the authors completely ignore. We might instead read Paul's story as one of embourgeoisement, in which he cast off the awkward small-town beliefs of home in order to enter the "parallel culture" of the urbane professional class, or to inhabit what author Claire Dederer has called "liberal bubble towns" like Brooklyn or Portland. While this book paints evangelical anti-intellectualism as quintessentially American, I would argue that the more thoroughly American tale is Paul's tradition-busting quest for upward mobility.
And Paul isn't alone. The authors, who display a breathtaking condescension toward evangelicals (and populists generally) throughout this book, seem especially eager to demonstrate their own professional-class bona fides. It is evident that they and their ilk believe nothing that might ever threaten the liberal pieties of the well-heeled urban élite. Although they still consider themselves formally evangelical, they've been housebroken; their hard edges, smoothed; their ideas, safely NPR-proofed. Unlike Noll's Scandal, their book isn't pitched to the evangelical faithful. Rather, it seems packaged to reach evangelicalism's "cultured despisers" with a message that proclaims, "Not all of us are crazy like Ham and Barton. We're actually sane and safe. Just like you!"
It is difficult to find any part of this book that invites reticence, much less resistance, in the face of contemporary scholarship. Perhaps it's inappropriate here to invoke the Apostle Paul's reminder to the Corinthians that "God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise," but I can't help but wonder at its bearing on the continuing struggle between faith and intellectual life. I certainly don't take Paul's assertion as a license for intellectual recklessness or cultural schlockery, but shouldn't it at least give us pause as we contemplate an uncritical alignment with "mainstream" scholarship? There are many problematic elements in the ways Ham/Barton/Dobson/LaHaye engage the world of ideas, but I can't say that their suspicious instincts are among them.
It's not that I lack empathy for the authors' critique of the simplistic, manipulative, politicized missives offered by Ham/Barton/Dobson/LaHaye. My work teaching at a Christian college forces me every day to navigate tensions between the scholarship of my discipline and the received wisdom of my conservative students. And The Anointed helpfully illuminates some of the contexts that shape these tensions. But I don't believe my task involves domesticating my students' confidence in the Bible's authority, or, God forbid, helping them adjust more comfortably to the trappings of professional class convention.
In the inaugural issue of B&C (September/October 1995), John Wilson quoted poet Joy Harjo as saying, "There's no sense engaging evangelical Christianity. You can't engage something like that, because they don't encourage interaction and thinking for yourself." Wilson followed with an earnest hope that the brand-new publication would prove Harjo wrong. But then again, he said, maybe not. After all, Christians "are distinguished precisely by their disbelief in the ability to think for themselves," having rejected "the pretensions of the sovereign self and the seductive illusions of 'freedom.'" Wilson then launched this new venture, welcoming readers to "the magazine for people who don't think for themselves."
As much as we may rightly lament the impoverished state of the evangelical mind, there's no way around the fact that Christian orthodoxy situates "reason within the bounds of religion," in Nicholas Wolterstorff's phrase. And, let's be honest: our religion contains a great many things that will forever seem weird and even offensive at places like Berkeley and the Upper West Side of Manhattan. If we begin to believe that we've evolved beyond, or have nothing to learn from the "uneducated" men and women who form the pillars of most evangelical churches and small towns in America, then we will have become party to a scandal far greater than anything related to intellectual life.
Jay Green is associate professor of history at Covenant College on Lookout Mountain, Georgia.
Copyright © 2012 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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