More Scandals of the Evangelical Mind


Preston Jones


Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 84 (June/July 1998): 16-18.

When I was a kid the closest thing to smutty literature I was able to get my hands on was a book by Tim and Beverly Lahaye called The Marriage Act. There were, of course, occasional, if red-faced, glances at issues of National Geographic to be had, but, as it was my plight to have been raised in a sober fundamentalist home, Tim and Bevís commentary was my primary source. I read it often.

It isnít that I ever took the Lahayesí advice all that seriously, even in the abstract visions my laddish mind could conjure. Take, for instance, their suggestion that before honeymooners do anything important they should kneel beside the marriage bed and invoke Godís blessing. Sure, one can understand the rationale behind this suggestion; itís just that, like the annual "Merry Christmas, youíre going to hell" sermon each December 24th at the Southern Baptist church of my youth, there is something inappropriate about it. The wedding service is for praying, after all; the honeymoon is for, well, something else.

I was born again at 12:10 p.m. on September 13, 1981. That is, I was born again at 12:10 p.m. on September 13, 1981, while sitting on the left end of the next to the last pew on the left-hand side of the sanctuary attached to Immanuel Baptist Church in San Bernardino, California, which has, since the mid-1980s, become a mega-church. Iím not sure how my conversion came about, really. One minute I was having a drug-induced paranoid delusion centered on the police helicopters that for some reason were always following me; the next I was praying. And that was that. Martha, childrenís minister at Immanuel, says that as early as 12:15 she could tell something great had happened to me, which came as no surprise to her since she, with others, had had me on her prayer list for quite some time. (I later discovered that Martha was a "prayer warrior.")

In the week following my conversion I took after many of the good fundamentalist teenagers I knew and invested in a stack of Christian t-shirts. My favorite one exclaimed, "True peace begins when Jesus comes in." And then there was another that advertised the Rapture, though I donít remember its exact wording. Indeed, I canít recall most of the slogans I carried about on my body in my teenage years, but I know I prayed fervently that God would use those t-shirts to touch hearts and lives.

And so it went. "Lord, please help me to drive correctly so that people will see my bumper sticker which praises you; and may your spirit lead them to faith." "Lord, as I sit here in class just reading my Bible"óI was supposed to be practicing algebraó"I pray that I would shine your love and that the people here would come to you." And all the while I wondered if Amy Grant, who according to rumor had stopped giving altar calls at her concerts, was backsliding.

Then came the year I hoped to head off to Africa where I could be martyred. Before that I played guitar in a Christian rock band. Before that I barely graduated from high school; I didnít think that my non-Christian teachers ever said anything worth listening to. "Lord, as I sit here while this teacher tells lies about evolution, please help me to take a stand for your Word." (Pastor Bill, I just want to praise the Lord that he gave me the strength to take a stand for him at school last Thursday. No one said that they wanted to get saved but I think that a lot of seeds were planted and that the Lord will cash in on them later.)

After it became clear that I wasnít going to be able to achieve martyrdom in AfricaóI couldnít actually bring myself to raise "support" due to a "spirit of pride," according to one fellowóI joined the United States Navy. That was in 1986.

Four years later I met a very nice young woman at a Christian concert. She was a typically confused teenager, which, since I was a cradle-robber, was no problem. I paid her way to summer Bible camp. She got saved, and three years later got engaged to me. We were married in an Anglican church. That was five Christian calendars ago.

In the course of these five years and the two that preceded them, my wife and I have learned a lot about the Christian tradition. We have learned that rituals arenít really all that bad, and that to the extent that they can stand in faithís stead when faith itself grows dim, they are precious. We have also concluded that the Pope isnít the Antichrist.

Of course, a large number of fundamentalists still think that the Vatican is the Great Whore foretold in the Apocalypse, which is why some of them perceive that the cooperation fostered between evangelicals and Catholics by this journal is yet one more proof that the Great Apostasy is underway. Bill Bright and Chuck Colson are undoubtedly on prayer lists throughout the land, thousands being burdened by the thought that these chieftains have fallen under a deceptive spell.

Thus at a recent Bible study I heard one woman request a prayer for her neighborís salvation. "Sheís a serious Catholic," the supplicant observed, "and she doesnít know anything about Christianity." That a Protestant would think Catholics misguided is one thing; that a Protestant would think a devout Catholic ignorant of Christian tradition is just plain scandalous.

A great deal has been said in recent years about what Mark Noll has called the "scandal of the evangelical mind." "The scandal of the evangelical mind," writes Noll, "is that there is not much of an evangelical mind"óand particularly disastrous in his view has been the advent of such pseudo-intellectual disciplines as "creation science" and premillenialist prophecy studies on the order of Hal Lindsayís best-selling and oft-reissued Late Great Planet Earth. Meanwhile, Noll observes, the "whole spectrum of modern learning, including economics and political science, literary criticism and imaginative writing, historical inquiry and philosophical studies, linguistics and the history of science, social theory and the arts," is largely ignored by evangelicals. Nollís intention was not to rail against fundamentalists; he noted that his book was a cri de coeur from a "wounded lover." He sincerely hopes to see the scandal of the evangelical mind removed.

Much of the widespread conversation spurred by Nollís book has undoubtedly been beneficial. Probably more than ever, aspiring evangelical scholars intend to bring their work to the secular world beyond their comfortable religious spheres; they aim to have their work published by prestigious secular presses; they want, as is often said, to love God with their minds. But if the discussions in which thoughtful evangelicals have recently engaged have contributed to these happy trends, so have they sometimes veered into less fruitful territory.

Consider, for instance, the self-deprecation that seems to have become fashionable in some evangelical quarters. Surely the discussions of the scandal of the evangelical mind were not intended to make a virtue of casting aspersions on unenlightened Christians. Yet it seems to have in some cases come to that. Thus in 1996 a prominent Canadian press published a book that holds all evangelicaldom in the American South in outright contempt. Indeed, one point of the book is to distinguish Canadian evangelicalism "from the more extreme evangelicalism in the southern United States," though readers are never informed how to distinguish "the more extreme" forms from generic southern evangelicalism, since the author himself claims to be "furious with the entire southern evangelical world." And fretting that "the South Carolina religious reality" might become "the Canadian evangelical destiny," he paints all southern evangelicals as hate-mongers. One would not of course be surprised if it was a secularist who held up an entire population of Christian people to derision, but these regrettable words were written by a Christian who, borrowing casually from Noll, also called his ruminations a cri de coeur. A particularly sad aspect of this spectacle was that this book was endorsed by prominent Canadian evangelicals.

In a recent edition of Books & Culture, Doug Frank of Houghton College also uses The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind as an occasion to chide those in spiritual charge of his childhood for having somehow failed him. He wishes his fundamentalist forebears had been "better equipped, theologically and personally, to see how the life vest that holds us up in the storm can become a straitjacket that keeps us from exploring what lies below the waves"; he wonders if the Sunday School jingles he was taught as a child "snatched away my freedom to think." Indeed, "I wonder if those happy little jingles, representing and reinforcing a closed universe of evangelical rhetoric, snatched away my freedom to inhabit fully the complicated human world inside me where terror and joy, loss and recovery, oscillate capriciously." Frank says that these days he wants less assurance and dogmatism than fundamentalists offer; he wants more intellectual vigor; and he wants, in his words, truer "discipleship to the slaughtered lamb."

One wonders what the people who devoted themselves to ensuring that Mr. Frank received a decent upbringing would do in the face of such allegations. My guess is that they would put him on a prayer list. Or maybe they would ask him to just leave them alone, since they had given him the best education they could.

Not that they had all that much to give in the first place. Robert Wuthnow has observed that evangelicals "seldom understand the Bible very well, know little about theology, buy heavily into the therapeutic culture of feel-goodism, and are caught up in a cycle of overspending and consumption like everyone else." But in an increasingly illiterate age isnít it something that at least modestly attentive fundamentalist young people have some familiarity with the Bible? One cannot expect many students to be able to appreciate, say, Eliotís "Journey of the Magi" these days, but one can expect, or at least hope, that oneís evangelical students will recognize its biblical allusions. And however facile fundamentalist theology may be, is it not nevertheless something? There is certainly more to life than the fact that God loves us and has a wonderful plan for our lives, but those who cannot go far beyond this single profundity should not be scorned. And while it is true that this countryís evangelicals consume as much as their non-evangelical peers, it is also true that, generally speaking, they give more away. And isnít it something that were it not for concerned evangelicals the pro-life cause would be in more desperate straits than it is? And that American family life would be an even greater disaster than it is?

The point is that it is one thing to maintain, as Noll does, that thoughtful evangelicals have a lot of work to do toward improving their collective intellectual life, and it is quite another thing to disparage Christian people who are simply not interested in intellectual things. Put another way, few would say that evangelicals should not honestly and forthrightly criticize themselves and their forebears. But castigating the perceived simple-mindedness of Christian people who have not had and will not have the slightest interest in the life of the mind is wrong.

Writing to the Philippians, St. Paul states his emphatic disapproval of some who preached Christ in a spirit of "envy and strife," but they nevertheless preached Christ, says Paul, "and therein I rejoice."

The educated and fashionable have long held the great unwashed in contempt. It is a temptation that critically minded evangelicals should resist. Like many contemporary evangelicals, I am not the fundamentalist I once was. But I will forever thank God for September 13, 1981.


Preston Jones is a graduate student in history at the University of Ottawa, Canada.