BtB Excerpt – The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, by Mark Noll

Books, Burnside Sells Out, Featured — By on October 15, 2010 at 12:00 pm

(Editor’s Note: Remember that marketing onslaught I told you about?  Here’s the first salvo: Dan Gibson’s essay on Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.  You can learn more about our book, Besides the Bible, here and here.  You can buy it here.)

As a writer, I always love to come up with a great opening line — something that just destroys the reader with my cleverness and wit.  That last sentence wasn’t a particularly skilled opener, but Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind has one of the best:

“The scandal of the evangelical mind, is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.”

I don’t think Noll, a professor at Notre Dame, was aiming for a real zinger, but instead a tone-setting lamentation over the state of Christian intellectualism in America. Even more than a decade and a half later, the stinging criticism of that line still burns as I reread it. It’s one thing when the secular world calls us out as backwoods yokels, but when a prominent Christian intellectual levels that charge, it hurts a little more . . . largely because I know he’s right.

While Noll’s criticism of evangelical culture (or more appropriately, the lack thereof ) could probably be extended to broader society as people get busier and busier, relying on television for both information and entertainment (see Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, elsewhere in this book), it’s not hard to find evidence Christians in America do a lousy job in the thinking department.  For example, 95 percent of the chain emails—those featuring myths easily debunked by a quick bit of Googling—that cross my inbox on the way to the virtual garbage can have been sent to me by churchgoers. This isn’t to say that there aren’t exciting intellectual things going on in Christianity (professors and academics like Mark Noll are testament to that), but there remains a legitimate perception modern Christians have little to add to public dialogue.  Regardless of where you stand in the creation debate, the tendency of Christians to resolutely reject what the secular world regards as common knowledge doesn’t help our reputation. Images like that of a saddled triceratops statue in the lobby of Kentucky’s Creation Museum, or the championing of a former beauty queen as a spokesperson for our faith, make for easy laughs and reinforce an image of Christians as uninformed, ignorant rubes.

Noll’s book lays out the evidence for a strong intellectual approach to Christianity championed by the Reformers and early Americans like Jonathan Edwards, unfortunately lost over time, and influenced negatively by the revivals of the Second Great Awakening and the rise of Fundamentalism. As the American church decided that the battle for souls hinged on holding liberalism at bay, the scientific world became an enemy of the faith. When enthusiastic evangelical preachers worked to detach the supernatural from the natural, the thoughtful end of the political world became a place without much value for end-times-focused believers. While many of the country’s great universities began as religiously associated institutions, Christian colleges are now regarded as isolated enclaves, a far cry from their inception as faith-based homes of forward-thinking academia.

While in 1994, Noll might not have predicted the “thinking from the gut” era of George W. Bush, his book did effectively encourage some Christians (and Christian institutions) to improve their interaction with intellectualism. The internet age has helped some, as like-minded believers have been able to connect and interact over distance. Clearly, we can still do better, as Noll’s text is not yet obsolete. In the meantime, I’m sure I have an email forward purporting NASA scientists’ discovery of a “lost day in time.”

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  • I’m excited for this book! (BtB, that is). This excerpt was excellent, and Noll’s book sounds intriguing, too. The only problem I can foresee with BtB is that it will make my reading list hopelessly long. 100 books? I don’t stand a chance.

    • Jordan Green says:

      Don’t worry, Kathleen…the list includes “The Little Prince” and “The Giving Tree”, so that’s a couple right there.

      And I’ve only read a third of the list, myself.

  • Love. Mark Knolls book, The Civil War as a Theological Issue. No doubt this book is great too. I have a top 20 books list on my blog, number 1 is The Great Divorce by CS Lewis. I think it should be required reading for all Christians. To say it changed my life is a understatement. It should be on btb list for sure.

    • Jordan Green says:

      It would’ve been, Carole, but we limited ourselves to only two books per author, tops. Otherwise, C.S. Lewis would’ve dominated the list.

      I think we’ve got “Grief, Observed” and “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe” on there. Not even “Mere Christianity”. We might get some flack for that.

  • I hope you have a “debate” post where people can argue for what should or should not have made the cut.

  • Yea, I would choose The Great Divorce over The Lion Witch and Wardrobe, AND Mere Christianity. I love A Grief Observed, and all his stuff really, but a far as what Christians NEED to read, Great Divorce is tops to me.

  • Don says:

    I agree, “The Great Divorce” is one of my favorites.

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