The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind
by Mark A. Noll
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind / 0-8028-4180-5
I read about Mark Noll's book through Fred Clark's superb Slactivist blog, and was intrigued. Although I am no longer a Christian myself, I do enjoy the writings of Christian intellectuals and I am sensitive to their pain in belonging to a community that, by and large, defines itself as anti-intellectuals and all others as apostates. I am surprised, therefore, to find myself in a position where I cannot recommend Noll's book.
"The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind" is plagued with the rambling tone of a poorly edited dissertation, with random and often jarring attempts to 'sound' scholarly, without actually contributing such. For instance, the first chapter is largely taken up with a side-detour into 'defining our terms' and include such terms as "America" defined here as: "Throughout the book, "America" will mostly mean the United States", with a side note to the effect that Canada will be tossed in now and again. I honestly don't see the point of any of this, and the whole thing feels like a bad attempt at sounding like a textbook - say "United States" when necessary, "Canada" where appropriate, and "North America" when needed, and move on with the point. Similarly, the lackluster attempts to define such 'exotic' terms as "anti-intellectual" and "the mind" seem to have risen less out of an actual need to connect with the reader and more out of an attempt to sound like what Noll thinks an intellectual should sound like.
More to the point, I think Noll has fundamentally missed the point entirely with his book. While I could not agree more that evangelical Christianity needs to embrace the mind and intellect more (or at least stop outright rejecting it), Noll laments the lack of really intellectual Christian colleges and truly intellectual Christian periodicals - places where intellect is nurtured from a uniquely Christian perspective - but, in saying so, I feel that he has completely missed the point entirely.
The problem, I feel, with Christian periodicals and Christian schools is not that they are not intellectual (they are not), but that they are 'Christian' at all. 'Christian' periodicals and colleges aren't Christian in order to nurture the intellect from a 'Christian perspective' (a meaningless statement), but rather they are 'Christian' out of an isolationist goal - a way to prevent 'secular' thoughts and concepts from intruding onto the brain, and thereby remaining safe from the world. Such an isolationist perspective - that the very *existence* of secular thoughts and influences will taint one's spirituality - cannot help but be anti-intellectual to the core, for if intellectualism is an attempt to understand the world, isolationism is an attempt to avoid such understanding entirely.
Mark's stated goal for 'Christian' colleges and periodicals is that such devices should exist in order to nurture the intellect from a "Christian perspective". This statement is, however, meaningless in my opinion - and seems to suggest that a Christian would (and indeed *should*) interpret, say, the literature of Margaret Atwood or the art of Picasso in a fundamentally different way than would, say, an atheist, or a Muslim, or a Wiccan. Indeed, I find the very idea almost appalling - in as much as a person's chosen religion gives them a different way of looking at the world around them, Noll seems to be suggesting that a person's religion should *always* give them a fundamentally different viewpoint from everyone else, in all things and at all times, and that these difference of opinions should be nurtured to the exclusion of all else.
To the contrary, I believe that if evangelical Christianity is ever to shed its anti-intellectual trappings, it *must* also shed its isolationist policies, as the one is a direct consequence of the other. To that end, I think that Noll has the completely wrong solution: we must have fewer Christian colleges, not more. Beyond this point, I think Noll's book would profit greatly from tighter editing and much clearer picture of what he wants to say and how to say it - eschewing the pseudo-scholarly language for something clearer and more direct.
~ Ana Mardoll
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