Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, reformulated a little--evangelicals have squandered the intellectual capital they have lamenting they have lost a prestige they didn't have to begin with

"More and more I get the sense that to the extent that evangelicals have intellectual capital they keep squandering it on the self-perceived and self-diagnosed problem of lost prestige or influence rather than trying to solve a problem anyone else on earth might regard as worth solving."

That was something I wrote in a comment box discussion earlier in the week and it is a pretty good distillation of my frustrations with Anglo-American evangelicalism.  The problem is not necessarily that there is no, as it were, evangelical mind.  The life of the mind exists but it tends to be so thoroughly sublated into the red state and blue state civic religions in Anglo-American academic life it could be impossible to identify as a thing in itself. 

Alan Jacobs' piece from last year discussed Christian intellectuals in the context of the Cold War.

Let's float an idea that that was part of the problem.  This isn't to say the Soviet/socialist system of the communist bloc wasn't ultimately a disaster, it's to say that in choosing to side with liberalism and capitalism Western Christian intellectuals did not pick the better horse. When Solzhenitsyn declared the materialism and secularism of the West to ultimately be as bad as the communist bloc he was not exactly welcomed for saying that.  Nor was Solzhenitsyn beyond criticism himself for some of the ideas he espoused but that's for some other time.  This blog post is about evangelicals, not the Orthodox. 

And to the extent that evangelical scholarship isn't sublimated and subordinated into religious right and religious left imperial bromides it is lamenting the loss of a prestige and status it probably never really had in the United States and should not bother to attain in the present or the future.

I'd hesitate to describe Schaeffer as an intellectual except in a very ... populist-delimited form of the term.

Conversely, I would venture to disagree with a Peter Enns claim that the scandal of the evangelical mind is "we" somehow don't get to use it.  "We" may not even want to use it for things that would be interesting to others.  Lamenting the scandal of the evangelical mind has become something of a cottage industry for those who have an interest in talking about it and in some cases there's a benefit to the branding project.  It does not necessarily mean that something gets set up or pursued as a positive alternative. 

In an era in which student debt is considered a topic for policy debate and potentially a crisis; in a context in which the uneducated whites who are blamed for backing Trump are not likely to either receive or benefit from what is colloquially known as higher education; evangelicals wondering where our academic and intellectual prestige went might do better to tackle something like restoring some of the unskilled labor market.  One of the paradoxes of secular/left criticism of Mark Driscoll over the last twenty years was that they saw him as embodying the worst tendencies of American male privilege while his own sense of what he was doing was that he was addressing the problem of giving those maladjusted and unassimilated males an opportunity to join the productive mainstream of a regional culture. 

In other words, to preclude the likelihood that young horny guys would become thugs or terrorists you give them an opportunity to get a job and get laid in a socially acceptable and prescribed way and then you invite them to pursue this life.  That there were legions of problems with how and why that prescription was what it was is still grist for historical and academic discussion.  What the secular left and the religious right should, perhaps, agree on, is that much like an advocate of liberal democracy might say Marx had an unworkable solution he perceived some real problems in the capitalism of his day.  Mark Driscoll may have formulate a prescription to solve the problem of anti-social male behaviors in a way that caused more problems than it solved but it's possible to grant a certain amount of his criticism was predicated on things even a secular progressive could agree are legitimate points of concern. 

To say there were severe problems with Mark Driscoll's whole social criticism platform would be putting it mildly but at this point can Wenatchee The Hatchet safely assume that nobody who knows about this blog would understand the long-form criticism has been done already where Driscoll's concerned?  He's worth mentioning, however, because there's an extent to which propagandistic dynamics on the left and right precluded the possibility of seeing any potential room for overlap.  Once a guy like Driscoll has been classified as a religious right misogynistic enemy by the left the possibility of figuring out what social problems he thought he was trying to solve so as to come up with healthier and more effective solutions is precluded.  The "othering" process is not just something reactionary right-wing types do, it's inherent and essential to left criticism of the right, as well.  Thus while for the evangelical the scandal of the evangelical mind is there isn't much of a mind for a secularist the scandal of the evangelical mind is why on earth any evangelical would ever think the evangelical mind could, by definition, ever even exist.

And in a way this may get to the problem that both the religious left and the religious right will ultimately have (along with their secularist counterparts), that their social agendas are ultimately parasitically dependent on a power structure they want to join and then influence rather than categorically reject, let alone create alternatives to.  Some of the criticism of the Benedict Option may demonstrate this tendency. Even if someone suggests, say, a Benedict Option, a double bind gets introduced in which the very idea that Christians may have to concede they will not have access to institutional power at formal or informal levels, this will get (and has been) rejected by evangelicals of progressive and conservative stripes.  Perhaps for good reason.   One of those reasons could be that we can't shake the feeling that if we avoid making a cultural bunker and engage in enough service and activism we'll have a seat at the table.  You can't want to change the system from the inside because you'll get changed by the system but if you concede the system is bad and that you don't want to join it you're bad for not wanting to join the system and try to do some good from the inside.  The double bind inherent in the ways Christians with left and right concerns have addressed Dreher's variation of social withdrawal doesn't discount the legitimacy of their respective criticisms, but it's possible to propose that their criticisms can be predicated on a double bind they may not realize they bring to their criticism of the Benedict Option. 

The rise in the last forty years of an Ayn Rand inspired libertarian/conservative movement should give evangelicals of red or blue loyalty at least some moment's pause.  It's not a foregone conclusion that the United States can't embrace a more explicitly secularist approach and this will not necessarily be a Gene Roddenberry style Star Trek blue state secularism.  One of the failures of the Democratic party and the American left may have been to forget that it's never a foregone conclusion that a secularist state could only be formulated on a "left" platform. 

A corresponding failure on the part of conservative evangelicals is to keep thinking the history of evangelicalism has only ever tilted toward what they would now define as "right" leaning politics.
Was William Jennings Bryan a conservative in his day?  It's easy for Christians who have won seats at the table to decide that the ruler who invited them must really be okay, whether it's one president or another but that doesn't mean that either side is necessarily right for it.

An evangelical mind that tethers itself to the red and blue civic religions of our day is going to be tethered to those two civic religions at the expense of being evangelical in any way that ultimately matters.  If there's an evangelical mind and it spends all its intellectual capital bewailing the loss of a status and privilege it never had that's all it will do. 

Alastair Roberts' comment at a Mere Fidelity podcast springs to mind, that many of the Christian intellectuals mentioned in the Alan Jacobs' feature were not evangelical at all but intellectuals in the Protestant mainline.  There's a history of evangelicals retroactively assimilating thinkers who were not really, the taxonomy of their own times, evangelical, into evangelicalism as we define it today.  I've got no truck with 21st century American Calvinists enjoying the writings of G. K. Chesterton, for instance, but who on earth would imagine Chesterton would fit any American's definition of evangelical in any era?  Back in the 1980s, ahem, it was not so difficult to find American evangelicals and fundamentalists who could express some sincere doubts as to the orthodoxy and orthopraxy of C. S. Lewis.  Even those figures who are quoted habitually by evangelicals now may have had to be, so to speak, grandfathered into the evangelical mainstream because they didn't have a mainstream presence in evangelicalism within their own lifetimes.

Which might be a polite way of saying that another scandal of the evangelical mind is that what has been passed off by some evangelicals as the evangelical life of the mind has been all too second-hand and retroactively grandfathered in.


chris e said...

The Noll book was very much written in the vein of 'The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind' as opposed to the movements that preceded evangelicalism, rather than a change in the quality of apparent intellectualism within evangelicalism itself.

That said, it's easier when one's culture devotes a huge amount of intellectual resource to theology, and when associated fields (like philosophy) have some theological focus, so perhaps one cause of what Noll identifies is just intellectual changes since the Enlightenment.

My own feeling is that in a kind of cargo cult move, evangelicals have tried to fix it via aping the superficial characteristics of intellectual life, without attempting to address the real issues. So we get an exaggerated sense of credentialism, a kind of SCAA approach to christian institutions, and a misplaced sense of respect for such-and-such thinktanks (and tied to this a TED-talk approach to grabbing intellectual output that is comforting to us).

It seems to me that we'd get further by just living the intellectual life in a fairly low key way, according to the gifts each of us have, and generally foster a more thoughtful approach in evangelicalism. That will however take a lot longer to bear fruit.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

True, Noll's contrast was more evangelicalism in America as contrasted with intellectual movements prior to it. Didn't make that clear enough in the post itself.

As I've kept watch on what inspires how much reading interest even at just this blog ... we may be operating at a lower level of intellectual ambition than we tell ourselves we're aspiring to.

Even in terms of the analytics of this blog there's 430 some views of the following post as of today.

On the possibility of spatial-temporal syntactic correspondence between ragtime and sonata forms

By contrast, there's about 4,200 views of the following post.

The historical and social setting for Mark Driscoll's development of William Wallace II as a pen name, a kind of postlude/preface to "Pussified Nation"

Well, depending on how views are measured there's actually 7,278.

and then ...

there's about 12,500 for this post (or 14,160, depending on how views get counted).

Sutton Turner memo recommended raise for Driscoll for FY2013 to 650k salary, retain 200k housing allowance for CY2013

In the history of the blog that's easily the single most viewed post at Wenatchee The Hatchet. It's a pedestrian document discussing compensation for one guy in leadership at MH. It's not a surprise how or why it became so important to so many people who were once at Mars Hill. But in a way the history of who has viewed what at this blog could be a portal looking into what people are actually curious about compared to what some evangelicals claim we should be attempting to recover (i.e. the life of the mind and intellectualism and all that).

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

something else that comes to mind about evangelicals pining for the days of Christian intellectualism is that it could potentially class with what's been euphemistically called the "cultural mandate". To put it in harsher historical terms, large swaths of the Christian intellectual and cultural tradition since the resurrection of Christ were pioneered in Western culture by men and women who took oaths TO NEVER GET LAID. There was a reason they had time to contribute to the life of the mind, because they were ruled out of being able to meaningfully contribute to the gene pool in then-socially-acceptable ways.

I wonder whether the evangelicals who pine for the long-lost life of the mind in evangelical intellectual life have thought through whether there'd even be time for that if everyone was breeding as much as those who espouse the "cultural mandate" believe is ultimately required.