D. G. Hart on Molly Worthen's Apostles of Reason



5 comments

The following is a guest review of Molly Worthen's Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism (Oxford, 2013), named one of Paul Harvey's Great Books on Religion for 2013.  D. G. Hart currently teaches history at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan.  He is the former director of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College, and is the author of several incisive histories of evangelicalism.  His most recent book is Calvinism: A History (Yale, 2013).


Molly Worthen, Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.  viii + 352 pp. $27.95 (cloth). 

D. G. Hart


If a historian had the assignment of telling the history of historical knowledge and scholarship in the United States, how would she organize the narrative or what institutions or figures would she use?  (We do have examples of such history – Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession – so this is not an odd question.)  If the scholar with this assignment used the American Historical Association as the basis for a narrative, she would produce a different story than if she followed the officers and members of the Organization of American Historians.  And this would be a different narrative from one that followed the leading or most prestigious university graduate school programs.  Which would also be different from an account that featured history programs at liberal arts colleges, or that followed the doings of history majors after receiving a B.A.  Some might argue that a history featuring the AHA or OAH focused too much on professional historians and did not adequately factor in museums, monuments, historical sites and markers, theme parks or even journalistic accounts of military or national anniversaries, not to mention book reviews of historical scholarship in non-specialized print media. 
           
This may seem like an odd way to introduce Molly Worthen’s new book on evangelicalism, but since historical knowledge in the United States has more institutional definition – from professional organizations to requirements for undergraduate majors – than born-again Protestantism, the comparison between evangelicalism and history is not as farfetched as it might seem.  These considerations are relevant for considering Worthen’s book because any historian of evangelicalism confronts a task analogous to someone telling this history of history.  How does the historian decide who is in and who is out?  How much does a historian impose their own categories of analysis or let historical actors supply the terms for interpretation?   To alleviate the suspense, readers may be interested to know that I made Worthen’s cut as a figure in this book, though as merely a graduate student with Timothy L. Smith as my advisor, while the favorite evangelical of New York City journalists, the Presbyterian pastor, Tim Keller, did not qualify for inclusion.  Lest anyone think this selection has gone to my head, they should also know right away that Worthen did not follow my cautions about interpreting evangelicalism – namely, that the subject is an arbitrary construction applied by journalists and scholars to an amorphous and hardly coherent set of people who go to church and don’t, who left mainline Protestant denominations and remain in them, who are Protestant and Roman Catholic, but who look appealing or menacing, sizeable, and influential if you are a candidate for federal offices or a publisher selling books.  To be sure, Worthen is in good company in believing that evangelicalism really exists.  But she did not try to persuade the skeptics who doubt evangelicalism’s existence.


To her credit, Worthen recognizes the diversity of her subject and employs the fissiparous character of heart-felt Christianity to propel her narrative.  For instance, Francis Schaeffer and Hal Lindsey are arguably as important to this book as Billy Graham, maybe more so.  Worthen does not merely include individuals but adds nuance to standard accounts of evangelicalism by paying attention to Anabaptists, Holiness groups, charismatics and Pentecostals, feminists, and liberal activists.  She is aware of studies that have leaned heavily on the Reformed or Calvinistic side of born-again Protestantism.  What is not clear, though, is whether someone like Jim Wallis, the founder of Sojourners magazine and voice for social gospel convictions among evangelicals, grew up in a home, attended churches, and enrolled at schools that followed the affairs of Fuller Seminary or the exploits of Billy Graham.  In other words, where do Worthen’s characters come together in a common enterprise other than in the pages of her book?  Again the analogy with history: where do Americans with historical awareness share a common space or enterprise?  We have institutional outlets for making that judgment.  But people with historical awareness are not a movement.  What scholars – Worthen included – do not ask is whether those Christians characterized as evangelical, with all their diversity of schools, congregations, celebrities, media, and quirks – whether they constitute a single movement.  Can anyone seriously call this a religious tradition akin to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy or Thomism?  The answer may be, “yes, because it is big.”  But the skeptics responds, "why count a Free Methodist as evangelical and not as a Free Methodist?" 
           
The period Worthen explores is important for understanding the particular variety of evangelicalism she identifies.  Older narratives might have started with Martin Luther and the Reformation, or with Puritans and their experimental brand of Calvinism that culminated in the First Pretty Good Awakening (Leo Ribuffo’s apt phrase), or with the revivals in nineteenth-century America whose cooperative endeavors laid the Protestant mainline's foundation.  Worthen’s evangelicals are those who began to organize during the 1940s and were originally known as neo-evangelicals.  Her book largely covers subjects already featured in Joel Carpenter’s Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism (1997) or George Marsden’s Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism (1987).  But instead of looking at neo-evangelicalism as a self-contained response to fundamentalism’s negative associations with a shelf life that ran out by the Religious Right's inauguration, Worthen opens wide the canvass and adds details and hues that Carpenter and Marsden neglected.  The virtue of her book is to see how contested the neo-evangelical project – namely, using intellectual life based on an inerrant Bible to save America and the West – how contested that enterprise was.  Wesleyans of the holiness variety, Anabaptists, charismatics, and social activists were hardly impressed by the ideas-have-consequences orientation of fellows like Carl Henry and Harold John Ockenga. 
           
The weakness of Worthen’s attention to variety is that attempts to create a single narrative for such diversity looks arbitrary.  At a conceptual level, for example, a question haunting this book is why Fuller Seminary and the Southern Baptist Convention are part of the same story.  Did Fuller faculty and Southern Baptists ministers imagine that they shared a common mission?  To answer that question in the negative does not necessarily mean that Fuller and the SBC were in direct competition.  It does suggest that each group or institution was working in its own vineyard, trying to improve its own product, rather than being day laborers in different fields owned by a single farmer (Billy Graham?).  In other words, Worthen’s approach raises questions – that she does not address – about the integrity or durability of localist histories over and against metanarratives of a nationalist or cosmopolitan sort.  Why can’t the history of the Mennonites (and John Yoder) be part of the larger story of Anabaptist life?  Why should Mennonites live and move and have their being created and sustained by inclusion in the story of evangelicalism (whatever it is)? 
           
Beyond historiographical considerations, the incoherence of an evangelical metanarrative comes through in the disparate characters Worther is forced to include even within the confines of a single chapter.  For instance, in a chapter on worship and liturgy, Worthen includes the charismatic movement, megachurches, the attraction of high-church liturgies, and the 1974 Lausane Congress where evangelicals from around the world gathered to reaffirm biblical inerrancy and mount another united front against liberal Protestants (read World Council of Churches).  Why the Lausanne Congress is included in a chapter that otherwise features liturgical developments is a mystery, other than that chronologically this chapter covers developments happening during the 1970s.  Chronology is crucial to narrative and so Worthen’s attention to the storyline throughout the book is admirable.  At the same time, toward the end of this chapter she concludes that “the Church Growth movement, charismatic renewal, and ecumenical dialogues offered as much hindrance as help to the neo-evangelicals’ original ambitions.” [172] What if these other aspects of non-mainline Protestantism are not part of the original neo-evangelical movement but are actually constitute their own story or identity?  Of course, if all of these people had signed on to support and defend the work of Billy Graham and Carl Henry, the tensions that Worthen observes would be just that – contradictory impulses within a single movement or institution.  But if these actors had not agreed to be part of a single movement and if the unity attributed to them comes more from the historian telling their story than from the past itself, cannot the tension be as much in the mind of the historian as in the history?
           
Worthen tries to find coherence among born-again Protestants by exploring the problem of intellectual and spiritual authority – hence the title, Apostles of Reason.  She argues that evangelicals share a “set of fundamental questions” [4], even though their answers may differ, about the tension between faith and knowledge, about salvation or a right relationship with God, and about the distance between private beliefs and secular society.  Generally speaking, definitions of an institution or movement rely more on answers to questions than on the questions themselves.  Worthen admits that this understanding of evangelicalism is not “a believer’s self-description” but “a historian’s definition.” [4] Still, a reader could well wonder how a set of questions defines a group of people more than a set of answers, unless evangelicals really were, in a way analogous to the French Enlightenment of Voltaire, “apostles of reason.”  This may seem like a precious objection that springs from an anal-retentive attachment to words.  Still, Worthen’s book shows how vague and indeterminate the word or definition of evangelicalism has become. 
           
Word choice or definitions aside, Worthen is astute to identify the intellectual strategy of neo-evangelicals as an aspect of recent Protestant history worthy of greater attention.  Of course, Marsden investigated some of this in his history of Fuller Seminary, while Carpenter featured much more the activist and programmatic side of neo-evangelicalism.  But Worthen recognizes the intellectual and academic aspirations that were pronounced in the founding of Fuller Seminary and that led to such academic organizations as the Evangelical Theological Society, the Society of Christian Philosophers, and the Conference on Faith and History.  She also recognizes the shift that occurred among born-again Protestant intellectuals since World War II, a transition characterized by replacing biblical inerrancy as the framework for academic work with appeals to "worldview" as the way to establish a voice in the academy.  Furthermore, Worthen gives valuable consideration to Bible colleges' cultivation of academic respectability, along with the tensions that evangelical liberal arts colleges have confronted.

But instead of going deep into the very old problem of what Jerusalem has to do with Athens and how recent Protestants have answered Tertullian’s question in an era of church life divided between conservatives and liberals, and an academic culture balkanized by disciplinary precision and the politics of identity, Worthen attempts to cover as much as is humanly possible in a 265-page book.  The result is a set of suggestions about why biblical inerrancy faded as way to give evangelicals coherence and how worldview became a vehicle to rally the saints – whether for academic life as many who read neo-Calvinists (followers of Abraham Kuyper) did, or for electoral politics as those who read Francis Schaeffer did.  But a detailed study of the evangelical mind – the scandalous one of Mark Noll’s provocative book – is not what Worthen chose.  Instead, she situated glimpses of the evangelical mind in the broad context of Protestant searching. 
           
And so the theme of who or what to include in a historical narrative returns.  As mentioned above, born-again Protestants over the last seventy years have beefed up their academic credentials and done so in part by imitating the professional academic organizations of the university world.  The Society of Christian Philosophers and the Conference on Faith and History were two expressions of this evangelical initiative.  Both relied significantly on the leadership provided by Dutch-American Calvinists who taught at Calvin College, intellectual descendants of Abraham Kuyper, the man who popularized the concept of Christian worldview.  And these organizations became platforms for some of the most significant work (at least as the mainstream academy judges it) by evangelical scholars – George Marsden, Mark Noll, Nick Wolterstorff, and Alvin Plantinga.  Yet, as important as these institutions may be in answering the questions that Worthen uses to define evangelicalism, they do not appear in her narrative, while Marsden, Noll, Wolterstorff and Plantinga at best make cameo appearances.   This was a missed opportunity since Worthen did so much work on the constellation of contexts that allowed made these scholars’ careers plausible.  And since several of them have retired from teaching, historical assessments of their work – both in writing projects and in forming associations of like-minded scholars and students – is now possible in ways it had not been in the heyday of their work.  At the same time, because these scholars used Kuyperian themes, sometimes mediated directly through Cornelius Van Til (as in the case of Marsden), to question epistemological assumptions of the mainstream academy, Worthen had a chance to test her assessment of evangelicalism’s crisis of intellectual authority not against the two-dimensional characters of Francis Schaeffer or Hal Lindsey but against academics whose scholarship is highly regarded and whose Christian commitments have not been questioned. 
           
Yet, Worthen did not take this turn.  Because she did not her history of post-World War II evangelicalism has more the feel of a study of evangelical exoticism than of evangelical normalcy.  If she had followed carefully the evolution of serious evangelical academic life – from Fuller Seminary to the University of Notre Dame – rather than the popularizers who incite the evangelical mob, she might have produced a study of people who are apostles of reason in ways much more profound than talking heads at religious assemblies or marches on the National Mall.



5 comments:

Randall at: February 24, 2014 at 8:01 AM said...

Enjoyed reading the review.

But I wonder about the last section in it on what we focus on as scholars. This is a question of influence and how we judge lasting impact, I guess.

Isn't there a strong argument to be made about numbers, reach, and influence? What about a comparison of sales figures for Mark Noll's Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (roughly 40k) and one of David Barton's post-Glenn-Beck-TV-appearances books? If millions of Americans have taken Francis Schaeffer, Billy James Hargis, John Hagee, Tim LaHaye, and Hal Lindsey seriously, then I see no reason why we shouldn't treat them as serious, and seriously important subjects.

Unknown at: February 24, 2014 at 10:05 AM said...

I think Randall makes a good point (and not just because I have written on popular authors and scholars). It is people like LaHaye, Joel Osteen, Max Lucado, and Rick Warren that millions of people are turning to, and many of them don't know Mark Noll or George Marsden (although I might think they should). Certainly we get a different view if we examine evangelicalism from the standpoint of Noll or Marsden than we do from Lucado or Warren. But which is more representative and to whom?

The other thing that Hart points out--the historiographical (as well as theological) question of the utility of evangelicalism--is a perennial issue. Furthermore, I think there has always been a tension between the general and particular in scholarly studies but even in evangelicalism itself. Hart asks about the inclusion of both Fuller and the Southern Baptists in the same narrative since they weren't conceptually on the same mission. I understand his point, but I don't know that it is valid. I think it is part of the purview of scholars to recognize connections our subjects might not recognize. So, even if Fuller and the SBC don't see themselves as part of the same mission or even see themselves going in opposite directions doesn't mean that we as scholars can't note that our subjects have missed something that binds them together. Even Marsden points out that though the Fuller profs were neo-evangelicals, they were still essentially fundamentalists in theology. But where I do agree with Hart is we as scholars of evangelicalism have problems defining the "what" that ties "evangelicals" together. I haven't had the opportunity yet to read Worthen's book so I won't comment on her decision on the "what" but I would venture to say simply asking the same questions shouldn't necessarily unite individuals into a unit for scholars, but if those asking the same questions are using the same methods to ask those questions or if they are relying on similar tropes or images or texts in answering those questions, there may be something there whether our informants (or ourselves) like it or not.

Paul Harvey at: February 24, 2014 at 7:39 PM said...

By way of comparison/contrast, here is a very extensive review of Molly's book, from The Nation (and I would add a thoughtful review in Books and Culture, but you need to subscribe to get that one):

http://www.thenation.com/article/178237/beyond-belief

It also bears mentioning, I think, just how enjoyable it is to read this book, agree or disagree as you may -- the writing carries you along fluently and with a plethora of anecdotes that will find their way into your classroom.

Kabo at: February 24, 2014 at 8:31 PM said...

I would add too that in addressing a subculture, however diverse, that has earned a reputation for a certain defensiveness, this book maintains a refreshing charity about her subjects. I usually find that tone is as important as subject selection in making an argument believable.

Barry at: February 25, 2014 at 9:10 AM said...

From Fred Clark at Slactivist (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/slacktivist/2014/02/24/rewriting-evangelical-history-with-special-guest-d-g-hart/):

"This switcheroo is a defensive move — a means of fending off legitimate criticism directed toward the most prominent, most popular, most vocal, most central and most influential leaders of the tribe. It’s simple enough: just pretend that these folks are not prominent, popular, vocal, central or influential. And then find somebody somewhere who seems less vulnerable to whatever the critics are saying and then pretend that this person is actually the real prominent/popular/vocal/central/influential leader of the tribe — nevermind that almost nobody in the tribe has ever heard of them or of their ideas."

newer post older post