New Books Alert: The Many Minds of Evangelicalism

Mark Edwards

Molly Worthen's Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism (Oxford 2013), has been released early.  I've been eagerly awaiting this book since I heard Worthen speak at last year's AHA with Ed Blum.  Here's a description from Amazon.  After the break, I offer a few thoughts based on a brief glance and personal experience.

Evangelical Christianity is a paradox. Evangelicals are radically individualist, but devoted to community and family. They believe in the transformative power of a personal relationship with God, but are wary of religious enthusiasm. They are deeply skeptical of secular reason, but eager to find scientific proof that the Bible is true.

In this groundbreaking history of modern American evangelicalism, Molly Worthen argues that these contradictions are the products of a crisis of authority that lies at the heart of the faith. Evangelicals have never had a single authority to guide them through these dilemmas or settle the troublesome question of what the Bible actually means. Worthen chronicles the ideological warfare, institutional conflict, and clashes between modern gurus and maverick disciples that lurk behind the more familiar narrative of the rise of the Christian Right. The result is an ambitious intellectual history that weaves together stories from all corners of the evangelical world to explain the ideas and personalities-the scholarly ambitions and anti-intellectual impulses-that have made evangelicalism a cultural and political force.

In Apostles of Reason, Worthen recasts American evangelicalism as a movement defined not by shared doctrines or politics, but by the problem of reconciling head knowledge and heart religion in an increasingly secular America. She shows that understanding the rise of the Christian Right in purely political terms, as most scholars have done, misses the heart of the story. The culture wars of the late twentieth century emerged not only from the struggle between religious conservatives and secular liberals, but also from the civil war within evangelicalism itself-a battle over how to uphold the commands of both faith and reason, and how ultimately to lead the nation back onto the path of righteousness.

From my quick read, it appears that Worthen offers a new paradigm for the study of post-World War II new evangelicals--a movement that has been well covered by Joel Carpenter, George Marsden, D. G. Hart, John Turner, and many others.  Yet given that her focus is the paradoxical nature of evangelical anti-intellectualism--that evangelicals "have a habit of taking certain ideas very seriously" (1)--perhaps Mark Noll is her best conversation partner.  In The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (1994), Noll argued that traits inherent to the evangelical movement had long held its promoters back from genuine intellectual and cultural pursuits.  Noll's book helped me get over my fascination with one of the Worthen's main characters, the apologist Francis Schaeffer.  The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age (Belknap 2011), by Randall Stephens and Karl Giberson, similarly tackles Schaeffer and other experts ex nihilo (see Worthen's review of Anointed here).

For Worthen, though, the problem is not that the evangelical straw man doesn't have a brain; it has too many.  The evangelicals of the American Century want to have it all: faith AND reason, status AND separateness, the Great Commission AND Great Low Prices.  Here's a few revealing passages from Apostles:

The problem with evangelical intellectual life is not that its participants obey authority.  All rational thought requires the rule of some kind of law based on irreducible assumptions.  The problem is that evangelicals attempt to obey multiple authorities at the same time.  They demand that presuppositions trump evidence while counting the right kind of evidence as universal fact.  They insist that modern reason must buttress faith, that scripture and spiritual feeling align with scientific reality (258). . . . The anti-intellectual inclinations in evangelical culture stem not from wholehearted and confident obedience to scripture, or the assurance that God will eventually corral all nonbelievers, but from deep disagreements over what the Bible means, a sincere desire to uphold the standards of modern reason alongside God's word--and the defensive reflexes that outsiders' skepticism provokes.  The cult of the Christian worldview is one symptom of the effort by many evangelical leaders to fold competing sources of authority into one, to merge inference with assumptions.  The evangelicals who adopt this soft presuppositionalism hope that it might prove to be a viable political currency, one that can buy cultural capital where proof texts and personal testimony fail.  These habits of mind have crippled evangelicals in their pursuit of what secular thinkers take to be the aims of intellectual life: the tasks of discovering new knowledge, creating original and provocative art, and puzzling out the path toward a more humane civilization (261).

Needless to say, Worthen's conclusions should elicit some equally strong pushback from evangelical strongholds--although I sense that her work is in several ways an apology for the evangelical paradox presented before the court of evangelicalism's secular liberal detractors.  D. G. Hart will no doubt have more to say about this in his review of Worthen's book, which should be coming in a few months.

Finally, while on the subject of conservative Protestantism and secular culture, a shout-out to two new books available for pre-order: Steven Miller's The Age of Evangelicalism: America's Born Again Years (Oxford, April 2014); and my colleague Mark Correll's Shepherds of the Empire: Germany's Conservative Protestant Leadership, 1888-1919 (Fortress, March 2014).


Tom Van Dyke said…
Excellent piece, Mark. The "crisis of authority" is not merely evangelicalism's, but structurally of Protestantism itself, as argued by Thomas More against the early reformer William Tyndale.

To wit: In the end, Protestantism's rejection of the Roman church's "magisterium" still leaves the Protestant taking some authority's word for it, be it interpretation, exegesis, or simply translation. Unfortunately, without the Roman church's millennium of intellectual resources--from natural law to metaphysics, Protestantism has little ammo against secular modernity. Hence, to preserve "human exceptionalism," that man--creation--has a purpose, it finds itself defending literal creation stories, as a clumsy bulwark against anti-teleological "scientism."

The choices are [or seem to be] to surrender to modernity, as the Protestant mainline has, or to retreat to a sort of pre-medieval fideism of the type propounded by two of the more vigorous Protestant theologians of the past century, anti-Thomists Karl Barth and Francis Schaeffer.

In the long run, they have proven to be of little help.

But the challenge of modernity is barely 200 years old. We see the children of the Reformation making their way back to Aquinas and natural law, and The Manhattan Declaration types making common cause with the Romish.

The ink is not yet dry on the intellectual history of American Protestantism--the irony being while that rejecting the Roman church's magisterial authority was the original cornerstone of the Reformation, it's the intellectual resources of that Catholic church that it now finds the need to tap.

Indeed, Francis Schaeffer chose a Catholic hospital to die in, the Baptist one unacceptable because they performed abortions therein. I suppose there will always be easy targets like the creation literalists such as Ken Ham to mock--they are such easy targets--but they are likely more the dying embers of a fideism that Barth and Schaeffer fanned, but cannot sustain.
Mark T. Edwards said…
Thanks for your kind words, Tom. Personally, I'd contest the notion that mainline churches "surrender[ed] to modernity"; I think mainline churches' have been much more creative in reconciling past and present than the evangelicals who have followed Schaeffer (or at least used him to justify) in the "cloning" of secular culture since 1960. See James Wellman, Evangelical vs. Liberal (Oxford 2008), on this point.
Tom Van Dyke said…
Back atcha. FTR, I didn't put the Schaeffer project forward as a success, Mark: precisely the opposite. As for the narrative that the Mainline seized the modern day

rather than surrendered to it is of course a live argument.

Regardless, there does seem to be a structural problem in Protestantism: what made it an agent of change, of liberty, is also what makes it entropic.

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