Something to Be Reckoned With: The Evangelical Mind Awakens

By Turner, James C. | Commonweal, January 15, 1999 | Go to article overview

Something to Be Reckoned With: The Evangelical Mind Awakens


Turner, James C., Commonweal


In 1980, the sleeping giant of American politics awoke. Evangelical Protestants comprise, along with Catholics (whom they approximate in number), one of the two largest religious blocs in the United States. The entry into electoral politics of a hefty portion of them as a self-aware Christian Right helped to ensure the triumph of Ronald Reagan and to transform and immensely complicate the affairs of the Republican party. The story is famous, Newt Gingrich's fall from grace providing only the latest, and surely far from the last, act in a riveting drama.

Many fewer nonevangelicals, most of them academics, are aware of a parallel and equally dramatic turning in evangelical intellectual life - though one without the rightward political bent. In 1995 appeared a new bimonthly journal called Books and Culture. The magazine is a self-conscious adaptation of the New York Review of Books, right down to the newspaper stock on which it is printed; and the editors of Books and Culture hoped that their periodical might do for evangelicals what the NYRB has done for secular intellectual life; that is, provide a forum in which academic and freelance intellectuals engage with gusto a general educated public. Like the NYRB, Books and Culture has assembled a stable of writers who repeat in its pages, many of them well known to each other. But, whereas the NYRB came into existence as the more-or-less chance result of a newspaper strike, Books and Culture culminates a kind of evangelical Long March through American intellectual life.

The names regularly on its pages represent almost a roster of the revolutionaries who have led this struggle. Among them are such widely respected academic intellectuals as the historians Mark Noll of Wheaton College in Illinois and Nathan Hatch and George Marsden of Notre Dame; the philosophers Nicholas Wolterstorff of Yale and Alvin Plantinga of Notre Dame; and Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary. It is more than a curious coincidence that Hatch and Noll were classmates at Wheaton College and that Marsden, Wolterstorff, Plantinga, and Mouw once taught together on the faculty of Calvin College in Michigan (an institution to which we shall have occasion to recur). For Wheaton and especially Calvin have been seedbeds of an intellectual renaissance within American evangelicalism (broadly defined: about which more later, as well) that has gone far beyond theology to establish a visible evangelical presence in literary scholarship, psychology, history, philosophy, and other fields.

Both Plantinga and Wolterstorff have delivered the revered Gifford Lectures (which puts them in a company with William James, Etienne Gilson, and Rudolf Bultmann). Hatch's Democratization of American Christianity (Yale) is the standard work on the defining events of the nineteenth-century religious history of the United States. Marsden's Soul of the American University (Oxford) ranks among the most talked-about academic books of the past decade. Similar plaudits could be accorded other Books and Culture authors. Roger Lundin's Emily Dickinson (Eerdmans) is one of the most sensitive studies of that poet. David Lyle Jeffrey's recent encyclopedic analysis of the Bible in English literature was widely received as a magnificent work of scholarship. These scholars are in no sense confined within some narrow evangelical discourse; they speak to, and are heeded by, academics of all stripes in their various disciplines. And they strive as well to speak to a wider audience.

Yet, in so speaking, they have had something distinctive to say. They are not standard-issue scholars. As believing Christians, they understand the import of religious faith in everyday lives. They take theological ideas seriously. They refuse to reduce belief to an epiphenomenon of social forces or material circumstances. Thus, while conforming fully to the canons of secular, mainstream scholarship, they have helped to nurture in the academy a heightened sensitivity to Christian faith as a factor important in its own right. …

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