The Very Model of a Modern Evangelical — The City Online - Houston Baptist University

The Very Model of a Modern Evangelical

by John Mark Reynolds on August 2, 2009

Due to the outpouring of response to Matthew Lee Anderson’s article on the New Evangelical Scandal in last year’s Winter issue, we chose to follow this article up with responses from John Mark Reynolds of Biola and Francis Beckwith of Baylor, as well as an essay from Mr. Anderson responding to his critics. We shall be posting the entirety of our Summer 2009 issue shortly, but in the meantime, here is the text of Prof. Reynolds’ essay to tide you over.

Matthew Lee Anderson, a rising new media public intellectual, has written an article worthy of time and attention. He wishes to inform us in his recent piece “The New Evangelical Scandal” (appearing in the Winter 2008 issue of THE CITY) that the Evangelical youth are not, in fact, okay. This is a thankless task that opens up the writer, even one as bright as Anderson, to immediate scorn, especially if he is young. The tired will respond that the youth are fine, that people are always worrying about them, and that Mr. Anderson will understand all of this when he is older.

This dismissal is very dangerous. If Christian theology is true, then the youth are never alright and it takes someone to worry about them to avoid the situation becoming permanent. It is true that many people in the past have warned us about the young, but this does not show that their warnings were wrong. In fact, it strongly suggests that they were effective. Anderson, like President George W. Bush in the War on Terror, will, if he is successful, cause people to doubt the very existence of the original danger.

Anderson correctly warns against perennial mainstream media narratives that claim youth are rejecting the “religious right” and the faith of their fathers. Anderson brings to mind the stories that claimed that my own generation, now the most conservative in American history, was also supposed to reject traditional Evangelical concerns. The repeated announcements of the end of the pro-life movement as a political concern have been made all my life.

Anderson also lists several problems often overlooked in Evangelical youth. For one, they accept a facile bipartisanship, which may doom them to political impotence. Secularists should stop worrying about a theocracy: Anderson finds young Evangelicals to be like young Mark Studdock in the C.S. Lewis novel That Hideous Strength—more spaniel than pit bull in their desire to charm rather than snub those that despise them. In fact, Anderson’s article essentially accuses young Evangelicals of being just like the characters Mark and Jane Studdock. Like Mark, young Evangelicals desire admission to the “inner ring” of the culture more than any other temptation. Like Jane, they are lightly educated, but take their thoughts very seriously. Unlike Mark and Jane, young American Evangelicals are given Blue Like Jazz rather than Taliesin through Logres.

Anderson does not, however, identify the bad guys, today’s version of the Progressive Element at Bracton College. This is really too bad. Anderson’s article is rather like reading the story of a dread illness with not a word about the first cause or how to cure it. He has catalogued the symptoms without diagnosing the disease. He has with rather too much prudence refused to give much advice, and his modesty threatens the health of the patient.

Still, Anderson is wise to try to help the young people of his country and perhaps he is wiser still to be careful and chary in his prescriptions. Perhaps he is remembering what Socrates said in describing the young man Meletus:

What sort [of person is he]? No mean one, it seems to me; for the fact that, young as he is, he has apprehended so important a matter reflects no small credit upon him. For he says he knows how the youth are corrupted and who those are who corrupt them. He must be a wise man; who, seeing my lack of wisdom and that I am corrupting his fellows, comes to the State, as a boy runs to his mother, to accuse me. And he seems to me to be the only one of the public men who begins in the right way; for the right way is to take care of the young men first, to make them as good as possible, just as a good husbandman will naturally take care of the young plants first and afterwards of the rest.

Socrates praises Meletus for worrying about the youth, but was concerned about Meletus’ diagnosis of the problem. Meletus believed Socrates was the problem and his death the cure for what ailed Athenian youth. The disastrous impact of Meletus’ wrong diagnosis often obscures the fact that the youth of Athens were in trouble. Athenian independence was in peril and would soon vanish under the weight of a wicked educational system and hedonism.

As Socrates points out, Meletus was trying to do something vital and important. Anderson has pointed out that Evangelical youth are being corrupted, but, perhaps overly fearful of becoming Meletus, has told us too little about who is responsible. Sometimes the youths of the city are being corrupted and fixing the blame correctly is of utmost importance.

Being, perhaps, not overly burdened with the modesty or the prudence of youth, I shall give both diagnosis and prescription. After all, curmudgeons will rush in where bright young men fear to tread.

Evangelical youth are being corrupted and Evangelical scholars and leaders are at least partly to blame. Why? The church and the Evangelical academy have, by and large and for various reasons, rejected Christendom and left Evangelical youth to create their own inadequate pseudo-culture on the fly.

What is Christendom? Christendom is the culture created by the happy fusion of Greek and Roman philosophy with Jewish and Christian thought. This culture, this city of God, has had many citizens. Many of those citizens have made mistakes, but it is also responsible for most of the glorious achievements of Western culture. I describe the birth of Christendom in my recent When Athens Met Jerusalem, but Pope Benedict has defended it far more ably. Christendom has become a dirty word amongst smart, young Evangelical scholars.

There is no good theological reason for this abandonment of Christ’s kingdom by Evangelicals. Evangelical icons like John Wesley were educated in that great tradition and did great deeds as citizens of Christendom. As “mere Christians,” Evangelicals certainly are a voice in the great conversation that has shaped the public policy of Christendom. Excellent journals like Touchstone and Salvo prove this point monthly. Evangelical groups with even a very low-church background, such as Baptists, have a good historic connection to the broader heritage of Christendom. Schools such as Houston Baptist University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary have leadership that make the connection between Christendom and Baptist theology plain while advocating for the corrections to historic errors and a distinctive theology that they believe God has given them.

Oddly, this attack on Christendom is often made in the name of breaking down barriers to the poor or to people groups outside the Evangelical subculture. Christendom, of course, embraces over a billion of the world’s citizens and has done so for centuries. The rejection of Christendom can lead to tiny churches made up only of intellectualists entranced with Stanley Hauerwas, while the rest of the neighbor-hood goes to the large Pentecostal Holiness group down the street.

Evangelical academics, young as well as old, are becoming cut off from the groups they hope to serve, especially Evangelicals. One weakness of the Anderson article is that it says almost nothing about the two-thirds of Evangelical youth who will not even get an undergraduate degree. In my experience, Evangelical academics decry the anti-intellectualism of Evangelical subculture as the main reason for the gap, but do not consider that to the extent that it exists it is a reaction to their intellectualism.

Intellectualism, in the sense I am using it, is not merely valuing the life of the mind, an unmitigated good. It is confusing intellectual activity, which is good, with the attitudes, beliefs, and social characteristics of one’s peers who went to the school you attended. The intellectualist is socialized into a peer group, but confuses his choices in music, clothes, and beverages with intelligence. He or she reads the right books and knows how to talk about them properly, to feed the proper perceptions.

There are genuine benefits to intellectualism in mainstream culture. If an intellectualist bluffs about the “Bush doctrine,” he will get a pass, but if anybody else tries a bluff in this area she will be called on it. President Bush read a great deal, but as he was not an intellectualist, he got little or no credit for it. The intellectualist will always get the presumption of intelligence. A good case can be made that Dwight Eisenhower was at least as smart as Adlai Stevenson, but Stevenson was an intellectualist, so he got the benefits and liabilities that come with the territory.

Of course, there are liabilities in being perceived as an intellectualist, a group ripe for parody, though these liabilities have declined in recent years. It can be disheartening for an active intellectual to find herself part of a group whose members are less noted for an actual devotion to intellectual activity than the appearance of being cultured, rather like Lizzie Greystock in Trollope’s magnificent novel The Eustace Diamonds. Poor Lizzie was fond of reading poetry in settings that would highlight her tragic beauty for the romantic appearance without much knowledge or real love for poetry. A modern Trollope would have no problem putting a modern Lizzie in the right jazz club, drinking the right drink, while clutching a copy of the right misunderstood novel.

As recently as the mid-eighties being called an “intellectual” (when what was meant was an “intellectualist”) could be a fatal political charge. Obviously, the election of President Obama marks a shift in public opinion. The rise of technology jobs, growth in the number of college graduates, and positive portrayals of intellectualists in films (the romantic college grad has utterly supplanted the cowboy), have all contributed to this change.

Anderson’s article describes an intellectualist with perfect accuracy. He notes that his generation often despises the Republican Party of their parents. The reasons Anderson cites are the product of college or university consensus about the politics of the 1980s and have little to do with facts. Evangelical youth “know” that Reagan era was the dec-ade of greed—and that Reagan himself hated the poor, gay people, and smart people—without knowing much at all about Reagan or the details of his administration. Most know nothing of Reagan’s rise from poverty, his actual intelligence, or social tolerance. Their history of the 1980s is missing any reference to the late Jack Kemp, the happy warrior of the GOP for inclusion, and a major figure in the Reagan Revolution. It entirely glosses over the depths of Carter era America. In fact, like most intellectualist attitudes, it is nearly fact free.

Intellectualist culture despises Christendom, so Evangelical intellectualists do as well. What made some sense for secular intellectuals, however, makes almost no sense for Christian thinkers. Intellectualists appropriate the attitude and then do some of their real thinking, trying to make it fit with Christian history. Cornel West, who strongly rejects Evangelical theology and social policies, can get a standing ovation at Gordon College for denouncing Christendom, even though Christendom created most of the colleges in which he goes about denouncing. Poor Saint Constantine is blamed for things he did not do, like putting the state in charge of the Church, and given no credit for the obviously good things he did, like ending the persecution of Christians.

The attack on patriotism is a part of this assault on Christendom. “Christendom” in the mythology of the academy is about power and politics. Patriotism is a simple trick to get the rubes to turn over power to politicians. Evidently the solution to this problem is to either to abandon politics altogether or to “speak prophetically to power,” though generally only to Republican power. Of course, Christian intellectualists ignore the ties of prophets like Nathan or Isaiah to the royal house of David since this would spoil their pristine idea of the non-partisan Biblical prophet.

A great positive of the last two generations of white Evangelicals has been the utter rejection of open racism. Successful rainbow coalitions, like the one in California that helped pass Proposition 8 and defend traditional marriage, are a good model of real diversity, but too often the Evangelical intellectualist ignores or despises those examples. They fit too neatly with old concerns and stereotypes that are too often a hidden motive behind his concern for diversity. Continued legitimate concerns about diversity and racism are sometimes hi-jacked to undermine traditional Evangelical moral and theological causes. Instead of linking arms with like-minded theologically conservative churches from a different social or ethnic background, groups easy to find, the intellectualist seeks groups that are theologically left-of-center.

If you doubt this, try to find an interracial conference of Christian scholars devoted to defending the error-free Bible as the common ground between them. There is relatively easy common ground amongst traditional American Christians on this issue, but this is not the common ground the intellectualist seeks. In fact, it supports values he would really rather dismiss or deemphasize, even if he works for institutions that were built to defend those doctrines. He does not seek out the scholar who is to his theological right, but almost always looks for one to his theological left.

Announcements that God is not a Republican or a Democrat are not usually made for the benefit of the demographic of Evangelicals that vote in the highest percentage and the most consistently for one of the political parties: African-Americans and the Democratic Party. They are made for white Evangelicals that vote for the Republican Party.

Anderson is right that this generation is remarkably post-patriotic. Of course, disdain for patriotism contradicts another value of intellectualists: the love of authentic community. Isn’t “a strong love for your folks” just another way of describing patriotism? The solution in many Christian colleges has been to allow everyone in the world to love and take pride in their people group except for Americans. Americans who visit a country and expect it to cater to their cultural whims are (rightly) considered “ugly,” or at least boors. Non-American nationals who visit American Christian colleges have a right to demand cultural accommodation or the Christian college is “ugly” and boorish. The only inauthentic culture and community in the world, it turns out, is American, particularly Evangelical American, culture. Anyone who works in Christian academia has heard some form of this very argument made.

Anderson is right that his intellectualist friends have trouble with traditional Evangelical doctrine and standards of holiness, but it is part of the cure for the self-loathing gained from exposure to secular intellectualism. Recently a friend of mine was interviewed for a job at an Evangelical Christian college and was asked about his view on Scripture. When my friend replied he believed in inerrancy, the college administrator was shocked to the point of jumping out of his chair and letting loose a profanity. He asked if the upper administration knew of this shocking fact and was only calmed by the fact that my friend was not a member of an Evangelical denomination. Evidently, the very part of his views that made him love and respect Evangelicals and assume agreement with them was only tolerable to these college Evangelicals because he was not one.

The group Anderson describes are more horrified by the strong, traditional Protestants than by Catholic or Orthodox beliefs, but this is no real sign of an ecumenical spirit. Too often the Evangelical young adult merely uses Catholic and Orthodox thinkers to tear down those parts of Evangelicalism they do not like while ignoring those parts that that challenge their assumptions. They are cafeteria ecumenicists. Roman Catholic teaching on birth control and sexuality are not quoted or applauded, though nothing is a greater challenge to the norms of Evangelical sub-culture. Evangelical intellectualists tend to ignore those writings by John Paul the Great or the brilliant Benedict XVI that attack post-modern or pop culture views of sexuality or scholarship. John Paul certainly spoke truth to power and helped liberate millions from murderous tyranny, but the tyranny was a leftist one and Evangelical parents admired him, so he is not the kind of Catholic they admire.

Anderson is also exactly right in his analysis about the desire for Evangelical intellectualists to fit in on the media and popular culture front. This is driven by the lack of cultural confidence that comes from picking up “intellectualist” attitudes.

The best example in my own experience to illustrate Anderson’s point was changing attitudes toward the Mel Gibson film The Passion of the Christ amongst Evangelical film students. Early on I heard them moan about how the subculture would reject the film because it was subtitled, too violent, and too Catholic. Film students bemoaned the fact that here was an artistically excellent film and the idiots in the pews would reject it because of their prejudice. Soon it became obvious that in fact they had (as intellectualists often do) underestimated the people in the pews and that they were willing to go see the film and give it a chance, R-rating and all. The film also became “politically incorrect,” as its orthodoxy disturbed Hollywood elite. Almost immediately the opinions I encountered in many Evangelical young adults changed from advocacy and excitement to antipathy toward the film. I had been arguing that film students should cheer up and that a positive reception of Gibson’s difficult and complex film was a sign of maturation in Evangelicals. Perhaps, after all, if they made good films they would be watched, and that the major problem with their previous art films had been that they were not very good. After all, Evangelicals bought scads of books by Frankie Schaeffer in an earlier era telling them how stupid and boorish they were—so we knew there was a market in the community for hard truths.

Instead of being encouraged, it became routine for me to hear mockery of the Passion and Gibson. I heard more than one student say, in a voice dripping with disdain, “Well, look at that. Christians only turn up to see a movie about Jesus.” Of course, there is no evidence that Evangelicals only go to movies about Jesus—quite the contrary—though it would be odd to find an Evangelical uninterested in his story. Instead, a false belief about how boorish the community is helps one become the ‘good Evangelical’ in secular meetings (“I am not like one of those Evangelicals.”) and also provides a built in excuse when one’s creation fails to sell. (“I broke too many barriers. I was too daring. I was too witty.”) The fact that it also cut you off from the majority of Evangelicals is an added bonus, because it gives you the benefits of a bloodless martyrdom from people you wanted to despise anyway.

Anderson is right that young Evangelicals are intent on outer signs, and that they are not culturally clueless or “fundamentalists.” What he is wrong to think is that there is anything new in this. It is hard to ex-pect much different when the head of an Evangelical arts program, about my age but dressing younger, can tell me that a goal of his pro-gram is to let the “kids know it is o.k. for Christians to say ‘bastard.’” I remember thinking at the time that it might be more useful to have a program in the arts reminding students that it was o.k. for a Christian not to say ‘bastard.’

Anyone who loves dialectic, art, and culture can only mourn the lost opportunity such a statement represents. All who put great hope in the promise of Christian higher education must pause to guard against such groupthink. Intellectualism in our midst is a call to return to the examined life of Socrates and of the Lord Jesus Christ. Christians believe all are sinners and that sinners cannot be saved by reason alone.

In fact, an easy explanation for much of intellectualism is that it is an elaborate justification for what my grandfather would have called sin. Anderson comes close to saying it. However, as Anderson recognizes, that is too simple an explanation. There is real and ugly opposition to intellectualism in the Evangelical subculture that does much to pro-mote the opposite vice. Anderson sees all of this, but he forgets the two-thirds of Evangelicals who have never been exposed to intellectualism or given an opportunity to accept or embrace it. When traditional Christians celebrate the mental mediocrity of a candidate as a virtue, or act as if not reading a book is praiseworthy, it is an equally serious problem. There is an anti-intellectual streak to American life, and some Evangelicals have fallen for it.

Patriotism is a noble “lesser love” that trains the mind for heaven, but some have made a god of it. Products like The Patriot’s Bible really are grotesque. I have talked to some Christians who were less con-cerned about my doctrine, where we had important disagreements, than about my blog posts expressing caution about Rush Limbaugh. I didn’t vote for President Obama, but I only need to look at the online comments section, or listen to some very popular talk radio voices, to read and hear things that make me sympathize with him. My students regularly meet Christians who will pass on any slander about the Pres-ident. It does not help that the left is equally annoying, because these young adults are reacting to the toxic attitudes they see, not the ones they do not see. In fact, Evangelicals who waste time on Obama’s birth certificate and nutty leftists who want to know the real mother of Trigg Palin turn off young Evangelicals to both parties.

Intellectualism in Evangelical young adults is at least partially the product of anti-intellectualism that has been tolerated for far too long amongst people with views like my own. People often have less toler-ance for the first sinful attitude they experience, than for one met later. The tendency is to say, “This other group is just overreacting to the first group.” Evangelical young adults are too often burned out on patriotism, conservatism, and traditional theology by a first exposure to folk who do it badly. This works both ways as I have met many very anti-intellectual Christians who were reacting to the intellectualism of their early life. Anti-intellectualism and intellectualism are really just types of the same error.

Evangelical anti-intellectualism leads to a rejection of Christendom just like Evangelical intellectualism. Badly written, inaccurate, and poorly argued Christian fundamentalist textbooks (used in many Evangelical schools) are skeptical of Christian philosophy, Christian civilization, and almost all Christian scholars. Poor Constantine is slandered in these books as well. There are entire home-school curriculums written who overtly reject any contributions from Greek philosophy, logic, or classical education to Christianity. Some fringe groups, fearful of radi-cal feminism, do a greater evil and forbid their daughters to go to col-lege! Anybody “educated” in such an intellectual prison would be profoundly grateful for any idea that liberated him from this.

It is the rejection of Christendom that must be reversed at almost any cost. Christendom has a place for the Joe the Plumber and Joseph the professor, but it must be in the great tradition of Christendom. Our present situation would be enough to make a man despair, if it were not for articles like those of Anderson. If Anderson is too hard on his own class, he at least is not tempted to join the anti-intellectualists. He demonstrates in his essay a desire to adopt positions not in reaction to other positions, but through critical examination.

Fortunately, I have met Anderson and thousands others like him. They wish to love God with their whole heart, soul, and mind. They don’t emphasize any one part of that list over the other. If there is hope for the future, then it will be found in thoughtful, open-minded younger Evangelicals like Matthew Lee Anderson. He and his friends are in truth, the very model for modern Evangelicals.

John Mark Reynolds is the founder and director of the Torrey Honors Institute and Professor of Philosophy at Biola University. His most recent book, When Athens Met Jerusalem: An Introduction to Classical and Christian Thought, was published this year by IVP Academic.

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Patrick August 3, 2009 at 9:30 am

For what it’s worth, Mr. Reynold’s criticism of young, evangelical intellectualists strikes me as untrue (and the use of “intellectualists” instead of “intellectuals” is a hint – one should never need to resort to jargon or making up words to make an argument). Note that Mr. Reynolds used little supporting evidence except his own observations of certain students and people he has encountered, although he did once resort to the tired old complaint that everyone can be proud except us white people.

I am a young, evangelical intellectual. I am patriotic – not in the sense of devoting myself to a party or ideaology, but through a commitment to pragmatism and service to my community. I find a similar attitude among my friends, and indeed the media has often praised my generation for our commitment to community service. This is patriotism – Mr. Reynolds acknowledges himself that a love “for ones’ folks” is patriotism.

In any case, I don’t notice the characteristics Mr. Reynolds discusses among my friends – and we are all young, evangelical, and intellectual – we went to our Christian liberal arts college and got our impractical degrees and we’re going back to get more silly graduate degrees. Maybe we’re better off in the South than his students on the west coast, or maybe he’s misjudged our generation in general.

John Mark Reynolds August 4, 2009 at 4:35 pm

Hello Patrick.

This is the author. You will note that I am responding to an original article by Mr. Anderson. I was agreeing with his assessment and moving on from there. It certainly fits my experience, though of course your mileage may ary.

As even a quick look at the Wikipedia article on “intellectualism” will show I did not invent the term “intellectualist” . . . though I try to refine its use.

Survey after survey shows people pick up attitudes through socialization in their groups. It would actually be weird if higher education (which is not very diverse politically or favorable to Christianity) did not have some impact.

I am glad you are no “intellectualist,” but I am afraid I know quite a few people who are and not just in California!

Lord Jesus Christ son of God have mercy on me a sinner.

John Mark Reynolds

GoodBerean December 19, 2009 at 8:52 pm

Just a short note, please, to ask that you visit our site, perhaps listen to some radio programs. I’m not sure we’re “intellectuals” but we do have brains and are Biblically literate. Comments welcome…

John Lofton, Editor,
Communications Director, Institute on the Constitution
Recovering Republican

“Accursed is that peace of which revolt from God is the bond, and blessed are those contentions by which it is necessary to maintain the kingdom of Christ.” — John Calvin.

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