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Rebuilding the Evangelical Mind Requires Courage

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This spring semester, California's Biola University, among the nation's largest evangelical institutions, opens the doors of its ambitious new Center for Christian Thought. Resembling institutions such as Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study, Biola's center seeks to bring a mix of senior and postdoctoral fellows to campus to collaborate with internal fellows and faculty.

The center is unusual in operating from a distinctly Christian vantage point. The mission statement is forthright: "The Center offers scholars from a variety of Christian perspectives a unique opportunity to work collaboratively on a selected theme. ... Ultimately, the collaborative work will result in scholarly and popular-level materials, providing the broader culture with thoughtful Christian perspectives on current events, ethical concerns, and social trends."

Biola's center is the latest chapter in a comeback of the "evangelical mind." While serious scholarship by self-professed evangelical Christians did not disappear entirely in the 20th century, it went into eclipse in the postwar period. These decades, especially 1960-1980, saw the high-water mark for Western secularism when, contrary to subsequent evidence of religion's persistence, Time Magazine in 1966 asked on its cover "Is God Dead?" Social scientists in The New York Times confidently predicted in 1968 that "by the 21st century religious believers are likely to be small sects, huddled together to resist a worldwide secular culture."

But of course a funny thing has happened on the way to the 21st century: God and religion came back.

The eclipse of Christian thought in the 20th century can be partially attributed to evangelicals themselves, insofar as many individuals and institutions clung to some of the more problematic tenets of "Fundamentalism" (originally a term of honor), which had defined itself against "Modernism" in American Protestantism's epic conflict that played out in the early 20th century, culminating in the Scopes "monkey" trial in 1925.

Stung by ridicule after the Scopes trial, fundamentalists retreated to the sidelines of American culture. There they nurtured a parallel universe of publishing houses, magazines, journals, radio stations, and, not least, colleges and universities to combat the threat of secularism from without and the threat of theological modernism from within. Randall Stephens and I describe this parallel culture in our recently published "The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age."

Fundamentalists carried into exile many core tenets of Christian orthodoxy -- the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Atonement -- shared by Catholic and Orthodox Christians as well. But they also carried dubious novelties, such as newfangled teachings on biblical inerrancy and speculations about the End Times. What is more, they became pointedly hostile toward American culture and disengaged from serious intellectual pursuits, convinced that Christianity was almost exclusively about "the world to come," with only negligible concern for the here-and-now.

All of this has begun to change in the past quarter century: evangelical Christians have been shedding their "fundamentalist baggage" and reclaiming a place within deeper traditions of Christian learning and at the table of American cultural life. Signs abound of this recent shift, clearly in evidence by the mid-1990s. In 1994 Mark Noll (formerly of Wheaton College in Illinois, now holding an endowed chair at Notre Dame) published "The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind," calling evangelicals to repent of past anti-intellectualism and honor the Creator of their minds with first-order inquiry and creative expression. The book became a manifesto of sorts for younger evangelicals attracted to the life of the mind. Nineteen ninety-four also witnessed the publication of George Marsden's "The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief," analyzing the secularization of mainline Protestant universities and offering a blueprint for revitalized "Christian scholarship."

In 1995 the journal Books & Culture was launched; it has become a leading organ of evangelical thought. Significant funding initiatives of the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Lilly Endowment -- such as the Lilly Fellows Program at Valparaiso University -- also empowered a new generation of engaged Christian scholars, including evangelicals. These developments together with the influence of scholars like Wolterstorff and Plantinga, and the emergence of evangelical Christians into key places of academic leadership -- such as the presidencies of Nathan Hatch at Wake Forest and Ken Starr at Baylor -- put a new face on evangelicalism. As such, it bears little resemblance to your grandmother's backwoods open-tent revival anymore, but represents, to quote the title of a much-regarded book by D. Michael Lindsay, president of Gordon College, "Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite."

These emerging evangelicals, eager to recover the more intellectual strains of the Christian tradition, struggle against the political power of fundamentalists within their ranks. Topics like evolution, for example, remain divisive and politically volatile, despite the work of evangelical intellectuals like Alvin Plantinga and Francis Collins. And Biola, unfortunately, is on the wrong side of this divide, with a mission statement repudiating evolution -- a position shared by a minority of other evangelical colleges and universities.

In the current climate of evangelical higher education, the virtue of courage grows ever more important. Leaders must find ways to educate their colleges' constituents rather than being obsessed with simply avoiding conflict and, in extreme cases, driving away the more intellectual leaders of their communities. They must balance concern about donor pocketbooks and faithfulness to an institution's particular heritage with a still a deeper faithfulness to the Christian faith itself and its profounder intellectual traditions. In pursuing reforms, they must convince critics that they are not dishonoring a school's legacy, but pruning it of spurious accretions for more durable growth in the future.

As is the case with most worthwhile pursuits, the opportunities to err abound, while the path to success is fraught with difficulties. But Christians, of all people, should be accustomed to seeking the narrow way.

This essay is adapted from a longer version co-authored with Thomas Albert Howard, the Stephen Phillips Chair of History at Gordon College, in Massachusetts, and author of 'God and the Atlantic: America, Europe, and the Religious Divide' (Oxford, 2011).