Friday, December 18, 2009

Yet Another Piece on Evangelicals and Intellectual Life

Jonathan Fitzgerald, the editor of a website called, has an article in today's Wall Street Journal on evangelicalism and intellectual life. Fitzgerald, like many evangelicals, wants to debunk the idea that "evangelical intellectual" is an oxymoron.

Fitzgerald is particularly bothered by a recent forum on "Evangelicalism and the Contemporary Intellectual." At this event, hosted by the New School, leading "intellectuals" with evangelical backgrounds, including Malcolm Gladwell, suggested that one had to abandon evangelical faith in order to become an "intellectual." Fitzgerald goes on to discuss the recent history of evangelical interest in the intellectual life, citing the work of Charles Malik and Mark Noll and referencing Alan Wolfe's nearly ten year-old Atlantic piece on the evangelical mind.

After praising several evangelical attempts to promote Christian thinking, Fitzgerald concludes that the future of evangelicalism's engagement with public life will require that the "experiential" dimensions of evangelicalism give way to an intellectual life informed by a broader "Christendom" that includes the theological resources of Orthodoxy and Catholicism.

I am not sure what to make of Fitzgerald's article. I find myself in general agreement with it, but I don't think it says anything new beyond what Noll, Malick, George Marsden, Mark Schwehn, and others have already said. Even the emphasis on "Christendom" is not particularly groundbreaking. James Turner, an intellectual historian at Notre Dame, argued in a 1999 Commonweal essay that evangelicals will have to rely on the intellectual resources of other traditions (Dutch Calvinism, Roman Catholicism, etc...) if they want to sustain a life of the mind. He repeated this argument in his recent dialogue with Mark Noll. Noll has also called upon evangelicals to find a foundation for Christian intellectual life in the great ecumenical creeds of the early church.

I think it is probably time for Christians to stop talking about how to be "Christian intellectuals" and start actually doing intellectual work. Noll, Marsden, Wolterstorff, and others have been doing this for years. A growing number of evangelical scholars, many of them nearing mid-career, have found homes in colleges and universities across the country. They are contributing to scholarly and intellectual life in history, English, philosophy, and politics. While theology is also attracting bright young Christian minds, it is important that younger evangelicals use their intellectual gifts in these other disciplines as well.

In order for evangelicals to enter the public sphere as intellectuals, they need to speak to audiences that go beyond the evangelical world. They need to speak and write to scholars in their disciplines. They need to speak and write to an educated public. Intramural evangelical thought journals, websites, and blogs are fine, but does anyone read them outside of the evangelical subculture? This does not mean that Christian thinkers should stop doing work that benefits the church, but they should also conceive their work in a way that engages the larger culture.