Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Are Giberson and Stephens Preaching to the Choir?

Yes they are, according to Thomas Kidd in his recent Patheos column, "The Scandal of the Evangelical Experts?"  And the choir is the New York Times-reading liberal intelligentsia who have little tolerance for evangelical Christians to begin with.

Let me get you up to speed.  A few weeks ago Giberson and Stephens, both evangelical Christians as far as I can tell, wrote a scathing op-ed in The New York Times entitled "The Evangelical Rejection of Reason."  The purpose of the piece was to alert New York Times readers to the anti-intellectual bent of American evangelicalism, particularly in the area of history and science.  (Full disclosure--a column I wrote on David Barton is cited in this op-ed.  This piece appeared on the "Evangelical Portal" at Patheos and was written to my fellow Christians).

Kidd raises some insightful questions about Giberson and Stephens's essay and their new book The Anointed; Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age.  Here is a taste:

The Anointed raises important questions about the way that some evangelicals sequester themselves in intellectual cul-de-sacs. But the book also makes me wonder what Christians in positions of academic influence can do to help upgrade the intellectual rigor of American churches. Obviously, academic Christians have largely failed to reach a general audience of believers or there would be less of a market for the populist entrepreneurs to fill. But deriding evangelicals' intellectual deficiencies in venues such as The New York Times probably isn't the most promising way to start addressing that failure.

Like Kidd, I also consider Randall Stephens to be a friend.  And like Kidd, I corresponded with him as he wrote The Anointed.  I am also sympathetic to his (and Giberson's) desire to let the world know that there are evangelical Christians who do not embrace the views of people like Ken Hamm and David Barton.  I find myself doing this all the time.

But I can't help but agree with Kidd's review.  Is The New York Times the best place for evangelicals to decry evangelical anti-intellectualism? Indeed, anti-intellectualism is a problem in the evangelical community.  But I wonder, to quote Kidd, if the New York Times op-ed page is  "the most promising way to start addressing that failuire?" 

To be completely honest, I also wonder if a book published by Harvard University Press is going to have any impact on rank and file evangelicals.  It seems to me that two kinds of people will read The Anointed:  1). Non-evangelicals who want ammunition to bash evangelical intellectual backwardness and 2). Evangelical intellectuals who already agree with Giberson and Stephens.  I wonder if ordinary evangelicals--the folks who actually listen to Barton and Ham and Dobson--will read the book or even know that the book exists.

In the end, I agree with Kidd.  The anti-intellectual problem in American evangelicalism needs to be addressed in our churches. It is going to require evangelical thinkers to engage congregations in a more purposeful way and give some serious thought to how their vocations as scholars might serve the church.  As I have learned over the years, this will require building trust and listening to and empathizing with the concerns of those whom we want to challenge to think more deeply about the relationship between their faith and the larger culture.