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.


Unknown said...

While I have not read Giberson and Stephens' book (though I have read numerous blog entries on it) I like your and Thomas Kidd's discussion of it. I think it would be helpful to point out that most liberals, and especially academics in the humanities, are at least as opposed to scientific truth as evangelicals. Evangelicals (not all) may oppose evolution, but I suspect they have different attitudes to physics, which continues to be the basis of the natural sciences. It has been my own experience that the commitment to cultural relativity, however, produces a much more robust opposition to scientific truth. This wholesale rejection of scientific truth (which from my own reading forms much of the basis of cultural theory and cultural history) is likely much more harmful than the evangelical rejection of evolution and deserves more attention in the media.

Paul M. said...


Thanks for this post. I agree with Kidd's cautions as well. I saw Stephens and Giberson present the idea behind the book at Gordon-Conwell's 15th Anniversary Conference of the Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. While I often found myself in agreement with their points, their general tone was abrasive. They took advantage of every opportunity to belittle their opponents, even at one point using a clip from the Simpsons to show how stupid creationists were. Ad hominem attacks do not lead to productive dialogue.


Lisa said...

I am little confused by the post from Unknown. What specific examples do you have to support your assertions? I am a little puzzled that you say that "most liberals are at least opposed to scientific truth as evangelicals". I have heard this before in evangelical circles but there seems to be a lack of any supporting examples. You say your conclusions come from your reading. What are you reading?

Unknown said...

Hi Lisa, thanks for your call for clarification on the generalized statements I made earlier. Within the history profession the basis for the rejection of scienctific truth is put forward in two books edited by Lynn Hunt: "The New Cultural History," and "Beyond the Cultural Turn." The popular "cultural turn" in the history profession borrows from Foucault's conception of the relationship between truth claims and power. Cultural theorist also utilize Thomas Kuhn's "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" to argue against truth claims made by the natural sciences.

My own reading on the rejection of scientific truth by liberals (and especially academics in the humanities) has been primarily outside of evangelicalism. These include Richard Dawkins "The Selfish Gene", Steve Pinker's "The Blank Slate", Robert Boyd's "Not by Genes Alone" and the new edited volume "Creating Consilience: Integrating the Sciences and the Humanities." These books call into question the belief that human behavior (outside of homosexuality) is primarily culturally and socially constructed as many political liberals claim.

An interesting discussion of the physiological origins of human behavior (and specifically religious behavior) from an evangelical perspective can be found in "Why Would Anyone Believe in God" by Fuller Seminary's Justin Barrett. Fuller's recent hiring of Barrett (who was previously at Oxford and is a leading cognitive scientist) is a great example of evangelicalisms recent intellectual growth. Although I am a Catholic I hope this intellectual creativity among evangelicals continues.

Brantley Gasaway said...

John, I agree--to a point.

But if Stephens and Giberson didn't publish in the New York Times and with Harvard Univ. Press, do you think that Christianity Today (much less World) and InterVarsity Press (much less Zondervan) would have published their work? Part of the problem, it seems to me, is that their analysis would not be welcome in venues that would reach wider evangelical audiences.

What publications that would accept their work actually reach rank and file evangelicals? In fact, does not the fractured nature of evangelicalism (and its publishing arms) almost guarantee that the only publications that would print their editorial and book are only read by those evangelicals predisposed to agree with them?

(Can you tell I'm pessimistic about an imagined evangelical center?)

rbfan42 said...

After reading the book, I wondered if liberals are really immune from following their own anointed? Surely evangelicals are not the only people whose community harbors experts who pontificate beyond their expertise. For example, Dawkins may be expert on certain scientific matters. Does this really qualify him to speak to metaphysical and moral questions? It seems to me that the anointed are not a uniquely evangelical phenomena even if the anointed function in unique ways among evangelicals.

Tom Van Dyke said...


Pretty well-known, published 1996, still in print, with a thesis along the lines of what you said here, and why the title of the current book puzzles me.