Monday, February 24, 2014

D.G. Hart on Molly Worthen

I was hoping Darryl Hart would weigh-in on Molly Worthen's Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism.  My hopes were realized last night when I checked Religion in American History.  I have posted a small taste of the review below.  Hart's review revolves around evangelical boundaries.  Who is an evangelical and who is not?  And who gets to decide?

And so the theme of who or what to include in a historical narrative returns.  As mentioned above, born-again Protestants over the last seventy years have beefed up their academic credentials and done so in part by imitating the professional academic organizations of the university world.  The Society of Christian Philosophers and the Conference on Faith and History were two expressions of this evangelical initiative.  Both relied significantly on the leadership provided by Dutch-American Calvinists who taught at Calvin College, intellectual descendants of Abraham Kuyper, the man who popularized the concept of Christian worldview.  And these organizations became platforms for some of the most significant work (at least as the mainstream academy judges it) by evangelical scholars – George Marsden, Mark Noll, Nick Wolterstorff, and Alvin Plantinga.  Yet, as important as these institutions may be in answering the questions that Worthen uses to define evangelicalism, they do not appear in her narrative, while Marsden, Noll, Wolterstorff and Plantinga at best make cameo appearances.   This was a missed opportunity since Worthen did so much work on the constellation of contexts that allowed made these scholars’ careers plausible.  And since several of them have retired from teaching, historical assessments of their work – both in writing projects and in forming associations of like-minded scholars and students – is now possible in ways it had not been in the heyday of their work.  At the same time, because these scholars used Kuyperian themes, sometimes mediated directly through Cornelius Van Til (as in the case of Marsden), to question epistemological assumptions of the mainstream academy, Worthen had a chance to test her assessment of evangelicalism’s crisis of intellectual authority not against the two-dimensional characters of Francis Schaeffer or Hal Lindsey but against academics whose scholarship is highly regarded and whose Christian commitments have not been questioned. 
Yet, Worthen did not take this turn.  Because she did not her history of post-World War II evangelicalism has more the feel of a study of evangelical exoticism than of evangelical normalcy.  If she had followed carefully the evolution of serious evangelical academic life – from Fuller Seminary to the University of Notre Dame – rather than the popularizers who incite the evangelical mob, she might have produced a study of people who are apostles of reason in ways much more profound than talking heads at religious assemblies or marches on the National Mall.