Book Review: The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind by Mark A. Noll

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Christianity Today
The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind has arguably shaped the evangelical world (or at least its institutions) more than any other book published in the last decade.

Crisis
“In any case, Noll’s excellent book is likely to influence the development of the evangelical mind and deserves the widest discussion.”

Theology (U.K.)
“A most impressive book, combining passionate engagement with careful and rational analysis.”

5.5 Min Read

The Rundown

It is not often that a book can nudge me out of my state of mental laziness but this book does just that. It forced me to face various corrupted aspects of my flawed understanding of God and people. It was not fun but very much necessary. It shined a light on the systems and patterns of anti-intellectual efforts that have formed my way of observing society and culture. It would be easy to say that my view of the world is clouded but Mark’s book shows me that the lens through which I’ve been using to make my observations were working to distort my perception of the world, not better it.

American white evangelical Christianity has a political character that also boils down to four essential elements – Christian nationalism, Christian tribalism, political moralism, and antistatism. Call this the white evangelical political quadrilateral.

David Bebbington

In The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Mark gives the reader an introductory history lesson on how the church in America distanced itself from the limelight of the arts, music, politics, sciences, and more, in an effort to rationalize immoral behaviors that served to better the lives of a select group while destroying the lives of another.

This distancing is the scandal he often refers to in his book. He gives this example:

What J. S. Bach gained from his Lutheranism to inform his music, what Jonathan Edwards took from the Reformed tradition to orient his philosophy, what A. H. Francke learned from German Pietism to inspire the University of Halle’s research into Sanskrit and Asian literatures, what Jacob van Ruisdael gained from his seventeenth-century Dutch Calvinism to shape his painting, what Thomas Chalmers took from Scottish Presbyterianism to inspire his books on astronomy and political economy, what Abraham Kuyper gained from pietistic Dutch Calvinism to back his educational, political, and communications labors of the late nineteenth century, what T. S. Eliot took from high-church Anglicanism as a basis for his cultural criticism, […]

Mark references these influential persons because they used the center of their faith to promote not just the God they worship but also to better their social, cultural, and secular world through their intellectual rigor.

And I somewhat agree with him that too many of our evangelical heroes today serve the purpose and function of pastor, deacon, priest, usher, and overseer but only within the church and only from the pulpit, while their knowledge and influence outside the church are minimal and when presented, is dated and laughable.

This is scandalous.

Mark references this detachment of the intellect in a semi-pious American society as it rushed to defend, for a period of time, the enslavement of African Americans whilst promoting a gospel of liberation and freedom.

Again, Mark mentions how the church failed to give a scientific retort to Darwin’s theory of evolution thus debilitating the clergy’s ability to be respected throughout scientific circles.

In short, Mark sums his idea of evangelicalism in the west, more so in America, like this:

“Evangelicals do not, characteristically, look to the intellectual life as an arena in which to glorify God because, at least in America, our history has been pragmatic, populist, charismatic, and technological more than intellectual.”

All in all, Mark’s fight is not against a modern-day scandal involving extra-marital trysts, mishandling of church funds, or of clergy abusing their sheep. He spends a great deal of time explaining the vacuous nature of Christian fundamentalism that strayed from its focus on the natural world and along with this failure they also abandoned their mind.

Because of this harmful phenomena, there is an exodus of intellectuals from Christian circles today and this displacement has been the cause of cult-like behaviors within the church, anti-science movements, and a disdain for the arts.

Contents

  1. Part 1 – The Scandal
    1. The Contemporary Scandal
    2. Why the Scandal Matters
  2. Part 2 – How the Scandal Has Come to Pass
    1. The Evangelical Mind Takes Shape – Revival, Revolution and a Cultural Synthesis
    2. The Evangelical Enlightenment
    3. The Intellectual Disaster of Fundamentalism
  3. Part 3 – What the Scandal Has Meant
    1. Political Reflection
    2. Thinking About Science
  4. Part 4 – Hope?
    1. Is an Evangelical Intellectual Renaissance Underway?
    2. Can the Scandal Be Scandalized?

Quotable Moments

“Historian David Bebbington’s influential four-part description of evangelical essentials (the ‘Bebbington Quadrilateral’) tilts toward the theological – biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, and activism in spreading the first three. But separate from theology, American white evangelical Christianity has a political character that also boils down to four essential elements – Christian nationalism, Christian tribalism, political moralism, and antistatism. Call this the white evangelical political quadrilateral.”

“The effort to think like a Christian is rather an effort to take seriously the sovereignty of God over the world he created, the lordship of Christ over the world he died to redeem, and the power of the Holy Spirit over the world he sustains each and every moment. From this perspective the search for a mind that truly thinks like a Christian takes on ultimate significance, because the search for a Christian mind is not, in the end, a search for mind but a search for God.”

“I was brought up in a Christian environment where, because God had to be given pre-eminence, nothing else was allowed to be important. I have broken through to the position that because God exists, everything has significance.”

“Even before the Civil War, outsiders from Catholic Ireland and from Asia had been made to feel unwelcome in “the land of the free.” And this was to say nothing of the black population, whose bondage remained a gross contradiction to the lofty sentiments of the Declaration of Independence.”

“[…] dogmatic kind of biblical literalism that gained increasing strength among evangelicals toward the end of the nineteenth century was reduced space for academic debate, intellectual experimentation, and nuanced discrimination between shades of opinion.”

RSDB (Read, Share, Dismiss or Burn) Verdict:

Read it and read it well.

I’d caution against sharing it right away until the individual is both comfortable with the demands that come with thinking about their faith and its history and the possible ramifications that kind thinking may bring.

Mark A. Knoll is a genius historian and his book reads like a history class. Because of this if you dose off in any part of it you’ll miss it all. Take your time. Think it through. And avoid the scandal of the evangelical mind by pursuing God not only with your heart but also with your intellect. Your mind.

Mark A. Noll is a historian by trade and a deconstructionist with a bone to pick against anti-intellectual circles within Christian literature and culture. He categorically informs the reader how modern-day evangelicals think the way they do, adhereing to such flawed reasoning regarding intellectual pursuits, shrinking from scientific evidence and displaying cult-like behavior by following political icons who contradict Christian principles in their public and private lives.


“You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”

Ray Bradbury

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