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The Marginalization of Evangelical Scholarship (Among Evangelicals)

Not since the nineteenth century has evangelicalism reached such a large academic audience. Despite this growing influence, there is one place where Christian scholarship has often failed to penetrate: the evangelical grassroots.

The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age by Randall J. Stephens & Karl W. Giberson. Harvard University Press, 2011. 384pp.



Religion is making a comeback in North American higher education. In many fields, evangelical scholars have played a central role in this development. Since the 1960s, thinkers like Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff have presided over the "desecularization" of philosophy. Currently about one-tenth of the discipline belongs to the Society of Christian Philosophers. In a similar way, the "new evangelical historiography" has helped make religion the most popular specialization among academic historians. In 2002 The Atlantic called Mark Noll's book America's God the "most significant work of American historical scholarship this year." Two years earlier the same magazine chronicled the "opening of the evangelical mind."1

Not since the nineteenth century has evangelicalism reached such a large academic audience. Despite this growing influence, there is one place where Christian scholarship has often failed to penetrate: the evangelical grassroots.

Here in the Missouri Ozarks, public life is saturated with religious discourse. Dubbed an "evangelical epicenter" by the Patchwork Nation project, the area boasts 117 Southern Baptist, 90 Assemblies of God, and 33 Churches of Christ congregations. In addition to local churches, the region is served by a plethora of parachurch organizations, including Christian day camps, evangelical superstores, two Bible colleges, and several religious radio stations. Springfield, Missouri even has a Christian bowling alley.2

Home to Branson's blend of piety and leisure, the Ozarks has welcomed several religious tourist attractions, including a Noah's Ark show and at least two creation science museums. The first appeared on the campus of the Great Passion Play in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Dubbed the Museum of Earth History, it depicted dinosaurs and human beings in an antediluvian paradise. It has since been replaced by the Creation Museum of the Ozarks. Though both pale in comparison to Kentucky's $27 million Creation Museum, they are a sign of the area's cultural conservatism.

To be sure, the region has produced its share of Christian scholars, including philosopher Dallas Willard, sociologist Nancy Ammerman, and historian Grant Wacker. Thousands of students attend such institutions as Southwest Baptist University, the College of the Ozarks, Evangel University, and the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary. In more than one local Sunday school class, evangelical college professors read the morning Scriptures in the original Hebrew and Greek. Across town at Assemblies of God headquarters, church leaders share articles from First Things and Commentary. This fall, a local Christian school sponsored a lecture on Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas, the founder of Socrates in the City.

Yet despite the presence of three Christian liberal arts colleges, two Bible schools, and a seminary, the revival of evangelical scholarship has gone unnoticed by many Ozarkers. Fans of religious radio will encounter very few Christian scholars. The closest the regional Bott Radio Network comes is the apologetics ministry of Ravi Zacharias. Based at the alma mater of Jerry Falwell, the local Southern gospel station airs programs from the Institute for Creation Research and the Ozarks creation museum. While a reliable source for classic quartets (no small thing in an age of praise and worship music), it has done little to promote the cause of evangelical intellectual life.3

The same goes for an area homeschooling convention, where the fundamentalist Bob Jones University Press and A Beka Books have some of the largest displays. Yet aside from a booth featuring the works of classical-education advocate Susan Wise Bauer (a plenary speaker at the conference), there are few signs of an academic renaissance. While some of the exhibitors are more intellectually adventurous (especially Veritas and Sonlight), they continue to sell texts by young earth creationists.4 Mainstays of evangelical scholarship—Eerdmans, InterVarsity, and Baker—are conspicuous in their absence.

Though Springfield's evangelical bookstores feature plenty of academic titles, even there anti-intellectualism prevails. Books by scientist Francis Collins and historian Mark Noll are outnumbered by the works of creationist Ken Ham and amateur historian Peter Marshall. Readers in search of solid Christian scholarship are better off going to Barnes & Noble than to Mardel and Lifeway.

In The Search for Christian America, Noll and his colleagues wrote that "early America does not deserve to be considered uniquely, distinctly or even predominately Christian." Flying in the face of this conclusion, the Christian America narrative is alive and well in Southwest Missouri. On July 4, 2010, the area's largest Baptist congregation held a reenactment of the debate that produced the Declaration of Independence, devoting a Sunday morning worship service to the Founding Fathers. Another church passed out pocket constitutions. Summing up this approach to U.S. history, the head of a local Christian camping empire once thanked "the great God of creation who built the United States of America on the precepts of the Ten Commandments." Such events have promoted a mythical view of America's founding.5


Amateur Experts Steal the Spotlight

Ozarks evangelicalism has often ignored its own scholars. The same is true across North America, where conservative Protestants have neglected the life of the mind. In some cases, evangelical scholarship has more influence on the mainstream academy than among ordinary Christians. How did this come to be? In The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (1994), Mark Noll attributed this development to the "intellectual disaster of fundamentalism." In The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age (2011), Randall J. Stephens and Karl W. Giberson profile a group of amateur experts who have stolen the spotlight from their co-religionists. Focusing on popular authorities in science, history, Biblical studies, and psychology, they offer an engaging account of a parallel culture.

Stephens and Giberson write from within American evangelicalism. Both have taught at Eastern Nazarene College, a conservative Protestant institution in New England. As contributors to Books & Culture and other Christian journals, they have participated in the opening of the evangelical mind.

In The Anointed, the authors document the eclipse of evangelical scholars by the likes of creationist Ken Ham, popular historian David Barton, prophecy guru Tim LaHaye, and child psychologist James Dobson. The statistics they provide are telling. Compared to the audiences and budgets of these amateur experts, evangelical college professors do not stand a chance.

While over 320,000 students attend institutions like Eastern Nazarene College, they are outnumbered by at least two million evangelical homeschoolers and Christian day school students. While curricula vary a great deal, many favour young-earth creationism and nostalgic treatments of Christian America. Too often, Bob Jones University Press is better known than Eerdmans. To be sure, there are exceptions. Schools associated with the Christian Reformed Church are generally more moderate. So are classical Christian academies that push students to engage with the great books. By contrast, most fundamentalist schools assign texts that would be out of place in the average evangelical liberal arts college.6

When it comes down to dollars and cents, efforts to promote Christian learning pale in comparison to their populist counterparts. In the 1990s, the Pew Charitable Trusts spent approximately $14 million on the project of evangelical scholarship. Long after Pew ended its initiative, the creationist Answers in Genesis maintains an annual budget of $20 million.7

Though evangelical scholars have made it into the American Historical Review and the Journal of American History, they struggle to find a spot on the bookshelves of ordinary Christians. In most cases, the amateur experts sell a lot more books. Presenting a providentialist account of America's Christian origins, Peter Marshall's The Light and the Glory (1977) has been debunked by serious historians. Despite its dubious historical status, it has sold almost one million copies. Buoyed by appearances on the Glenn Beck Program, former math teacher David Barton is more famous than Jonathan Edwards biographer George Marsden, winner of the Bancroft Prize in history. According to Stephens and Giberson, sales of Barton's videos, tapes, and books number in the hundreds of thousands.

Public opinion research indicates that young-earth creationism and the Christian America myth enjoy wide support among the general public. While 65 percent of Americans think that the Founding Fathers intended to establish a Christian nation, almost half believe the earth is less than 10,000 years old. Such beliefs are even more common among weekly church attenders.8

The public also maintains a fascination with the end times. According to a survey conducted by Baylor University, approximately one-fifth of Americans have read one of the Left Behind books. Only a few know that the eschatology embraced by Left Behind authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins was cooked up by a Plymouth Brethren minister in the early nineteenth century. Presented as the faith once delivered to the saints, it is an approach that would seem odd to Martin Luther and John Wesley. That has not stopped it from becoming the most popular way of interpreting the book of Revelation.9

Stephens and Giberson show that religious anti-intellectualism is alive and well in North American evangelicalism. They also emphasize its negative consequences for American culture. Besides influencing the evangelical masses, amateur experts have shaped the minds of political elites, including at least one U.S. president. Readers of The Anointed will learn that Ronald Reagan was a serious prophecy buff who believed that Armageddon was near. They will also learn about the influence of popular historians on the Texas State Board of Education. Thanks to the testimony of David Barton and Peter Marshall, Texas schoolchildren will soon be taught a distorted account of American history. Because Texas buys 48 million textbooks a year, it will be disseminated across the country.


Culture War Fears, Evangelical Diversity

Many scholars will read The Anointed with great apprehension. The thought of millions of evangelical Christians forcing an anti-intellectual agenda on American society is enough to give non-evangelical readers the willies. That was the reaction of several commentators when Stephens and Giberson published an op-ed in the New York Times on "the evangelical rejection of reason."

But should they be afraid? In the final chapter of The Anointed, the authors argue that evangelical experts feed a culture-war mentality that leads to the demonization of outsiders. Explaining that "this conflict model is part of the cultural DNA of evangelicalism," they draw on cutting edge research in cognitive science. This literature shows that anti-intellectualism is not confined to the evangelical subculture. A 2008 study by Yale University's Cultural Cognition Project analyzed public resistance to the medical consensus on vaccinations. Paraphrasing its findings, Stephens and Giberson note that many Americans are more likely to trust someone "just like us" than a "famous egghead from a far-off university." Such suspicion of professional authority is as American as apple pie. A consistent theme within American evangelicalism, it can also be found at the chiropractor's office and the natural foods store.

Though such research is helpful in generating hypotheses about the evangelical masses, it does not provide an in-depth portrait of how those audiences process the claims of amateur authorities. Except for a chapter tracing the biography of a single young evangelical, most of The Anointed focuses on the supply side of evangelicalism's parallel culture.

It is unfortunate that Stephens and Giberson do not do more with the anthropology of American evangelicalism. On the last page of the book, the authors quote anthropologist Susan Harding's discussion of how believers "borrow, customize, and reproduce the Bible based speech of their preachers and other leaders in their daily lives." Regrettably, they pay little attention to the process of customization, preferring to focus on reproduction. Had Stephens and Giberson delved into books like James Bielo's Words Upon the Word: An Ethnography of Evangelical Group Bible Study (2009), they would have qualified some of their findings. Far from passive receptacles, evangelical readers pick and choose what they take away from the Bible and other books. Instead of reproducing a tribal consensus, small-group discussions often reveal the ambiguity of religious language.

That is what sociologist Christian Smith found when he interviewed 200 self-identified evangelicals in Christian America? What Evangelicals Really Want (2000). Although a majority embraced the concept of "Christian America," they did not agree on its meaning. According to Smith, "evangelical opinion regarding politics is multivocal and ambivalent." Most evangelicals did not advocate a religious takeover of American society, emphasizing the values of tolerance and freedom (without agreeing on the definition of those terms). Echoing Smith's findings, the Cardus Education Survey found that alumni of Christian schools rejected a culture-wars outlook.

Religious studies scholar Amy Frykholm uncovered something similar in her study of Left Behind readers (in Rapture Culture: Left Behind in Evangelical America [2004]). Rather than adopting one interpretation of the end times, her informants extracted multiple meanings from these apocalyptic pot-boilers. Many read them in ways that were not intended by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. In the end, Frykholm experienced an irresolvable tension between her dislike for the novels and her affection for the people who read them. Had The Anointed explored the ways that ordinary Christians read David Barton and Ken Ham, it would have evoked more sympathy for American evangelicals.

Over and over again, Stephens and Giberson remind us of the internal diversity of evangelicalism. As they note in the introduction, "Evangelical Christians are arrayed along a broad spectrum of believers, ranging from conservative to liberal, with considerable diversity even under those labels." Despite these helpful reminders, The Anointed shines a spotlight on one type of conservative Protestant. Those who do not fit the mould sometimes fall through the cracks.

In a similar way, Stephens and Giberson do not discuss the growth of Asian-American and Latino evangelicals. As ethnic minorities in white Protestant America, they often hold views that cut against the grain. Finally, the theological conflicts between New Calvinists and the emerging church show just how fragmented the evangelical subculture really is. Briefly mentioned by the authors, the British apologist C.S. Lewis may be the most popular non-evangelical in evangelicalism. A pipe-smoking Anglican who leaned toward universalism, he is a favourite among homeschoolers and Christian college professors alike (including Francis Collins and Mark Noll).

In the Missouri Ozarks, evangelicalism comes in many shapes and sizes. At my own institution, evangelical students flock to a course on C.S. Lewis. They do not all read Lewis the same way. A local Christian bookstore sells everything from Sarah Palin to Rob Bell, though the latter remains hidden behind the counter. At an outpost of the emerging church, a flyer inquires, "Bible Belt too tight?" Many reply in the affirmative.

If anybody should be worried, it is those who wish to impose a single ideology upon evangelicalism. As faculty at a Nazarene institution, Stephens and Giberson reflect the pluralism of a changing subculture. Their work has already sparked a healthy discussion. Far from an anomaly, the debate surrounding The Anointed is a sign that populist experts do not have a monopoly on evangelical truth.


Notes

1 See John Schmalzbauer and Kathleen Mahoney, "American Scholars Return to Study of Religion," Contexts, Winter 2008, 16-21. For more on the "desecularization" of American philosophy, see Quentin Smith, "The Metaphilosophy of Naturalism," Philo. Statistics from the Society of Christian Philosophers were reported in Kelly James Clark, ed., Philosophers Who Believe (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 7-21. In 2009 the American Historical Association reported that religion had become its most popular specialization. See Robert B. Townsend, "AHA Membership Grows Modestly, as History of Religion Surpasses Culture," AHA Today, 30 June 2009. For an early discussion of the impact of evangelical scholars in the field of history, see Leonard Sweet in "Wise as Serpents, Innocent as Doves: The New Evangelical Historiography." Journal of the American Academy of Religion 56(3): 397-416 (1988). The quotation is from Benjamin Schwarz, "Books of the Year," Atlantic, December 2002. See also Alan Wolfe, "The Opening of the Evangelical Mind," Atlantic, October 2000.

2 See here for more on the Evangelical Epicenters. Springfield, Missouri's religious demographics are available here.

3 The same cannot be said for the Southern gospel station's home institution which has become more moderate in recent years. Formerly an outpost of separatist fundamentalism, Baptist Bible College sells commentaries from InterVarsity Press in its campus bookstore.

4 One of the most balanced homeschool publishers, Sonlight presents both old earth and young earth viewpoints, as well as Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore's The Godless Constitution: The Case Against Religious Correctness. Despite this even-handedness, the works of the leading evangelical historians (George Marsden, Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, Thomas Kidd, Grant Wacker, and Edith Blumhofer) are missing from Sonlight's curricula. See www.sonlight.com for more information.

5 For more on Independence Day celebrations in the Ozarks, see John Schmalzbauer, "Fireworks and Politics," Patchwork Nation, 5 July 2010. The quote is from Mark A. Noll, Nathan O. Hatch, and George M. Marsden, The Search for Christian America (West Chester, IL: Crossway Books, 1983).

6 Enrollment statistics for the 113 schools in the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities can be found here. In The Anointed, Stephens and Giberson estimate that over two million elementary and secondary students are educated in private Christian academies and evangelical homeschooling environments. Sociologist David Sikkink has documented the diversity of America's Christian schools in "Speaking in Many Tongues: Diversity among Christian Schools," Education Matters 1(2):36-45 (2001). According to Sikkink, while some evangelical schools "disparage A Beka and Bob Jones University Press," they are "two of the heavyweights in Christian school curriculum." See also Melinda Bollar Wagner, God's Schools: Choice and Compromise in American Society (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1990); Paul F. Parsons, Inside America's Christian Schools (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1988). While focusing on graduates of Christian schools, the recent Cardus Education Survey did not ask about young earth creationism and other markers of fundamentalist identity.

7 On Pew's philanthropy, see Alan Wolfe, "The Opening of the Evangelical Mind." The budget for Answers in Genesis is reported in Stephens and Giberson, The Anointed, 45.

8 Stephens and Giberson, The Anointed, 95, 35. See also "Almost Half of Americans Believe that Humans Did Not Evolve," Gallup News Service, 5 June 2006.

9 American Piety in the 21st Century: Selected Findings from the Baylor Religion Survey (Waco, TX: Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion, 2006).

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John Schmalzbauer John Schmalzbauer
Sociologist John Schmalzbauer teaches in the Department of Religious Studies at Missouri State University. ... read more »

Posted in Culture, Education, Institutions, Networking, Religion. Linked to Cardus' Education research project.

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