During my childhood, Grandma Pearl had a VHS tape of Mary Martin’s 1960 Peter Pan that my cousins and I wore out over repeated viewings. In the summers we ran around her backyard following the second star to the right ‘til morning in our vain attempts to find Neverland. Perhaps we did find it. In The Writer’s Map: An Atlas or Imaginary Lands, J.M. Barrie is quoted describing Neverland as the obvious map of a child’s mind, “which is not only confused but keeps going round all the time. There are zigzag lines on it . . . and these are probably roads in the island, for the Neverland is always more or less an island, with astonishing places of colour here and there.” The State of the Evangelical Mind accomplishes something similar, mapping the confused and zigzagging mind of an ill-defined monolith.
Is it even possible to map the mind of Evangelicalism? If anyone can it ought to be the group of contributors assembled for The State of the Evangelical Mind. Editors Todd C. Ream, Jerry Pattengale, and Christopher J. Devers have compiled essays from popular writers and academics in evangelical Christianity like Lauren F. Winner, James K.A. Smith, and Mark Galli. The project itself is a spiritual sequel to Mark A. Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.
Is there hope for the evangelical mind?
Noll introduces the work by reviewing the history of the last quarter century since the publishing of The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. He considers the rise and fall of four evangelical enterprises—The Reformed Journal, the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals, the Pew Evangelical Scholars Program, and Books & Culture—and concludes that despite the diminishing amount of evangelical enterprises aimed at discussing explicitly evangelical intellectual issues there is reason to hope for the evangelical mind. Noll’s predicates his hope on the participation of evangelical academics in wider academic conversations and publishing with secular presses.
But what is Evangelicalism? Is it a broad coalition of ecumenical Protestants committed to a core set of theological convictions? Is it a mostly white, conservative American voting bloc? Evangelicalism is Neverland. The State of the Evangelical Mind admirably attempts to “collectively . . . assess the state of the evangelical mind, identify its unique contributions, and chart a way forward” through its confused island of zigzagging theological and political whims.
As I read through each of the essays I couldn’t help but wonder at how I felt disconnected from the subject matter. I am a seminarian who ministers to university students, I work and write for parachurch organizations, and I plan to assume a lead pastorate this summer. Considering the topics at hand, I ought to have been the target audience for this book. And I suppose I am. Perhaps the scandal of the evangelical mind is just that: the disconnect between broad evangelical congregations and niche publications like the now defunct Books & Culture or an organization like what was formerly the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals.
A Fundamental Disconnect
Still, I wonder how helpful the book will be for folks in the pews and their pastors. Each essay is well-written and clearly argued, but the whole feels lacking. In my estimation, the lack comes from the book’s organization. It presents a chronological narrative from past, to present, to future hopes for the evangelical mind. Beginning with Noll’s historical review of the last twenty-five years, four essays follow exploring institutions that form the evangelical mind: the church, parachurch ministries, colleges and universities, and seminaries. (These four essays will be considered in greater detail in a future article.)
The final two future-oriented essays, written by James K.A. Smith and Christianity Today editor in chief, Mark Galli, are the first to clearly diagnose problems facing lay people or offer a working definition for the term “evangelical.” Galli suggests that evangelicalism is essentially a Christocentric piety that inspires people to missional activity. Furthermore, he argues that only an evangelical maintaining conviction has the ability to bring “vital things . . . to the larger Christian conversation.” His contribution was the first to connect my experience with the subject matter. I only wish the collection hadn’t waited so long to explicate the problem for church folk or venture a definition for the topic of the book.
In his essay, James K.A. Smith further addressed my concerns: “[We] simply have to recognize and confess how utterly disconnected all of this is from the vast majority of evangelical congregations and the networks that comprise ‘evangelicalism’ in the United States.” Smith’s contribution is unsparing. When commenting on the over-reported influence of evangelicals in the 2016 election of Donald Trump, he borders on insulting to both the president and those who voted for him. Soon after, he turns an eye to the racial disparity within evangelicalism, going so far as to explicitly call out the lack of diversity among the contributors of the very publication his essay appears in. Smith then spends considerable time lamenting the thin practices and low standards of leadership in non-denominational churches, which are the most obvious identifiably evangelical institutions in mainstream consciousness.
In response, Smith offers the following solution: “What evangelicalism ‘on the ground’ needs is scholars from the church for the church.” Thinking, academic evangelicals ought to be ambitious for the sake of the church instead of for prestigious publications and tenure. They ought to set aside obvious career success in academia and instead pick up their crosses to support the less esteemed work of the church.
Smith’s proposal brought to mind a Josh Ritter lyric—“Pretend that the search for another new world was well worth the burning of mine.” Academics ought to burn academic careers for the sake of discovering the new-old world of the church. Smith argues that Evangelicalism needs scholars willing to come alongside the church and gently ask, “‘Have you considered this?’ instead of haughtily exclaiming, ‘How could you possibly think that?’”
Returning to the Mainland
Watching Mary Martin as Peter Pan soar across the stage inspired hours of lazy summer make-believe in which I imagined that lovely thoughts could fuel my flight to a magical land. Barrie describes his fantastic island of mermaids, pirates, and Lost Boys and laments, “It would be an easy map if that were all.” It would be easy to map the evangelical mind if only it were a core set of theological convictions or an American voting bloc, but it is not. It is both. And it is neither.
Evangelicalism is a NeverLand of theology and mission, partisan politics and propaganda, cheap coffee in the foyer and prayer groups in the basement. The State of the Evangelical Mind maps an archipelago of four institutional islands with “Here be dragons” scrawled at the edge. Most of us evangelicals live just beyond the dragons, on the mainland with our God’s Not Dead movies and Tim Tebow fandom. The State of the Evangelical Mind is most helpful when it directs the reader’s attention and efforts back to the church on the mainland. James K.A. Smith concludes his essay writing, “May our intellectual labors be catalysts and conduits for the renewal and reform of the church.” Yes, may it be so.
Cover image by Hal Gatewood