Thursday, March 26, 2009

Book assignments

One of my New Year's resolutions this year was to make my way through the large pile of books that friends have "assigned" to me. Right now I'm in the middle of reading "The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind" by Mark A. Noll, Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College. The reason he gives for writing this book in the first place is his belief that it is simply impossible to be, with integrity, both evangelical and least in the United States.

Noll traces the history of evangelicalism in the US from the Puritans until now and concludes that "evangelical thinking in America has just as often resulted from a way of pursuing knowledge that does not accord with Christianity as it has been an 'anti-intellectual' desire to play the fool for Christ." He quotes J. Gresham Machen, a Presbyterian Bible scholar in 1912, to point out the problem with this way of thinking:

"We may preach with all the fervor of a reformer, and yet succeed only in winning a straggler here and there, if we permit the whole collective thought of the nation or of the world to be controlled by ideas which, by the resistless force of logic, prevent Christianity from being regarded as anything more than a harmless delusion... What is to-day a matter of academic speculation, begins to-morrow to move armies and pull down empires."

Noll maintains that the American evangelical ethos is activistic, populist, pragmatic, and utilitarian. For example, he says that any "...spokesperson who could step forth confidently on the basis of the Scriptures was welcomed as a convincing authority." This is so often true---a speaker need only be persuasive and claim Scripture as his source, and we herald him as brilliant. Never mind that the guy we heard speak the night before preached the exact opposite from the same portion of Scripture---we don't notice, instead we believe it all.

He also discusses the influence that fundamentalism and pentecostalism has had on the way American evangelicals think. He does bring up some good points here as well, particularly how the mingled influence of fundamentalism and pentecostalism has manifested a kind of ardent supernaturalism today---that, in order to be spiritual, one must no longer pay attention to or think long and hard about the world around them. One example he gives of this is the propensity to attach biblical prophesy to world events, and the rash of best-selling books that inevitably follows any war or cataclysmic event. But of course, this has been happening to one extent or other in all parts of the world since Christ's ascension.

I do agree with Noll---in many areas we have taken the wrong road. However, by and large he builds a straw dog in order to present his own conclusion---that because the Bible isn't always as easy to interpret as it might seem, where science diverges from what the Bible literally says, we must read that particular verse or passage symbolically rather than literally so that science and the Bible are in agreement. For example, Noll proposes that the six days of creation weren't necessarily six 24-hour days but merely periods of time, therefore allowing for Evolution. So, in order to close the gap between what philosophy and the sciences say (at this particular time) and what the Bible says, Noll has decided not to interpret the Bible in a literal, natural, or common-sensical way:

"A biblical literalism, gaining strength since the 1870's, has fueled both the intense concern for human origins and the end times."

"The problem is compounded by the powerful (though usually unobserved) force that an appeal to "normal" or "plain" or "literal" interpretation gained in a Baconian, democratic America over the course of the nineteenth century. Was it not simply self-evident that, if the Bible was God's supreme revelation, the best way to understand the Bible was by using the methods of ordinary common sense open to men, women, and children in all ages? The answer to that nineteenth-century way of framing the question is that, while such common-sense interpretations of Scripture may have seemed self-evident, they were in fact the product of particular circumstances in North American evangelical history."

Granted, interpreting the the Bible isn't always easy, but once you abandon common-sensical interpretation, you throw out all chances of understanding it because who's to say what it really means, then? Who's the final authority? I believe the problem isn't that we're not paying enough attention to the world around us, but rather we're not thoughtful students of the Word. Consequently, we're being "tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine."

As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ (Eph 4:14-15).

"See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ (Col 2:8)."

Another "assigned" book I've finished reading is Joel Rosenberg's, "Epicenter" (New York Times best-selling that takes readers through prophecy and current events into the future of Iraq after Saddam, Russia after Communism, Israel after Arafat, and Christianity after radical Islam.) Talk about a complete opposite from Mark Noll's book. But I was wondering, since I read the one book right after the other, does that mean they cancel each other out? I vote, yes.

1 comment:

  1. I think Noll is wrong. I claim to be both intellectual and evangelical. I am reading Alec Motyer's "Look to the rock", a book about Old Testament interpretation. It is bot evangelical and intellectual. The problem is that intellectuals have become too puffed up with their own intellects. They are too impressed by fellow intellectuals outside their own fields and totally unable to examine critically what they say.