#8- Molly Worthen on faith and the intellect in American Evangelicalism [MIPodcast]
BLAIR HODGES: Thank you for downloading another episode of the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m your host, Blair Hodges. In this episode we’re talking about Evangelical Christianity in America to get a better grasp of ongoing debates about faith and reason. Is it possible to be a religious believer and also an intellectual?
I’m joined in this episode by Molly Worthen. She’s an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She recently published a book called Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism. Her book can help us understand the ongoing nature of authority within Evangelicalism and how it relates to some of the most interesting debates among the faithful today. Although Worthen herself is not an Evangelical, her work exemplifies the sort of empathetic perspective made possible through responsible academic study.
If you enjoy this episode take a second to rate us in the iTunes store and recommend us to your friends. It’s Molly Worthen on Evangelicalism today on the Maxwell Institute Podcast.
BLAIR HODGES: Molly Worthen joins us today. She’s assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Thanks for joining us today, Molly.
First I want to say congratulations on publishing your new book Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism. It must feel good to have that finished and published.
MOLLY WORTHEN: It does. Thank you very much.
HODGES: Now I want to start off with the typical elevator conversation that you might have when people bump into you and find out that you were writing or that you just published a book. So talk about how the book came about and why it interested you.
WORTHEN: I came at this project as someone who had dabbled in journalism and continues to do a bit of journalism about contemporary religious life in America. I found myself wanting to explain from a historical perspective some of the trends I saw, particularly among younger Evangelicals, some of the ways in which they seemed to be challenging the assumptions of their parent’s Christian right.
I found myself kind of backing my way into the backstory of the culture war, as you could say. The story of ideas and intellectual clashes that really lies underneath the newspaper headlines that we associate with the culture wars, the kind of hot-button political issues. I became increasingly persuaded that you can’t understand American politics today until you really dig into that theology and you go back not just a few years but in some cases centuries.
HODGES: That’s really interesting. I did my undergraduate in journalism and then kind of shifted over. My master’s thesis was done using historical methods. That bridge is really interesting because you have certain tools you bring as a journalist versus what you bring as a historian. How did that relationship sort of play out for you, because they’re kind of different skill sets?
WORTHEN: You’re right. In my journalistic work I primarily interview living flesh and blood people. In my historical work I rely far more on archives, although this book covers a history from the 1940s to the present, so of course many of the people concerned are still alive. So the archival work I did was informed by conversations with living members of these communities.
I found the two methodologies to be very complementary. I found that it was very helpful after spending a couple of weeks in the archives developing my own ideas about what was going on in these communities to have a conversation with someone who was alive in those circles experiencing some of these issues first hand, checks off my hypotheses you could say. As a historian I never take living subjects totally at their word. What I mean is that there are always things going on underneath the surface of what people say, but at the same time I think that having conversations with insiders so to speak is a really helpful check on the hubris of the academic scholar who can sometimes assume that he or she knows this world better than the people who experience it.
HODGES: That’s kind of the benefit of doing a more contemporary topic as you’ve done, is having the opportunity to get those checks and balances from people who still identify as being within that tradition that you’re investigating. So you can really try to get inside their shoes a little bit more.
How about length-wise? Because when you do a journalistic story today they want them short, they want sound bytes. Now you’ve done a full book. Did you find that more liberating or was it something that was a bit more harrowing for you?
WORTHEN: I suppose the answer is both, a major reason why I am not a full-time journalist is because I do find that medium to be a bit limiting for the reasons you say, for the very tight limits on the inches you’re permitted, the deadlines, the ways in which the constraints of the reality of the business impinge on your ability to tell the story in great detail. So as I was working my way through graduate school, and this book is based on my PhD dissertation, I did some free-lance journalism on the side, primarily magazine profiles of up and upcoming interesting pastors and Evangelical schools, and that was all the time informing the digging I was doing in this older, longer story.
I think that it was nice to have the instant gratification you could say of the magazine pieces coming out, getting feedback from readers about those things, as I was fevering away on this, what seemed at times to be a thankless project that was so far from being done. So I really appreciated the balance.
HODGES: There’s an instant gratification almost with journalism where you get an article out, but at the same time you can’t really do that background digging and so it’s really cool to talk to someone who’s done journalism and history because it’s really interesting to bridge those two fields.
Let’s talk more specifically about how history is brought to bear on religion. So for you you found it beneficial to talk to actual religious people, sort of get their perspectives, and for some historians that’s obviously not possible if they’re studying peoples who are long dead, but there are a lot of ways to come at religion as a topic. People can do theological arguments, they can evaluate current political activities. You saw history as the most useful tool here to understand today’s Evangelicals as you mentioned before. I just before we move on want you one more time to sort of talk about the strengths and weaknesses of using history to understand religious actors.
WORTHEN: Well I suppose that it’s important to recognize that professional history takes for granted some assumptions that people of faith would dispute. That is that a historian assumes that any artifact is a creation of its time and place and the human beings involved with the production of that artifact were also creatures of their time and place. This is the principle of historical relativism, particularly in regard to scripture. Of course many conservative Christians aren’t comfortable admitting that premise. Also I would say they might object to admitting that premise when you’re talking about religious institutions, that they believe have a divine mission, whether it’s a missionary organization, a school, or a church.
The other thing that’s important to recognize is that for a historian operating in a secular context as I do, there are limits on the kinds of evidence that you can admit, that you are limited to evidence that passes the test of the secular enlightenment, that is empirically accessible to people no matter what their faith persuasion might be. So that means you can’t bring to bear religious witness. You can’t bring to bear a divine message you believe you received from God, because non-believers don’t have access to that. So all of that shapes the story that I’m able to tell and has implications for the way people of faith might encounter that story.
HODGES: How can you do that and stay true to the religious perspectives of the people you’re talking about? For example if someone was writing a history of Joseph Smith members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would sort of want them to be sympathetic towards his claims. As you writing a history about Evangelicals, they would want you to be sympathetic to, say, their experience of becoming born again. How can you be true to that experience but also stay at that level of the secular view that can reach a wider audience?
WORTHEN: I think that the historian’s primary task is empathy. That is getting into the mind of the person you’re writing about, whether they are your twin, or whether this is a person separated from you by centuries, by an ideological gulf. Whether that person is Mahatma Gandhi or Adolf Hitler. I don’t care. Your job is empathy, your job is to get into that person’s world view and figure out what makes them tick. So as a historian I try my best to describe what I understand to be the world view of the people I’m writing about, but then I do step back and I analyze that in my own framework, which they may not share.
So I think that Evangelical Christians would find some things that they recognized in my book, but they would also object I think to some of the ways in which I analyze and synthesize the big picture, because I have two jobs: I have that first job, which is empathy, but then I have the second task, which is to make sense of this community and its history for outsiders, for people who are not members of that community, and who want to know how it fits into the broader story of western civilization and American political history.
HODGES: Now as for you, how did your own religious perspectives come to bear in this project? I don’t know about your religious background. Did that inform any of the work that you did?
WORTHEN: I am a bit unusual. The vast majority of historians who specialize in the history of Evangelical Christianity are themselves Evangelical, or they were reared in that tradition; they have some kind of personal relationship to it. I am an outsider. I was raised in a secular Agnostic home. Neither one of my parents subscribes to any systematic set of beliefs about the supernatural or an organized religious community, so I think that that has been an advantage and a disadvantage. Perhaps it means that because I’m not coming into this story with my own experience and maybe my own sense of who the good guys and who the bad guys are I’m able to maybe move more fluidly and comfortably in comparing different communities and seeing beyond boundaries that sometimes can divide the Evangelical community.
On the other hand, like any subculture, Evangelicalism and its constituent worlds, of course Evangelicalism is a very diverse community, it has its own idiom. It has a particular language, you know, a kind of library of images and experiences that are familiar to people and I am not fluent, so to speak, in that language. So this is what I meant when I spoke earlier about the usefulness of being able to talk to living, breathing, flesh and blood Evangelicals, because it’s especially important for me as an outsider to be able to make sure that I’m not too far off base in how I’m making sense of this world, that in many ways is alien to the one that I grew up with and was educated within.
HODGES: Yeah. So I think that goes back to your sort of guiding ethic of empathy, then, that you really try to get into the perspectives of the people that you’re working with. Let’s talk about Evangelicalism then. It’s a fluid term. How do you define Evangelicalism?
WORTHEN: Well I think that the way you define Evangelicalism depends very much on what you’re trying to do. This is a term that both believers and outside observers alike have been arguing about for really generations. It is such a diverse community that ranges from holy roller tongue-speaking Pentecostals to churchly conservative Anglicans. So what do we do here? Many scholars I think have come to prefer kind of a check list approach, a check list of key doctrines. This check list usually empathizes the born again conversion experience, an activist approach to the faith emphasizing the need for Evangelism, a high view of the authority of the Bible, things like this.
I think that check lists like this are useful, but I kept in my own research running up against the limits of those check lists and finding that actually once you get into it, people that I wanted to label as Evangelical were disagreeing about a lot of these things. Were disagreeing for example about the born again experience, whether you need one, whether conversion has to be this instantaneous, emotional experience, or whether it can be a more gradual process. I found myself wanting to kind of come up with a rubric to describe these different Protestants who seemed to be in conversation with one another over the centuries, who seemed to have a stake in what one another got up to, so to speak.
So I came to the conclusion that if they did not share a set of dogmas they did circle around a set of shared questions. I came to emphasize the questions rather than the answers. The questions that I found really unifying of the Evangelical community from really the reformation to today are three. The first is how do you reconcile faith and reason? How do you keep these fused as one way of knowing? Secondly, how do you cultivate an authentic relationship with the divine and become sure of your salvation? In other words, how do you meet and know Jesus? Do you use language many Evangelicals would recognize? And last, how do you reconcile your personal faith with the demands and the constraints of an increasingly secular public square? And how do you do all three of these things in the absence of a single centralized church authority to guide you when things get complicated? Because those three questions I mentioned, I mean those at some level are of interest or anxiety to people in a number of religious traditions.
But what I think what makes Evangelicals special is this vacuum of authority, and the fact that they have to navigate these questions in the absence of a single commanding authority, and in fact as a result they end up trying to please sources of authority that are really at odds with one another. They end up trying to be true to the standards of the rationalist enlightenment, while also adhering to their forefather’s method of interpreting scripture, while also heeding the commands of personal subjective religious experience. Often these three things are at odds, and at odds still with whatever their community might be demanding of them. This is why I ended up subtitling my book The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism, because I came to conclude that this crisis of authority has really been the abiding characteristic of Evangelicals for centuries.
HODGES: It seems to also help account for the diversity that you’ll find between different Evangelical communities then, is what they sort of look to as their ultimate authority, right? So in the book you say a quote here, “Different groups have their own rules, assumptions, rewards, and punishments that govern the exchange of ideas.” So it’s almost as though you’re viewing Evangelicalism as an ongoing conversation, and then there are referees in that conversation, and there are rules, and there are penalties, and there are rewards that are given, and you kind of trace those out.
Now when Latter-day Saints think of authority they usually think of things like their formally appointed Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, or their First Presidency. They also have a scripture canon, but I think that Latter-day Saint priesthood is sort of really the locus of authority. As you mentioned, Evangelicalism has been much more diverse because they don’t have a centralized body of official decision makers, so in terms of a location, where would you locate instances of Evangelical authority? The referees, the ones who sort of try to get people to follow the rules or asses penalties, or reward wins so to speak?
WORTHEN: Well there’s no structure analogous to the structure of the LDS church, that’s for sure. I think that Evangelicalism really demonstrates the centrifugal force of the reformation at its most exaggerated form, and really is characterized by this very weak ecclesiology, that is very weak theory of church governance and authority. So you see a number of patterns.
I think over Evangelical history we’ve seen the rise of kind of the war lord model of authority. So individual, very charismatic pastors who create kind of their own empire, which often is not just a mega church, but also maybe an attached Bible institute or an eponymous college or a set of parachurch organizations. The parachurch world is far more important as a locus of authority in Evangelicalism than I think in any other Christian confession. We’ve seen this recently in the controversy over the charity World Vision’s flip flopping on its position on same-sex marriage. The reason why that was so important for the Evangelical world is because these non-church entities are actually quite powerful.
I think though that part of the trouble is that Evangelicals themselves are not always forthright about how authority actually works in their culture, because they’d prefer to say it’s the Bible, the Bible is the authority, that sola scriptura. I think one way in which this really gets very interesting is its impact on higher education. Part of the advantage of centralized authority in the case of the LDS church is that it provides a means to concentrate intellectual and financial resources in the flagship university and some other institutions of the church. Brigham Young University. I think the same has been true in the Roman Catholic church.
One pattern we see in Evangelical higher education is that every pastor wants to found his own Bible college or even today, a university, and that has had the effect of really spreading resources too thin and often reinventing the wheel, and has complicated what are already a set of profound intellectual challenges to the Evangelical interaction with the secular academy.
HODGES: So you’ve identified things like charismatic leadership, different schools, probably even publications, there are publishing houses, these sort of places that sort of police the boundaries. Now despite a lot of intellectual activity that goes on within Evangelicalism, there’s a pretty common stereotype in America, and that is that you can either be interested in reason and science and human progress, or you can be an Evangelical, or a religious person, in that there’s little or no overlap there. I mean even some Evangelical figures, like Mark Noll, he lamented what he called the scandal of the Evangelical mind and he said the scandal is the fact that there’s not much of a mind. He was an Evangelical himself.
So there’s something about Evangelicalism that people think has discouraged allegiance to the ideals of tolerance, and logic, and evidence, and this sort of thing. So I’m interested in what you think about this particular stereotype, because it does exist, that Evangelicals don’t think.
WORTHEN: That’s right. I think that it comes back to what we talked about earlier when you were asking about the methodologies of professional history and their limits, because the reason that so many secular members of the intellegiencia consider Evangelical Protestants to be anti-intellectual is because they don’t play by the rules of secular intellectual life. That is, they don’t respect the rule of the enlightenment. They don’t respect those boundaries on evidence that I mentioned earlier because the modern university is not a free for all. Any intellectual community requires a set of rules in order to function. We need a set of common presuppositions so that I know you will understand my arguments on the same merits that I understand it. Evangelicals contest that very premise.
Now I would say that to some extent this is a disconnect between the secular academy and any traditional religious community at some level. The reason why it is more pronounced in the case of American Evangelicalism is first of all because of that deep commitment to the authority of the enlightenment and reconciling it with the authority of the Bible as they understand it, but also because of the history here, because since the days of the clashes between modernist liberal theologians and the so-called fundamentalists in the early twentieth century and the way in which those clashes were broadcast to wider America by skeptical satirists like H. L. Mencken, covered the Scopes Trial in 1925.
This has been a trope in popular culture, and it is the case that Evangelicals since then have, well they’ve continued to be a part, to attend secular colleges to a degree that maybe is under appreciated, they also went off and built their own infrastructure of rather self-contained intellectual institutions, their own universities, their own seminaries, their own Bible colleges, and really turned inward intellectually, whereas conservative Evangelical Biblical scholars in the late nineteenth century were interested in writing articles that would be read by the great theologians of Europe. A generation later they were really preaching to the choir; they had kind of given up trying to direct the direction of the mainstream of liberal Protestant theology.
So this is a question of how this history has come to inform people’s experiences in the classroom, and I think the result is this stereotype which has some truth to it, if we understand it properly.
HODGES: I think it plays out really well in one of the chapters of the book where you sort of talk about the rise of a certain brand of higher education in the United States. You talk about Evangelicals who designed their colleges and seminaries as citadels to protect the faithful, not as schools with the confidence to invite all comers and entertain any challenge.
So you just kind of touched on that with the ascent of expertise and professionalization, some Evangelicals moved within that model, others sort of set up their own locuses of education, they put up the ramparts and batten down the hatches so to speak. I think people say this is due to the rise of higher criticism, theories of evolution, and things that seem to challenge the traditional authority of the Bible. Maybe you can go into some more detail about some of the examples of how these types of battles played out institutionally.
In the book you talk about Fuller for example. How did that sort of fit into this story of how universities were grappling with the issue of authority?
WORTHEN: I think that the bigger context here is that Evangelical Protestants had an abiding discomfort with the foundational principles of the modern research university, which came to the United States in the late nineteenth century from Germany. The first modern research university was Johns Hopkins, founded in 1876. The modern research university’s aim was to, and is today, to advance the boundaries of knowledge and challenge received wisdom, and provide an environment for original research.
This is an important break with the tradition that had characterized American higher education up until this point. Before that point the very small number of Americans who went to college attended small liberal arts colleges, usually run by a church, and the purpose of these institutions was to form their student’s characters and to pass down received wisdom from their elders. You didn’t have professors who had fancy degrees and a high level of specialization in their area, but rather generalists, amateurs frankly, who were often young men who were in a holding pattern, teaching for a few years before they went on to join the clergy or become lawyers or something like that.
So that discomfort with the aim of the modern university to overturn the authority of the Bible, for example, really frames what’s going on at any of these institutions, and Fuller is a good example. Fuller Theological Seminary was founded in 1947 by a group of Evangelical intellectuals and Evangelists who called themselves Neo-Evangelicals. They used that term to imply a kind of reinvention of the presentation of orthodoxy. They were all essentially recovering fundamentalists, and they did not differ in their theology one iota from very separatist fundamentalists who had thumbed their nose at higher education, but these Neo-Evangelicals like Harold Ockenga and Carl Henry, Billy Graham is the most famous, wanted to reintegrate traditional Protestant intellectual life with the mainstream, and refurbish Protestantism’s intellectual reputation.
With the support of Charles Fuller, a very influential radio Evangelist at that time who had made a fortune actually in the orange business, growing oranges, they founded this seminary that was supposed to really be a step up from other pre-existing Protestant seminaries, but they ran into a problem pretty quickly. Because as they tried to recruit scholars, some of whom came from abroad, and did not have a kind of native familiarity with the American cultural setting, this kind of hangover from the fights between the fundamentalists and the modernists, they found pretty quickly that the limits on what they could tolerate in terms of the debates about orthodoxy, particularly the interpretation of the authority of the Bible were tested very quickly.
By the early 1960s faculty were arguing and resigning and getting into terrible fights over this issue of biblical inerrancy, the claim that the Bible is wholly without error and that we can treat it as an authority not just on matters pertaining to salvation, but on every detail of science and history from the scope of the flood to the most granular details of ancient Israel’s politics.
What happened in the early sixties was that the conservatives, who were really still fundamentalists on this issue of purity, left Fuller. Fuller ended up going in a more moderate, now frankly fairly progressive direction. Today it is a seminary that I would say tolerates quite a bit of debate about theology, about particularly how the gospel can be inculturated in non-western contexts, what counts as the kind of kernel of the gospel, and what is simply western cultural accretion. These are all very lively conversations at Fuller, but I’m not sure that Fuller now represents the kind of core conservative heart of American Evangelicalism in the way that its founders hoped it would.
HODGES: Could more conservative minded faculty sustain a career there? Or would they be more unwelcome at Fuller, do you think?
WORTHEN: Well I that’s interesting. There have been a number of debates over the years at Fuller, and not just about this issue of inerrancy, but also about religious experience and there have been controversies over more Pentacostally inclined professors doing exorcisms in the classroom and things like this. So there’s all kinds of debates over boundaries. I suspect that in practice more conservative Evangelical academics would not apply for a job at Fuller.
HODGES: They just wouldn’t want to be there.
WORTHEN: I think that’s right. I think that they recognize that Fuller is operating on assumptions that they don’t share. But Fuller is still a prestigious Evangelical institution. I think if you were to go there and interview students you met on campus you would find a pretty wide variety and you would find certainly students who are far more conservative than faculty, and you’d find a good degree of variety among the faculty. If you were really a more conservative Evangelical you would probably head down the road to Talbot Theological Seminary, which is associated with Biola, which has grown out of its Bible institute roots and is now a full-fledged university but I think has hued more closely to the conservative more traditional interpretation of classic orthodoxies.
HODGES: Okay. So I think what I see as kind of the fulcrum of the book is this idea that Evangelicals when they’re wrestling with the problem of what happens when faith bumps up against reason and that there’s this sense of not wanting to sell out, not wanting to sell the faith out to the assumptions of secular culture, or secular has become sort of a bad word in some circles. You want to avoid that. I kind of see the tension there as very interesting, and you’ve hinted at it already.
Let me read you a quote from Peter Enns, he’s an Evangelical scholar who’s talked a little bit about this, and get your response to it. He says, “Evangelicalism is not fundamentally an intellectual organism, but more of an apologetic one. It did not come to be in order to inspire academic exploration, but to maintain certain theological distinctives by intellectual means.”
So he sort of identifies apologetics as an example of Christians who wanted to exalt the life of the mind but stay true to these fundamental beliefs at the same time and there’s a tension there. What do you think about that?
WORTHEN: I think that’s right. That’s a very interesting way of putting the problem in contrast to liberal Protestants, most of whom I would say are fairly comfortable cornering off faith and reason, saying there’s one way in which I know the spiritual world, I have my relationship with God, and I think about the Bible, and then there’s another way in which I understand science and human origins and global warming and all of this, and it’s fine that the Bible is not my authority for the latter. In contrast to that, conservative Evangelicals want to keep those two ways of knowing fused. This is not a modern problem, this is a problem that Thomas Aquinas faced at his time.
WORTHEN: Some of the Greek philosophers debated it, but of course it’s a problem that has really become more pronounced in the modern age. The theory of biblical interpretation that has become so pervasive among Evangelicals, this theory called biblical inerrancy, really took its most formative steps in the seventeenth or eighteenth century in the context of the early years of the enlightenment.
Protestant thinkers at that time found themselves in a bit of a bind. They found themselves kind of surrounded on the intellectual battlefield, on the one hand they had these enlightenment philosophers and scientists who were busy debunking the miracles of Christ and saying that the gospels are not a historically reliable account. On the other hand they were facing the Catholic theologians of the counter reformation, who were marshaling scholastic arguments, this very logical style of argument to pick apart Protestant doctrine.
The Protestant theologians responded in an apologetic manner, as you say, they were concerned to defend the gospel. They did so by co-opting the tools, the weapons of their enemies, trying to turn those enemies back upon them. So they developed this highly rationalistic, highly scientistic mode of argument that takes as its assumption that God is perfect and unchanging, and therefore His revelation must be perfect and unchanging too in all matters pertaining to science and history, not just salvation. This grew into its more mature form in the nineteenth century and on into our present time, and the point here is that religion and secular science have grown up kind of intertwined with one another, and always western religious institutions have responded and co-opted and adapted to that scientific secular discourse. You can’t take them apart, so the result is that the way in which Evangelical Protestants talk about the Bible today is as much as they protest secular humanism and the enlightenment, it is deeply informed by the enlightenment.
HODGES: Yeah, I think that’s one of the biggest ironies that your study, it’s not a central focus of it, but reading between the lines it seems like one of the biggest ironies that you see is this at the same time of trying to push away the idea of secular culture infiltrating the faith embracing those very assumptions and methods to gird up in the face of criticism. So there are certain types of apologetics that’s informed by the exact same assumptions that the frightening secular people adopted. It’s really interesting.
So some Evangelical leaders, reading through the book here, some of the Evangelical leaders that you focus on begin to fear that there were too many people capitulating to wider secular culture, but at the same time they had this anxiety that they wanted to be seen as respectable and as worthwhile intellectual partners in the public square. There’s this great quote that you have here, I want to read this, and it’s about these Neo-Evangelicals that you’ve been discussing here.
“The Neo-Evangelicals were torn between their envy of the cultural esteem and achievement associated with modern universities and their loyalty to the medieval model of preserving and transmitting fixed knowledge to obedient pupils.”
So this is kind of a way to shift into how education works, there’s two competing models there. There’s one where education exists just to indoctrinate or just to say here’s what we believe, here are the beliefs. There’s another type of education that’s geared to talk about how do we come to believe, what’s the process of seeking knowledge, how do we negotiate between competing claims? Those two styles of learning seem to play out differently at different schools. We talked about Fuller earlier. Are there other Evangelical schools that are more aligned with the idea of just speaking their truth rather than inviting conversation?
WORTHEN: I became very interested in the contrasts and similarities between fundamentalist Bible institutes and Evangelical liberal arts colleges. So the differences between a Wheaton, we know about twenty-five miles outside of Chicago, probably the most prestigious Evangelical liberal arts college, and say Moody Bible Institute or the Bible Institute of Los Angeles, now Biola, founded with different missions and I think what you see are some of the same patterns playing out in both places, but in different ways.
Wheaton really considered itself in the early twentieth century to be a fundamentalist institution, very much a place where Christian parents could send their kids and expect their kids to be protected, although more perhaps worldly than you might expect in that many of these kids were missionary kids who had grown up in different cultures and had different experiences. I spent a lot of time going through back issues of the student newspaper there and the student literary magazines, and what I found was that in the 1940s and early fifties these student journalists were very devout and very committed to their parents’ understandings of orthodoxy and really not interested in writing about politics.
But that begins to change and as I combed through issues in the late fifties I started noticing more engagement with politics, more coverage of the wider world, more ambition, and then it really kind of exploded in the early 1960s when Wesley Earl Craven, who your listeners might associate with “The Nightmare on Elm Street”—
HODGES: It’s Wes Craven, yeah.
WORTHEN: Yeah, the Wes Craven. So he went to Wheaton and he was the appointed editor and chief of the lit mag there in I think 1962 and his first issue he printed just this creed, this manifesto in the front of the issue basically saying, “We are not cooperating with the self-censorship that has governed student journalism from before this point to today; we are confronting the ugly sides of human existence because this is what Christ wants us to do. We shouldn’t be shrinking from the complexities and the suffering that go into the human experience. We should be writing about them.” He wrote very dark stories, kind of morally ambiguous stories, and this was a big problem for the administration. They got all kinds of nasty complaining letters from alumni, “This is not what we should be doing,” they ended up yanking him and replacing him with another more cooperative student.
But in this context we can see young Evangelicals starting to push the boundaries and explore, and in the context of a liberal arts school they had a pretty committed faculty. There were some leading lights there who really wanted to encourage their students to question who introduced them to Christian writers like C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, who are not American Evangelicals, who didn’t come out of a fundamentalist culture of limits on what it’s okay to read and rules on behavior and these sorts of things, to really try to broaden the Christian imagination.
Now if we contrast that with the Bible institutes, a place like Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, or Biola, I mean Moody was founded in the late nineteenth century, the others somewhat later, these institutions were really founded as a giant middle finger to the secular higher education establishment. They were founded to not engage with the kind of production of elite degrees and studying of all the liberal arts that characterized the modern research university—
HODGES: Or the accredidation, right?
WORTHEN: Yeah. They didn’t want any part of that. Wheaton did. Wheaton was actually an early adopter, but most of them wanted no part of that.
HODGES: Let’s talk for a second about what it means to be accredited real quick.
WORTHEN: For an institution to be accredited means to basically submit to the governance and auditing of peer institutions. So most mainstream universities and colleges today are part of an association of, it’s not a government body or anything like that, it’s an association of peer institutions and every few years they’ll send a representative committee to your institution, make sure you’re following basic practices of academic freedom, your library is in good shape, your degrees are serious, this is to sort of keep everybody’s programs respectable and interchangeable so that if a student wants to transfer from institution A to B, those at B know that they’re getting a similar education, this sort of thing.
HODGES: These schools didn’t want that, right?
WORTHEN: That’s right. That’s right. With a few exceptions, conservative Evangelical schools did not want to participate, to submit to the standards set by secular institutions. A place like Moody, I mean, their early coursework you’d go there to study things like English bible, you wouldn’t bother with any of the ancient languages, you’d study missionary aviation, you’d study pagan psychology, surgery, basic dentistry, things that you need to know to go into darkest Africa and spread the gospel.
But what starts to happen at both these Bible institutes and these Christian liberal arts schools, I would say, but it’s really pronounced at the Bible schools, is that their students are increasingly worried about getting jobs, and not just jobs in the missionary world but in the broader world. We have World War II and the GI Bill brings a whole new host of degree seekers to these campuses as it does to institutions all over the country and they have different expectations. They wanted to be able to go on maybe to law school and be able to count on their degree transferring. They wanted some training in the sciences. They wanted a broader education than just one to prepare them to prepare them to go into permanent mission work.
So these administrators at schools like this were really wrestling with frankly the demands of their bottom line. Whatever their objections might have been on an idealogical grounds to the aims of the Neo-Evangelicals who founded Fuller, they weren’t interested in that. They found themselves compelled to be interested because they needed to recruit the faculty and build the programs that would give their students what the students demanded. So they are forced into this minuet with secular academia. They end up constructing their own accreditation body but creep closer and closer to adhering to at least some of the standards of secular academia. Many of these schools which began their lives as bible institutes are now full-fledged universities with big science labs and the whole nine yards.
HODGES: You also, there’s a really interesting part too where you trace this uptake in Evangelicals who are getting PhDs and ThDs at places like Harvard and more respectable institutions and they’re Evangelical, but you also identify some strategies that they had because it was difficult for them to get those higher degrees and not step on the fault lines of their own faith. So you talk about focusing on particular areas, like archeology or something, instead of higher criticism. What are some of the strategies that Evangelical scholars would use then to avoid cultural shibboleths?
WORTHEN: That’s right. I think this is one of the big misunderstandings about Evangelical history. Evangelicals are not dummies. This is a subculture that’s always had a significant number of serious intellectuals with fancy degrees, but you’re right. They did this often in a way that would avoid too deeply challenging their own world views.
So sometimes it would involve the selection of their area of study, as you say, so rather than going into a degree program that would force them to apply higher biblical criticism to the letters of Paul or the Genesis creation narrative, they would focus on philosophy or some area of archeology that wasn’t too dicy. Often they would go abroad. This is still true today. Evangelicals love to do advanced degrees at universities in the United Kingdom and to some degree also on the European continent. This is because faculty over there, not being immersed in the American political context, tended to not have the same assumptions about their students. They were not necessarily expecting one thing or another from these American Christian students, so Evangelicals could go over there and operate a bit more freely. In some cases this enabled them to get the credential and then return with their faith intact.
Another way they would do this is sometimes faculty would take up an appointment at an institution in the US, like Biola, without a PhD, but then pursue that PhD while they were teaching which enabled them to sort of stay immersed in the bible college world, and often they do this at an institution that’s sort of sympathetic, maybe because it had church roots of its own, University of Southern California is a good example, which has Methodist roots. But I want to emphasize that for some Evangelical intellectuals the experience in higher education was one the deeply impacted and changed their faith. Few of them became atheists, but a good number developed a kind of living relationship and acceptance of higher biblical criticism. A good number adjusted their ideas about eschatology, about the end times, and these scholars, many of whom who ended up at Fuller, have really worked hard to try to carve out a middle way, to try to write scholarship that allows lay believers to see that they can accept some of the fruits of modern scholarship without, as you put it, selling out the faith. I’m not sure that they are the popular leaders of the so-called Evangelical mind. The reality is that their influence has been somewhat limited.
HODGES: Why do you think that is?
WORTHEN: Well I think that a lot of it has to do with what is probably a feature of academia generally, and that is the rather inaccessible register of much of the knowledge production that goes on in universities. Many of these books are not very easy to read, but also Evangelicalism has a deep ambivalence toward its own intellectual elites. There’s a fierce strain of populous anti-elitism in Evangelicalism that I think predisposes Evangelicals to be a little bit skeptical of even the books and articles produced by their own seminaries, universities, and colleges, a sense that they needed to take these things with a grain of salt, that there is such a thing as too much book learning and it distances you from the true faith.
Therefore they attempted to really gravitate to more of those popular writers who I think have devoted their careers to reaffirming Evangelicals’ pre-existing ideas about the Bible and about history. People like David Barton, who’s a very influential kind of amateur lay Evangelical historian who’s been able to align his story of the American founding with the principles of the Christian rite. Someone like Ken Ham, the Australian who runs the very influential creationist ministry answers in Genesis, these guys are far more influential than someone like Mark Noll, as wonderful as Mark Noll’s work has been for Evangelicalism.
HODGES: There’s something that I wanted to kind of connect that conversation to, and that’s that you found that sometimes with greater academic freedom for young Evangelicals at universities and colleges something new emerged you call a sacramental sense of life. This is as these students became more exposed to some of the ideas of secular education that they were able to successfully integrate those into their religious life as well. So it wasn’t that they became indoctrinated in the ways of the secular world, but that through engagement with more secular learning and higher education they were able to translate that into a sacramental sense of life. Can you talk briefly about that?
WORTHEN: This is something that I think I saw really play out at Wheaton College in the latter, say, third of the twentieth century. As scholars there, faculty there, encouraged their students to read more broadly, read fiction literature, read non-Christian authors, they encouraged their students to be open to these sources of insight into the human experience on the theory that all truth is God’s truth. This also coincided with I think a surge of interest among many American Evangelicals in a richer more historically grounded worship experience.
So we start to see a small but significant number of Evangelicals dabbling in not just the Anglican tradition but Catholicism, even Eastern Orthodoxy. Some have converted. Some simply have kind of imported more liturgical worship into their own Evangelical settings because of an increasing sense that there was a kind of barrenness to the very Protestant low church worship tradition that we would see in many Baptist inspired mega churches for example.
I think that the response of Evangelicals who were part of these movements to those conservative critics who would say, “Hey, you are compromising with worldliness, you are capitulating to secular standards of intellectual life, an you’re dabbling among the papists, you’re borrowing all these accretions that the whore of Babylon added to the Bible.” Their response would be, “Well, no. We’re simply opening ourselves up to kind of a diversity of ways in which God has manifested himself,” against which Evangelicalism had sort of closed itself off, and developing a tentative curious relationship with history and trying to recover some of the insights and practices that Christians have developed over the centuries and say those things aren’t Catholic, those things aren’t just the purview of the Eastern Orthodox, those are goods for all Christians to enjoy and seek as a way of connecting with the divine. I think that there’s a powerful truth to what they’re expressing there.
HODGES: That kind of leads us up to the last question and that pertains to kind of where we are today. So I think according to the book Evangelicals are left with multiple authorities that they can follow. There’s as many authorities as there are people almost, but yet this diverse community of believers have found various ways of seeking to be closer to God and to understand their faith by following different kinds of authorities. There’s a quote by a man called Roger Olson that you cite. It’s actually from a book that was edited by Robert Millet, who was a Brigham Young University religion professor.
WORTHEN: That’s right.
HODGES: So this is a really interesting quote that I think speaks well to the state of affairs today. So I’ll read that and then just have you comment on it to close.
He says, “True authority, authority of the highest and most important kind, lies on the side of right and not might. In deciding what’s right, a person ought to take into account many factors including,” now he’s going to list a lot of factors, “including tradition, and community consensus, but in the final analysis the person seeking truth must seek true authority against tradition and community consensus if reason in the broadest and best sense demands it. It is never right to go against reason when rational proof is unavailable, as is often the case, a person may legitimately go with reasons of the heart or simply submit to tradition and community, but when these contradict themselves or prove baseless except on whims and fancies of religious leaders the person has every right and even should break away from traditional belief and community consensus or hold belief in suspension until greater light dawns. In the final analysis the individual really is the only one who can and must decide what he or she believes is true, especially in matters of ultimate concern.”
So he lists a lot of different things, tradition, community, reason, emotion, but what’s interesting to me is that he lands back on the individual and that seems a very Evangelical solution to me, that there’s a communal element to Evangelicalism, but it seems to be founded in individualism distinctly. A person’s relationship to God is an individual one. If you can comment on that quote.
WORTHEN: That’s right. Evangelicalism is a modern religious tradition. The thing that makes it modern most of all is this emphasis on the individual, this kind of hyper individualism. I have seen this hyper-individualism express itself even among those Evangelicals who’ve gotten very interested in Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy, with the exception of those few who have gone whole-hog and converted. What you see is that they approach these traditions as a kind of theological and liturgical smorgasbord from which they can pick and choose; it’s like being at an all-you-can-eat religious buffet. You do whatever you want. You can mix Benedict’s monastic rule with John Chrystostom’s prayers. You can use some incense as you like.
What we see is they are still quintessentially Evangelical in their approach to these authorities. They’re not submitting themselves to the authority of these traditions. Often the way in which they co-opt these traditions would really trouble Catholics or the Orthodox because they have a very different view of authority. You’re right, it is one that really foregrounds the individual. I think outsiders tend to have this idea in their mind of Evangelicalism as this very authoritarian tradition, this one in which believers don’t think for themselves and they follow the rule of their pastor or whatever, but while there are kind of authoritarian impulses present, the main theme is the one you’ve identified. It is this powerful individualism, which contributes a kind of instability and anxiety, but also energy and vitality to American Evangelicalism.
HODGES: Thanks, Molly. That’s Molly Worthen. She’s the author of Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism. We appreciate you taking time to join us today, Molly.
WORTHEN: It’s been my pleasure.
The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)