The failure of the evangelical: mind, heart and spirit (probably in that order)

This blog entry could be a book on its own. I fear I cannot do this thought justice, but I would like to nevertheless put it out there for discussion and your reflection. It might feel overly harsh on “my own” (the evangelicals), but I do sometimes despair at the shallowness of thought and engagement that often accompanies discussions I have with fellow evangelicals. Hopefully my brief thoughts will spur deeper ones from you.

Back in 1995, Mark Noll wrote, “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” – it’s a great read, with a central message: the failure of the evangelical mind is that evangelicals tend not to use theirs. Noll was particularly concerned that evangelicals have not produced great scholars who contribute to Christian interaction in science, the arts, politics, or culture in general. Too often evangelicals simply retreat to a “it’s in the Bible, God said it, I believe it, end of discussion” position.

He’s right.

Last year, Rachel Held Evans wrote on her blog about the scandal of the evangelical heart. In a well written piece, she wonders how so many evangelicals (especially Calvinists) do not feel more about the eternal fate of those they believe are destined for hell. She wonders how we can read some of the Old Testament stories about the Israelites wiping out other nations – including women and children – and not feel grief and anguish. Evangelicals are OK with this because “it’s in the Bible, God did it, it must be fine. End of discussion”.

She’s right.

Peter Enns picked up these two themes in a recent blog of his own. He argues that the scandal of the evangelical mind and heart is that we’re not allowed to use them: “The scandal of the Evangelical mind is that degrees, books, papers, and other marks of prestige are valued – provided you come to predetermined conclusions.”

But he also hints at another scandal, which might be labelled the scandal of the evangelical spirit, and has to do with how evangelicals engage in discussion. Enns explains that the problem is “the manner in which controversies are handled – by which I mean differences of opinion that quickly become ‘controversies’ with a giddy sense of anticipation for the hunt.” Evangelicals do not want to engage in discussions – they want to win arguments. Evangelicals typically do not want to engage in activities that lead them to new thinking – they want to show other people what is right and wrong.

The way in which they enter “discussions” is therefore with no real attempt at interaction. As Enns states: “Evangelicalism is not fundamentally an intellectual organism but an apologetic one.” The spirit in which they engage in these “discussions” is therefore one that leads to argument and debate. It is mean spirited, unloving and unlovely. This is a scandal.

I want to be an evangelical, in the sense that I believe God has revealed Himself to us and can be known, that the Bible is a primary source of authority in my life (superseded only by the God the Bible reveals), that we need to respond to the Gospel and help others to as well, and that Jesus provides the only access to God. But I will not accept that I must start with dogma and make the facts fit my theology. I will not accept that I cannot question, think deeply and chase intellectual rabbits. I will not accept that I must disengage from the world’s scholarship. I will not accept the best way to engage in discussion is to defend my position and belittle those that disagree with me. I will not accept that I have a corner on the truth.

I will not accept that the scandal of the evangelical mind, heart and spirit is inevitable.

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