Service Is Not Scandal: Responding to Mark Noll
My copy of The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind is scuffed, highlighted, dog-eared, and underlined; it was my young adult equivalent of a well-loved teddy bear. Its 1994 release coincided with my beginning a doctoral program in cultural anthropology at American University. With lifelong roots in conservative evangelicalism, part of me worried that evangelicals were right: I'd contribute more to God's kingdom as a wife and mother, or maybe a missionary, than as a professor. Arriving at just the right time, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind strengthened my inner conviction that a scholarly vocation was valid for an evangelical, even a female one.
I hesitated, however, at the very notion of "the life of the mind" (I still do today). Evangelicalism had taught me that faith ought to matter in the world, and that Christians ought to address urgent needs through evangelism and interpersonal care. Does any believer have the right to live the life of the mind, I wondered, in a world where people are suffering? Additionally, I wanted a family someday, and I didn't see a way to be the mother I wanted to be—or even a mother at all—if I spent my 20s and 30s working my way up the academic prestige ladder. In elite research universities today, the life of the mind often seems like no life at all. Competition for tenure is cutthroat and may last well over a decade. People work around the clock and around the week to produce peer-reviewed or university press publications that are read by few, understood by fewer, and applied by fewer still. The highest demands of academic careers often coincide with women's reproductive window, so choices about parenting become extremely difficult for women, and for men who wish to be engaged fathers. Not many can succeed on these terms and preserve spiritual and personal well-being.
I did pursue an academic career; I've been teaching college students for 15 years now, and I work as a tenured professor at a Christian college. I love it so much that, God willing, I'll still be at it 20 years from now. Nonetheless, I have always paired my sense of intellectual calling with a second, more practical, vocation: first urban ministry, then applied anthropology, now parenting. I've also seen graduate school friends, Christian and not, succeed in many of the myriad niches of higher education. Some—just a few—even thrive at research universities. Most graduate-educated Americans, especially in social sciences and humanities, peel off the research track at various points to invest instead in teaching, industry, government, or other applied venues.
Noll's Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind, which just received an award of merit in Christianity Today's annual book awards, graces the middle season of my career. The postscript, "How Fares the 'Evangelical Mind'?" is worth the entire read. (Much of it appeared in a 2004 First Things article.) Here, Noll compares and contrasts today's evangelical intellectual scene with that of his original inquiry. Reasons for despair are holding steady or advancing:
- quick and reactionary approaches to cultural engagement,
- emphasizing concern for the immediate needs of individuals over more long-term political or social change,
- simplistic Bible reading and worship,
- the rapid speed of technological change, and
- a growing desire for selfish material gain.
Instead of indulging in negativity or berating evangelicals for being stupid, however, Noll points to many hopeful signs. Among them are the presence of Christians in pluralist research universities, innovations at seminaries, and partnerships between evangelicals and Roman Catholics. But first among Noll's points of light is the health of Christian colleges and universities.