Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Molly Worthen on American Evangelicalism

Cover for 
Apostles of Reason
After completing the lecture notes for my upcoming spring courses, I wanted to read one of the many books that have recently arrived in the mail. Last night I finished Molly Worthen's Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism. This is an incredibly important book on the apparent paradoxes of evangelical Christianity, supplementing the recent work of other scholars, including Darren Dochuk, Larry Eskridge, Barry Hankins, Michael Lindsay, Randall Stephens, and David Swartz. Worthen offers an astute picture of modern evangelicalism from a critical perspective. While presenting evangelicalism as an extremely influential movement in the spread of global Christianity, Worthen does not hold back from targeting what she sees as weaknesses in this particular brand of faith.

Worthen is essentially critical of American evangelicals for wanting it all: reason and faith, the sovereignty of God and free will, salvation by grace and good works, and shielding themselves from secularism while being taken seriously in the world in which they live. A core argument in Apostles of Reason is Worthen's stance that American evangelicals are sheep without a shepherd. Whereas Roman Catholics can turn to the pope for leadership and guidance on ecclesial matters, evangelicals appear to be a scattered group of independent minds. Worthen writes, "The problem with evangelical intellectual life is not that its participants obey authority... The problem is that evangelicals attempt to obey multiple authorities at the same time" (258). Drawing on the work of Randall Stephens's and Karl Giberson's recent book The Anointed, Worthen reiterates that some of the loudest and most visible prophets of evangelical Christianity have had a greater influence on the conservative populace than respectable scholars such as Alvin Plantinga, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Nathan Hatch, George Marsden, and Mark Noll (see chapter 11).

An example of the multiple voices involved in evangelicalism can be seen in their interpretation of scripture. Although all evangelical Christians claim the Bible as their authority, they struggle to come to a consensus on how scripture is inspired. Should the Bible simply be touted ambiguously as "God's Word," or does it need a precise definition as inerrant or infallible? Is it heretical to speak of the "Word of God" contained in the Bible, in the way that Karl Barth theorized? Is the Bible a "storehouse of facts," according to what Charles Hodge proposed, or should it be accepted as more mysterious and feeling-oriented? These are some of the questions that Worthen identifies as causing sometimes fierce confrontations between evangelicals, who cannot reach an agreement that meets their Christian "worldview."

Throughout Apostles of Reason Worthen presents the rebels of evangelicalism--the minority groups who promoted the theology of Karl Barth and social activism, rejected Republican politics, wrote edgy newspaper columns in school papers, used nude models in art classes, heralded C.S. Lewis's imaginative outlook on Christianity, and welcomed the mysterious and liturgical practices of Anglicanism and Eastern Orthodoxy--as the heroes of modern evangelicalism. The villains of the story then become the fact-finding, legalistic, rapture-seeking, Enlightenment-based thinkers who stubbornly refuse to squash all traces of twentieth-century Fundamentalism. The subtle suggestion of Worthen seems to be this: for evangelicalism to be accepted in the mainstream as a intellectually-respectable movement, its adherents must be willing to challenge the norms of accepted Christian practices and ways of thinking, making adjustments to their views on the Bible, reason, philosophy, science, and theology as progress is made in these fields.

What I appreciate most about Apostles of Reason is Worthen's ability to offer new insight into modern evangelicalism. While telling the typical story of how the Christian Right emerged at the end of the 1970s to enter politics, and how Billy Graham and neo-evangelicals of the 1950s began gaining media attention in their revival meetings and with the founding of Christianity Today, colleges and seminaries such as Fuller (chapters 1 and 3), Worthen offers a much more extensive and original thesis than what scholars have grown accustomed to reading when it comes to narratives about the history of modern evangelicalism.

I highly recommend Apostles of Reason as a cutting-edge history of modern evangelical Christianity. It will be interesting to see how the book is received by scholars and educated laypeople within the evangelical community. 

The "Wicked Smart" Oliver Crisp

Last evening, Oliver Crisp gave his talk, "Was Jonathan Edwards Theologically Orthodox?" as part of the LeRoy Martin Distinguished Lecture Series and in collaboration with Theology on Tap of Chattanooga. I was pleased with the turnout, with roughly one hundred people in attendance.

Over a year ago I was at a conference where Crisp was getting ready to speak. I happened to be sitting in the audience next to a distinguished religious historian who I greatly respect. Before Crisp began speaking, my friend leaned over to me and asked if I knew Crisp. I admitted that I hadn't met him, but knew of his work. My friend then broke his usual sophisticated speech by telling me that Crisp is "wicked smart."

Reflecting on Crisp's talk on Jonathan Edwards's philosophical theology last night, I can sincerely say that I agree with that assessment--Crisp is wicked smart. He has written or edited sixteen books since earning his PhD in 2003 (some of these books are in press), specializing in Christology, the Atonement, and Edwards's thought. I was astounded at how much Crisp knows about Reformed theology, from the Reformation to the present, as well as the intricacies of Edwards's thought. He explained that Edwards sees reality as a continual stream of consciousness within the mind of God. According to Edwards, the world as we see it doesn't really exist. Rather, what we see and experience are simply feelings that we perceive as true, but do not actually exist. In other words, Edwards was an idealist.

Edwards added his own twist to idealism by arguing in Original Sin (1758) that God recreates the universe as we know it ex nihilo, again and again, at every moment. The illustration that Crisp used was of a movie projection. When people go to the theater to watch a movie, they see the illusion of a continuous story, but in reality the movie consists of a series of individual slides that make up a complete film roll. In a similar way, God has pieced together the individual moments that have been created from scratch to form one continuous flow of thought in his mind that we experience as reality. Needless to say, this is a difficult concept to consider while highlighting the breadth of Edwards's thought. Crisp showed the audience that Edwards was not simply the fire and brimstone preacher of "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," but a deeply intellectual theologian who advocated some radical innovations to Calvinism.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Marie Griffith at UTC

I am delighted to announce that Marie Griffith will be speaking on Tuesday, February 18, 2014 in Chattanooga as part of UTC's LeRoy Martin Distinguished Lecture Series. Griffith is the Director of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics and the John C. Danforth Distinguished Professor at Washington University in St. Louis.

The title of her talk, "Religion, Sex, and Politics: An American History," relates to her current research project.

If you are in the Chattanooga area, please pencil in this date on your calendar. We are planning on hosting this event at the Camp House, in cooperation with the Theology on Tap series, offering free drink vouchers to the first 100 people.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

CFH Call for Papers

The Conference on Faith and History is asking for paper topics to be given at its upcoming biennial conference at Pepperdine University, September 25-27, 2014.

Take a look at the official call for papers here.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

The Century Has Passed: Christianity Around the World in the Year 1900

If you're in the neighborhood, please join us!

Mark Noll’s lecture will be the first public event of a new Wheaton College faculty colloquium: The NineteenthSociety. This new interdisciplinary group, with the support of the Dean of Humanities and Theological Studies, facilitates dialogue among faculty who share an interest in the nineteenth century, fosters collaboration among scholars in the greater Chicago-area, and hosts formal events for the Wheaton College community. The Nineteenth Society launches during the Fall 2013 semester with Mark Noll’s global perspective on one of the most fascinating, controversial, and significant centuries in history.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Oliver Crisp at Theology on Tap

Oliver Crisp will be speaking at Theology on Tap at the Camp House at 7pm on Tuesday, October 29. This talk will be in cooperation with the LeRoy Martin Distinguished Lecture series at UTC.

Below is the announcement from Cole Hamilton, who organizes the Theology on Tap series.

The next ToT is just a little more than a week away (Tuesday, Oct. 29th).  It's a special one as it will be co-sponsored by UTC's LeRoy Martin Distinguished Lectureship. To add to the awesomeness, the first hundred to the door at 7pm will receive drink vouchers.  That means FREE BEER and FREE COFFEE!!  See the Facebook page here.

Here's a little bit about the talk and our speaker:

You may know Jonathan Edwards as a leader of the Great Awakening and for his famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of Angry God,” and consequently think of him as just another Puritan. Edwards is, however, widely regarded today as America’s greatest theologian. Despite being in so many ways the godfather of evangelicalism, Edwards was a highly original thinker, in fact, founding the philosophy of idealism in America. His work in theology was no less original, whether his treatment of the Trinity, original sin, and even the most interesting innovation, his belief in “continual creation.” What else should we expect of a man who went to Yale at age thirteen?

At the next Theology on Tap, Dr. Oliver Crisp will explore Jonthan Edward’s creative and peculiar theology in his talk, “Was Jonathan Edwards Theologically Orthodox?

More about our speaker: Dr. Crisp is professor of systematic theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. After receiving his PhD from the University of London, he taught at the University of Bristol and the University of Aberdeen. His work covers a broad range of specialties from philosophical to historical theology. Dr. Crisp has been published in numerous academic journals, and he has written several books, including most recently
Revisioning Christology: Theology in the Reformed Tradition, (2011) and Jonathan Edwards on God and Creation, (2012).