Sunday, 2 November 2014

The Closing of the ISAE

I recently traveled to Wheaton College for the closing of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals (ISAE). Although I have been to Chicago many times, I have never visited Wheaton, and so it was nice to tour the campus of arguably the most influential evangelical liberal arts college in America.

On Thursday, Tim Larsen, Andy Tooley, Larry Eskridge, and I had dinner at a Thai restaurant with our former PhD supervisor, David Bebbington. Tim passed around Eileen Bebbington's new biography of her husband with Wipf and Stock as we enjoyed lots of good conversation.

Later that evening, I attended the panel discussion on "A Movement for the 21st-Century: The Future of Evangelicalism," with comments from David Bebbington, Mark Hutchinson, Mark Noll, and Grant Wacker, and chaired by Nathan Hatch. Bebbington politely criticized the ISAE's name, arguing that the institute was not limited to the United States and that it did not focus on individuals, but rather the movement of evangelicalism. Mark Hutchinson and Mark Noll spoke about the social influence of the ISAE, probing the audience to consider the intellectual currents of evangelicalism in its historic past as well as the future impact of this movement. Grant Wacker presented a list of several features of evangelical studies that he felt optimistic about, including the trend in biographical studies and some of the younger historians who have emerged to analyze the movement in a critical and sympathetic way.

In addition to the panel discussion, there was also a brief video that highlighted the camaraderie of the ISAE's founding members, with historic images of Noll, Hatch, Wacker, George Marsden, and the Canadian scholar George Rawlyk and their families getting together for meals and fellowship. The session ended with some laudatory comments by Noll, Wacker, Joel Carpenter, and D. G. Hart on Edith Blumhofer's scholarship and her contribution to the ISAE. The whole evening carried with it a bitter-sweet tone of congratulatory speeches amidst the somber reality of the institute's closing.

On Friday, a series of informal  discussions took place at Wheaton's Harbor House on the "ISAE: A Retrospective on the Institute and Its Work," "The Funding and Hosting of Evangelical Scholarship," and "Scholarship on Evangelicals: Persistent Dilemmas and New Avenues," with prepared comments from Joel Carpenter, D. G. Hart, Molly Worthen, Grant Wacker, and Stephen Miller. In the first session, Hart and others evaluated their time and involvement with the ISAE, offering an analysis of the institute's influence amidst some of the historical challenges that directors faced over the years. The second meeting was more or less a brainstorming session in which Carpenter and Hatch asked the audience to consider alternative sites for a institute on the study of evangelicalism in America. In the final session, Dochuk, Kidd, Miller, and Worthen presented on the future of evangelicalism in America. The session ended with Michael Hamilton of Seattle Pacific leading the audience in a celebration of Larry Eskridge's contribution to the ISAE and discussion of the latter's award-winning book, God's Forever Family: The Jesus People Movement in America.

Overall, I am glad to have attended the closing festivities of the ISAE. It will be interesting to see if another Christian college establishes a similar institute, or if this is truly the end of any center devoted to the study of evangelicalism.

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