Divided by Reason – By David R. Swartz

David R. Swartz on Molly Worthen’s Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism.

Molly Worthen, Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism, Oxford University Press, 2013, 376pp., $27.95
Molly Worthen, Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism, Oxford University Press, 2013, 352pp., $27.95 

In 1994, historian Mark Noll published his slim but unsparing treatise Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Soon to be awarded the National Humanities Medal at the White House, Noll was already one of the preeminent evangelical minds of the late twentieth century. Yet his book expressed considerable ambivalence. He identified with evangelical tradition but worried that there was not much of an evangelical mind. His tradition mired in syrupy sentimentalism, holiness anti-intellectualism, and end-times hysteria, Noll contemplated whether it was “simply impossible to be, with integrity, both an evangelical and an intellectual.”

Twenty years later, Molly Worthen’s Apostles of Reason examines the historical context of what Noll refers to as his “epistle from a wounded lover.” In the postwar period, Christianity Today editor Carl Henry, Park Street Church’s Harold Ockenga, cultural prophet Francis Schaeffer, and others sought to articulate a rational defense and efficient distribution of the gospel. Bible colleges became increasingly bureaucratic. Megachurches adopted rationalized marketing strategies, and seminaries used sociological analysis to spark church growth. Missionary agency executives implemented anthropological missions strategies. Even amateur theologians like Hal Lindsey took pains to apply an intellectual gloss to their apocalyptic predictions. American evangelicals undertook a strikingly rational practice of a supernatural faith.

Worthen finds this intellectual project of postwar evangelicalism largely to be a failure, and she explains why. It produced pseudo-intellectuals like Lindsay and Schaeffer. It fashioned a theological scheme of inerrancy that seemed primarily intended to police ecclesiastical boundaries. And, in the end, the movement’s constituents did not agree on much. Mennonites pushed back against the Constantinian proclivities of evangelicalism, and many Wesleyans chafed against the eschatological pessimism of the movement. Worthen writes that there was a “tangled history within each strand of evangelicalism. Each was a blend of different theologies, personalities, and cultures, irreducible to any pristine essence or single authority.” The notion of sola scriptura offered a compelling mantra, but it proved difficult to implement with any coherence. Many conservative Protestant groups, including Mennonites, Wesleyans, Pentecostals, and the Reformed, hesitated even to use the label “evangelical.” Reason itself was not enough to bind very diverse groups together. The crisis of authority within the movement was, and is, very real.

Worthen narrates a gripping tale, managing to cohere a clunky, disparate constellation of religious groups. It is difficult to overstate how witty her writing is, and her sparkling prose is grounded in impeccable research. She demonstrates a considerable talent for marshaling apt illustrations and quotes from wide-ranging archival collections in support of broader arguments.

The great contribution of Apostles of Reason is its interpretive frame. The characters and institutions — the National Association of Evangelicals, Evangelical Theological Society, Christianity Today, and Fuller Seminary — are familiar enough if you have read any George Marsden or Joel Carpenter. But Worthen widens the lens to include groups on the periphery of the reformed neo-evangelical center. Consider the startling variety of evangelical figures and institutions sketched in chapter six alone: Southern California suburbanites, Jesus People (an evangelical version of the 1960s counterculture), charismatic Episcopalians, the fundamentalist Bob Jones University, David Yonggi-Cho’s Pentecostal megachurch in Seoul, and others. Though some remained marginal to the neo-evangelical project, they all asked similar questions, considered the problem of intellectual authority in the modern world, and instituted rational methods in their work. And they did so in a broader religious and political world. One of the book’s true strengths is that it positions evangelical conversations in the broader context of liberation theology, mainline Protestantism, fundamentalism, Catholicism, American political and cultural conservatism, and global religion.

Park Street Church, Boston, 1904. Image via Wikimedia Commons
Park Street Church, Boston, 1904. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Several factors may blunt the book’s impact. First, her scorching assessment of neo-evangelical parochialism may lose conservative readers. Worthen calls Christianity Today founder J. Howard Pew and his allies “disingenuous,” chronicles Henry’s obsessive cataloguing of personal slights, shows how the “brilliant demagogue” Schaeffer was “notoriously irresponsible” as a scholar, and says that David Barton and other Christian nationalists have committed “crimes against the past.” Their naïve handling of scripture and history, Worthen argues, revealed a veneer of intellectualism rather than rigorous scholarship (although she does note the emergence of powerful counterexamples such as Noll, Alvin Plantinga, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and Timothy Smith). This book — like The Anointed — is going to be hard for some conservative evangelicals to take. Expect a fiery rebuttal when Owen Strachan’s book (based on his dissertation) is released.

Second, if there is much evidence to commend her rationalization thesis, there is also much to temper it: Jesus People, charismatics, the “smells and bells” instincts of evangelicals who followed the liturgical ways of the Canterbury Trail, Majority World healings, spiritual warfare, and the “power evangelism” of John Wimber that “won converts not by rational argument, but by demonstrating God’s power through healing, prophecy, or other miraculous intervention.” Interestingly, many of these movements found a home at Fuller Seminary, the same institution that helped birth social-scientific church growth theory. So, while evangelicals were increasingly driven by the rational theological treatises of Carl Henry, they remained animated by the devotional passions of evangelists like Billy Graham.

In fact, for a person of his stature, Graham plays a strikingly small role in Worthen’s narrative. His relative obscurity in the book perhaps demonstrates the limits of scholarly stress on evangelical rationality. If “understanding the rise of the Christian Right in purely political terms . . . misses the heart of the story,” as the dust jacket rightly points out, so too can a focus on the evangelical mind. Indeed, what was it about the evangelical heart that made Graham, not Carl Henry, the heartbeat of the movement? Surely this, more than the ascent of reason or of the Religious Right, is the evangelical story.

This is not to diminish Worthen’s accomplishment. She has offered a definitive account of the evangelical intellect in a provocative and beautifully executed narrative. It is only to suggest that, as Tanya Luhrmann (see here for a review of Luhrmann by Worthen) and Todd Brenneman are already showing in their work on everyday spiritual practices, there is still work to be done in a rapidly maturing historiography. To get at the heart of religion, scholars need to go beyond the doctrines of Karl Barth, the cultural and social criticism of Reinhold Niebuhr, and the worldviews of Schaeffer and Chuck Colson to the habits of piety practiced by the rank-and-file. Surely members of Ockenga’s Park Street Church and other evangelical congregations have been animated less by inerrancy than by scripture memorization, spiritual warfare, prayer habits, and inductive Bible study. As Calvin College professor James K.A. Smith has shown, they are shaped by “cultural liturgies” that speak to the heart as much as the head.

The urgency of such affective, non-cognitive approaches to the study of evangelicalism will likely grow as forms of global Christianity spread to the West. I expect it will confirm Worthen’s argument about a crisis of authority even as it marginalizes her thesis about rationality. The evangelical preoccupation with reason may seem increasingly antiquated in a postmodern age that prizes story and testimony.