This week I’ve been reading The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind by Mark Noll. It is a wonderful, well-written, insightful book. I have roots in Pentecostalism and Evangelicalism and this book has been like having someone tell you stories about your family that you kinda, sorta knew, but not as in-depth as you do now. This book has made me want to read some of his other works like America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln and The Civil War as Theological Crisis. As an American Evangelical it is difficult to recognize one’s own contextuality unless you make yourself intentionally aware of it. Noll’s books are helpful in this endeavor (his co-authored book The Search for Christian America was a paradigm shifting influence on me in college). When I finish The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind I’ll write a review on this blog, but today I am thinking about something else.
Noll became famous as a professor at Wheaton College. Last year during the 2012 AAR/SBL Annual Meeting I stayed with a friend who was studying there and I thought it was the most wonderful little town. It had an air about it that seemed welcoming to the life of the mind. It was quiet, cozy, stereotypically scenic for a small town in the Midwest during the Fall and Winter. My friend had attended Western Seminary with me and he was telling me that he found that Wheaton College was far more rigorous academically than he had expected. This year my mentor and friend Marc Cortez has joined the faculty there and he was the most traditionally academic faculty member at Western Seminary, so I gather from their pursuit and hiring of Cortez that Wheaton College takes academics seriously. Those who have a bias against Evangelicalism may not be able to accept this compliment, but I think it is one of the better private academic institutions in our country and unlike many Evangelical schools who prefer their professors to participate in the Evangelical Theological Society rather than AAR or SBL, Wheaton College encourages otherwise, which means their professors engage the broader world of academia rather than remaining solely part of a more exclusive group (or so I’ve been told).
A few years ago Noll went to Notre Dame, one of the most well-respected Roman Catholic universities in the United States. As I have been reading a book that he wrote as a professor at one of the most respected Evangelical institutions in the world it dawned on me that there was something about Notre Dame’s culture as an unapologetically Catholic institution that allowed them to hire an Evangelical on the basis on the quality of his work whereas I don’t imagine (I could be wrong here, and if so, correct me) Wheaton College would be as comfortable hiring a prominent Roman Catholic historian to be part of their faculty. Why is this?
Since I’ve been turning this over and over again in my head I thought I’d write a blog post to see if anyone else has any insights. What is it about the culture of Catholic institutions that allows them to remain easily identifiable as Catholic while incorporating the best thinkers from other traditions into their ranks? Would Evangelical institutions like Wheaton College be able to do the same thing? Are there any that already do? In other words, if an Evangelical institution had a diverse faculty including people from all branches of Christianity, even Roman Catholic and Orthodox, could that institution remain Evangelical or is the existence of the Evangelical ethos dependent upon a greater degree of separation from culture?
I don’t have any quick answers here, but I’d like to hear the thoughts of anyone who has thought about this.