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"The Opening of the Evangelical Mind," by Alan Wolfe (October 2000)
Of all America's religious traditions, the author writes, evangelical Protestantism, at least in the twentieth-century conservative forms, has long ranked "dead last in intellectual stature." Now evangelical thinkers are trying to revitalize their tradition. Can they turn an intellectual backwater into an intellectual beacon?

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"Serious faith ... careful learning"

An e-mail exchange with the historian Mark Noll, the author of The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (1994).

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"Ultimately everything holds together"

An e-mail exchange with the philosopher Richard Mouw, the president of Fuller Theological Seminary.

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"A truly multicultural society"

An e-mail exchange with the historian George Marsden of the University of Notre Dame, the author of The Soul of the American University (1994) and The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship (1997).

Discuss this feature in a special conference on religion and public life, in Post & Riposte.

WEB-ONLY SIDEBAR | October 2000

"Foucault is in a
weird way one of us"

An e-mail exchange with the literary critic Alan Jacobs

Alan Jacobs is a professor of English at Wheaton College in Illinois. The author of What Became of Wystan: Change and Continuity in Auden's Poetry (1998), Jacobs has written essays and reviews for numerous publications, including The American Scholar, The Weekly Standard, The Oxford American, First Things, and Books & Culture. His new book, The Hermeneutics of Love: an Essay in the Theology of Reading, will be published by Westview Press in the fall of next year. Jacobs recently exchanged e-mail with The Atlantic's Wen Stephenson.

It's not difficult to think of major English and American writers in the twentieth century who turned to Christian, often Catholic or Anglican, faith and wrote some of their best work from a distinctly Christian perspective. So, if it's possible to write great literature from a Christian perspective, is it possible to teach great literature from a Christian perspective? And not just any Christian perspective, but an evangelical one? Do you try to teach from such a perspective? If so, who and/or what are your touchstones and your intellectual beacons?

Not so long ago, academic literary study in America was almost a club for Christian gentlemen. There are plenty of stories on this topic, including some famous ones about Lionel Trilling's difficulties at Columbia; but of course that's just one example among hundreds. Here's the key point about the "club," though: as long as English professors were mostly Christian gentlemen, there was little reason to speak or write in specifically Christian terms. Prominent Christian scholars of half a century ago, like Cleanth Brooks of Yale and Douglas Bush of Harvard, wouldn't have dreamed of bringing theology into their work unless they believed that the text under scrutiny called for it -- either because of its explicit themes or language (Brooks) or because of the historical context (Bush). Such restraint was entailed, they thought, not only by the imperatives of critical and historiographical detachment, but also by the gentility appropriate to Christianity rightly understood. "Orthodoxy is reticence," as Auden liked to say.

So it was only when Christianity was displaced from its privileged position in the academy, when it became one potential "approach" among many -- first Marxism and psychoanalysis, then feminism, deconstruction, and so on -- that Christian scholars started thinking seriously about what their Christianity had to do with their scholarship. They had to ask themselves questions like this: "If there is such a thing as a Marxist theory of literature (as we are told there is), then is there also a Christian theory of literature -- given that Christianity and Marxism are competing ideologies?"

So Christians began scouting around for possible materials from which to build the theory they felt they had to have, and, perhaps not surprisingly, they turned to the most prominent Christian writers of their time: people like T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, and so on. However, the most influential book for Christian literary aesthetics, The Mind of the Maker (1941), was written not by one of these titans but by a rather less prominent figure, Dorothy Sayers. That book was so influential precisely because it presented an overarching theory of art, or at least of artistic creation -- something Eliot and Lewis never got around to doing. So Christian scholars seized on it excitedly and filled in its gaps with trenchant commentary from the titans.

Now, Sayers claimed that her book was Augustinian, but to a reader of today it seems thoroughly Romantic. The basic structure may have been derived from Augustine's book On the Trinity, but the governing ideas -- especially the relentless emphasis on the "creative imagination" of the writer -- owe a lot more to Coleridge and Shelley. Much the same is true of Lewis's ideas about literature, and Eliot differs only insofar as his modernism is a mutation (whether adaptive or maladaptive, who's to say?) of Romanticism.

So after a while Christian teachers of literature began to wonder if it were really true that everything important about the relationship between Christianity and literature was said in English and in the years separating the publication of Lyrical Ballads (1798) from that of Lewis's Experiment in Criticism (1961). Thus began a period of ferment which we're still in the middle of. For some of us, connections between literature and the sacred are key; these folks cleave to Paul Ricoeur and René Girard. Others see the Biblical prophets' call to shalom as a mandate for conceiving literary criticism as a means of seeking political justice. Philosophical hermeneutics is very important for many, since it develops quite directly from Biblical hermeneutics, and tends to counter Cartesian or objectivist models of knowledge under the influence of which Christianity hasn't fared very well.

My own work, especially recently, has looked toward leading figures of the early church -- Augustine above all, but also Jerome and Basil the Great -- for guidance in developing what I call a "theology of reading." I have been particularly interested in Augustine's counsel that the reading of Scripture be motivated by love, and I have asked what it might mean to read literary texts charitably. Augustine says that when we read the Bible we should be striving to grow in the love of God and of our neighbor; but since Jesus says that such twofold love is the heart of the whole law, it seems to me that the law of love applies equally well -- though not perhaps in the same way -- to the reading of Milton or Toni Morrison. (I might add that the more recent thinkers who have been especially helpful to me in this project are the Russian genius Mikhail Bakhtin and the moral philosopher, now at the University of Chicago, Martha Nussbaum.)

Is there a specifically evangelical approach to literature? I don't think so. Evangelicalism is best described as an ongoing renewal movement within orthodox Christianity, and the emphases most closely associated with it -- the need for personal conversion and the authority of the Bible -- don't have any obvious or direct connections with the study of literature. I don't think a theory of literature geared to evangelizing the unsaved would be good either for literature or for evangelism. However, that broader stream of Christian orthodoxy, of which we evangelicals are a part, has a lot to say about the reading and study of literature, as I have tried to suggest.

Do you think of the Bible as a literary text? Or rather, let me put it this way: In his Atlantic article, Alan Wolfe writes that "Alan Jacobs and Roger Lundin ... are the kind of people one hopes to find more of in the humanities departments of elite universities: they read actual texts, from many different fields; they believe that such texts mean something; and they dedicate their lives to conveying what those meanings might be in both scholarly venues and venues designed for the serious general reader. Yet despite their old-fashioned belletristic qualities, they are tempted by, and occasionally seduced by, postmodernism's hermeneutics of suspicion." First of all, is that a fair statement? And second, how does one reconcile -- or if not reconcile then at least entertain simultaneously or side by side -- postmodernism's hermeneutics of suspicion and one's faith in the truth of Scripture?

These questions call for book-length responses, but that option not being available, let me (in a favorite phrase of Richard Nixon's) just say this about that. Am I tempted or seduced by postmodernism's hermeneutics of suspicion? Well, I wouldn't put it that way, now, would I? But I am reminded of what the great theologian Karl Barth said when someone asked him what role reason played in his theology: "I use it," he replied. Similarly, I use, I employ, suspicion in my readings of literary texts -- but not always and everywhere. For Paul Ricoeur, who coined the phrase "hermeneutics of suspicion" and named Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche the preeminent "masters" of that art, the interpreter who truly deserves the designation is the one whose suspicion is a priori and universal. I don't think the Christian interpreter has that option: Christians believe that human beings are made in the image of God, and even in their fallen state manifest, in some way, God's glory. In great works of art, in potent intellectual achievements of all kinds, we have all seen this glory, and it's pathetic when we allow an omnipresent suspicion to blind us to it.

However, Christians also believe that we are fallen, that pretty much everything we do is, at least to some degree, corrupted by our sinfulness; so we can't afford simply to discard suspicion. Near the end of the sixteenth century Sir Philip Sidney spoke of our "infected will" and "erected wit," and that remains a pretty good formulation of the difficult balance Christian readers are called upon to maintain. There's no method to tell us how to do this, no series of infallible steps; what's called for is that rare readerly virtue which (in my experience) is almost impossible to teach and for which there is no single name: "taste" or "tact," some would say. I prefer a Biblical word: "discernment" -- discernment about when to exercise suspicion and when simply to give thanks for the beautiful or the wise.

But reading the Bible presents a wholly different set of challenges, because, in my understanding of Christianity, at least, the Bible is there to teach me about God's character and purposes and, sad to say, about my own as well. But even with such a view of Scripture one cannot dismiss all forms of suspicion tout court: for instance, it would be a gross error for the pious reader to think that everything in the Bible is God's Word in precisely the same sense. Deuteronomy tells you that you should "love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might"; later on the Psalmist says to an imaginary Babylonian, "Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!" These two sentences do not make the same kind of demand upon us, as readers or as people -- they do not call for identical forms of response. Likewise, one can see that God has called Jacob to be the father of a great nation without approving of Jacob's manipulative deceitfulness. Again, discernment is called for, and that means, among other things, a literary sensitivity to genre and context.

Still, in the long run I understand everything in this enormous chaotic Book to be written, as St. Paul says, for my edification, so I am not at liberty to exercise unrestrained suspicion toward it or toward the God who I believe loves me and seeks my redemption. The more challenging task, as it turns out, is for me to direct my suspicion inward: to have serious doubts about the integrity of my intentions as a reader; to wonder how the high opinion of myself I have long enjoyed, and my determination to maintain it, prevent me from interpreting the Bible's message to me in the way I should. In the Gospels, sometimes the people who listen to Jesus's teaching say, "This is a hard saying; who can hear it?" I think the experience of being confronted with "hard sayings" is a common one for readers of the Bible, and I think it's significant that in those confrontations we automatically suspect the sayings rather than our responses to them.

Few readers, whether of Scripture or of literary texts, turn much suspicion on themselves. I always find it slightly comic when I read New Historicist critics, and others writing in the shadow of Foucault, make ritual confessions of their own implication in the very structures of oppression that they are attempting to critique. They make the confessions and then go on about their business as if that which they have confessed has no consequences whatsoever for their critical work. But I think that if we are so implicated in the "power/knowledge regime," maybe we should, just occasionally, take a break from our critiques of cultural imperialism and practice some self-examination -- and maybe, if I dare be so bold as to suggest it, practice some repentance while we're at it?

How do you find that your students at Wheaton respond to postmodernist theory, or to literary theory in general, as opposed to a more traditional aesthetic or humanistic approach to literary texts? Do you think their response is typical of students at colleges across the country?

In many ways they aren't so different from students elsewhere: the less ambitious among them tend to avoid theoretically oriented courses, while the more ambitious believe that they should be familiar with more recent approaches and want to prove that they're up to the challenge. But students from very conservative Christian homes -- and that describes many of our students -- have an additional motive for being sympathetic to theory: they want to demonstrate, perhaps to themselves as much as to others, that they aren't afraid of the theoretical Big Bad Wolf, that they aren't intellectually bound by fundamentalism's self-imposed cultural apartheid. (After all, conservative Christianity has its own hermeneutics of suspicion, and it too often needs to be overcome.)

In one sense this is a very good thing: their sympathetic openness means that they learn a lot from theory that makes them better, more acute readers and critics. And some theoretical approaches enable them to find sophisticated modes of interpretation that complement, develop, and add nuance to their Christian faith without emptying it of its power. (I have found them to be particularly engaged by Gadamer, Bakhtin, and Levinas, and by the rabbinical scrupulosity of much of Derrida's work. They also get a sinister pleasure from reading Foucault, who is after all a kind of Calvinist, only without God -- Michael Warner is right to say that if you think Foucault is suspicious of the human order, try reading Jonathan Edwards. So Foucault is in a weird way one of us.)

But there's a darker side to this sympathy, and that's the students' reluctance to acknowledge any potentially serious conflict between their Christian faith and the theory they read. Precisely because they are aware of emerging from what they often feel to be an overly narrow kind of Christianity -- and because, like all young adults, they are to some degree emancipating themselves from their parents' ideological framework -- these ambitious students just don't want ever to have to say, "If I'm gonna be a Christian I just can't buy into this." (I find this phenomenon particularly striking when I have them read Judith Butler, whose "performative" theory of gender and identity repudiates pretty much everything that Christians have historically believed about humanity and personhood: the students are determined to find some way to rescue and appropriate even her.) What I want to tell them is that however deplorable fundamentalist separatism may be, one cannot eliminate from Christianity its prophetic element -- that is, its willingness to proclaim a particular, Christ-centered vision of human flourishing and to critique (and when necessary reject) beliefs and practices which endanger or wreck that vision. This is a tricky situation for me, as a teacher, to be in. But the intelligence, moral commitment, and generosity of spirit I find in most of my students make the rewards very great indeed.

Return to "The Opening of the Evangelical Mind" (October 2000)

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