Evangelicalism and the Contemporary Intellectual

Last night, I went with some friends to The New School for a panel on “Evangelicalism and the Contemporary Intellectual,” co-hosted by the literary journal n+1 and Eugene Lang College. Panelists included Malcolm Gladwell, James Wood, Christine Smallwood, and Caleb Crain (who moderated, mostly).

Of course, off the bat, one sees that there are no presently-evangelical intellectuals on that panel. (They’re all ex-evangelicals, to one degree or another.) As it turned out, this may have been a wise choice. The panelists spoke about their backgrounds and how their evangelical upbringing contributes to their work today as intellectuals, and then took questions from the audience. I suspect that had a known evangelical intellectual been on the panel – a philosopher, a minister, whatever – the Q&A session may have devolved into ad hominem attacks. It stayed mostly respectful, as these are non-evangelicals who nonetheless do not believe that evangelicalism is the worst thing to appear in America.

Gladwell grew up in Canada, son of a Jamaican mother and English father, and in a relatively staid British version of evangelicalism that doesn’t couple a particular politics with the faith, and I suspect this may have something to do with his ultimate conclusion that he’s “truly sad” that he doesn’t share his parents’ faith. He reiterated this point several times, and spoke of attending church in D.C. when he lived there. He remembered a communion service, which he said was one of the most beautiful things he’d experienced, and seems genuinely sad that nothing he will experience outside of that service will affect him in the same way.

Christine Smallwood’s background most closely mirrored my own: an evangelical church in New Jersey that slowly drifted toward contemporary evangelical expressions of faith (especially in worship), with a “WWJD” orientation. She spoke of the emotional focus that her church moved into, of the gradual dumbing-down of what they were taught. Now a Ph.D. candidate in literature and a former associate literary editor at The Nation, she made some interesting points about the “crisis of narrative” that evangelicalism’s overwhelming on conversion creates, and how that may play into the decline of the megachurch. She also said that the Bible taught her a lot about literature: that narrative is the best vehicle for delivering truth, that language is important, how to do what we call “deep reading.”

James Wood grew up Anglican, but his mother was Presbyterian, and it sounds like they were not terribly high church. In this discussion, he’s most notable for having written some scathing critiques of the “new atheists,” while not being a believer himself. (Look up his article “God in the Quad” from the August 31, 2009 issue of the New Yorker – it knocked my socks off when I first read it.)

All three are no longer believers, but their stance toward evangelicalism was fairly charitable, given the circumstances – more charitable in some cases than some of us who remain in the church. I have fairly detailed notes, but I’m mulling them over rather than just writing everything down here.

I think one of the things that struck me most, though, was when Mr. Wood said that he was drawn out of faith partially because he discovered the world of literature, where you could “talk about anything.” In other words, in fiction, you can encompass the totality of fiction. Nothing is off-limits simply because of its content. This rang true for me, in that there seem to be many books that evangelicals aren’t, or weren’t, “supposed” to read. This accounts for my long and detailed knowledge of mediocre Victorian novels and spiritual biographies (which were approved reading material), but my absolute lack of hundreds of other very necessary and empathetic books. (Innocuousness in a moral sense was more important than telling the truth “slant,” as Emily Dickinson said, and my year working at a Christian bookstore proved that this is not just a phenomenon among Christian fiction for young people, where it might perhaps be explainable.)

Nothing was said that particularly surprised me, but it’s refreshing to show up at an event like this and see some kind of strides being taken toward understanding, rather than categorical dismissal. It’s important for evangelical churches to see what kind of fruit their form of Christianity has reaped, both good and bad. I have a lot of hope that evangelicalism – in the true sense – will shed the vestiges of anti-intellectualism (something I’ve run into all my life, though I’ve been privileged to know some well-read, deep-thinking evangelicals) within my lifetime. I hope I can be part of that.

Even if real knowledge of evangelicals (the people who hold the theology, not the politically-powerful demographic) is woefully inadequate in the mainstream, at least they’re trying. As someone who lives somewhere in the middle between these two – evangelical theologically if not demographically, intellectually aspiring if not actually intellectual quite yet – I think I can see a place for me in there somewhere.

3 thoughts on “Evangelicalism and the Contemporary Intellectual

  1. I am glad that you shared a bit about this. I have found myself in the company (or reading company, as some are internet friends) of several evangelical intellectuals, and I find it refreshing that some Christian believers embrace their intellect without weakening their belief in God. Too many, my father included, seem to think that logical thought, or anything of the mind for that matter, supersedes the heart, which is our connection to God. Yes, the mind is the devil’s playground, but God wouldn’t have given us the ability to think if he didn’t want us to, right?

    Cheers for evangelical intellectualism!

  2. You’ve just gotten me thinking.

    I remember coming out of college hell-bent on being an intellectual believer.

    Mostly out of a reaction to this same evangelical culture you describe.

    However, I discovered that in my search for respectable knowledge, my spirituality had all but disappeared from my “faith.”

    Now I’m seeking God in a new way.

    Honest and intelligent in my view of the Bible, but open and searching for real experiential spirituality (not emotionalism).

    It’s a tough road to come back from… but I imagine anyone who determines herself to intellectualism may lose that same balance and end up a former-believer like the members of this panel.

    Thanks again for sharing.

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