Thinking about that whole 'evangelical' definition thing, with historian Mark Noll


The Record meets with acclaimed academic Mark Noll


For 27 years, Dr. Mark Noll served on the History Department faculty, ending his tenure as McManis Professor of Christian Thought in 2006. In 2016, he retired from The University of Notre Dame after teaching for 10 years. Mark Noll’s book “The Scandal of The Evangelical Mind” (1994) earned him a lasting place in evangelical scholarship. In 2005, Time Magazine named Noll one of the 25 most influential evangelicals in America.


The Record met with Dr. Mark Noll for an interview regarding the current state of evangelicalism, his experience at Wheaton and what is next for him upon retirement.


CH: What’s next for you in retirement?


MN: I still have several Ph.D. students to finish. I hope to keep writing and thinking about historical topics. We have a son and daughter-in-law who live in Oak Park who have a young child and we’re trying to help one day a week or so with the child. This year, I actually have a number of assignments having to do with the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. I’m thinking about the Reformation this year.


C: That’s exciting. What’s one of the assignments you’re working on?


M: For many years — beginning quite early since the time I was at Wheaton — I’ve been trying to study the history of the public use of the Bible. We had a conference at Wheaton here in 1979 for the publication of a book called “The Bible and American Culture.” And I’ve been working hard since then and I’ve finally finished a book on the 18th century, the golden period. I would like to do one on the public use of the Bible in the 19th century. So that’s the major academic project. This summer at Regent College in Vancouver, I’m hoping to teach a short course on the reformation actually with my daughter, who’s a Wheaton graduate. She did her Ph.D. in German history and we’re going to do this course together.


C: What makes the Reformation still relevant today, especially for young evangelicals at places like Wheaton?


M: In some ways, things have shifted decisively on a theological front since the second Vatican council. The protest that led to Protestantism doesn’t really have as much historical traction as it once did. But significantly for Christian people, the effort to see the church is always in need of Reformation. What’s clear now is that Protestant reforms…began to create the churches that we have today and the world that we have today. And certainly the Reformation era, the break up of a unified western Christendom was very significant for the entrance of what we might call modernity…I myself, I don’t think it’s appropriate either to be completely celebratory about the Reformation or completely negative about the breakup of western Christianity. But there were critical issues having to do with religious authority, location of the nature of divine revelation, the means by which God reconciles people to himself, critical issues having to do with the nature of religion in society, the authority of temporal rulers over spiritual rulers. All of those really important matters were adjusted, shaken up, reformed and revised in about a forty year period. So whether people realize it or not, certainly the Christian churches in the West — and to some extent where the churches have spread in the world — were the heirs of what happened then.


C: Your banner book “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” has, of course, secured you a place in modern history of evangelicalism in America. Do you think that the definition of evangelicalism is changing or has changed, since you wrote your famous book in 1994?


M: I think people your age are going to have to answer that question. Because I think the real problem is trying to define evangelical in any simple way. The things that David Bebbington identified, that others have used and I’ve used — cross, Bible, conversion, activity in the world — these all characterize broadly speaking “evangelical” people. I don’t actually think “evangelicalism” exists. There are evangelical institutions, evangelical movements, evangelical people, evangelical emphases. But you say, what’s the institutional or organizational continuity? And there just isn’t any. So does the word mean anything? If when people hear “evangelical” they think of something political first, then the serious meaning of the word is gone.


C: The word “evangelical” took center stage in the presidential election and continues to do so. However, there does seem to be a disconnect between Trump’s policies such as the now-blocked travel ban, immigration and sole support for Israel which Christians are divided on — so how do you explain the evangelical support and winning the evangelical vote?


M: I think what’s called “evangelical support for Trump” had to do with the pro-life position of the Republican party, it had to do with a lot of antagonism against some of the cultural steps taken by the Obama administration. It certainly had to do with the memory of Bill Clinton’s immorality in the White House, and a lot of white evangelicals were concerned about economics…I do think we have increasing numbers of Christian academics who would have a much more sophisticated approach to political life than, “I’m angry at Hillary so I’m voting for Trump.” But I’m worried about the Christian populace at large listening all the time to their media go-to and never being concerned about folks who are trying to see things more broadly.


C: Are you more optimistic about the state of the evangelical mind than you were in ’94?


M: Yes, and for a number of reasons. A major one would be that I think I was not keeping in mind as much as I could have in writing the book that weaknesses and mistakes from a Christian perspective should never be taken too seriously. The Christian faith is a faith of hope. So that was a theological adjustment…In the areas that were discussed in the book, I think there are problems, but by the same token, there are lots of serious Christian people who are doing really serious thinking about politics, about history, about science. In that sense, I think it’s not a golden age, but you can find first-level, deep Christian analyses of whatever you’re interested in that domain. But, there’s also a pretty big disconnect — and I think a growing disconnect. That may be worse than it was in the past, even though the number of evangelical Christian people who are bringing their Christianity to the intellectual task has risen.


C: So how do we bridge that gap then, from the “elite” and the majority population?


M: I still hold a lot of hope for local churches. Ideally when you have one congregation with people of different minds, you do have the possibility of improving things, of having the populus as a whole less spasmodic in thinking about things. You have the occasion for people who have studied things to talk to others who haven’t. In other words, there’s a burden on Christian intellectuals to take part in local congregations.


C: Last year, Wheaton made headlines with Dr. Larycia Hawkins and her statement regarding Muslims and Christians worshipping the same God. This “referent view” is becoming more and more prominent among evangelicals. Is this a valid position for evangelicals to hold? And how does your work studying church history inform your view of the relationship between Christianity and Islam?


M: I think that the first question is the easy one. I read an article where the author said that you can’t answer the question unless you have a subordinate question. From one angle, yes, you have an Abrahamic faith. But from another, from the essential Trinitarian view of God, then no, of course you don’t. What he was trying to say is that some really important religious issues cannot be reduced to a simple single statement. I think all parties involved, the administration, Professor Hawkins and the faculty had difficult situations. But for me, the obvious thing was in our modern media: people were just jumping to judgment without parsing the question. I think it would be entirely appropriate from one angle for evangelicals to say that Muslims and Christians have the same God. I don’t think I would say “worship the same God” because Christians worship a triune God and Muslims don’t. But with the Qu’ran’s reference to the Old Testament and aspects of the New Testament, there is a form of identity there. So I would say it depends on if you’re saying worship or just observing some sort of historical genealogy.


As a historian, I think people should be studying the twentieth century for the history of Islamic-Christian relationship. Also I think studying sensitively the history of Christian missions to Islam since the early 19th century — sometimes the missionaries who went to places like Egypt and Lebanon ended up, not caving into Islam, but coming back with much more sophisticated views in what’s involved in Islamic conversion. Thinking through things in a sophisticated way in our media-obsessed world tends to be reduced to a “gotcha.”


C: Since your days as student and professor, and now returning after Notre Dame, how do you think Wheaton College as an institution has changed through your years of experience with it?


M: My family lived in Wheaton in the early 1950s, and looking back you realize that Wheaton always had a strong commitment to liberal arts education. But not many of the professors would themselves be actively involved scholars in their professions. And that’s certainly changed. It means, for faculty and sometimes students, during the pre-World War II years, the primary loyalty of faculty was to the institution. And now I think it’s a shared loyalty and it’s a more complicated relationship because the standards for an academic discipline, which can often be quite secular, neutral or antagonistic to the Christian faith, have to be negotiated by faculty at the same time as they’re trying to be faithful to the constituency that wants a certain kind of education for their students. My guess is that Wheaton has changed now in that there’s less representation in the student body from what would be considered traditional Protestant denominations, and now more general inter-denominational or nondenominational student body.


C: What is the most impactful book that you’ve ever read and that you’d recommend any Wheaton student read?


M: Early on, it certainly was the Book of Romans. I think now the Gospel of Luke would be the most impactful. Outside of the Scriptures, I turn to the work of Martin Luther. Dickens’ History of the English Reformation was also a great book. The history books that were written with good research and a strong sense of Christian priorities and written very well.


C: What is your fondest memory of Wheaton?


M: A fond memory would be of the undergraduates who, either instinctively or came to see, the study of the Christian past as really significant for themselves. I was just over a Buswell today working on a paper I’m supposed to write for a book edited by Douglas Sweeney, a faculty at Trinity Seminary. He was a student in my Reformation class who brought a tremendous amount of interest and ability. I think I might have been able to help him see a way of working with the past that wasn’t polemical but was trying to see more deeply into the character of Christian life over against the context of historical society. He’d be a super example, not of what I did, but of what I was able to witness.


This interview has been edited for concision and brevity.

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Faith-healing in Idaho: A Spokane paper doesn't ask enough questions

Faith-healing in Idaho: A Spokane paper doesn't ask enough questions

The Spokesman-Review, the major daily east of the mountains in Washington state, doesn’t have a religion reporter, which is one reason why the Religion News Association started up its own website in Spokane in 2012.

Tracy Simmons is still capably running five years later, which may be why religion coverage in the Spokesman-Review is pretty rare. But on Tuesday, the paper did feature a piece about a state Senate bill in neighboring Idaho that tried to regulate faith-healing groups.

This is a tremendously interesting topic but see if you can understand the story as it appeared in Tuesday’s paper:

BOISE -- Controversial faith-healing legislation narrowly cleared an Idaho Senate committee on Monday, after a hearing in which nearly everyone who spoke opposed it.
Sen. Dan Johnson, R-Lewiston, said his bill, SB 1182, makes a series of changes to Idaho’s existing faith-healing exemption from civil liability for child neglect, but makes no changes in the state’s criminal laws, which include a religious exemption from prosecution for faith-healing parents who deny their children medical care and the children die or suffer permanent injury.
“I’m not sure that it really changes a whole lot,” said Johnson, who co-chaired a legislative interim working group that held hearings on Idaho’s existing faith-healing exemption, “other than it moves a bunch of words and sentences around.”

What we’re missing at this point is some background

Johnson said his bill restates Idaho’s current religious exemption from civil liability for child abuse or neglect as an “affirmative statement,” and clarifies some wording. It also references Idaho’s existing Religious Freedom Restoration Act, citing rights to free exercise of religion. “That is a fundamental right that applies to all parenting decisions,” Johnson said. The bill makes no changes to Idaho’s criminal laws.
Then follows a number of quotes from people who oppose the bill, including a county sheriff who says he’s had a handful of child deaths in the past four months due to parents not giving their offspring medical care.

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Do the media have a 'conscience?' Not when it comes to foster care and religious liberty in Texas

Do the media have a 'conscience?' Not when it comes to foster care and religious liberty in Texas

My parents, Bob and Judy Ross, served for 25 years as houseparents at Christ's Haven for Children, a Christian child-care ministry based in Keller, Texas.

Mom and Dad lost count of the exact number of children for whom they cared. Some came into their home and stayed just a few days. Others they raised from preschool through high school graduation. In all, more than 250 girls lived in my parents’ cottage.

My mother said she and Dad always wanted a mission to lead people to Jesus Christ. At Christ’s Haven, they found it. They studied the Bible with all the girls in their care, and Dad baptized many of them, as I noted in a Christian Chronicle column in 2007.

I couldn't help but recall my parents' experience as I read a Texas Tribune story this week proclaiming that "Texas' next religious liberty fight could be over foster care":

You can’t talk about religious liberty in Texas without mentioning Lester Roloff.
In the 1970s, Roloff, a Baptist preacher, was known for his homes for teenagers in Corpus Christi. A 1973 legislative report on child care in the state said members heard testimony from children previously in Roloff's Rebekah Home for Girls about irregular meals and whippings. Roloff told lawmakers his homes should be exempted from state interference due to his religious roots.
“We spanked them because God loves them, and we love them,” Roloff told the committee.
Those hearings led to the Legislature passing Senate Bill 965 in 1975, which established child care licensing laws in the state.
Now, 42 years later, Texas legislators are considering sharpening religious protections for faith-based groups the state hires to place children in foster and adoptive homes and oversee their care. Critics say this could give religious groups license to use their faith as a reason to refuse to place foster children with gay couples or with families with certain religious beliefs. Legislators say this could halt bipartisan warmth on bills changing how Texas cares for abused and neglected children.

In the lede, the Texas Tribune sets a negative tone on the legislation right away — and that critical theme dominates the story. Besides the bill's author, the "nonpartisan media organization" quotes six sources. Five of them voice concerns about the bill. You get the (not-so-balanced) picture.

The bill itself (read the full text here) addresses "the conscience rights of certain religious organizations and individuals." However, guess what word never appears in the Tribune story? If you said "conscience," you win the prize.

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The Daily Beast digs into case of a generic 'youth pastor' who preyed on young boys

The Daily Beast digs into case of a generic 'youth pastor' who preyed on young boys

It's a truth your GetReligionistas have discussed many times. When you are covering a story about people linked to a faith with a clearly defined hierarchy it's pretty clear who you are supposed to call.

I'm not just talking about Roman Catholics. If a United Methodist pastor gets in trouble, there is a clear regional and national structure linked to the work of the clergy. Southern Baptist congregations are part of regional associations, state conventions and then they have ties of various kinds to the national Southern Baptist Convention. You have some place to start digging.

But when a minister goes REALLY off the tracks, it's hard -- especially in the world of nondenominational, independent evangelicalism or Pentecostalism -- to find a paper trail anywhere, along with people who were responsible for supervising the work of this or that clergyperson. And what about people who were only "sort of" clergy?

I thought of all of that while reading this recent piece at The Daily Beast that had this genuinely hellish tabloid headline: "UNHOLY: Pastor Arrested for Chopping Up Teen Kept Counseling Kids for 23 Years."

Now, in terms of facts linked to church life, the key word in that headline is "pastor."

When you hear "pastor," you kind of assume that we are talking about an individual who has gone to seminary, been ordained and has a pulpit somewhere in a church. Pastors fill a specific leadership role in a specific faith community, one with a tradition of some kind (even if its an independent local congregation). You hear "associate pastor" and you think someone who carries out a specific ministry, working in a larger church that has a senior pastor in the pulpit.

Now in this case, things are much murkier and the Daily Beast team never offers readers a clear look at the facts, in terms of the man at the heart of this nightmare. Once we make it past the mysteries linked to the sniffing dog and the headless torso, what we get is this:

Fred Laster, 16, was last seen with local youth pastor Ron Hyde several days earlier. Laster hitched a ride with Hyde after a family argument, according to his sister. Laster and his five siblings were living with their elderly grandparents at the time, after their mom died from cancer four years earlier.

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5Q: Talking religion, news and the ties that bind with Rod Dreher, author of 'The Benedict Option'

5Q: Talking religion, news and the ties that bind with Rod Dreher, author of 'The Benedict Option'

Longtime GetReligion readers will recognize the name of Rod Dreher as that of an frequently mentioned longtime "friend of this blog."

Many will also recognize Dreher as the author of the much discussed (check out this search) book called "The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation," published last week by Sentinel. The basic thesis: orthodox Christians -- small "o" and capital "O" -- need to form tight-knit communities to preserve the values in the face of a post-modern onslaught.

The Atlantic suggests Dreher "writes with resentment." The once-upon-a-time evangelical Rachel Held Evans weighed in, via Twitter to say the book's premise "is based on fantasy."

This post isn't about that. I'll leave GetReligionistas such as tmatt to comment on the book and the surrounding media mentions. We wanted to ask this veteran reporter a few questions about religion news.

Instead, here's what Dreher had to say in response to our noted "5Q+1." However, since he passed over the "do you have anything else to say" query, it's just 5Qs:

(1) Where do you get your news about religion? 

From the Internet. I read websites like First Things, Mere Orthodoxy, Mosaic, Real Clear Religion and The Atlantic, but also mainstream news sites like The New York Times, the Washington Post and others. I find that I'm increasingly dependent on Twitter feeds from key people to pass on news to me. I'm thinking about Mollie Hemingway, Ross Douthat, Michael Brendan Dougherty, Damon Linker, Andrew T. Walker, Russell Moore and Denny Burk. But there are others.

(2) What is the most important religion story the MSM doesn't get?

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A holy ghost? Why an Idaho couple with conjoined twins decided against aborting their babies

A holy ghost? Why an Idaho couple with conjoined twins decided against aborting their babies

Is there a holy ghost in the story of an Idaho couple who decided against aborting their babies?

I've been wondering about that since I first read a front-page Houston Chronicle story earlier this month about the Torres family's experience:

Dad held the babies upright on his chest, patting them and swaying, while Mom crammed the last bag between a cooler of donated breast milk and a new portable crib.
“Well,” Chelsea Torres said, closing the trunk and turning to her husband, Nick, “it all fits.”
That was the easy part.
What lay ahead was far more daunting.
Leaving the hospital with a newborn is a moment no parent is ready for. What if the baby screams in the car? What if she won’t take a bottle once you get home? Chelsea, 24, and Nick, 23, have an even darker worry: What if the girls don’t survive the drive?
The doctors assured them everything should be fine, but it’s hard to shake that fear. They’ve carried it for months, ever since the doctor back in Idaho told them Chelsea was pregnant with conjoined twins. Ever since they decided to ignore his recommendation to have an abortion. Ever since they loaded their 3-year-old son, Jaysin, into their Kia Optima six months ago and drove 25 hours to Houston.
“I’ve been dreading the return,” said Nick, dark circles under his eyes after days with little sleep. “I’m just glad we’re making it with two healthy babies.”

My question is simple: Why? 

Why did the couple choose not to have an abortion? Were religious beliefs a factor? The Chronicle story that I read did not explain their thinking, so I Googled in hopes of finding more background.

I came across a more in-depth Houston Press story as well an Idaho State Journal feature from months ago, but neither fully answered my question.


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Here we go again: Will someone please explain Christianity to the Associated Press?

Here we go again: Will someone please explain Christianity to the Associated Press?

Maybe it's time to cue the theme from "Jaws" at copy desks in major newsrooms.

We are halfway through the season of Lent, and you know what that means. Once again, we are approaching the most important days on the Christian calendar, as in Holy Week and Easter. Editors should note that Easter in the West (Gregorian calendar) and Pascha in the churches of the East (the older Julian calendar) are on the same date this year.

This time of year is dangerous for editors because the odds rise that they will need to handle news stories that are supposed to contain accurate references to church history and basic Christian beliefs. This has, in the past, been a challenge in some newsroom, even at the most elite levels of the news food chain. Take, for example, the New York Times and its ongoing struggle with the details of the Resurrection.

This brings us to an Associated Press news feature about the efforts to restore the main shrine in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. See if you can spot the problem here:

JERUSALEM (AP) -- The tomb of Jesus has been resurrected to its former glory.
Just in time for Easter, a Greek restoration team has completed a historic renovation of the Edicule, the shrine that tradition says houses the cave where Jesus was buried and rose to heaven.
Gone is the unsightly iron cage built around the shrine by British authorities in 1947 to shore up the walls. Gone is the black soot on the shrine's stone façade from decades of pilgrims lighting candles. And gone are fears about the stability of the old shrine, which hadn't been restored in more than 200 years.

Did you see the problem?

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The real Muslims of Hawaii: WSJ digs below the surface after Trump's travel ban blocked

The real Muslims of Hawaii: WSJ digs below the surface after Trump's travel ban blocked

After a federal judge in Hawaii blocked President Donald Trump's revised executive order on immigration and refugees, the Wall Street Journal dispatched Los Angeles-based national religion writer Ian Lovett to Honolulu.

Talk about a tough assignment! (And, by the way, could you please sign me up?)

In my time with The Christian Chronicle, I've been blessed to report from all 50 states and 10 countries. This probably won't surprise you, but the Aloha State was one of my favorite to visit.

I don't know if Lovett got to spend any time at the beach or if he was too busy working, but his excellent feature captures the mood — and concerns — of the island state's Muslims in the Trump era.

The lede explains Hawaii's surprising role in the controversy:

HONOLULU — With only a few thousand Muslim residents, Hawaii would seem an unlikely place to challenge — and halt — President Donald Trump’s travel ban.
Only a half-dozen of refugees are settled here each year. The small Muslim community has quietly thrived, away from the conflicts on the mainland. They built a mosque in the hills overlooking Waikiki, celebrated the end of Ramadan on the beach and enjoyed good relationships with neighbors in this multicultural state. Anti-Islamic threats or hate speech was virtually unheard of, Muslims here say.
But all of that has abruptly changed in recent weeks, as Hawaii’s Muslim community has found itself at the center of the nationwide battle over immigration and Islam’s place in American society.
Anti-Muslim incidents have jumped since late last year, Muslims here say, and members of the community have been separated from their families by Mr. Trump’s travel ban.
The state of Hawaii—along with the imam at the mosque here, Ismail Elshikh—sued to stop the revised ban from taking effect, saying it was motivated by religious animus toward Muslims. On Wednesday night, a federal judge agreed and put the order on hold.

From there, the Journal does a really nice job of quoting real Muslims in Hawaii and letting them describe their own experiences. The piece puts real faces on the random Muslims we hear so much about.

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CNN on Gorsuch: Is the judge a crypto-Catholic or a safe, normal Episcopalian?

CNN on Gorsuch: Is the judge a crypto-Catholic or a safe, normal Episcopalian?

Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Judge Neil Gorsuch begin today, so get set for some good TV.

A few journalists are still trying to get to the bottom of the form and content of Gorsuch’s religious views. Is he truly an Episcopalian or some kind of crypto-Catholic? Is he conservative or liberal? What are his views on abortion?

The latest effort, from CNN, assembles together what a lot of journalists have written about the nominee’s faith plus a few details the reporter found out on his own. The headline: “What is Neil Gorsuch’s religion? It’s complicated” hints at what's to come. We start here:

WASHINGTON (CNN) Earlier this month, the Trump administration summoned two dozen religious leaders to a private meeting. The mission: to rally support for Neil Gorsuch, Trump's Supreme Court nominee…
Eventually, the conversation turned to Gorsuch's own religious background.
He was raised Catholic but now worships with his wife and two daughters at St. John's Episcopal Church in Boulder, Colorado. Like the city, the congregation is politically liberal. It bars guns from its campus and installed solar panels; it condemns harsh rhetoric about Muslims and welcomes gays and lesbians. And its rector, the Rev. Susan Springer, attended the Women's March in Denver, though not as a form of protest but as a sign of support for "the dignity of every human being."

It goes a lot into his early life as a child in a Catholic family and then:

After college and law school, between stints clerking at the Supreme Court, Gorsuch studied legal philosophy at Oxford University in England, where his dissertation was supervised by John Finnis, a giant in the field and a former member of the Vatican's prestigious International Theological Commission.
Among laypeople, Finnis may be best known for his expositions on natural law, an often-misunderstood area of legal and moral philosophy.

The article then veers into a discussion of natural law. But isn’t Oxford where Gorsuch switched from the Catholic to the Church of England, also known as the Anglican Communion or, in the United States, the Episcopal Church? Writing about Gorsuch a few weeks ago, I included information on this point thanks to a helpful piece in the Daily Mail that connected the dots. 

However the CNN piece -- this is crucial -- suggests the Brits are wrong and that the judge never changed faiths.

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