Exchanging one caricature for another

WillsCoverIn the Oct. 8 New Republic, Alan Wolfe of Boston College reviews Head and Heart: American Christianities, the latest book by Garry Wills. The argument of Head and Heart, as condensed by Wolfe, should gladden the heart of anyone who has night sweats because of the Religious Right:

American Christianity in general, and American Protestantism more specifically, has always contained two currents, two wings -- one that appeals to logic and reason, and another that appeals to emotion and belonging.

Wills gives these two movements the shorthand labels of Enlightened and Evangelical, and predictable generalizations ensue:

In one corner stands biblical literalism, pre-Millennialism, male chauvinism, American exceptionalism, anti-Catholicism, and political conservatism. In the other: biblical scholarship, post-Millennialism, internationalism, religious toleration, gender equality, and political liberalism.

Golly, the categories are that clear? Someone should send a cease and desist order to all those evangelicals who know their way around biblical interpretation; disagree with each other about Millennialism and gender roles; and celebrate their shared beliefs with Catholics.

Trampling on his own stick-figure argument, Wills assures readers that such a strict separation of head and heart is unnecessary. Wolfe points out the flaws in Wills' assumption that such a separation has ever existed:

Consider a few of the figures and movements that Wills discusses. Some of them belong to neither the Enlightened nor the Evangelical camp -- including Tom Paine, who, contrary to Wills, was about as irreligious as a prominent eighteenth-century writer could be. And others belong to both camps: Jonathan Edwards, to cite only the most prominent example, was an avid reader of both John Locke and Isaac Newton, and at the same time a sympathizer with the Great Awakening. ... If what we really should want is a balance between these poles, well, that is to a considerable extent what we always have had.

Toward the end of his 4,200-word essay, however, Wolfe unloads this comparable whopper of dismissing entire swaths of religious culture:

It is true that evangelicals and mainline Protestants disagree politically, but if serious theological differences between them exist, they are hard to spot. Neither camp has produced a serious work of religious thought in decades.

Who cares about Ellen Charry, William Countryman, Marva Dawn, Peter Gomes, Stanley Hauerwas, Alister McGrath, Nancey Murphy, Clark Pinnock and Miroslav Volf? Their theological differences, which are readily apparent to most readers, elude Alan Wolfe.

I am reminded of the hubristic Vizzini in The Princess Bride, who said to Westley, "Have you ever heard of Plato, Aristotle, Socrates? Morons." Wolfe writes in his essay that he has spent "lots of time visiting evangelical colleges and seminaries and attending megachurch services." I'm glad he announces this, because it's not evident in his writing.

Please respect our Commenting Policy