Do We Really Need Influential Christian Intellectuals?

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My Baylor colleague Alan Jacobs has a provocative article in Harper’s magazine, in which he asks “What Became of the Christian Intellectuals?” I say “provocative” because it has provoked intelligent and charitable responses from Albert Mohler and Owen Strachan, among others. I encourage you to take time to read each of these pieces. It may be one of the best exchanges on Christian intellectual life I have read, at least since the publication of George Marsden’s The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship.

Jacobs laments the vanishing of prominent Christian intellectuals like C. S. Lewis and Reinhold Niebuhr. But I want to step back and ask, do we actually need influential Christian intellectuals? Sure, the church needs theological leadership, but do we really need Christians who are intellectually influential outside of the church?

I would offer an enthusiastic “yes.” We do need Christians who are able to represent the faith in a winsome, responsible way in the “public square.” Why?

Paul served this role in the early church. Even though the early church was filled with a whole range of regular folks (fishermen, tax collectors, and so on), God seems to have set apart certain people from the beginning, not only to teach and give theological guidance to the churches, but also to testify before audiences in the “Mars Hill” settings of the world. [Acts 17]

To the extent that we can, Christians need to maintain a “public” intellectual witness. As Jacobs and his respondents discuss, Christian and evangelical intellectual life has become somewhat insulated since the time of C. S. Lewis, if not earlier. The reasons why are complex. Some of this has to do with hostility within the mainstream academy and media, but some also has to do with evangelicals’ penchant for operating in their own subcultural institutions.

Some outlets have more “cultural capital” than others. Outlets that speak mostly to Christians serve a much-needed function, but even “flagship” and high-traffic Christian outlets don’t have the kind of cultural cache and influence of a New York Times or Harvard University Press. Whether this is fair or not, our Christian public witness gets more attention from the “world” in outlets with broad public attention and credibility.

A credible public witness can serve the public good, but it can also clear the way for people to make decisions for Christ. Not only can Christians in public life help bring about social and political reform for the common good, but in the best cases (see C. S. Lewis) their prominence can clear the way for many people to consider becoming Christians.

Having said “yes,” I do want to offer a few qualifications.

The world only needs so many “public intellectuals” of any kind, and the church only needs a certain number of its own public intellectuals. Like any gift or calling, that of public intellectual is not for everybody. We need far more pastors who preach the Word faithfully, for instance, than Christians who engage the broader public sphere. Moreover, the church can get along without public intellectuals. It can’t do without faithful preachers (or other servants of many kinds).

We Christians are not entirely in control of whether the world will listen or embrace our public witness. No matter how hard we work, or how careful and intelligent our arguments, the institutions of great “cultural capital” may not listen to us, much less welcome our message. Especially to the extent that our message runs counter to dominant public sentiment, we may more likely get shouted down than be offered endowed chairs at Ivy League schools.

Christian public intellectuals must resist the temptation to water down their beliefs in order to win acceptance. One of the mainstream media’s favorite religion stories is the “evangelical leader” who has compromised on a core evangelical belief. But what good is it to gain the hearing of the whole world, and to lose your soul?

In academia today, there are definitely fields (such as history and philosophy) where orthodox believers enjoy broad respect and a wider public audience. In my field of history, professors like George Marsden (my doctoral advisor) and Mark Noll have led the way. They have done so by having the confidence that they could speak to an elite academic audience, pursuing doctoral degrees (at Yale and Vanderbilt, respectively) that would help open doors to that audience, and being attentive to the way that they speak to that audience. In their history writing, they do not assume a reader’s belief or “insider” status, but they also do not close the door to believing readers. Marsden and Noll also tended to start their careers by writing books that were just good history, by anyone’s standards, before engaging in more explicitly or polemically Christian work.

I am sure that Marsden and Noll would also readily tell you that God providentially opened many doors for them to end up in positions of public influence, both of them having served as endowed chairs in the history department at Notre Dame. But we already have models for how to do a Christian public intellectual witness the right way. Their labors are much needed.

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