“American evangelicals, so maligned as anti-intellectual, have a habit of taking certain ideas very seriously.” This observation comes courtesy of Molly Worthen as she sets out her argument for a crisis of authority that, in her view, stands at the center of the evangelical mind.

The larger intellectual community often takes evangelicalism very unseriously, and it is to the credit of Worthen that she does not. She has been observing evangelicals for some time now, and she thinks she understands us. Given the stature of her new book, Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism (Oxford University Press), her analysis of the evangelical movement demands close attention.

Worthen is assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and she is no stranger to the evangelical movement. She has written widely discussed articles and essays in Christianity Today, The New York Times, and a good many other established periodicals. This book emerged from her doctoral dissertation at Yale University, written under the supervision of Harry S. Stout, Jon Butler, and Beverly Gage. This is a book to be reckoned with. In terms of its comprehensive grasp of the evangelical movement, its detailed research, and its serious approach to understanding the evangelical mind, Apostles of Reason stands nearly alone in the larger world of academic publishing. Any serious-minded evangelical should read it.

No Surprise

That said, it is also infuriating. This comes as no real surprise, for Worthen clearly signals her judgment on American evangelicals and their intellectual enterprise at the onset of the book: “Their intellectual history is peppered with compromises, sleights of hand, and defensive maneuvers, a combination of pragmatism and idealism that has made evangelicalism one of the most dynamic and powerful phenomena in Christian history, as well as a minefield for independent thought.”

Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism

Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism

Oxford University Press (2013). 376 pp.
Oxford University Press (2013). 376 pp.

Actually, Worthen had already told us what she thought about evangelicals in a series of articles published over the last several years. Her essays and reports were always insightful, if snarky. She does not often resist the temptation to be condescending toward her evangelical subjects. But, that said, she might sometimes understand us better than we understand ourselves.

Her central contention is that evangelicals are stuck in a permanent and insoluble predicament. As she explains, evangelicals do take ideas seriously, but in an unstable and unseemly mix. The evangelical mind is caught between the claims of rival intellectual authorities. Faith, experience, and reason all compete for supremacy in the evangelical mind. Born in an existential and epistemological crisis, modern evangelicalism wants to hold fast to the faith and to earn the respect of the secular academy. Evangelicals, she asserts, are the children of both Pietism and the Enlightenment, offspring of estranged parents who “behave like orphans.” Caught in the jaws of this crisis, evangelicals attempt to justify their beliefs and understand the world through the lenses of a Christian worldview. But Worthen assails the “cult of the Christian worldview” and calls it “one symptom of the effort by many evangelical leaders to fold competing sources of authority into one, to merge inference with assumptions.”

Completely missing from her historical analysis is any real understanding of how a worldview functions. For her, it is merely an instrument of intellectual control. She never acknowledges that she sees evangelicals and their crisis of authority through a worldview of her own.

Peppered with Pith

Worthen can write beautiful and revealing sentences, and her writing is peppered with pithy and valuable insights. Describing the emergence of the New Evangelicals after World War II, she explains, “Fundamentalism begged for a facelift.” So it did. But the leading lights of the New Evangelicalism did not merely aim to update fundamentalism. They intended to reset classical Protestant Christianity and to build a great global evangelistic movement. Of course, they also intended to reshape American culture and establish a great and unified evangelical empire. They succeeded beyond their wildest hopes and failed utterly to accomplish their aims. There are two sides to the evangelical story.

As Worthen tells the story, the fact that evangelicals have only a “fraught relationship with secular reason and artistic imagination” has led to disaster. Evangelicals simply refuse to play by the rules of the modern intellectual game. They will not let reason rule and intellectual tolerance prevail. Instead, led by thinkers and theologians like Carl F. H. Henry, they have sought nothing less than a rebirth of the modern Western mind. But Henry appears as a pathetic figure, craving intellectual authority without understanding, as Worthen insists, that one cannot have that intellectual authority in a secular age and continue to hold to biblical inerrancy (or, as her book makes clear, to a host of other theological claims as well).

This road has been taken before. One could fill a small library with books and essays offering the same basic analysis of the evangelical predicament. And yet, all of those previous efforts fall short of Worthen’s achievement. She tells the story better and offers a tour de force history of the evangelical movement, considering just about every major institution, theologian, and controversy that has shaped and reshaped the evangelical mind in the last 70 years. Even the most ardent student of evangelicalism will find gaps in knowledge filled by Worthen’s meticulous research. This is a massively important project of research.

Lost Sympathy

Sadly, at several junctures Worthen loses perspective and, more tellingly, loses sympathy for her research subjects. She offers a particularly savage assessment of Francis Schaeffer as “a brazen editor of history” and a pseudo-scholar. Some of her points of correction are quite legitimate, but what she misses is the essence of Schaeffer’s influence. He was not seeking the affirmation of the secular elites. Instead, he sought to help a generation of disaffected and intellectually troubled youth find their way to biblical Christianity. For me, as for many others of my generation, Schaeffer became a bridge to the larger world of classical Christian scholarship and thinking.

But what of Worthen’s central thesis, that evangelicals are caught in a permanent crisis of authority in the modern world and that we must eventually choose between the religion of the heart and the reason of the intellect? In my view, she is both right and wrong. She is largely right in describing the predicament, but she is wrong in suggesting that this is either new or limited to evangelical Christians. Almost 1,800 years before Henry penned The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, Tertullian was asking, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” Seen in this light, the evangelical predicament is simply the Christian predicament. Evangelicals just refuse to escape the predicament by surrendering divine revelation as the only final intellectual authority. The predicament is undeniably more acute in the modern world, but it is not new. And, in this life at least, it will not end.

When she reaches the end of her book, Worthen seems to understand this. The evangelical mind, she explains, “offers no clear path past the impasse of biblical authority, no firm discipline for the undecided mind, and no reconciliation with the intelligentsia of secular America.” And yet, maybe this crisis isn’t really a crisis if it is now the status quo. “If the evangelical mind harbors a potent anti-intellectual strain, it has proven, over time, to be a kind of genius.”

I don’t think Molly Worthen really believes that the evangelical mind has landed in “a kind of genius.” She has given us much to think about, however, and the crisis of authority she describes so well is, in truth, the burden evangelicals must faithfully bear.