Condescending to Men of Low Estate

by Dec 30, 2014Books, ChurchLife, Culture, Worldview4 comments

Stereotyping and prejudice are endemic to humanity. Conservatives have done it (and do it), and secularists it have done it (and do it). Your vision of a group colors your interpretation of actions performed by individuals in that group. It takes a conscious effort at impartiality—and, ultimately, the grace and wisdom of God—to avoid incorrect (and even sinful) generalizations.

worthen apostles of reasonSmall case in point: I was reading secularist Molly Worthen’s award-winning Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism, and I came across a little comment on the former president of my alma mater’s reaction upon meeting C.S. Lewis:

No less a fundamentalist than Bob Jones, Jr., was a convert [to the growing group of Lewis admirers]. He emerged from a visit with the don slightly baffled: “That man smokes a pipe, and that man drinks liquor—but I do believe he is a Christian!”

Fundamentalists from the Southern U.S. surely do get baffled sometimes, and Bob Jones Jr. was not exempt, I imagine. (And worse, I can think of a few Bible verses that Dr. Bob Jr. appeared at times to be ignorant of… Ahem.). But anybody who knew Bob Jones Jr.—he died my freshman year—knew him to be a man of wit whose eye was always sparkling. I have read that quote about his encounter with Lewis for years and always took it as a sardonic comment, one poking a little fun at his own fundamentalist scruples! To say he was “baffled” is to display an unwitting prejudice. A third of the way through Worthen’s otherwise valuable and enjoyable book, I have had regular occasion to be annoyed by her condescension.

No one is objective; we all write from a situated, limited perspective. But I admit I generally prefer that my scholars pretend not to have an agenda. Here’s a sampling of comments by Worthen which elicited a little annoyance from this reader:

The commitment to biblical inerrancy had warped neo-evangelicals’ understanding of the past…. The basic principle of inerrancy—that historical circumstance does not influence human authorship or interpretation, when that human writes or thinks by God’s will—seeped into the way they interpreted history outside the Bible as well.

There is some truth caught in the gears here—I’ve heard untutored folk treat the Bible this way, for sure. But this baffled, ignorant fundamentalist can see just well enough through the dark fog in his unaccredited brain to remember that I was never taught this brand of inerrancy at Bob Jones Jr’s school. I was taught to give full acknowledgment to the situation and personality of each biblical writer in my interpretation. But Worthen is convinced:

[Evangelicalism’s] ahistorical view of scripture, their overriding desire to defend their doctrine of inerrancy as ancient, immutable, and God-given, made sensitive scholarship impossible. In the hands of [Christianity Today]’s editors history became a legal brief for inerrancy, a purity test for the present. Their attitude was not so different from that of Bob Jones.

Well then.

Even as the neo-evangelicals proclaimed their break from Jones-style separatism, they could not escape their inclination to favor sterile certainty over the hazards of new ideas and allies.

Ouch! This is just dripping. “Sterile certainty”? As I read this I was taken aback: does this kind of invective belong in a scholarly book?

Like their age’s array of secular ideologues, the neo-evangelicals promoted not just a set of doctrines, but a grand theory that attempted to explain the foundations of knowledge, the course of global events, and humanity’s place in the cosmos. Each of these intellectual systems depended upon an internal logic that invalidated opposing worldviews. Each trained its adherents in a tendentious retelling of history to support its claims.

I guess that’s why I keep with the Joneses. I’d rather be baffled than tendentious.

All the same, Worthen’s interest in American evangelicalism (including fundamentalism) is itself interesting—and beneficial. We all know the worth of watching a church service through a non-Christian visitor’s eyes. Sometimes they can see our problems with more clarity than we can, simply because familiarity breeds obtusity. Her comments on evangelical higher education standards were particularly illuminating for me.

More on this book later if it keeps catching my fancy enough to stay on my Kindle home page…

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    • Mark Ward

      Watched ’em—and the most recent one:

      Fea (pronounced “FEE-uh”—gotta remember that) takes the more objective, descriptive tone I expected from Worthen—until he talks about Messiah College in the last video. He said, “Messiah is a place with certain evangelical traits, but it certainly doesn’t stem out of the evangelical movement.” He also said Messiah is not inerrantist.

      I did come away wanting even more to read his book on the founding fathers.

  1. Duncan Johnson

    You know, I think I always assumed that Worthen’s book would be non-prejudicial because my first exposure to it was through the Fea videos. Of course, that said, she might succeed at remaining fairly objective with the much of the rest of the evangelical spectrum aside from Bob Jones fundamentalism. Again, I need to read the book to see for myself. And as alums, you and I would be more sensitive about apparently prejudicial readings of Bob Jones fundamentalism.


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