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Mason: Christian schools 20 years after 'The Scandal'

Jan. 24, 2014 at 11 p.m.

The year 2014 marks the 20-year publication anniversary of Mark A. Noll's monumental work titled "The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind." It is considered by many as one of this generation's most influential books on Christian faith and the university.

"Christianity Today" awarded it Book of the Year and, at its 10-year anniversary, noted it had "arguably shaped the evangelical world (or at least its institutions) more than any other book published in the last decade."

Noll's premise was that "the scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind." He testified that the largest group of religious Americans, while enjoying increasing wealth, status and political influence, had made little impact on academic scholarship and the intellectual life. They had abandoned the universities, the arts and sciences, public discourse and other aspects of high culture. Noll is the former McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College and is Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame.

Noll's book challenged the anti-intellectualism and dualism (faith and piety vs. culture and academic discovery) that developed in evangelical higher education over at least a 200-year period. He called for the evangelical academic community to turn the situation around.

In that sense, it was both critical and constructive. And, while certainly a shot across the bow of evangelical scholarship and higher education, it was also familial in nature.

Integral to the impact of Noll's work was the fact that it was a lament from an insider's point of view.

Noll, as one of evangelicalism's most respected historians, prefaced the book as "an epistle from a wounded lover … not a letter of resignation from the evangelical movement."

Noll was not the first to note the decline of the evangelical mind in America. H. Richard Niebuhr made a similar claim in 1937. Nor was Noll the first to argue for the important role of a Christian college, as did Arthur F. Holmes in his classic, "The Idea of a Christian College" in 1975. But Noll's work in 1994 did usher in a particular era of discussion about evangelical Christianity, the university and intellectual life.

George Marsden, another evangelical historian serving top-tier academic institutions including Duke and Notre Dame, pointed out in his 1997 book, "The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship," that the secular academy also had "confessional" presuppositions in all scholarship, and that no academician or university approaches the academic enterprise from a neutral posture.

Over the past 20 years, an ocean of ink has been spilled on the topics of Christian scholarship, the integration of faith and learning, and the vocation of evangelicals in the mainstream academy. It has formed a distinct field of research and writing on its own. These catalysts and others helped earn evangelical Christian scholars and their universities a voice in the mainstream, academic conversation.

For, the integration of faith and learning is quite simply the pursuit of understanding how all things - of God's world and his Word - as expressed in all academic disciplines, hold together in Jesus Christ; in the realm of ideas, practices and pedagogies, and personal witness.

In that way, LeTourneau University and other Christ-centered universities around the country fulfill the original meaning of a university.

As David Lyle Jeffrey recently noted, in the Middle Ages, the term "Uni-versity" implied "the many turning toward the One: with the diversity of human labors and vocations, we return - for reference, communion, corporate self-understanding, community, and a common sense of purpose - to that One in whom all our wisdoms are hidden, and whose members like spokes of a wheel, we are to be as the world turns."

Said another way, as Paul the Apostle stated in Colossians 1:17 about Jesus Christ, "He is before all things, and in him all things hold together."

Whether the field is engineering, chemistry, or business, or something else, each is only fully known in light of God's restoration program for humanity and all of creation. Thank you, Mark Noll, for helping us move beyond "The Scandal."

- Dr. Steven D. Mason is the associate provost and dean of faculty at LeTourneau University. As a Christian scholar interested in pursuing rigorous academics and authentic evangelical faithfulness, Mason supports what Noll called an "evangelical intellectual renaissance" and the faith and learning discussion at LeTourneau University and other Christian colleges in America and worldwide.



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