The Not-So-Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship


When one is both a graduate student and an evangelical Christian, the phrase “don’t let them change you” becomes an oft-heard response to any declaration of your intention to study, learn, and specialize in a scholastic area. That phrase is by no means the most heard (that falls to some variation of the question “are you trying to avoid starting a life?”), but it has its place especially within the well-meaning confines of the church. The implied idea stands that the academy and the church are to some degree antithetical. In his book The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, George Marsden argued somewhat counter to this modern-day, evangelical assumption. In his introduction Marsden asked two valuable questions. First, should the Christian expect or desire to join the conversation played out in the secular academic world? Second, if the Christian joins the academy and agrees to ‘follow the rules’ of the academy would this compromise then represent a falling away from the rule of faith? The first question He answered with a ‘yes,’ yet the second question begged a qualified ‘no.’

On the first question Marsden presented a well-thought-out and much needed history of the relationship between the academy and the church. The early history of the partnership and in many cases subordination of the academy to the church gets left off many modern institutional histories. This author, himself, spent four years at a secular university before learning from anyone in the institution that the first four presidents had all been locally popular ministers. Yet as the 18th century gave way to the 19th and it in turn gave way to the 20th century, the academy for a variety of good and bad reasons split from its ministerial past. This exchange presented the church with a profound problem in addressing the academic side of life.

The modern relationship between mainstream scholarship and religion, Marsden argued, stood then the classic overreaction. Earlier religious thought had worked to unjustly limit debate and further limit inquiry in varied areas of scholarship. The understandable reaction had been to limit the power of these religious obstacles to the pursuit of truth. Marsden argued that “the tendency to view religious perspectives as being in bad taste… persisted even after the disestablishment [of religion] was complete…. In effect, in place of a Protestant establishment we now have a virtual establishment of nonbelief” (24). For Marsden the Christian scholar should stand not as a paradox, but an antidote to the weaknesses of both the modern evangelical church, and the modern secular academy. Marsden wrote that “such scholarship is an alternative not only to the hollow secularism that dominates mainstream academia but also to the simplistic ‘fundalmentalisms’ that present themselves as the only alternatives” (9).

While I would answer in the affirmative with Marsden on this issue, I found his apologia for our place somewhat lacking. Marsden seemed to argue both ways on a number of topics. One such example was seen in the important issue of background or control beliefs, which are the ideas that undergird a scholar’s work and argument. On the one hand he asserted that in breaking down the pitch from another scholar, the ability to highlight that person’s predilections ‘may’ lead to ‘suspicion’ of his or her arguments. On the other hand Marsden himself argued for the discussion and use of Christian concepts as background beliefs. He attempted to synthesize these two completing ideals by arguing that the difference comes in the strength of the person’s argument, not in their actual use per se (49-52). Likewise there was his appeal to the relation between postmodern thought and Christian thought. He argued that if postmodernists get to argue their case, then Christians ought to have the same rights (29-30). As carefully nuanced as he attempted to make his position, many of these comments struck home as more than a little disingenuous. A striking comparison could be made to traditional children’s defense that ‘if everyone else is doing it, then why can’t I.’ That argument may work on the playground, but I am not sure about its viability in defending one’s thesis, dissertation, or new book.

Based on this affirmative answer, Marsden provides a cautious ‘no’ to the second question. Marsden wrote that the first rule of the academy that no religious motivation be discussed would of necessity be broken; yet, the Christian would then follow all other rules. For Marsden this meant that special care would be taken to discuss issues of special revelations. Discussion of such issues would be only in conditional form. Additionally, the Christian would take extra special care to avoid any especially evangelical zeal in their scholarship. The work of their scholarship would not be designed to convert and proselytize the world. Last the Christian would also take heed of the need to critically analyze his or her faith. The scholar’s church home should not represent a blind-spot in their work.

I might quibble with his argument to the first question; yet, the heat and fire of any critical reaction in this book might best be focused on the qualifications that create the second ‘no.’ First, there is the issue of revelation. Mark Noll in his paper The Bible as a Norm for Historical Writing; as well as, Rick Kennedy in his paper Miracles in the Dock have provided some much needed clarity on the issue of revelation. Among others both of these Christian scholars have argued persuasively for the ability of Christians to discuss revelation in ways that are both scholarly and Christian. One might wonder if Marsden has been too quick to give up such important concepts, concepts which serve to distinguish Christian from the secularists, pluralists, or members of other religious affiliations which have found a place in the academy.

Additionally, Marsden seemed to maintain a more thorough-going positivism about the moral and professional demeanor of others than seemed rational. In one spot he argued that “not only should Christian commitments lead one toward scholarly rigor and integrity, they should also encourage fairness and charity toward those whom one differs” (55). Similar in nature was his avowal that it is not ‘schizophrenic’ of Christians to led somewhat dual lives of evangelism and scholarship (55). While I would like to believe that all Christians everywhere would meet up to Marsden’s high standard, ten years of leadership would led me to pessimism about this unique goal. In fact just the historical discussion based in the first several chapters should incline one to such pessimism. Once again it seemed more than a little disingenuous to argue that while the church made mistakes in the past, going forward those mistakes will not be made. This is not to even begin discussion of the place of evangelical zeal in scholarship. More than two pages would be needed for that discussion.

Marsden like Henry Stout in his paper Theological Conviction and American Religious History wants to argue that the primary difference for a Christian comes in the background of his scholarship. Yet I cannot hope but expect that the differences might extend further out. In his paper Understanding the Past, Using the Past, Grant Wacker argued for the Christian to perform evaluation of historical sources and to “step up to the plate and take a swing” at composing grand theories and arguments (176-177). I must confess to be more appreciative of the grander role for which Wacker seemed to argue.While one might be inclined to second Marsden’s affirmative to his first question on the rightfulness of Christians to bring to bear his or her religious beliefs to bear here, one might also argue that that pesky advice to ‘not let the academy change you’ might find some traction in regards to Marsden’s cautious ‘no’ to his second question. True one must appreciate Marsden’s call for balance, but one must also answer the question of when the quest for balance becomes tactic approval of a lukewarm Christianity that will not do anyone any good.

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