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Religious Practice in America and Around the World: A Conversation With Mark Noll

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Members of the Library of Congress Scholars Council are appointed by the Librarian of Congress to advise on matters related to scholarship at the Library, with special attention to the Kluge Center and the Kluge Prize. The Council includes distinguished scholars, writers, researchers, and scientists.

“Insights” is featuring some of the work of this highly-accomplished group of thinkers. Dan Turello continues the series interviewing Mark Noll.

Mark A. Noll specializes in the history of Christianity in the United States. He holds the position of Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. In 2005, he was named by Time Magazine as one of the twenty-five most influential evangelicals in America. Noll is a prolific author and many of his books have earned considerable acclaim within the academic community. In particular, “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind,” a book about anti-intellectual tendencies within the American evangelical movement, was widely covered in both religious and secular publications. He was awarded a National Humanities Medal by President George W. Bush in 2006. In the interview below, Noll talks about the evangelical tradition, his time at as a scholar at the Library of Congress, and his new interest in world Christianity.

Mark, you’re most well known as a historian of Christianity in the United States. Tell us something about your intellectual journey. How did you become interested in this subject matter, and what factors have driven your research directions along the way?

It’s a truism that most scholarship is autobiographical in some way, which certainly pertains to my academic interests. As a Christian believer who has always been intrigued by questions about politics, artistic expression, social order, intellectual cohesion, and especially cultural change over time, it came naturally to pursue historical questions concerning such matters. My first serious research as a historian tried to figure out why an early Anabaptist, Melchior Hoffman, could work cooperatively with major leaders of the Protestant Reformation for some time, but later fell out with them decisively. Then it was trying to figure why some New England clergymen who experienced the revivals known as the Great Awakening became, one generation later, ardent patriots at the time of the American Revolution, while a few did not. From there the number of intriguing questions connecting religion and intellectual, political, and cultural expressions has only continued to multiply.

Just over 20 years ago, you published a book that made waves, titled “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.” Then, as now, you identified as an Evangelical, and the book was issued by an Evangelical publishing house. What was the “scandal” and why did you feel it was important to write this book?

The scandal of the evangelical mind, I said in that book, was that not much “an evangelical mind” existed. I still believe that this assessment is correct, although I would now try to put it in ways that require at least a couple of subordinate clauses, along the following lines: Since the seventeenth century and the rise of European pietism, and then the emergence of evangelicalism in Britain and her colonies in the eighteenth century, pietistic and evangelical impulses have greatly assisted in adapting historical Christianity to the individualism, democracy, and practical mind-set of western modernity. At the same time, that very process of adaptation has, with a few exceptions like the New England minister Jonathan Edwards, hindered pietists and evangelicals in thinking carefully about the basic questions concerning God, the physical world, social order, other cultures, and the human condition.

Broader and more comprehensive thinking of that sort needs the intellectual and theological ballast provided by the historical Christian traditions (Catholic, Calvinist, Lutheran, or even Orthodox). Pietists and evangelicals who make use of those traditions are in a good position to think carefully and to produce responsible intellectual work, even as they can bring a measure of spiritual vitality to those traditions. But because of the populist, individualist, and activist character of evangelicalism, the foundations for productive thinking need to be sought somewhere other than in evangelicalism itself. I wrote “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” to encourage other evangelicals, along with myself, to think more responsibly about how to contribute to serious intellectual endeavor.

What do you think has changed over 20 years? How are Evangelicals who are part of the Gen X, Gen Y, and Millennial generations living out the relationship between faith, life, and scholarship?

My sense is that a considerable number of younger scholars with evangelical or similar backgrounds now do much better with intellectual tasks. Evangelicals now enjoy more good models of responsible scholarship in philosophy, the history and philosophy of science, sociology, history, and more recently also law, biology, physics, and other disciplines. What has not changed, I fear, is the general climate that besets not just evangelical communities, but the wider public landscape, where snap judgments, tendentious politicized partisanship, and the rush to instant analysis undermine all serious intellectual efforts. In other words, it is possible to find a wider array of responsible Christian thinking in the broader intellectual marketplace (admittedly, not all wanting to be identified as “evangelical”), even as that marketplace is overrun by shoddy thinking, name calling, and a great deal of all-or-nothing media hype. We self-identified evangelicals, I fear, contribute too much of the latter and still not enough of the former.

Mark Noll
Mark Noll speaks as part of #Scholarfest, a celebration of The John W. Kluge Center’s 15th anniversary, June 11, 2015. Photo by Shawn Miller.

When you spent time at the Library of Congress as the Cary and Anne Maguire Chair in Ethics and American History, in 2004, you were researching the influence of the Bible on public life in America. What kinds of primary documents were you examining, and what did you find?

My work at the Library focused on debates over the moral, theological, and biblical legitimacy of slavery as those debates developed in the late eighteenth century, expanded in the decades after 1830, and reached a climax in the early years of the Civil War. The Library was the best place imaginable to work on such a project. I can’t remember a single instance where I identified a document produced in the United States that could not be delivered to my carrel. This wealth of material meant that if I read in a polemical book or pamphlet about gross errors that the author was trying to expose, I could be reading the original against which the polemics were directed for myself the very next day. This was a tremendous boon to figuring out why a defense of slavery on the basis of Scripture proved to be so formidable throughout this entire period, and why those who wanted to condemn slavery on the basis of Scripture (which now seems so transparently the “right” answer) found it difficult to do so.

Even better was the Library’s help with another kind of research. What, I wondered, did foreign observers think about the knots that American religious folk tied themselves into as they battled each other over whether a Bible-based Christianity could permit slavery? For this period, the Library’s collection of books and periodicals from Ireland, Scotland, and England, as well as from France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Italy and from Ontario and Quebec in Canada, proved a great boon. In addition to the primary source material, if I needed to know something about the editor of a periodical from Quebec, for example, or an author from Germany, in almost all cases there were books or reference tools at the Library to also meet that need. This source material from outside the U.S. was tremendously valuable. One of the important conclusions of the book that came from this work, which I titled “The Civil War as a Theological Crisis,” was that almost no foreign observers, no matter how traditional or conservative they were in attitudes toward Scripture, adopted the pro-slavery view.

More recently, you’ve been writing about trends and changes in adherence to religious traditions around the world. What challenges and opportunities do these changes present?

I stumbled into an interest in “world Christianity” through, as it were, the back door. At Wheaton College, where I taught for many years before moving to Notre Dame, we always taught a general survey of Christian history. Eventually it became obvious that the traditional curriculum, which focused on Western history and treated regions outside of the West only as recipients of missionary efforts, simply would not work. It no longer reflected what had become the new reality in the world, where the number of identifiable Christians was much greater in Africa, Asia, and Latin America than in Europe and North America. But it also became increasingly obvious that the older way of organizing courses by focusing only on what led to Christian civilizations in Europe short-changed much of what had actually happened in early centuries as well.

Around the time I was becoming aware of this reality, I was fortunate to encounter the work of a number of scholars who were making sense out of the significant changes in recent Christian adherence while also proposing innovative perspectives aimed at a more comprehensive picture of the past. The Scottish historian and theologian, Andrew Walls led what for me was an intellectual revolution by showing how the transmission of Christianity across cultures offered the best possible definition of the faith itself. In Walls’ account, elements like the Bible and Jesus were of course always present, but the very ability of such elements to challenge, change, and adapt to local cultures spoke to the essential character of the faith. Lamin Sanneh—born in Gambia, raised as a Muslim, now for many years a professor of Islam and Christianity at Yale, and a practicing Catholic—showed how important translation (of Scripture, but also of foundational theological concepts) has always been in Christian history. Dana Robert of Boston University described the great changes in recent world history, especially in the dynamics of colonialism and post-colonalism that accompanied the startling expansion of Christianity in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. Philip Jenkins published a number of responsible popularizations that opened the eyes of students, neophyte and experienced alike, to the intrinsically global character of the Christian religion, and how this extended back to its very earliest centuries. And there have been many more such path-breaking scholars.

This burgeoning of scholarship, along with the the recalibration of perspective it demands, opens an extraordinary range of intriguing questions. What does trying to take in “the world” mean for traditions of scholarship that saw Christianity as an intrinsically European religion? What does it entail for understanding the ancient history of Christian expansion in the Eastern Mediterranean and in central Asia? How do the experiences of newer Christian communities relate to what has been experienced in those communities where Christianity has existed over a much longer period of time? How should attention to the dynamics of religion and culture, or religion and politics, or religion and social cohesion outside of the Western world reform understanding of those same dynamics in Western history?

With my day job attending to historical questions about the American past, I remain entirely content. But the chance, in the latter phase of an academic career, to find so much stimulating new insight from far beyond American shores has been, in the clichéd term that we evangelicals overuse, a real blessing.



Additional interviews in this series:

Check back for future interviews with Scholars Council members.


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