Why the Adjective “Christian” before Intellectual Might be Offputting

Michael Lind notices how odd intellectuals are and includes this observation:

The mere phrases “Aryan science” and “Jewish science” or “socialist scholarship” and “bourgeois scholarship” should send chills down the spine. Furthermore, many successful academics study, teach, and live in different countries in the course of their careers.

So why are Christians tone deaf to the consequences of modifying academic life with the adjective “Christian”? If Jewish science doesn’t make sense, will “Christian intellectual” make the medicine go down?

Alan Jacobs will not relent:

The notion that the intellectual resources of Christianity might be useful in reflecting on politics — or technology, or the arts, or engineering, or war, or climate change — and useful not only to Christians but to everyone — that’s a long-lost notion indeed. We generally assume that on any given issue of social import there might be a socialist take, or a feminist take, or a take rooted in the experience of a particular ethnic identity, that we’d benefit from hearing; but a Christian take? Not typically one of the options. There are no prominent Christian intellectuals addressing whatever happens to concern the body politic in a distinctively Christian way and for a general audience.

Jacobs assumes (along with comprensivalists like neo-Calvinists and anti-modern Roman Catholics) that Christianity has something distinct to say about modern society. The Bible is a pretty important piece of Christian reflection and its teachings about modern society seem to be minor. Jacobs also forgets that modernity is in part a reaction against Christians having too much to say for too long about politics, the arts, and war. All of a sudden moderns are supposed to forget 1100 years of western history?

The idea that Christians need to find a new way to find a seat at liberalism’s table is also anachronistic:

So it seems to me that Christians can either look for ways to get back to that table or accept their exile from it and make the best of the possibilities that exile affords. (Learning to be dissidents rather than intellectuals.) But the claim that Christians really are comfortably seated at liberalism’s table seems to be an unsustainable one.

The way to the table is the one that Jacobs and other academics have chosen — graduate school, advanced research, a Ph.D., and a teaching post. All along the way believing scholars need to negotiate the claims of science/academics and personal faith/divine revelation. To make it through to the Ph.D., land a job, and publish books with academic presses is to be prepared to sit at liberalism’s table. Gaining a seat requires a notable contribution.

I don’t think Jacobs means this, but he seems to imply that Christianity and intellectual life are so at odds that Christians really should not go to graduate school (which is why I have always thought that neo-Calvinism is theonomy lite). But the way to expertise, which is what generally counts for being an intellectual, is not through Christianity. The West tried that an moved on.

26 thoughts on “Why the Adjective “Christian” before Intellectual Might be Offputting

  1. Is this Christian or feminist scholarship?

    I’m not a biblical translator, or even a biblical scholar.

    I’m a historian.

    As a historian, I was intrigued when I heard the news that “the Permanent Text of the ESV Bible” had been released. (The English Standard Version, for those not in the know, is an “essentially literal” translation of the Revised Standard Version.) I confess that it seemed a bit audacious to me, this presumption that perfection had been achieved.

    I was so impressed, in fact, that I went to the website of the ESV translation project to learn who was responsible for this remarkable accomplishment. I quickly perused the list of names included on the ESV Oversight Committee, and then scanned the list of Translation Review Scholars. At a certain point it dawned on me: having scanned dozens of names, not one woman’s name appeared on any list of those responsible for the translation.

    Could this have been an oversight? Surely there were at least a couple of well-trained women who might have contributed to this effort. I’m left to conclude that the exclusion of women was an intentional choice.

    But I want to suggest that if your purpose was to produce the most trustworthy translation of the Bible in the English language, if you hoped to achieve an unchanging version that will stand in perpetuity, then your decision to exclude women was a grave mistake.

    Don’t take my word for it, however.

    Allow me to introduce you to Kate Bushnell. Bushnell was a female biblical translator who has some words of wisdom you might want to take into consideration. (Full disclosure: I wrote a book on Bushnell because I thought it was a travesty that more Christians who take the Bible seriously haven’t heard of this woman, one of the most remarkable in the history of biblical translation and interpretation).

    Bushnell was a female biblical translator who has some words of wisdom you might want to take into consideration. (Full disclosure: I wrote a book on Bushnell because I thought it was a travesty that more Christians who take the Bible seriously haven’t heard of this woman, one of the most remarkable in the history of biblical translation and interpretation).

    Let me tell you a bit about her. She was born in 1855, studied classics and medicine, and then became a medical missionary to China with the Methodist Women’s Foreign Missionary Society. After three years she returned to the United States, at which point she became involved in social purity work. In modern parlance, she was a pioneering Christian anti-trafficking activist, first in the United States, and then around the globe.

    What does any of this have to do with biblical translation? You see, it was in the brothels of Wisconsin, Michigan, California, in British India and across East Asia, that Bushnell repeatedly encountered “respectable,” Christian men who treated women with unspeakable cruelty.
    Ultimately, Bushnell was forced to conclude that “the crime was the fruit of the theology,” that something in Christian theology must be amiss.

    Does knowledge of women, Hebrew, theology, or men determine the validity of this objection?


  2. Alan Jacobs on policing:

    I’m absolutist about these matters, I guess. I think universal rules for police should be:

    If someone is unarmed, you can’t execute him.

    If someone is behaving strangely, even extremely strangely, you can’t execute him.

    If you think that someone might possibly be armed, you can’t execute him.

    If someone refuses to obey your orders, you can’t execute him.

    If someone runs away from you, you can’t execute him.

    If you shoot at anyone in any of the above circumstances, you will be fired. (Maybe prosecuted too, but that’s outside the scope of a police department.)

    If you find the above rules unfair, or are unable to follow them, you need to go into another line of work.

    Should a Christian read up on policing before opining about police shootings? Does Jacobs at least read Peter Moskos?


  3. Meredith Kline saw neo-Calvinism as guilty of the same error as theonomy because of his understanding of common grace.


  4. Hmmm, just off the top of my head, I wonder what happens to the police department who allows a suspect/felon to NOT comply(up to and including using deadly force) and that person goes off and injures/maims/kills another person? Seems like we’re busy skewering the FBI, currently/always, for not following up on suspicious people who later commit atrocities. Speaking of women, the flip side of employing them as a DETERRENT to violent/brutal interactions(women are supposedly proven diffusers of aggressive interactions between police and citizenry) is when the suspect decides he’s not going to have it from her, she’s more likely not less likely to employ deadly force to settle an unavoidable violent interaction. It’s complicated. And that’s before we get into the ineffectiveness of police who don’t AGGRESSIVELY police a community and target known and suspected law breakers. Double and triple complicated.


  5. Do Christians want faith to bear on discipline only when it’s advantageous? I would imagine that were faith to be used as the reason for dismissal and disqualification shrieks of “bigotry!” would be heard, in which case the desire for adjectivalizing seems fairly…selective.


  6. Alas! Pity the poor Christian Intellectual who wishes that the eminences in the high tower of The Secular City would look down and notice that he were not some redneck hillbilly Bible thumpin’ Young Earth Creationist but instead was a real serious Thought Leader in the Post Christian Right era.

    But it will never be! In the cozy little cubbyhole of Christian Intellectualism we make differences between Tim Keller and Tim LaHaye, James K.A. Smith and James Dobson, and Alan Jacobs and Jerry Falwell. But from the high towers we’re all the same: A Bible thumper in a cheap tuxedo may have better table manners and may prefer cheap wine over cheap beer but he’s still a Bible thumpin’ fundie.

    Oh my dear Christian Intellectual! Join us in our exclusion from the Secular Holy Temples. Therein is true happiness.


  7. Jeff, as an American Christian, I submit to the powers of the U.S. government. As an academic Christian, I submit to the powers of the American Historical Association.

    Did you not see that parallel in the post?


  8. Zrim,

    I don’t like the term “Christian intellectual” either, but is it more off-putting or inane than “public intellectual” or “public thinker” or “thought leader”?

    I’m pretty put off by anybody who describes himself or herself as an “intellectual” or “thinker,” no matter the adjective.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Robert, the difference is who’s doing the describing. Third-person descriptions aren’t, but first-person descriptions are generally annoying (though sometimes necessary). Adding a pious adjective is adding insult to injury, not unlike referring to oneself in the third person:


  10. Zrim, absolutely on the necessity of letting others praise you.

    But given that, the thinker can’t control what adjectives third parties will choose to use.

    So who exactly is supposed to be put off if Wikipedia calls Alvin Plantiga a Christian thinker?

    Your critique presupposes that said thinker is self-identifying as a “Christian intellectual”, in which case Robert’s point is mote trenchant.


  11. Sean, I don’t care, I have extra points.

    Jeff, I was just surmising. Per Darryl, Robert’s point is more about elitism, which sounds right to me. Still, the very term “Christian intellectual” is off-putting for the same reasons the term “Christian school” is. An intellectual who is a Christian and a school consisting of Christians, ok. But adjectives do mighty things that cause some more consternation than others.


  12. The problem with the lack of Christian Intellectuals is what has replaced these intellectuals is an insularity bred backwardness that is suspicious of any teaching that comes outside of its own tightly circles. Thus, this lack of intellectuals becomes just another stumbling block to people who might otherwise listen to the Gospel.

    Though the definition of modernity here is accurate even though it needs to be broadened, the statement about Christianity having little to say about modernity forgets the context of the times. It suggests a Christian approach to modernity should be governed by the regulative principle. In addition, it over reacts to the efforts of some Christians who believe that Christianity has something unique to say about everything. It is possible that Christianity has significant contributions to make about some issues and that it is part of our witness to to the world to share those contributions. This would mean that a black-white approach to what Christianity can contribute modernity is wrong.

    But we should also note that for many segments of culture and society, pre-modernism has replaced modernism thus our view of modernity needs to be updated.


  13. made one mistake in the last paragraph, meant to say that post-modernism has replaced modernism. Certainly pre-modernism hasn’t. Sure wish there was edit button attached to these comments.


  14. sdb,
    We all speak in the name of Christianity either with our words or our lives; we can’t avoid that. That is part of the territory of calling oneself a Christians.


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