Is Christianity Reasonable?

You would think that religious historians would know better. Better in this case is understanding faith (of most varieties) to be fantastic since it involves truths and realities that cannot be seen and that divide rather than unite human beings. From this perspective, even the most orthodox of Christian affirmations look foolish and even irrational. Think of the Shorter Catechism’s answer number 22:

Christ, the Son of God, became man, by taking to himself a true body and a reasonable soul, being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost in the womb of the virgin Mary, and born of her, yet without sin.

Nothing in this answer is oddly Reformed, whether of the New or Old Life variety. It is an affirmation confessed by the church worldwide. And yet it is from an unbeliever’s perspective about as reputable a description of reality as the opening chapters of the Book of Mormon.

Why then would evangelical historian, Randall Stephens, and his co-author, Karl W. Giberson, single out Ken Ham (never heard of him), David Barton, and James Dobson for their “dangerous” anti-intellectualism? In a moldy New York Times op-ed column, then wrote (based on their new book, The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age):

THE Republican presidential field has become a showcase of evangelical anti-intellectualism. Herman Cain, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann deny that climate change is real and caused by humans. Mr. Perry and Mrs. Bachmann dismiss evolution as an unproven theory. The two candidates who espouse the greatest support for science, Mitt Romney and Jon M. Huntsman Jr., happen to be Mormons, a faith regarded with mistrust by many Christians.

The second word of the column might be an indication of the authors’ agenda and the Times‘ editors’ willingness to further it. The Republican field is not a great one and I too wish that evangelicals had not bet the parachurch ministry parking lot on one party. But are Republicans the only ones with goofy ideas? Has it occurred to these authors that Democrats like Barney Frank keeping watch over the federal agencies responsible for mortgage lending did far more damage to the country than David Barton’s notions about George Washington’s faith? And can we really single out the pastors of Republicans without mentioning the likes of Jeremiah Wright?

But our president’s associations with a provocateur minister do not prevent the authors from complimenting the right kind of faith expressions in the United States:

Americans have always trusted in God, and even today atheism is little more than a quiet voice on the margins. Faith, working calmly in the lives of Americans from George Washington to Barack Obama, has motivated some of America’s finest moments. But when the faith of so many Americans becomes an occasion to embrace discredited, ridiculous and even dangerous ideas, we must not be afraid to speak out, even if it means criticizing fellow Christians.

In which case, the other reason for bringing Barton, Ham, and Dobson to light in this way is to show a simple point: I am not an evangelical of the kind that these evangelicals are. Well, if that is the case, then why don’t we get rid of the word evangelical altogether? Sorry to be repetitious, but wouldn’t being Christian be a whole lot easier if you were not always lumped in with every other Protestant not in the National Council of Churches? Since Stephens and Giberson both have taught at Eastern Nazarene College, they might have made the useful point that they are Nazarenes, explained what these kind of Wesleyans believe, and faulted Barton, Ham, and Dobson for not being true to Nazarene teaching. But I don’t suspect the editors of the Times would have printed that. I’m betting Christianity Today wouldn’t either.

Some religious historians have wondered aloud about the propriety of these evangelical scholars turning on their own before the watching secular world. Baylor University historian, Thomas Kidd, objects that Stephens and Giberson have misrepresented academic evangelicals (who has supposedly integrated secular points of view into their w—- v—):

The editorial’s list of topics on which evangelicals have supposedly “rejected reason” is long and eclectic: evolution, homosexuality, religion and the Founding, and spanking children. On all these topics, evangelicals have not accepted the dominant academic position on the subject, and thus, the New York Times piece implies, have rejected reason. Surely many evangelicals would be open to a reasoned discussion on some or all of these topics, but they would need to feel that Stephens and Giberson appreciate that conservative Christians have logical justifications for believing what they do. Aren’t there serious reasons to believe in a literal reading of the “six days” of Genesis 1, or the historic teachings of most major religions on human sexuality, or even that the Bible’s mandates to spank your children (Proverbs 13:24 etc.) remain in effect?

John Fea from Messiah College agrees with Kidd:

Is The New York Times the best place for evangelicals to decry evangelical anti-intellectualism? Indeed, anti-intellectualism is a problem in the evangelical community. But I wonder, to quote Kidd, if the New York Times op-ed page is “the most promising way to start addressing that failuire?”

To be completely honest, I also wonder if a book published by Harvard University Press is going to have any impact on rank and file evangelicals. It seems to me that two kinds of people will read The Anointed: 1). Non-evangelicals who want ammunition to bash evangelical intellectual backwardness and 2). Evangelical intellectuals who already agree with Giberson and Stephens. I wonder if ordinary evangelicals–the folks who actually listen to Barton and Ham and Dobson–will read the book or even know that the book exists.

In the end, I agree with Kidd. The anti-intellectual problem in American evangelicalism needs to be addressed in our churches. It is going to require evangelical thinkers to engage congregations in a more purposeful way and give some serious thought to how their vocations as scholars might serve the church.

Meanwhile, University of Colorado historian, Paul Harvey surveys the evangelical backlash against the op-ed and takes it all lightheartedly:

My co-blogmeister and most excellent historian Randall Stephens and his co-author Karl Giberson have recently been called (among other things), wolves in sheep’s clothing, dangerous menaces to evangelicalism, and, best of all, unethical attack-dog researchers and writers — the later from famed ethicist Charles Colson, in a matchless self-parody of old-time fundamentalist fury. As John Turner noted here recently, after Randall and Karl’s book The Anointed, some have felt there is no hope left for America. (It bears mentioning that most of the above noted did not actually read the book but scanned, and that inaccurately, Randall and Karl’s New York Times editorial). As a writer for the always thoughtful and temperate National Review opined, “once left-wing values enter the evangelical bloodstream, there is almost no hope for America.”

You might have noticed that some of these initial reactions are an eensy-weensy bit overwrought.

And all along no one seems to notice that what Christians believe about the Trinity, Christ, salvation, human beings, sin, and the sacraments are from a secular perspective just as crazy as spanking children or an earth that began on November 1, 4004 BC. I wonder if the solution here is for religious historians to teach more about the faith than about faith’s implications for practical living (like politics and the environment), more about what Christians profess and less about how they vote. If that happened, then Christians and non-Christians might understand better how different Christianity is from a modern w— v— and in turn believers might try to preserve their uniqueness rather than trying to make everyone else — from politicians to newspaper editors — like them.

Bottom line: if Christianity truly were odd, and Christians were abnormal, we wouldn’t have to worry about evangelical Republicans running the country.