Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Molly Worthen's "Apostles of Reason"

Molly Worthen is Assistant Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is the author of The Man on Whom Nothing Was Lost: The Grand Strategy of Charles Hill and is a regular contributor to the New York Times, Slate, Christianity Today, and other publications.

Worthen applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism, and reported the following:
The pressures on faculty and administrators are mounting. Money is tighter than ever. Students won’t enroll without a guarantee of a good job after they graduate. Peer institutions are jostling for applicants and funding, even if it means embracing “innovation” and “creative disruption” with only a vague notion of what these changes might bring.

I’m talking about fundamentalist Bible schools, circa 1947.

The Page 99 test lands on the opening of Chapter 5, “The Marks of Campus Conversion,” and plunges us into this world. Most outsiders think of fundamentalism as an isolated subculture, a Christian fortress secure against the sins of the world. Don’t Bible colleges exist to protect young Christians from the predations of modernity? Don’t they reject innovation in favor of old-time religion? After spending the past couple of years exploring the archives of these institutions, I learned that these stereotypes could not be more wrong: fundamentalists and evangelicals are no strangers to the pressure to change in response to the marketplace, and their relationship to secular learning is complicated, to say the least.

On page 99 we meet Sam Sutherland, president of Biola College, a bastion of fundamentalism outside Los Angeles. He criticizes more liberal-minded Christians who confuse “their egghead enterprises with Bible-based revival.” Yet Sutherland himself was hardly an academic slouch—he arrived at Biola with degrees from Occidental College and Princeton Theological Seminary. In 1948 he complained that the world had gone, “I would dare to say, educationally berserk.” But only two years later we find him crowing to colleagues about the fleet of new PhDs on his faculty. Sutherland’s ambivalence toward higher learning confirms the central argument of my book: conservative evangelicals are torn between sincere respect for human reason and academic achievement, on one hand—and on the other, their deference to a cripplingly narrow understanding of scripture that clashes with the spirit and conclusions of secular inquiry. They are caught between conflicting sources of intellectual authority. This crisis of authority is nothing new: it is as old as evangelicalism’s origins in the years after the Protestant Reformation.

But Sutherland’s savvy transformation of his college—once a fundamentalist Bible institute; today, a thriving Christian university—proves that if this crisis of authority is the scourge of the evangelical mind, it is also a kind of genius: a never-ending balancing act, a source of anxiety and energy that propels evangelicals to constantly revise their relationship to their own traditions and to mainstream culture.
Learn more about Apostles of Reason at the Oxford University Press website.

Writers Read: Molly Worthen.

--Marshal Zeringue