I remember very clearly the first time I read Mark Noll's The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind in 1994. It was a powerful and astonishing book, decrying the deep-seated anti-intellectualism among conservative Christians. It kind of floored me, for lots of reasons, some having to do with my own scholarly interests and some having to do with Noll's virtuoso command of evangelical history.
Last week I was part of a conference considering this same question, fifteen years later — and I can report that the most recent news is definitely mixed. Without question, evangelicals have made progress in graduating Ph.Ds and M.B.A.'s and M.D.s. My own field, American religious history, has been transformed by historians like Noll, George Marsden, and Nathan Hatch. But the larger evangelical public doesn't read their books — the most popular historical expert among conservative Christians is David Barton, former co-chair of the Texas Republican Party and a best-selling author of books about the faith of the founding fathers (deists mostly) and overblown paeans about the spiritual destiny of the United States.
Evangelicals may buy a lot more books than other Protestants, but my guess is that they don't have any kind of a corner on the anti-intellectual problem. The people who put this Library together understood that their Christian faith required a lot of careful thinking, reading, and learning. It wasn't just about personal growth or emotional enrichment — it was about the life of the mind as well.
It's discouraging sometimes, to see how little demand there is for thinking in the religious world, how little interest in books and ideas that take time to absorb. People often seem too busy loading their guns for the next encounter with a liberal or a conservative or an atheist.
Last week a woman came into the Library and she said she wanted to learn more about the Puritans — apparently John Cotton was one of her ancestors. It's hard to suggest just one book about the Puritans, and most of the ones I know are pretty dense material. So I suggested a book I read in college, Edmund Morgan's The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop, written way back in 1958.
I kind of didn't expect that she'd really read it — most people want something quick and dirty (so to speak). But next I saw, the woman was sitting in the Library reading. She stayed there for a long time, and then she came back the next day. And the next!
The best part of the day was walking through the Reading Room and seeing her still sitting there, reading away. It was a great reminder of why we are still here.