This week starts our first ESN Book Club. Over the next four weeks, Tom and I will be leading our discussion of John Stott’s classic, Your Mind Matters. If you don’t have a copy of the book, our introduction to the ESN Book Club includes several options where you can buy it. This week, we’ll be discussing the Mark Noll’s foreword and chapter one, “Mindless Christianity,” which are available as free PDF downloads from InterVarsity Press.
Here’s how this will work: Tom and I will alternate with a post about the book each Tuesday (Thursday and Friday will be other topics as usual). The key is that we want to discuss the book, not simply review it, so we’ll highlight key passages and raise questions about the chapter, with your thoughts eagerly desired. I’m the first to admit that it won’t be as fun as a face-to-face book club, but if you want to take your laptop to your local coffee shop and sit in a comfy chair while commenting, that might help recreate the effect.
[BTW, if you are hosting a physical ESN book discussion, let us know and we’ll be happy to spread the word.]
After the jump: Mark Noll’s Foreword and John Stott’s chapter on “mindless Christianity.”
Mark Noll’s Foreword
Mark Noll contributes a new foreword to this edition of Your Mind Matters. YMM was originally published in 1972, based on a lecture given by John Stott at an Inter-Varsity conference in the UK. Noll writes:
In the early twenty-first century, this biblically based message is every bit as relevant as it was a generation ago. If anything, the pressures against using the mind carefully, honestly and faithfully as an essential aspect of the Christian’s calling are stronger now than ever before. Most Christian communities, even those that once prided themselves on separation from the world, now participate eagerly in different forms of popular culture. The gains in that move have been to end the artificial segregation of the sacred from the secular and to give Christian values a chance at baptizing television, radio, cinema, contemporary music, the Internet and the iPod. The danger has been capitulation to the sentimentalism, the raw emotionalism, the reliance on cliché and the impatience with sustained reasoning that prevails so powerfully in the world of pop. (8-9, emphasis added)
Noll goes on to note that political partisanship among American Christians further erodes the life of the mind: “Among the first casualties in such political excess is careful use of the mind.”
Chapter 1: Mindless Christianity
Stott begins with an analysis of mindlessness among Christians, which he partly identifies as a culture-wide trend:
The spirit of anti-intellectualism is prevalent today. The modern world breed pragmatists, whose first question is not “Is it true?” but “Does it work?” Young people tend to be activists, dedicated supporters of a cause, through without always inquiring too closely either whether their cause is a good end to pursue or whether their action is the best means by which to pursue it. (14, emphasis added)
More specifically, Stott identifies three groups that express anti-intellectualism within Christianity (the terms are Stott’s):
- “Catholic Christians [who] have nearly always placed a strong emphasis on ritual and its proper performance” (15). Stott comments that the danger is not ritual itself, but ritualism, which becomes “a meaningless substitute for intelligent worship.”
- “Radical Christians,” who focus on “social and political action” without concern for doctrine.
- “Pentecostal Christians, many of whom make experience the major criterion of truth.” Stott quotes an unnamed Pentecostal leader as having said “what matters in the end is ‘not doctrine but experience.'”
Remembering that this book was written over 35 years ago, I’d nuance these categories slightly:
- Many Christians other than Catholics have become so concerned with doing things “in the right way” that they reduce worship to mere ritualism (even among Christian traditions that explicitly reject “ritual”).
- With regard to “social and political action,” Stott seems mainly to have left-leaning movements in mind, but I would point back to Noll’s comment about political partisanship that has grown among Christians on both the left and the right.
- Since 1972, Pentecostalism has been enormously influential within evangelical Christianity. So much so that many churches which hardly think of themselves as “Pentecostal” (indeed, may even preach against the movement) have largely adopted a Pentecostal or Pentecostal-lite style of worship and assumptions about spiritual experience.
I expected Stott to speak of these groups as causes of anti-intellectualism, but (no surprise here) he took a different tack:
These three emphases–of many Catholics on ritual, radicals on social action and Pentecostals on experience–are all to some extent symptoms of the same malady of anti-intellectualism. They are escape routes by which to avoid our God-given responsibility to use our mind Christianly. (17, emphasis added)
So, some questions for discussion, but feel free to contribute your own:
Do you agree with Noll’s assessment of current Christian anti-intellectualism? Do you feel like the intellectual climate for Christians is getting worse or getting better?
What do you think of Stott’s three groups of Christians? Are there trends or habits among Christians that you think could be added? Do you agree that these are “symptoms” (as opposed to causes) of anti-intellectualism? Do you agree with my comments on Stott’s categories?
From my perspective, there seems to have been an increased interest in apologetics among Christians over the last 10 years. Is this a counter-example to Noll’s and Stott’s arguments?
Note: For the next post in the series go to Your Mind Matters 2: Why Use Our Minds?