Your Mind Matters 1: Mindless Christianity

Your Mind Matters

Your Mind Matters

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):

  1. “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.”
  2. “Radical Christians,” who focus on “social and political action” without concern for doctrine.
  3. “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:

  1. 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”).
  2. 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.
  3. 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?

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Micheal Hickerson

The former Associate Director for the Emerging Scholars Network, Micheal lives in Cincinnati with his wife and three children and works as a web manager for a national storage and organization company. He writes about work, vocation, and finding meaning in what you do at No Small Actors.

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    M. Hron commented on June 9, 2009 Reply

    For me, the most arresting passage in these two chapters was “every thought is our prisoner,
    captured to be brought into obedience to
    Christ” (2 Cor 10:5 JB)

    As an academic, it is perhaps somewhat easier for me to claim to be “intellectual” than some other folks, as I work with ideas all day… Or to differentiate myself from folks who fall into Stott’s 3 categories of ritual, service or feelings. (I don’t really agree with his 3 “denominational” categories; rather I think there are members in all denominations that prioritize each of these aspects).

    I don’t really think we’re more or less intellectual as Christians today than we ever were before…I think intellectualism has a lot to do with literacy and education. And frankly the majority of folks today are more literate and educated than previous generations (especially if we think in global, non Western-centric terms)… That being said, as an educator, I also know that education is becoming increasingly watered-down; that mediocrity is the currency of the day, as is relativization. Effort seems to be more important than excellence;
    feelings than seem to be more valued than knowledge, and identity often to trump rigorous scholarship.

    As I reflected on the above verse, I think it is imporant to think about the types of intellectualism that are occuring today, and how they are/are not “captured to be brought into obedience to

    Here are some forms of intellectualism that are occuring today that I believe to be particularly problematic.

    1)”Christian vs. Christian” — too much intellectualism today is focused on justifying one denomination vs. another. Or one world-view vs. another.

    2) “Close-minded intellectualism” — too much intellectualism today is focused on defining and justifying a specific theological point , that again, serves to differentiate, exclude or hierarchize one’s self vs. others.

    3)”Narrow/Obscurantist intellectualism” — Some theological intellectualism revels too much on obscurantism, jargon, details etc… Such intellectualism focuses on very narrow topics, much too specifically, comparing critic vs. critic, so narrowly this intellectualism forgets or dismisses the big picture, or application to real life.

    4)”Christian Identification pseudo-intellectualism”: The author of said text is Christian, and broadly alludes to Christian values , so that her POV counts as some form of Christian intellectualism or worse, as gospel truth. (eg. Kate Gosselin)

    As I like to remind my students, the word intellectual comes from the Latin “to read between the lines” — in other words, to read in subtle, nuanced, imaginative ways, obliquely and, above all, critically (meaning discerningly).
    Notably, Christ usually spoke not in complex theological doctrine, but in parables, that had to be decoded, interpreted. And depending on the context, these interpretations can vary.
    Indeed, Christ did criticize others, however, it was not usually for their specific theological perspective. Rather he condemned their behaviour and especially, their hypocrisy — specifically, for not relating their legalistic intellectualism to everyday life in action and praxis.

    Alas some supposed Christian intellectuals — be it writers or readers — are just not very critical (discerning), curious, open to interpretation or ready to delve into the mystery, complexity or difficulty of things — but rather take the easy, narrow, biased or legalistic way out.

    • Brian Lane commented on June 9, 2009 Reply

      “3)”Narrow/Obscurantist intellectualism” — Some theological intellectualism revels too much on obscurantism, jargon, details etc… Such intellectualism focuses on very narrow topics, much too specifically, comparing critic vs. critic, so narrowly this intellectualism forgets or dismisses the big picture, or application to real life.”

      I certainly agree with this point. I think there has been an increase in the church’s intellectual pursuit of theology, but it seems to be “stalled” with the details, as you describe. It seems like there are many Christians who are more concerned with making the internal details of their doctrine more explicit and more refined, while ignoring the need to carry out their doctrine to its logical conclusions. Thus, for example, we have Christian leaders who seem more concerned with things like superlapsarianism than with feeding the hungry.

      My own denomination (the EFCA) is undergoing a revision of its belief statement, and I’ve been very glad to see that the revised version has much less jargon and technical language than the previous version. This also makes for a longer belief statement, but I’ve found this to be a good thing in that it better specifies what it means instead of wrapping everything in technical labels.

        Micheal Hickerson commented on June 11, 2009 Reply

        Excellent point about jargon, Brian. Stott makes the point that a major part of the anti-intellectualism of his so-called “radical Christians” comes from despair over reaching theological agreements.

        …historically speaking, this new preoccupation [with social and political activism] owes much of its impetus to the widespread despair of ever reaching doctrinal agreement. Ecumenical activism thrives on the rebound from the task of theological formulation, a task which cannot be avoided if the world’s churches are ever to be reformed and renewed, let alone united. (16)

        One of the hardest parts of ecumenical dialogue is moving past theological jargon. Each Christian tradition has built up its own shorthand vocabulary (e.g. Calvinism’s TULIP, my own Restoration Movement’s “two things inwardly, two things outwardly” formula for conversion), and it can take some pretty hard thinking to discern agreement or disagreement.

        Two trends encourage me in this area. The first is the growth of interest in the first 1,900 years of Christian history, especially pre-Reformation Christianity and Orthodox Christianity, which has long been neglected by most Protestants. The work of people like Jaroslav Pelikan, Philip Jenkins, Robert Webber, Richard Foster & Adele Calhoun in the areas of historical Christian practices, IVP’s Ancient Christian Commentary series, and many more, have been key here. The second is the growth in “global Christianity” and the awareness of U.S. Christians of thriving Christian movements across the world. (Scot McKnight has just begun a conversation about Mark Noll’s new book on world Christianity.)

        Both of these interests – in the past and in the world – require us to think cross-culturally and set aside the neat theological categories we have gotten used to. M. Hron’s definition of “intellectual” as “to read in subtle, nuanced, imaginative ways, obliquely and, above all, critically (meaning discerningly)” and true engagement with Christian thought from other cultures (past and present) feed off of one another in a “chicken and egg” kind of process.

        At the same time, Stott warns against a dry intellectualism like the kind you describe, that dwells on narrow doctrines at the expense of love and service.

        Heaven forbid that knowledge without zeal should replace zeal without knowledge! (12)

        I am not pleading for a dry, humorless, academic Christianity, but a warm devotion set on fire by truth. (18)

        I think encounters with Christians from other cultures (again, past and present) also guards us against the scholasticism that Stott warns about.

    Peter V commented on June 9, 2009 Reply

    If I just look around at my own community, I don’t see much anti-intellectualism, but it’s easy to believe there’s a lot “out there”. I suspect that the answer to “is it getting better or worse?” is BOTH, depending where you look.

      John E. Christopher commented on July 12, 2009 Reply

      Peter, I agree that it depends on where you look to see anti-intellectualism.

      In some areas of academia, you may find too much intellectualism or “problematic” intellectualism as M. Horon put it. From my perspective outside of academia, I see intellectualism on the decline. The decline is evidenced in the level of scholarship found in many Christian publications, and a lack of Biblical familiarity among the laity with no experience with inductive Bible study. The result is Christian people needing to be spoon fed by the professional clergy because they do not know how to feed themselves from the Word. This is atrophy of the mind! In this respect, the Church currently reflects the culture of today.

      Stott’s point is that people who call themselves Christian need to avoid mindless faith. Developing a Christian mind requires discipline and exercise to know from a biblical perspective what we believe and why we believe it. How else can Biblical faith stand in the market place of ideas if we cannot present it or defend it?

  • Tom Grosh commented on June 9, 2009 Reply

    1. With regard to Noll’s assessment of current Christian anti-intellectualism in the United States, much Evangelical youth ministry and adult outreach ministry in our day seems to focus upon experience. The structures/environments which they have created (and inspired others to follow) push intellectual concerns to the edge. The largely experiential paradigm for ‘authentic’ faith has been developed in relationship to our culture and continues to develop in college/young adulthood … But experience is to be framed by an understanding of Reality shaped through the Word, lived in submission to the Father, wrestled with by the gift of our mind/reason (as individuals and parts of learning communities), and a proper accountability to/in the Body of Christ (one which extends through past, present, and future).

    2. As for Stott’s three groups of Christians, much cross-pollination has occurred in our era of study (mentioned by Mad), mass communication, travel, and search for ‘proper matches’ of faith/life. At times the growth in apologetics has increased an advocacy for positions (as referred to by Mad), but not necessarily an increase in ‘the mind of Christ.’ At other times it has been significant in inspiring, deepening, and sharing the Biblical story. Note: In an interview by Justin Taylor, Noll points out

    “In my view, there is and never has been Christian life that rises above culture. The differences in the Christian world are between varieties of inculturated Christianity, not between those that are more or less involved in their cultures. Studying the world history of Christianity helps avoid the real errors you mention because it also one to relativize one’s own culture relatively. That is, it shows that all of the things we do as Christians reflect some influence from the cultures in which we are situated, but it also shows that the various Christianities of the world (all defined in part by their particular cultures) share much in common. … I’ve also come to believe that, even with the tremendous diversity in Christian communities around the world, there is a deep reservoir of common elements (especially worshiping Christ, reading the Scriptures, being challenged for sin, being opened to grace) that relativizes our particular cultural relativity.” —

  • Brian Lane commented on June 11, 2009 Reply

    “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?”

    As a Christian in academia, I have something of a mixed reaction to the increased interest in apologetics.

    I am excited to see Christians take an increased interest in understanding and defending their faith as reasonable and not a blind leap into the unknown. I think the renewed interest in apologetics has led to much better dialogue with the world and has progressed the cause of the gospel.

    At the same time, though, I fear that this desire to present the Christian faith as reasonable has been accompanied by two features that are hurting the church’s intellectual progress.

    The first is an unwillingness to consider others’ beliefs/worldviews from their perspective. Essentially, an apologetics-equipped Christian says something like, “I now KNOW that Christianity is true and I can prove ANY other belief system wrong,” and has no desire to actually understand the beliefs/worldview of the person with whom he finds himself in conversation. I think this lack of sympathetic consideration hurts our witness (especially in the academy) and dishonors our call to treat others as we would like for them to treat us.

    I think a second unfortunate hurt is an overused process of beginning an inquest with the answer already fixed. As a physicist, I enter into study often not knowing what the answer is or should be; if I knew the answer, then my study would be more or less pointless. I think this is true of almost any reputable academic field of study. However, the renewed study of apologetics seemed to have instilled in some Christians the opposite approach, that is, to begin with the answer in mind and construct evidence and arguments to arrive at that answer. This difference is certainly necessary, in some sense, since we are given many answers in God’s word that good apologetics will seek to support. However, I fear that many Christians are applying this tactic to other fields of scholarship where we do not necessarily have definitive revealed answers, resulting in a sort of academic dogmatism; for example, saying that the universe HAS to be on the order of a few thousand years old and so all scientific data MUST be interpreted in such a way as to support that answer. I even wonder if this tactic of beginning with the answer in mind should always be applied to theological or biblical studies; after all, if God’s thoughts are above our thoughts, how will we ever hope to glimpse more of Him (and possibly be surprised by Him) if we always begin and end with what we already believe and know?

    Sergey commented on July 11, 2009 Reply

    I have some points which concerns me.

    Firstly, Scripture tells us that we are to depend on not just the mind, though I do agree that Christians do not seek intellectual approaches to their faith, but also the spirit. As it is written, love the Lord with all your heart, soul and mind.
    John Stott spoke about how Christians either become dogmatic or extremist in their faith by being too intellectual or have too much without any thought.
    I do agree that Christians have a tendency to be a little closed minded however, I do not agree that human culture defines the truth to God’s word.

    If you will, The Pharisees were intellectuals in the mosaic law. They were considered by Jesus closed minded and fools because they believed that the mosaic law could be interpreted for their own pleasure or will because they thought God allowed them to. Culturally, they interpreted scripture to acclimate to their culture however due to that many Jews suffered. I have a difficult absorbing the fact the scrpiture allows us to interpret it for own cultural reason. Andy Crouch put it well, as Christians we need to create a culture of Christ like people not world-like people. Jesus even told his apostles that the holy spirit would be used to guide or counsel them in the world. The Holy Spirit would develop a Christ like mind so we can, as Jesus said, “bear good fruits”. The fruits are the manifestations of our Christ like intellect. Genesis 1 tells that we are made in the image of God. therefore, when we interpret scripture it should be for the glory of the Lord not man. Our intellect reflects the image of God’s intellect.

    One might say that we are too closed minded if we do not line up with the world’s view of wisdom. However, scripture tells that we are not of this world, only a part. Christians are foreigners to the way of man thus our interpretation should not depend on human desire or reflection but of Jesus himself.

    We are to spread the gospel’s message with love. After 1 Corinthians talks about how love is the ultimate weapon. without love, prophecy, intellect, what have you is worthless.

    One of you mentioned that there are many perspectives to truth. Firstly, I would like someone to elaborate on that.

    Truth has many dimensions however those dimensions depends on the truth as truth depends on those dimensions. If one person’s interpretation does not line up with other perspectives then we have a faulty perspective.

    Moreover, Christ does not wish to exclude people and perhaps their perspective but he does not want you to bear the fruits of the vine as mentioned in John 15.

    Christians will be hated by many because our wisdom does not come from the world but of God. We need to be watchful of our interpretations so we know for sure it is reflecting God.

    I like how Stott put it, The question should not be if it is true but does it work? If it works then it is evidently the truth. We should not compromise truth or even our souls just to say we are “tolerant” of people’s beliefs. that is unwise and foolish.

    Christian commented on November 26, 2010 Reply

    Some professing Christians, well many, have began mere “ritualistic worship”, but true Christianity is mindless in a sense, we are free of our own thinking to adopt the mind of Christ. This is true wisdom greater than the mind of any mortal man, the mind of Christ which leads to worship in spirit and truth, not ritual.

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