I have just finished reading the book ‘The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind’ by Mark Noll, Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College. And I thought I will give you a brief overview of it and also draw a parallel with the Indian Christian situation. I must confess at the outset that I do not claim to any exhaustive knowledge about the Indian Christian situation but have been a keen observer of it from my early teens. At the risk of being misunderstood and of raising hackles from certain quarters I venture. By Enoch Era.
Mark Noll has written a scathing attack on American Evangelicalism especially of the last 200 years. It is basically an indictment of how the Evangelicals failed to demonstrate a mature mind in the service of God in their engagement both with the academia, the corporate, and the political life in America. His main argument is that dispensationalism and fundamentalism were so popular in the American Evangelical landscape in the last two centuries that their contribution to the undermining of the intellectual life of the Christian cannot be ignored.
In his last chapter, he writes that the distinctives of American evangelicalism displaced the essentials of Christianity – activism displaced study and contemplation, biblicism displaced critical use of wisdom from other sources and conversionism displaced a life-long quest for spiritual development. He writes, “In the first instance, historical study or travel throughout North America and the rest of the world should help evangelicals realize that much of what is distinct about American evangelicalism is not essential to Christianity. To the extant that the distinctives of evangelicalism are subordinated to the essentials of Christianity, to that extant the chances are greater for the development of Christian intellectual life.
Evangelicals have been distinctive for activism, but essential to Christianity is an attitude of profound gratitude to God. Gratitude to God may indeed issue in activism, but it may also issue in other manifestations, like study or contemplation, that are less well known in North America.”
He goes on to list four ‘false disjunctions that their distinctives have historically encouraged’. He writes, “The cultivation of the mind for Christian reasons does not deny the appropriateness of activism, for example, but it does require activism to make room for study. Similarly, it is conversionism along with a consideration of lifelong spiritual development and trust in the Bible along with a critical use of wisdom from other sources (especially from the world that God made) that will lead to a better day. Modifying the evangelical tendency to Manichaeism may cost some of the single-minded enthusiasm of activism, but it would be worth it in order to be able to worship God with the mind.” The fourth disjunctive ‘intuitionism’, he says “… if evangelicals are ever to cultivate the mind, habits of intuitionism – or the rapid movement from first impressions to final conclusions – must be changed.”
While we may not agree with all that Noll says about the contributing factors, my concern and the reason for this review are two:
1. Indian Christianity atleast in the last 60 – 80 years has been influenced (fortunately or unfortunately) by American Christianity to such an extent that the traits Noll mentions in his book are very evident among us.
Biblicism is the irrational and out of context use/quoting of scripture in order to prove ones point without any regard to either the wisdom that God has incorporated into his created world or even the fact that it sometimes flies in the face of simple reason and intuitionism in interpreting scripture is a rampant practice among many teachers/preachers in our country. Quite often much of the preaching is based on private interpretations or personal impressions without any regard for the historical interpretative practices or how a particular passage of scripture was interpreted in history.
When it comes to activism, the present format in which most ministries operate encourages anything but activism. At the drop of the proverbial hat, we organise and conduct programmes so much so that the impression that it creates is that to be busy is to be dynamic to be contemplative is to be inert and lazy. Our penchant for organizing programmes led a well-known bible teacher to quip in jest – that our seminaries must have a new course called IMS – ‘Indian Ministry Services’ on the lines of IAS.
In our desire for success and fruitfulness in ministry we have stressed on conversions so much that we have almost antagonized the whole nation. For many the main agenda in ministry is to convert rather than to love and serve. It is true that genuine love is also concerned for the life transforming gospel to be preached but it also is true that loving people as God loved us leads people to Him. But the fact remains that the stress has moved away from ‘the greatest commandment’ to the ‘great commission’, which is again an American evangelical phenomenon. Besides, we have made conversion the end-all and the be-all of ministry such that lifelong spiritual development of the new believers is hardly a major concern. Discipleship and Christian growth are time consuming and don’t make for spectacular reports. Nor does it add to the success criteria we have set for ourselves – conversions. Such an attitude can be termed conversionism in the language of Mark Noll.
Our antipathy to scholarship and the engagement of the mind in the service of God are almost legendary the consequences of it are many –
· Today we do not have proper language to communicate the gospel with our contemporaries. What I mean is that we are so pietistic, spiritual and biblical in our use of language we do not know the language of the comm
on man nor can we engage meaningfully or sustain a proper discussion in the market place of ideas. We easily switch to the gospel talk, for we know no other nor have we been taught.
· The Christian contribution to culture in the country is practically nil. In fact we have systematically ignored culture. We do not have novels or poems or dramas or plays or even pop songs with Christian themes that can be used to communicate Christian truth. We do have our Christian/mission schools and hospitals but their impact on the Indian mind or the culture of the nation is negligible. We practiced separatism; so that the world does not get into us in the bargain we do not know how to get into the world with the gospel except to engage in periodic intrusive, incursions into our neighborhoods with our blaring often irritating megaphones in order to obey the great commission and/or to fill our churches and annual reports.
· When issues of national interests are involved there is hardly a Christian voice. We have not positioned ourselves nor have been taught the importance or the necessity of it.
2. The random mushrooming of churches and ministries across the country in the last 40-50 years, especially in South India is a disturbing trend. While on the positive side one can be glad that some ministry is going on, what is disturbing is that in many instances there is no accountability whatsoever neither doctrinal, nor financial nor even moral. In many cases there is a blatant violation of accepted Christian values.
3. There are groups/churches which are blatantly cultic in teaching and eclectic in working. In some cases the teaching/preaching is so deficient that it can hardly be called Christian. I have personally encountered a few of this kind in Andhra Pradesh. I have a feeling that if the trend continues we would reduce Christianity very soon to the status of folk religion. In fact the way it is practiced in some places there is already the danger. The historic Christian faith of our illustrious forebears is hardly seen or practiced. I wonder if some of these independent, fly-by night ministers and ministries are even aware of the fact that there is what is called historic Christian faith which one must follow at least in doctrine/theology. It is true that many of these independent workers are sincere but probably are also sincerely mistaken. They need to be helped.
Do I have a solution? I do not. I do not have an axe to grind against anyone nor have written with any rancour towards anyone. This is in no way an exhaustive analysis but a simple and immediate response to the book by Mark Noll. I felt I should atleast bring to your notice so that those who are more experienced and in positions of influence would take note and do what the Lord of the church and history leads you to. May He grant you the patience to listen to what has been said and the wisdom to do what must be done. May God help.
P.S.: For those of you who do not know me –I am involved in itinerant preaching and teaching ministry, based in Hyderabad. I also lead a small fellowship in Banjara Hills apart from training people in expository preaching. My interests include speaking on contemporary issues and combining apologetics with evangelism and expository preaching.