“The first time you read The Republic or Don Quixote or Hamlet or Bleak House, it is like the first time you hear the B Minor Mass! With any luck, the heavens will open and you will, for a moment, know what it is it have a life of the mind.”
~ “Defense of the Tradition” (email quoted in Macedo, 2006: 62)
“By an evangelical ‘life of the mind’ I mean more the effort to think like a Christian […] Failure to exercise the mind for Christ […] is the scandal of the evangelical mind.”
~ Mark Noll (1994: 7)
Whoever smelt it dealt it!
Whoever denied it supplied it!
~ some kids (1998)
The Scandal of the “Life of the Mind”
Evangelicals have been calling doorknob on each other at least since 1994, when Mark Noll sniffed out the scent of an anti-intellectual Christian Right in his book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. In an honest reflection of the difficulties of being an academic in Evangelicalism, Noll decries the failure of the American church to cultivate a “life of the mind.” While you’d think I would appreciate any and all thoughts that unmask irresponsible thinking of Christians, I cannot help but see another scandal in this “Life of the Mind”– a life Noll and other Christian intellectuals seem to value so much that it often goes unquestioned. I agree completely with the argument that “fidelity to Jesus Christ demands from evangelicals a more responsible intellectual existence than we have practiced throughout much of our history” (p. 27); I just find attempts to compensate for this irresponsibility by embracing the Western Classical tradition to be dangerously narrow, causing more damage to the church than any anti-intellectual ever could.
I don’t blame Noll so much as I blame the responses that seek to compensate for decades of anti-intellectualism. My issue is that by blurring whatever Noll meant by “life of the mind” with the “mind of Christ,” Evangelicals striving to be “intellectual” have often put our eggs in the wrong basket. In our intellectual insecurity, many of us have irresponsibly (as par for the course) pilfered our “life of the mind” from the closest model we could find: the Western European Tradition. You know, “The Classics” or the “Great Works” — the faded elbow-pads on the tweed jacket of the beloved gray-haired, pipe-smoking White grandfather quoting Homer in its original Greek. It is too often this picture that gets held up as the antidote for our Evangelical anti-intellectualism.
The Classical curriculum takes Matthew Arnold’s (1822-1888) opinion for granted, that the Western Tradition is unequivocally “the best of what has been thought and said.” Textbooks training students in this “life of the mind” often begin with an Enlightenment interpretation of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, who imagined a utopian society being ruled by “philosopher kings.” Such a tradition privileges “the mind,” the intellect, and reason over other human faculties like affection, enthusiasm, intuition, and culture. Reason takes on a universal, absolutist character and is assumed to be universally identitical across cultures, contexts, races and genders. This perspective has faced some of its sharpest criticism from the multiculturalists.
The scandal of this “life of the mind,” according to multiculturalist Donaldo Macedo (2006), is the failure to recognize “how the traditional approach to education has primarily served the interests of the elite classes, mostly White males” (p. 63). By emphasizing the Classical Canon “as the only vehicle that enables one to search for the ‘Good and True’” the Classical tradition of the “life of the mind” –far from enlightening a darkened world– actually perpetuates an “elitist, antidemocratic, and discriminatory” society (ibid.). Scandalous or not, it’s a curious coincidence that I have yet to find any Classical Christian curriculum that includes important African American authors like Toni Morrison, Chinua Achebe, W.E.B. Du Bois, or James Baldwin. And the fact that they will always include Uncle Tom’s Cabin (and sometimes, if we’re lucky, Booker T. Washington) is probably not going to satisfy Macedo’s concerns.
Anti-Intellectual Farts Just Stink: Intellectual Farts are Deadly
Do you remember SBDs? The Ole’ Silent-But-Deadlies? Instead of just smelling really bad, like Evangelical anti-intellectualism, Macedo’s charge is that the injustices of the Classical canon are silent and literally deadly. While the scandal of the Classics is one thing, we would hope that the “Mind of Christ” variable in Classical Christian education would more than mitigate the problem. Unfortunately however, Classical Christianity cranks the conflict up a notch: instead of cultivating an attention for the needs of “the least of these” (as one might expect the “mind of Christ” to do) the Classical Christian curriculum faces charges of being mostly silent on issues of racial, class, and gendered injustices– silent, that is, until certain prejudiced sentiments seep inadvertently into the air.
Of course, whether or not you find Macedo’s interpretation of the Classical tradition as “elitist, antidemocratic, and discriminatory” to be “scandalous” depends largely on your perspective. Rousas John Rushdoony (1916-2001)– arguably the most important advocate for Evangelicals’ involvement in the homeschooling movement– might even be proud to be a part of this scandal. Rushdoony, in major opposition to both public and progressive education, argued that “Christianity is completely and radically anti-democratic, [. . .] committed to spiritual aristocracy,” and that only “the right have rights” (FitzGerald, 2017: 340-341). Homeschooling and private Christian education would afford his followers (and those unknowingly influenced by them) the freedom to cultivate such an “aristocracy” in their children.
While few Christian educational institutions that I know of directly claim Rushdoony’s educational philosophy as their own, one wonders if his separatist aristocracy isn’t at least somewhere “in the air” (here is one essay celebrating Rushdoony’s influence on Christian education). Any stake-holder in private Christian or home-schooled education would do well to search their curricula for the silent rumbles of Rushdoony. His scent is all over the place.
Calling Doorknob on this Christian Life of the Mind business
In a strange mix of scents (much to the chagrin of one Rushdoonyite), supporters of both Classical Christian curricula and a resistance to state-sponsored education have joined forces to form what looks like a spiritual, intellectual, and moral aristocracy (see how Douglas Wilson pulls off being both a Classical Christian Ed supporter and Rushdoonyite). This could be a problem, especially if you care about social issues and find the Gospel to be meaningful beyond a “life of the mind.”
Along with omissions of Toni Morrison and W.E.B. Du Bois, you can be sure you also will never find James Cone in either Classical Christian School book lists or the Rushdoony libraries.
James Cone (1997) pulls no punches in accusing any “spiritual aristocracy” of blasphemous heresy:
“It is difficult not to conclude that [the] theologies [of the advantaged class] are in fact a bourgeois exercise in intellectual masturbation” (p. 43).
And just a page earlier he reminds readers that
“For black and red peoples of North America, the spirit of the Enlightenment was socially and politically demonic, becoming a pseudo-intellectual basis for their enslavement or extermination” (p. 43).
Cone has no patience for a Western European “life of the mind.” What good is such a life if it perpetually ignores the voices of the oppressed in our midst? What “Justice” or “Beauty” is accomplished by privileging Homer, Dante, and the Latin language, if it also means silencing the minds, voices, and lives of the most vulnerable in our history?
As rusty as I am at the juvenile game of fart-blaming, I’m gonna go ahead and call doorknob on the scandalous intellectualism of the Christian “Life of the Mind.” It reeks of a superiority complex of marginalization and oppression, and I just can’t hold my breath anymore. And it’s true, I “smelt” it because, as one recovering from a bad case Christian Intelligentsia, I’ve “dealt” a lot of it.
But calling doorknob is not the end of game: I’m not married to critiques against a Classical Christian Curriculum. There is always the doorknob– in this case it would involve expanding the curriculum to include as many perspectives as possible. When assigning Joseph Conrad, always include Chinua Achebe; if you’re going to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, at least also address the questions raised by Richard Wright in Uncle Tom’s Children; and when reading Huck Finn, know that Toni Morrison’s introduction may be even better than the novel; If you are going to discuss the Native Americans, at least think about Sherman Alexie’s “Indian Education.”
If we can agree to expand the definition of the “Good” the “True” and the “Beautiful” beyond a White, Euro-centric “single story,” I’ll gladly drop the charges. If I were to learn that the Classical Christian model already covers this ground, I’ll be more than happy to admit that I got it wrong– in which case I should probably call “safety!”