The evangelical world has no shortage of scandals. But are you ready for the real scandal? The real scandal of the evangelical mind?
Hi, my name is Terence and I’m your host for Reading and Readers, a podcast where I review Christian books for you. Today I review “The Real Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” by Carl Trueman. 48 pages, published in January 2011 by Moody Publishers. You can get the Amazon Kindle book for USD3.99 or you can get it for free from Faithlife. “The Real Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” is Faithlife’s Free Book of the Month.
In 1995, Mark Noll wrote “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” where he pointed to the lack of a mind in the evangelical. 16 years later, in 2011, Carl Trueman writes “The Real Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” where he points to the lack of an evangel, the good news, in the evangelical. 11 years later, in 2022, Michael Reeves writes, “The Real Real Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” where he points to the real scandal, which is the lack of integrity. Or at least that would be my title for Michael Reeves’ book but perhaps 27 years is too long to play on a book title. The actual title for Reeves’ book is “Gospel People: A Call for Evangelical Integrity”, which is a more respectable, less scandalous title.
So you see from these three books, after nearly 30 years, evangelicalism remains a problem. A problem in defining what it is. A problem in moving the movement and moving it in the right direction.
How do you solve a problem like evangelicalism? How do you catch a cloud and pin it down? How do you find a word that means evangelicalism. A flibbertijibbet! A Will-o-the-wisp! A clown!
Here comes Carl Trueman in his book with many a thing he’d like to tell evangelicals. Many a thing evangelicals ought to understand.
Carl Trueman is the Professor of Biblical and Religious Studies at Grove City College. He has written many books including the much acclaimed, “The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution”. I’ve read so many good reviews on this book that I have saved this book for a special occasion, much like you would save good wine. When I have a long-ish break and can enjoy this book without distractions, I’ll break it out and read it.
I first encountered Carl Trueman’s writing in First Things, which states in it’s website (www.firsthings.com) that it is America’s Most Influential Journal of Religion and Public Life. Trueman’s writing reminds me of G.K. Chesterton, his keen observation and playfulness in catching you off guard with the absurd. That might not be a fair comparison because:
- I don’t read enough G.K. Chesterton. I’ve only read one book by him.
- I don’t read enough Carl Trueman. Today’s book would be my first book or booklet, by him.
- Maybe I’m making a superficial comparison because they are both British and write in a British accent.
Let’s go to the book.
After the acknowledgement and introduction, there are three chapters, which are:
- Losing Our Religion
- Exclusion and the Evangelical Mind
- The Real Scandal of the Evangelical Mind
With a book as short as this, 48 pages, there is a real risk of giving away the whole book in a review. So for each chapter, I’ll try to restrain myself to only one insight. In doing so, I’ll show how a 11-year old book by a historian-theologian on a subject as amorphous as evangelicalism can explain what is wrong with people today and guide us on practical matters.
Losing Our Religion
In the first chapter, Trueman begins by listing David Bebbington’s definition of evangelicalism. Evangelicalism consists of four hallmarks, namely:
- A high regard for the Bible as the primary source of spiritual truth, and
- A focus on the atoning work of Christ on the cross, and
- A belief in the necessity of spiritual conversion, and
- The priority of publicly proclaiming and living out the gospel.
Trueman then proceeds to show how that definition is weak because it groups people that should not be grouped together. Imagine a United Nations Human Rights Council with members who are the vilest violators of human rights. That would just be silly. In the same way when the composition of the group is so mixed, it questions the cohesiveness of the label.
As you read the chapter, you get a sense of frustration because evangelicalism is supposed to be a clarifying force of good. Instead it’s become this mess of a definition and is neither clarifying nor good.
I’m over-indulging at this point but the song from the Sound of Music describes the amorphous nature of evangelicalism:
How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand? When I’m with her I’m confused Out of focus and bemused And I never know exactly where I am Unpredictable as weather She’s as flighty as a feather She’s a darling! She’s a demon! She’s a lamb! She’d outpester any pest Drive a hornet from its nest She could throw a whirling dervish out of whirl She is gentle! She is wild! She’s a riddle! She’s a child! She’s a headache! She’s an angel! She’s Evangelicalism!
In the movie “The Sound of Music”, Maria is an out of place nun. She is a singing nun that doesn’t belong in this convent with the other singing nuns. By the end of the movie, she discovers where she belongs.
Belonging is a two-sided coin. To know where you belong is to know where you don’t belong. There is a boundary between those two states.
And that is where Trueman leads to. Trueman argues that for evangelicalism to rise and triumph (eventually, maybe, hopefully), it needs to know where it belongs and where it doesn’t belong, what is the boundary.
Admittedly, there are good historical reasons for the wider cultural fear of boundaries. The exclusion of Jews in Germany, segregation in the American South, and apartheid in South Africa all led to great evil. Exclusion has often been based on bigotry and used as a means of control, manipulation, and worse. Seen in this light, an ill-defined evangelicalism is in tune with the cultural moment, more kind and gentle and tasteful than an exclusive movement.
However, the cultural distaste for boundaries is also connected to the cultural distaste for truth claims. Such claims necessarily exclude, and in a world where the “it just feels right to me” mentality of the Oprah Winfrey Show is more acceptable than the authoritative “Thus says the Lord!” of Old Testament prophets, affinities between the cultural mind-set and the nebulous doctrine of much of evangelicalism are clear.
He later argues:
From the time of Paul, the church has drawn boundaries. Such has been considered necessary for her well-being and even her survival. A movement that cannot or will not draw boundaries, or that allows the modern cultural fear of exclusion to set its theological agenda, is doomed to lose its doctrinal identity. Once it does, it will drift from whatever moorings it may have had in historic Christianity.
It seems to me that the definition problem is like sorting laundry. You have a pile of laundry and if you ask someone to sort it, he might sort it by size, by gender, by colour, or by any other category. But perhaps the most important category is ownership. Which of the clothes belongs to the person. And to know that, you have to know the owner. You have to hang around the owner long enough to know whether he wears hole-y jeans, or turtlenecks, or pink scarves. That is his, that is not his.
Evangelicalism ultimately (or should I say ideally?) belongs to Jesus. He is the owner.
Clothes’ size is a match to the person, you can wish that that pair of jeans can fit you, but wishing doesn’t make it so. In the same way, a church’s doctrine or teaching needs to match to Jesus. You can try to tailor a looser or tighter teaching to fit on Jesus, but wishing doesn’t make it so. If it doesn’t fit, it doesn’t fit. The solution then is to know Jesus and thus determine which churches belong to him.
Exclusion and the Evangelical Mind
In the opening pages of chapter two, Trueman reveals the scandal of the social climbing evangelical academic who, I quote, “who never misses a chance to trash anybody who happens to stand just to his right theologically” and later Trueman continues, who “always finds something of value in, and even fawns over, those to his left.”
A short diversion. I’m reading another book which is based on an honour and shame culture. And with these two books in my mind, I was just startled to see honour and shame in evangelical academia. Maybe it’s obvious to you but I always thought that honour and shame cultures best describes Asian or Middle Eastern cultures, Japanese harakiri or Pakistani honour killings. If used to described the West, you would have to look back in history to Roman-Greco cultures or medieval knights. Or perhaps limited to military subcultures.
However, after reading Trueman’s description of evangelical academia, the scales came off my eyes. “Hey, you professors are in an honour and shame culture. You see honour in belonging to the left and shame in belonging to the right.” Honour and shame by itself is not a bad thing but it is a powerful force. In one culture, it compels fathers to kill their own daughters. Perhaps it is also compelling academics to kill their own beliefs.
That is just a diversion that comes from mixing two thoughts together. Trueman’s main theme for chapter two is on the interplay between evangelicalism and culture.
When you survey the landscape of evangelicalism, do you despair? Have you wondered why evangelical churches are renouncing or reconstructing or rebranding their faith to embrace what the Bible says is wrong.
In this chapter, Trueman takes the example of homosexuality and tells us, no, remember Trueman wrote this 11 years ago, he predicts how evangelicals would surrender to the growing pressure to embrace homosexuality.
Predictably, there will be no evangelical consensus on homosexuality because ethical consideration of it rests upon theological categories of biblical authority, creation, fall, Christology, redemption, and consummation—and there is no evangelical consensus in any of these areas. With evangelicalism no longer defined by doctrinal commitments, there can and will be no evangelical consensus on homosexuality. Marry this theological vagary to a strong desire for a place at the cultural table, and greater acceptance of homosexuality among evangelicals is all but assured.
Now I’m sure that churches who accept homosexuality will insist they are biblical. I believe they rest their case mainly on God is love. Or at minimum, they may insist the Bible doesn’t speak clearly enough on the topic. It is a cultural taboo for the people at that time that is no longer valid for us today. Trueman imputes motive here. They do what they do because there is “a strong desire for a place at the cultural table”.
This is a big subject. Bigger than this book review or even this book. Trueman’s main point here is that evangelicals do not share an united view, there is no consensus, on social issues because there is no consensus on doctrinal statements.
My favourite part of the book is this, Trueman writes:
It is likely that the coming cultural storms will be best weathered by evangelical organizations and institutions with more precisely defined doctrinal statements, particularly statements that are close to, or identical with, historic creeds and confessions. The last one hundred years of evangelicalism has shown that minimal doctrinal bases do not provide real resistance to heterodoxy and the downgrading of doctrine. Of course, no creed can safeguard orthodoxy alone; fidelity and integrity on the part of leaders and gatekeepers are also required. But without a strong and complete doctrinal confession, gatekeeping becomes nearly impossible, even for well-intentioned and faithful leaders.
At this point of my church life, I am reviewing the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 and understanding what it means for the church. Many newer churches or movements aim for minimal doctrinal statements because they don’t want doctrine to be a barrier to outreach. We don’t want a high barrier to entry. We want a low barrier. So make the doctrinal statement as easy to understand, as non-controversial as possible, but still being true to what we believe.
Those are not bad aims. We do want to make it easy, we don’t want it to be unnecessarily controversial and we want to make it true. Controversy is an outcome of the truth, controversy is not a goal to aim for. However, in addition to all that Trueman is right. We need a strong and complete doctrinal confession.
So it is with great sadness being so convicted of this need that I read the news. I’m reading this book in May 2022. The Church of Scotland, the church of the fiery John Knox, has just recently endorsed draft legislation to let clergy marry same-sex couples. If Albert Mohler is correct, and I heard this from his podcast, The Briefing, there was a study committee in the Church of Scotland and both proponents and opponents agree that the Bible has a negative view on homosexuality. If both proponents and opponents agree that the Bible says it’s a bad thing, then how do we explain what is happening in the Church of Scotland? I am sure there is an explanation but I’m not going to do a deep-dive. If anything, this just shows that our hope is not in doctrinal statements, or church history or heroes. Our hope is only in Jesus Christ. God have mercy on us all.
The Real Scandal of the Evangelical Mind
Compared to the first and second chapter, the third chapter is really short. This next part might be a spoiler, since I am going to quote the concluding paragraph to the chapter and thus the book. But if you have been listening intently thus far, much of what he says here is obvious.
Abandoning the myth of the evangelical movement can only help us, as it will free us to be who we truly are and to speak the gospel in all of its richness as we understand it. This is what our day and generation needs.
The real scandal of the evangelical mind currently is not that it lacks a mind, but that it lacks any agreed-upon evangel. Until we acknowledge that this is the case—until we can agree on what exactly it is that constitutes the evangel—all talk about evangelicalism as a real, coherent movement is likely to be little more than a chimera, or a trick with smoke and mirrors.
For me, the interesting part here is not him identifying the real scandal which is the lack of the evangel. By this point in the book, it’s clear where his thesis lies. The interesting part is him saying, we need to “abandon the myth of the evangelical movement”. Keep your finger on this phrase.
Remember early on I mentioned Michael Reeves’ book, “Gospel People”. I didn’t tell you then, but I’ll tell you now, in Carl Trueman’s acknowledgement page, he dedicates the booklet to two individuals. One is Todd Pruitt, his co-host in the Mortification of Spin podcast. The other is Michael Reeves.
Let me read an extract from the description for Gospel People by Michael Reeves.
Michael Reeves argues from a global, scriptural, and historical perspective that, while it’s not necessary to discard the label altogether, Christians must return to the root of the term―the evangel, or “gospel”―in order to understand what it truly means.
Trueman says, “Abandon the myth of the evangelical movement.”
Reeves says, “It’s not necessary to discard the label altogether.”
They are not contradicting each other.
I haven’t read Michael Reeves’ book. I am just pointing this book out because you may not know of the book and the connection between Carl Trueman and Michael Reeves. After reading the 48 page booklet by Trueman you might want to see what has changed or not changed after 11 years. You might want to see the points where Trueman and Reeves agree or disagree. In fact, I would love to see Trueman and Reeves interact on this issue, perhaps they have but Google or YouTube has not shown me any good results. Perhaps Elon Musk needs to buy them over.
Eternal Sunshine of the Evangelical Mind
Since I can’t find it, maybe this is an opportunity for a book concept. Let me pitch it to you.
The title of the book is “Eternal Sunshine of the Evangelical Mind”. We have three chapters. Mark Noll will write the first chapter. He describes the events leading to the break up within evangelicalism. Everyone just wants to forget the word evangelicalism. It’s too painful. It’s too heartbreaking.
In the second chapter, Carl Trueman will describe how book publishers, institutions and academics are lamenting at the loss of an easy-to-use group identifier but at the same time relishing at this entire new field of study dedicated to the death of evangelicalism. Trueman then notes how like a good funeral, the death of evangelicalism brings all these groups together again.
Then in the third chapter, Michael Reeves will describe how churches felt a keen sense of loss. Perhaps, they were too quick to wipe out that memory. There was something special in the movement and so evangelicals agree to get back together and give evangelicalism another jolly good try.
What do you think? Does it sound great? Does that describe, predict, what will happen in the next ten years? Or put it another way, don’t you want to see Mark Noll, Carl Trueman and Michael Reeves talk about the scandal of the evangelical mind?
In conclusion, if you are not familiar with evangelicalism, this 48 page booklet by Carl Trueman is a good primer. And as I hope to show you through my reflections, even if you are not so invested in evangelicalism, I’m not, you can’t escape from the the phenomenon. It comes out through the books we read and the politics and wider societal issues we see around us. The trick is having seen evangelicalism in the world around us and understanding how it came to be, we now navigate through this foggy landscape because we know that our hope in life and death is that we are not our own but belong to God.
This is a Reading and Readers review of “The Real Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” by Carl Trueman. 48 pages, published by Moody Publishers in 2011. It’s available for USD3.99 in Amazon Kindle or free(!) from Faithlife’s Free Book of the Month.
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