One rap against evangelical Christians is that they're all heart and no head, strong on team spirit but weak when it comes to thinking about what spirit might actually be. Mark Noll, a history professor at Wheaton College, made that case in his 1994 book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Revisiting the issue a decade later in the conservative religious journal First Things (Oct. 2004), Noll finds that many of his criticisms still apply, but there are signs of change.
Among the lingering weaknesses, Noll writes, is that 'we produce and consume oceans of bathetic End Times literature while sponsoring only a trickle of serious geopolitical analysis.' In addition, the faith's 'disembodied ideals of spirituality' continue to prove barren for most novelists and poets. 'And far too many of us still make the intellectually suicidal mistake of thinking that promoting 'creation science' is the best way to resist naturalistic philosophies of science.'
As for gains, Noll lists a new interest in Roman Catholic thought and Christian philosophy in general. Some evangelical colleges are growing more open, he says, and there's a greater evangelical presence at the country's big universities. Less rigidity over the creation debate could deepen ties to science. Evangelicals are also writing more articles and books.
The trend is fragile and may be hard to sustain. The trick will be to keep learning from older traditions while avoiding their lapses into 'comatose spirituality,' Noll suggests: 'American evangelicals display many virtues and do many things well, but built-in barriers to careful and constructive thinking remain substantial.'