Category Archives: Anti-Intellectualism in the Church

On Teaching & Learning the Bible in the Classroom

Scot McKnight at Jesus Creed is directing us to check out a post by Fuller New Testament professor J. Daniel Kirk.  Dr. Kirk is writing to his upcoming students about the treacherous joys awaiting them in the classroom as they take on the task of learning the New Testament.  Studying Scripture in academic settings suffers a degree of ill-repute among many Christians today… and for some really good reasons.  But I like what appears to be Kirk’s approach.  Sadly, solid Bible teaching these days must include a lot of painful dismantling.  That dismantling could lead to cynicism and skepticism.  But if the pedagogical style is ultimately Christ-centered and pastoral, the dismantling can lead to a richer, fuller understanding of the Gospel and the saga of divine redemption that leaves us thirsting for more and more….

Ezra as a model for those who would teach Scripture

“…Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of YHWH, and to do it, and to teach his statues and rules in Israel” (Ezra 7:10). 

I want to teach the Bible.  I am moving to England in 3 weeks for further training to this end.  The venture is so costly in every way—emotionally, logistically, financially.  It is also a venture fraught with temptations.  So many young pastors and students, smitten with the beauty and wonder of God’s self-revelation in Scripture, have waded into academic waters in which certain currents pull with riptide force in a number of hazardous directions.  One of the most dangerous (mis)directions one could take would be down a course that abstracts the subject matter.  Post-Enlightenment theological/biblical study can come with the temptation to professionally distance oneself from the potent content of the lessons and lectures.  This casual (and often unconscious) aloofness has led to much of the anti-intellectualism so strong in American religious life.

Ezra provides us an alternative model.

With an enormous sigh of a national relief, the Persian king Artaxerxes permitted him to return to Jerusalem, its walls freshly rebuilt, its ghost-town status recently annulled.  Out of the dust and ash of Solomon’s revered Temple, a new one had been constructed.  In Ezra 7:7 we read that out of Babylon came “singers” who had had no songs to sing (Ps. 137), “gatekeepers” who had had no gates to keep, and “temple servants” who had had no holy temple to serve.  They followed behind Ezra, known by Artaxerxes as “the scribe of the Law of the God of heaven” (Ezra 7.12, 21).

What had he been up to during all those years of exile in Babylon?  We know he had been studying.  Studying hard.  In a foreign land, there were surely late nights and early mornings spent before whatever scrolls had survived Nebuchadnezzar’s flames.  Work both wearisome and toilsome… and charged with the emotional pain of loss and remorse.  The man was pouring over the words of the Law which Israel had discarded and had in turn been discarded (seemingly) as a people, forcibly ejected out of their land.  We have little access (in the canon) to Ezra’s exilic life before taking on leadership in Jerusalem.  But we know this:

“…Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of YHWH, and to do it, and to teach his statues and rules in Israel” (Ezra 7:10). 

So there had to have been years of painstaking work in those precious, old texts.

But let’s notice that Scripture provides an interesting verbal order in 7:10, an order to emulate for any of us who would presume to crack open our Bibles for the purpose of study and teaching.  The verbal order in 7:10 is study – do – teach.

Many of us want to communicate God’s word.  We want to feel the edge of that pulpit or lectern in hand.  Many of us like a mic positioned before our lips.  But before teaching the word of God come preliminary disciplines.

Study.  Every now and then someone will preface their message to a congregation with something like this: “I think I just need to throw out my notes.  I’m just going to follow the Spirit.”  The Spirit of God will indeed guide us at times to make alterations.  I have no qualms with that.  But we have to admit that there is a strong tendency in evangelical circles for us to assign a superior status to un-manuscripted messages, as if an extemporaneous thus-sayeth-the-Lord message is more “spiritual” than a message that has risen from unseen hours of painful, arduous study.  Relying on the Spirit at the moment of teaching/preaching has become for some of us a spiritualized excuse for sloth in prayerful study.  If the Spirit is leading at the extemporaneous moment, is He not also leading us in the secret place of early morning and late night study?  Before Ezra stood before the people to teach them at a monumental turning point of Israel’s history, he had set his heart to study.

Do.  But Ezra was not just an intellectual bookworm more suited for a library than the marketplace.  Before he presumed to teach the Law, he performed the Law.  Study, do… then teach.  The anti-intellectualism in the evangelical church, though misguided, has some really solid grounds.  So many young men and women have left the workforce or the family farm for the seminary, only to return with impressive, esoteric verbage on their lips with very little to demonstrate with their actions.  Study, yes.  Study late into the night.  Rush to the text before the sunlight creeps out of the east.  But then doPerform the Scriptures as you ready yourself to teach the Scriptures.

Teach.  The need for vibrant, grounded teachers is always so dire.  But if I go to some foreign land, placing myself in some sort of an academic exile experience, yet I fail to embody Ezra’s example, then my teaching will be of little service to the church.  Teach, yes.  But not without serious studying and serious doing.

“Doctrine”: a bad word or a good one?

“Doctrinal warmongering.”  That is a phrase I have been using here in the blog on occasion to describe the rather uncivil theological discourse taking place through social media.  When Christians see those claiming some theological competence clanging swords against others claiming similar competence, then the anti-intellectualism I have been writing about becomes an natural response.

I just began Kevin J. Vanhoozer’s The Drama of Doctrine.  Here is a quote from his introduction hefty with wisdom concerning the bad taste “doctrine” often leaves in our mouths:

“Sound doctrine—authoritative teaching—is vital for the life of the church, and hence for the life of the world.  This is hardly a truism; yet in many circles, doctrine is thought to be the problem.  On the one hand, it is divisive, an obstacle to love and unity; on the other hand, it all too often appears insipid and irrelevant, maintaining no vital contact with the complications and particulars of everyday life.  Unfortunately, there is more than a little truth to each of these charges.  The fault lies less with sound doctrine, however, than with its mishandling, and with a misunderstanding of its nature and purpose.  A false picture of doctrine has held us captive.  We begin, then, by setting the stage: sound doctrine is suffering from confusion about its nature, from disagreement concerning the locus of its authority, and above all from its captivity to a debilitating dichotomy between theory and practice.”  [1]

Dr. Vanhoozer, well said—you have my attention….

[1] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 3.

Anti-Intellectualism in the Church: Continuing the discussion from

Joel and I had been cranking out posts on a series called Social Media & Theological Discourse, but since Don Miller’s controversial blog post “Should the Church Be Led by Teachers and Scholars?,” I have found myself writing a number of posts on Anti-Intellectualism in the Church.  (Click here to see where I agree with Miller, here for where I disagree.) has been super nice to post an article I sent their way on anti-intellectualism (click on the image to read it).

Is Christianity Anti-Intellectual?

Let me say that I am not directly addressing Miller in the article.  The guy is a writing genius—one of my favorites—and in no way do I get the sense that he is anti-intellectual.  Is he anti-“intellectual elitism”?  Yes, I would think so.  And me, too.  But there did seem to be the scent of anti-intellectualism eking out of the comment streams from Miller’s post (at his blog and eventually at Relevant, where his piece reappeared).  I have a chapter on anti-intellectualism in my book on cynicism, and as a guy with plans to begin a PhD program in the Fall with lots of blue on my collar, I’ve really taken this issue to heart!

In Faith Without Illusions, I briefly explain the historical factors behind America’s curious heritage of religious anti-intellectualism.  This was the air I was breathing in college when I began to take my faith seriously.  With taking faith my seriously came not taking my homework seriously.  The poor grades I began making were viewed as badges of suffering due to my intense devotion to “community” (or, as some would call it, “hanging out”).  I was spending way too much time in prayer to stay awake in class, you know?

When I went to seminary, it was to qualify me for the grand next phase of spiritual awesomeness beyond the horizon, not to learn Greek.  But something happened to me.  I noticed “intercalation” in Mark.  I noticed those “syn-” words in Paul’s Greek.   I was grasped.  Suddenly, intellectual labors became integrated into my spiritual disciplines, only to discover that the biblical commands to do so had been there all along.

(Ironically, now that I feel called to serve the church in academic ministry, it is those poor grades from the undergraduate days that has dogged the process!)

The problem with intellectual pursuits, however, is that they can remain solely intellectual without translating into action and ethics.  This is not biblical intellectualism.  The Bible never divorces the work of the mind from the work of the hands.  Karl Barth writes,

“[Theological work] is not fit for anything unless it also, though in quite a special way, is provision for the poor and sick in the community.”

But this is followed with,

“The corresponding truth is that Christian ministry of this practical type would also not be possible without a minimum of serious theological work.” [1]

Most of our quibbles with one another as Christians seem to come from overreactions to oversimplifications.  Simultaneously clasping tightly to the multidimensional complexities of our faith is a necessary discipline we must vigorously seek to develop and apply.  The arduous labors of serving and thinking must go hand in hand for the Christian.

I will close with some words from Martin E. Marty in his introduction to Helmut Thielicke’s, A Little Exercise for Young Theologians.  Commenting on the enemies of theological work in America (this was in the early 1960’s), he writes about “the idolization of the ‘doer’ as opposed to the ‘thinker.'”

“The Big Time Operator or the Good Joe somehow builds more buildings, raises more budgets, preaches louder sermons than does the craftsman who pores over his Greek New Testament.  It is of little consequence to some that he [the Big Time Operator/Good Joe] contributes to a greater divorce between Christ and the meaning of life, between the faith and other verities.” [2]

Thinking and doing—they are as inseparable as the love of God and the love of neighbor.

[1] Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI, 1963), 185.

[2] Martin E. Marty, Introduction to Helmut Thielicke, A Little Exercise for Young Theologians (tr. Charles Taylor; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1962), xiii.

Responding to Donald Miller on Who Leads the Church (part 2): Where I agree…

“Should the Church Be Led by Teachers and Scholars?”  The question is Don Miller’s.  Much ado was made on the Internet over his recent claims that churches are essentially schools under the domain of ivory tower lecturers.  The comment stream is still going over at where his post reappeared.

For the most part, I (respectfully!) disagree with Miller’s observations (see my post here).  The claims are oversimplified.  And in many circles, the church is conspicuously led by celebrity personalities, not by stodgy academics.  If churches are schools led by teachers who just lecture us week by week as pupils, then Christianity is a shocking, educational fiasco with our widespread biblical illiteracy and our astonishing ignorance of our rich theological traditions.  If only we were more heedful of our teachers and scholars perhaps we would be less shallow.  If only we were more like schools, perhaps we would be enlivened by a more compelling theological vision of God.

But Miller is on to something.

Here are the claims he seems to be making with which I agree…

1] Theological Teaching must bear Ethical Fruit.  Miller is disturbed over the ease with which we talk about Christian truths while failing to live out their implications.  He wants an action plan, not just a syllabus.  He wants “doing” to accompany the “knowing.”  The particular academics I read call for nothing less than the same.  Pauline scholars talk about “the indicative” and “the imperative.”  The Apostle would devote space in his epistles for the soaring theological vision of who we are in Christ (indicative) but then he would devote space for describing how we are to live out that vision (imperative).  Miller wants to bind ethics (action) to our thinking.


2] Academic Debates Fracture the Church.  No denying that claim.  It is true. And doctrinal warmongering is abounding today (especially on comment streams).

I believe strongly that some hairs have to be split.  I believe that sound doctrine must be responsibly protected.  But I also believe that so many of our impassioned theological movements today are, sadly, overreactions to oversimplifications.  It is not that we should cease the academic debates.  It is that we should conduct our debates more responsibly.  For starters, perhaps we should resist ratcheting our theological systems so tightly.  Systematic theology may be falling on hard times at the moment when so many are rejoicing over its comeback, because the tighter you clamp down on your jots and tittles the more likely that the mysterious, uncontainable subject matter might puncture leaks in unsuspected places.  In the frantic attempt to keep everything in tidy order, we can become defensive jerks.

I am not sure if Miller has taut systematic theologies in mind, but he rightly bemoans unnecessary divisiveness caused by vicious academic fighting.

3] Churches Need to Be Led by Normal Folks.  Miller is miffed by the absence of bankers, landscapers, plumbers and nurses at the helm of local churches.  I grew up Baptist, so “congregational polity,” the “priesthood of the believer,” and “soul-competency” are in my ecclesial vocabulary.  Jesus’ choices of fishermen and a tax collector for disciples should certainly inspire the non-elites in the church, whether our collars are dyed blue or white.  I have dug many ditches (literally) with a graduate level theology degree.  I’ve worked for four lumber yards , two landscaping crews and two construction outfits while pursuing my own education.  One of my brightest mentors was a rough divorcee who lived out in a little boat docked on the edge of a nearby river.  Ambitious intellectuals have a lot to learn from folks like my river-dwelling friend.

(A word of caution, though.  Outside the church, no construction crew or accountant firm or plumbing company is led by novices.  Extensive training, even if that training has occurred in lecture rooms, must be duly respected and highly valued.)

Should the church be led by scholars?  Yes, I would say.  But with electricians and homemakers and nurses at their side.

Overall, I am disturbed by the anti-intellectualism on one extreme and the intellectual elitism on the other that Miller’s blog post has exposed.  We’ve a lot of work ahead of us.  And overreacting to others’ oversimplifying are not among them.

Donald Miller: “The Church in America is led by scholars”… or is it big name personalities? (part 1)

Donald Miller asks on his blog “Should the Church be led by Teachers and Scholars“?  He opens with these succinct observations:

The church in America is led by scholars. Essentially, the church is a robust school system created around a framework of lectures and discussions and study. We assume this is the way its supposed to be because this is all we have ever known. I think the scholars have done a good job, but they’ve also recreated the church in their own image. Churches are essentially schools. They look like schools with lecture halls, classrooms, cafeterias and each new church program is basically a teaching program.

But I think I could reword the paragraph this way and not be much further than Miller from the mark:

The church in America is led by Christian celebrities.  Essentially, the church is a robust entertainment industry created around a framework of conferences and concerts and events.  We assume this is the way it is supposed to be because this is all we have ever known.  I think the big personalities have done a good job, but they’ve also recreated the church in their own image.  Churches are essentially theaters.  They look like theaters with platforms, stages, drum pits and each church program is basically an entertainment program. 

I love Donald Miller’s work.  I am a huge fan of his writing.  And I like what he is trying to do in his writing.  But I think his claim that the church is led by scholars and his caricature of the church as a school are both overblown.

Oversimplifying that with which we disagree  is a standard method of critique.  The concise assertion, “the church is led by scholars” is a classic instance of oversimplification. The photograph accompanying the post is brilliantly chosen to convey his points, but so laden with caricature that it just ought not to be taken seriously.  Notice that the professor is 1) older, 2) male, and 3) Caucasian—”the man,” if ever there was one.  And notice the angle of the shot.  The image is presented from a position poignantly beneath the lectern.  Enshrouding the bespectacled head of “the man” is the green of a chalkboard, a classroom decoration which is not only outdated, but evocative of many unpleasant memories from our grammar school days.  Don’t miss the fact that there are numbers on the chalkboard.   The overall effect in associating this image with the church?  The Christian faith is under the hegemonic guidance of outdated, out-of-touch, finger-pointing lecturers. 

(By the way, I love Donald Miller’s work.  I am a huge fan of his writing.  And I like what he is trying to do in his writing).

Don is certainly on to something very important.  Sure, there are scholarly interests driving the agendas that make headlines in church-related media circles.  Sure, many of these scholars are out of touch with the masses.

But to claim in a sweeping, across-the-board sense (a move very easy to make in the medium of a blog post, by the way) that scholars lead the church is at best an oversimplification.  And maybe even just plain wrong.

Seriously—how many megachurches are led by bona fide scholars respected not only by their congregations/readers/blog-followers but also by their peers in the academy?

I just went to Amazon’s list of the top-selling books in the Religion & Spirituality category.  How many of these bestselling books are written by trained academics?  Not many at all.

Don is writing from a certain context, of course (we all do).  And in his context, he may be witnessing the damaging effects of high-brow intellectual elitism.  But in my own context, I would say that the church is not at all led by scholars.  Embedded within my own religious upbringing in the deep south, however, is a certain anti-intellectual distrust for all those high-brow scholarly folk.  In keeping with generations-old trends, many American church-folk seem to be more inclined to follow celebrity status over academic pedigree.  Famous pastors, writers, and musicians wield much greater influence than those who have exhausted their monetary resources and enormous amounts of physical and cognitive energy in laboring over primary texts and ancient languages (who might actually really know their stuff).

I actually wish the church were much more led by scholars than it is.  As a matter of fact, I think we might actually be much less divided over those sticky theological issues if we listened more to the church’s scholars than the church’s big name personalities.

Don grieves the ecclesial distance between him and his Lutheran neighbor, a distance he attributes to the fact that “a couple academics got into a fight hundreds of years ago.”  Yes, the Reformation was sticky.  Yes, doctrinal warmongering seems to be a favorite pastime for many (semi- and quasi-) academics.  But doctrinal mudslinging is often much less civil at the ecclesial level than at the academic level where there is a much greater sensitivity to how theological discourse should be conducted.  We are witnessing the waging of much theological warfare these days (though note: nothing is new under the sun).  When the scholars themselves debate with one another, though, I think the scene is much less bloody than when their populist followers take shots at each other in the comment sections beneath the blog posts.

Early in his writing career, I am sure Don discovered the disappointing reality in the publishing world that platform is oftentimes more marketable than content.  In other words, you can be a brilliant writer (which Don is, of course), but a brilliant writer with superb content but no public persona will have a hard time competing with a mediocre writer with shallow content but a widespread audience (at the end of the day, the publishing house has to pay rent, too).  A Christian leader who looks good on the big screens while preaching via-satellite and whose voice sounds great on the podcast doesn’t necessarily have to be competent in exegesis or conversant in historical theology.

I would even venture to say that Don Miller, as a popular writer with a vast audience, actually wields considerably more influence than most of the theologians and exegetes I read.

(Did I mention that I love his work, that I am a huge fan of his writing, that I like what he is trying to do in his writing?).

Is the church led by scholars?  Not exactly.  But kind of.  At times.  Certainly not always.  And certainly not in the sweeping sense Miller claims on his blog.

Both anti-intellectualism and intellectual elitism flourish within the church.  It will continue to flourish if we keep over-reacting to each other, perpetuating the damaging cycle by which we look to certain members of Christ’s body and say, “I have no need of you” (1 Cor 12:21).

I do acknowledge heartily that Miller is onto to something very important, though.  He raises a number of concerns that I share and which must be addressed.  I have a chapter in Faith Without Illusions on “Anti-intellectualism” where these concerns are addressed more fully, but I will write a new post soon on what I think we should heed from Don’s claims.