Culture At Large

Anti-intellectualism: a problem for the church?

Andy Rau

Is contemporary Christianity marked by an anti-intellectual streak?

That's the question being asked by Rick M. Nañez, an Assemblies of God missionary who recently penned a book tracing anti-intellectual trends in the Pentecostal tradition. Christianity Today has a lengthy excerpt from Nañez' Full Gospel, Fractured Minds, as well as an accompanying interview with the author. Both are well worth reading, as they raise some serious questions about whether Christians today--influenced by recent church history and certain practices within the church--are sidelining the life of the mind in favor of what Nañez calls "mindless spirituality" that is lacking in "intellectual achievement, cultural cultivation, and critical thinking."

Fightin' words, to be sure. But Nañez isn't out to insult Christians, deride "practical theology," or denigrate Christians who don't have much formal education. He's trying to point out anti-intellectual trends that, if allowed to continue without discernment, can actively hinder our Christian work. Quoting Nañez from the interview:

Anti-intellectualism keeps us from affecting our institutions and their various departments with solid Christian thinking. It hinders our ability to think in terms of worldview, that is, to understand the hundreds of otherwise fragmented areas of life in a coherent way. If we are suspicious of the intellect, we are hamstrung when it comes to providing well-thought-out answers to difficult questions from critics and skeptics. Anti-intellectualism can also lead to dangerous forms of mysticism and a type of superstitious faith.

I believe that anti-intellectualism tends to lead Christians into relatively superficial spiritual lives, at least, in comparison to the impact they could make if they engaged in "thinking on purpose" for the glory of God. Also, mediocrity in the "life of the mind" leads the Christian subculture to criticize, fear, and condemn the secular institutions that their anti-intellectual, evangelical, and Pentecostal parents and grandparents abandoned the generations before.

In other words, neglecting the intellectual side of faith and life leaves us unable to respond to or communicate with the culture around us in a meaningful way. His book is directed specifically at the Pentecostal movement, but he is quick to note that many other Christian traditions--particularly in, but certainly not limited to, American Christianity--are also vulnerable to charges of anti-intellectualism. He sees the root cause in the recent history of the church:

Though Pentecostalism has built within it some elements that make its adherents more susceptible to anti-intellectualism, I think that evangelicals struggle with the problem almost as much as we do. We have common roots in the pragmatic, revivalistic, and romantic era of America in the 18th century, so both our nation as well as our nation's homegrown movements tend to battle with the temptation to pit doing against thinking, and spirit against mind.

I'm reminded of Mark Noll's excellent Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, which presented similar arguments about the evangelical community over a decade ago. (Here's a good roundtable discussion of that book, and a 2004 essay in which Noll looks at the church's intellectual progress since the publication of Scandal.) Among other things, Noll found the lack of intellectual and artistic achievement by the church alarming, especially when contrasted with the brilliant cultural contributions of the church in past centuries.

What is your experience, if any, with the "anti-intellectual" side of Christianity? Is your church working to encourage a "life of the mind" as a healthy part of being a Christian? While I'll certainly agree that there is far to go, I must say that what I've seen in my own church and in other nearby churches is encouraging: little things like book discussion groups, the cultivation of artists within the congregation, more discerning approaches to "secular" literature--these are positive signs. What about you?

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, News & Politics, History