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Whatever happened to the Christian mind?

This has been asked numerous times and by many Christian philosophers and theologians.

A relatively recent classic on the subject is Mark Noll’s “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.”

Francis Schaeffer, especially in his early works, decried Christian anti-intellectualism.

A.W. Tozer, an evangelical preacher and writer of a previous generation, wrote, “There is, unfortunately, a feeling in some quarters today that there is something innately wrong about learning, and that to be spiritual one must also be stupid. This tacit philosophy has given us in the last half century a new cult within the confines of orthodoxy; I call it the Cult of Ignorance.”

He continued, “It equates learning with unbelief and spirituality with ignorance, and, according to it, never the twain shall meet. This is reflected in a wretchedly inferior religious literature, a slap-happy type of religious meeting, and a grade of Christian song so low as to be positively embarrassing.”

I’ve been rereading “Hardness of Heart” by Edmond Cherbonnier, an old book studying the Christian doctrine of sin that begins with a scathing critique of relativism.

Cherbonnier scorns the fact that some Christians cannot detect blatant paganism when they encounter it.

I absolutely hate to come across as a hypercritical, “old-school,” Christian curmudgeon.

Yet I have so often overheard Christians talking about Christian themes in movies, plays, novels and other elements of popular culture that I groan inwardly.

I remember well in high school being taught by my wonderful English literature teachers that any fictional character with the initials “J.C.” was a “Christ figure.” Whatever happened to discernment?

Just because a piece of popular culture, or even a classic, deals with perennial issues of human existence such as sin and salvation, life’s ultimate concerns, that does not make it “Christian-themed.”

I grew up in one of the most anti-intellectual of all Christian denominations, and yet my spiritual mentors, for all their faults, emphasized what biblical scholar Hans Frei called allowing the Bible to “absorb the world.”

From childhood I was trained to “see” the world “as” God’s world and to think about all reality in relation to the Bible’s story of God, creation, fall, redemption and consummation.

The basic idea was to practice what James Sire called “discipleship of the mind.”

After I extricated myself from fundamentalism, I still found that to be an essential element of Christian living. Sadly, for too many Christians, it is not.

The problem is not just one of ignorance, as in “not knowing facts.” That’s bad enough.

Too many Christians, including conservative-evangelical Christians, don’t even know the Bible. How many can even find a book, chapter and verse in the Bible without being told the “page number in the pew Bible?”

The larger problem is confusion of the Christian story with other stories.

We live in a pluralistic culture and I celebrate that. But I celebrate also Christians in this pluralistic culture knowing and understanding their own story – the story of God and humanity told in the Bible.

Unfortunately, many Christians know popular culture better.

For example, I know many Christians who saw the 1998 movie, “What Dreams May Come,” starring Robin Williams and thought it was a “beautiful depiction of life after death.”

In fact, its depiction of life after death was a mishmash of beliefs with no coherence and little to no concurrence with the Bible’s view.

Too many Christians today are so afraid of being called “fundamentalist” or “fanatic” that they flee from memorizing Scripture or learning doctrine, to say nothing of daring to call something parading as “Christian” false.

And they not only see no value in, but positively avoid, forming a coherent Christian worldview in conversation with the great minds of Christian history: Irenaeus, Athanasius, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Erasmus, Martin Luther, Menno Simons, Richard Hooker, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Finney, Charles Hodge, Walter Rauschenbusch, Karl Barth, Reinhold Niebuhr, Carl Henry, Stanley Hauerwas.

I have taught Christian theology for 34 years at three Christian universities and spoken in many Christian institutions of higher learning and churches.

I have met many wonderful Christians determined to practice “discipleship of the mind,” to develop a biblical-Christian worldview and see the world through that lens.

But I have also met many who simply don’t care, who think being Christian is emulating Jesus in terms of being a nice person.

Even some Christian professors spout ideas they learned in graduate school that absolutely conflict with basic Christianity.

And they don’t seem to worry about it when it’s pointed out to them. More often than not, pointing it out to them gets one labeled a member of the “evangelical thought police.”

Roger Olson is the Foy Valentine professor of Christian theology and ethics at George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas. He is the author of numerous books, including “Against Calvinism” and “The Story of Christian Theology.” This article is edited from a longer version that first appeared on his blog. It is used with permission.

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series. Part two is available here.

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