A Response to Christian Anti-Intellectualism
By: Jonathan Harris
In a May 2011 article in Relevant Magazine, the author of “Is Christianity Anti-Intellectual?” asks:
Why the anti-intellectualism in the Church today? . . . after years of arduous intellectual work, countless sleepless nights and the accumulation of massive educational debt—these bedraggled but eager students [seminary students] are often greeted by an anti-intellectual church that says, “I have no need of you.”
I myself have noticed this trend in the church as a whole. In a book published 12 years ago by the leader of one of the largest and fastest growing branches of evangelicalism it is stated:
You know the beautiful thing about [our denomination]? People don’t know where you really stand… And the whole field is ours… When you’re marketing something, you want the largest market appeal possible. So don’t chop up the market and say, ‘Well, we’re just going to fish in this little market here.’
Wait, it’s good that people are unaware about your theology?
I recently came across a DVD series by a pastor in a local branch of this group who brags on the back of it that he’s never been to seminary. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a pastor who obtains his experience and knowledge outside of seminary, don’t misunderstand me. For some it may be better to do it that way. But to wear it as a badge of honor? That somehow the product is superior because it was not subjected to formal education? This trend frightens me, and I do believe it is a trend.
When I refer to Christian anti-intellectualism I’m really referring to people who make statements such as these:
“Jesus was against the religious leaders of his day. They knew the law really well, but they didn’t, you know, feed people and live the Christian life.” (Assuming living the Christian life is wearing a t-shirt.)
“God doesn’t care about all that fancy theology. He wants to touch our hearts.” (Note: The second half of this statement is true. The first half is not.)
“You can keep your fancy Greek words. I’ll keep the nice things I do for people.” (As if the two are diametrically opposed.)
I could go on, but you get the point. Maybe you’ve run into people like this. Maybe you are someone like this. I don’t think everyone who acts in such ways is evil or isn’t a Christian by any means. Many of the Christian anti-intellectual mean well. They are perhaps reacting to a false, stale, fruitless religion that they’ve witnessed in their parents. A religion that has much knowledge, but not much in the way of actual love. I get that. But please realize, the two aren’t mutually exclusive! The only way to live rightly is to first know rightly. Yes, Jesus did correct the Pharisees, but it wasn’t for their study or their knowledge. It was for their hypocrisy! They knew so much, and applied it so wrongly. Listen to what the Bible has to say about Christian intellectualism. The study and drive we should all have for His Word.
“as also in all his [Paul’s] letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction.” 2 Peter 3:16
So let’s be clear. Some things in the Bible are hard to understand. Does this mean we should ignore them or oversimplify them with our own experiential interpretation about what they mean to us? No! That would put us in the category of the “untaught and unstable.” Let’s instead do what 2 Tim. 2:15 tells us to. “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.” So it takes work! That means study. How many times did Jesus ask the Pharisees, “Have you not read?” (Matthew 12:3, 5; 19:4; 22:31; Mark 8:17, etc.) According to Jesus, part of the great commandment included loving God with all your mind, not just heart. (Mark 12:29-39). This coming from the same God who sends out the invitation, “Come let us reason together.” (Is. 1:18)
My personal view on modern Christian anti-intellectualism is that it comes from a Romantic inclination regarding man. It is the idea that man will find truth through the emotive faculty of the heart and not the mind that drives what we’re witnessing in the evangelical landscape. We know intuitively that science has not delivered its promises. It leaves us bankrupt. Raw data is not capable of getting us a spiritual experience in our estimation. So we seek our feelings for truth. In short, it is the subtle adoption of post-modernism in the church that has lead to where we are. Definitions are deemed constraining. Labels are deemed too divisive. Theology is deemed elite. Understanding is demonized, and the mystical is elevated. I wonder whether the trendy jeans, v-neck, sloppy stage backdrop that looks like something more out of Discovery Zone than a church, and the same synthesized three chords in row, heard through a dimly lit fog, are a reflection of this trend? It’s almost like we’re trying so hard to say, “Hey we’re not part of the University or Business world. You can be yourself here!” Except no one ends up being themselves because we’re all implicitly told that in order to be yourself you must be sloppy and undignified. So we create a false piety (really pride) to reach for. The new spiritual elite are truly the Christian anti-intellectuals.
So what’s the solution? I don’t have time to critique all the worship styles in this piece. Some of what’s done these days is perfectly fine. I just want to ensure it’s for the right motivation. This I do know. “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.” (Rom. 10:17) If you want to have true faith you must first hear the word of God rightly divided. Personal piety, emotional experience, a heart touched by our Creator are all AMAZING things, but they flow from an understanding, not an ignorance. It all starts with “the word of God” which is “living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Heb. 4:12) Let’s not forget our foundation in pursuit of true spirituality.