Is postmodern thought undermining the very identity of evangelical colleges?
That is the question posed by Charlotte Allen in Lingua Franca magazine (December/ January). The influence of postmodern philosophy has emerged on several campuses and in the works of evangelical publishers such as InterVarsity Press. In the attempt to understand and appropriate the highly influential intellectual movement known as postmodernism, several well known evangelical scholars have ventured into intellectual territory that has proven highly controversial and, to some, worrisome about evangelicalism’s future.
For several decades, most evangelical four year colleges in the United States have experienced continued growth in enrollment, financial support, and sense of mission. Warnings (as found in such scholarly works as George Marsden’s “The Soul of the American University”) that mainline Protestant colleges succumbed to secularization in pursuit of their goals helped keep evangelicals closely in touch with their tradition. Noted for its suspicions, even rejections of universal truths, master narratives, Scriptural authority, and prepositional normative truth, postmodernism is now being studied carefully by a variety of evangelical scholars.
They find that the school of thought’s inclusive nature is allowing them a place at the table of scholarly discourse, as well as being congenial to the evangelical understanding of faithSuch theologians as Timothy Phillips, Dennis Okholm, Philip, J. Richard Middleton and Brian Walsh are searching for ways to reformulate evangelical beliefs in a world reshaped by postmodernism.
They argue that older ideas about “objective truth”, in fact, the existence of any final truth at all, should be superseded in favor of more personal understanding of God’s ways with humankind. Other revisionists have challenged the traditional evangelical teachings on patriarchy, female submission, and apocalyptic scenarios from the Book of Revelation, and have called for a wider appreciation of the concerns of seekers.
These and related ideas have produced a steady stream of protests and criticism by other evangelical scholars and publishers. Some insist the new scholarship is merely camouflage for a new politically liberal agenda for social outreach. Others such as Mark C. Taylor and Richard Hughes claim that revisionist postmodernism is in reality capitulation to the latest intellectual trends, overly simplistic, and worst of all, potentially threatening to the efficacy of evangelical faith as it has unfolded over the years.
Some other critics fear that today’s lifestyles of students, especially their clothing, adornment, and music reflect a more nihilistic direction for the future of evangelicalism worldwide. The implications of the dispute are more than the familiar academic warfare over intellectualized problems; Allen writes that evangelicalism may well be on the verge of having to redefine its once articulate loyalty to traditional teachings in light of the ever-changing nature of contemporary scholarship.
In his book Marsden warned that too much preoccupation with relating current issues to the faith of the tradition led mainline Protestant colleges into secularized halls of learning. Evangelicals will have to decide how this new world of postmodernism is to be understood in light of existing norms of truth.
(Lingua Franca,22 W. 38th St., New York, NY 10018)
— By RW contributing editor Erling Jorstad