America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln
by Mark A. Noll
New York: Oxford University Press, 2002
(622 pages; $35.00, hardcover)
reviewed by Preston Jones
Mark Noll’s literary output is prodigious, and there is a thread of sadness that runs through much of it. Noll’s name became a household word among educated Evangelicals after the appearance of his much-discussed Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (1995), an important work that repeated some points made earlier by, among others, Francis and Franky Schaeffer, though Noll’s work was better informed than Francis’s and void of the stridency that often punctuated Franky’s.
The burden of Scandal was that, in the worlds of art, literature, politics and scholarship, Evangelicals didn’t measure up to a standard that Noll seemed to have had in his head but never quite made clear to his readers. Of course, since it was obvious to every thinking Christian at the time that, generally speaking, educated Evangelicals were less thoughtful than, say, educated Catholics, there wasn’t much of a need for fleshing out what Evangelical intellectualism would resemble.
The task then, as it remains for many Evangelicals, was simply to get on with the job: to read good books, write good papers, organize intelligent conferences, and eschew the anti-Catholicism that still lurks in some corners of the Evangelical world.
In the process, a substantial number of Evangelical graduate students ended up going to Rome, Orthodoxy, or Anglicanism while still claiming allegiance to broad Evangelicalism, and others became agnostics. (I’ll never forget a meeting in Colorado Springs of purported Evangelical graduate students and young professors, at which, along with duly forming a circle and holding hands, we learned that a number of participants had effectively abandoned Christianity altogether—while doing research funded by Evangelical enterprises!) So from the theological point of view, the effort among Evangelicalism’s best and brightest to descandalize their minds has had unforeseen results. And it still isn’t clear what distinctly Evangelical brainwork looks like.
Enter America’s God. Surely, one would think, Noll would show us an example of an unscandalized Evangelical mind at work sometime between the 1730s and the 1860s. But what we find instead is theological “tragedy” (“the greater the theologian, the greater the tragedy”)—that is, the inability of Evangelical Christians to lift themselves out of their culture so as to see it more clearly and to approximate genuine Christianity in their behavior more nearly. Noll never actually puts things that way (and the standard his subjects failed to reach remains undescribed), but that seems to be where the reader ends up after some 450 pages of small print.
We read in America’s God that before the Civil War, American Christians came to mistake republican politics for God’s preferred mode of government and, in doing so, besmirched Christian commitment with notions of American exceptionalism. We also find Christians abandoning traditional theology in favor of “common sense” readings of the Bible and thus preparing the way for the vastness of contemporary America’s theological ignorance. And we find Christians clashing, in words and later with weapons, over what common sense had to say about slavery. Consequently, during the Civil War, Christians in the North and South employed the Bible as a weapon against one another and thereby politicized, and thus trivialized, the Scriptures. “In the decades before the Civil War,” Noll writes, “a Protestant amalgam of traditional faith and public order helped construct a great Christian civilization, but commitment to that very civilization would in the Civil War trivialize the Christian theology that had brought it into existence.”
In the end, it’s the unbelieving or barely believing Abraham Lincoln who comes off as the only prominent commentator on the war whose theological reflections (as expressed in his awesome Second Inaugural Address) strike Noll as profound and largely beyond criticism. (“Abraham Lincoln, and only a few others also beyond the Protestant mainstream, interpreted the war with a theological depth largely absent from the major theologians of the main Protestant churches.”) Noll shows that while northern and southern nationalists claimed that God favored their respective sides, Lincoln saw the Civil War as a judgment upon the entire nation. Where Confederates and Yankees called for heads to roll, Lincoln called for charity toward all and said that he wanted to play a role in binding up the nation’s wounds. Noll suggests that while the professional preachers’ lengthy sermons now disgust, depress, or bemuse, Lincoln’s brief speech ennobles.
Of course, Noll is right. I have made the same point in a classroom; and I have been perplexed by the same thing that perplexes Noll—namely, that an apparent unbeliever was the one whose theological vision now seems to have been deeper than that of the paid theologians. Noll suggests that Lincoln’s humility and insight were rooted in his confrontations with life’s sometimes inexplicable—and sometimes devastating—contingencies. Lincoln was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.
But the difficulty remains: If Lincoln was a Christian, he was an odd one, and he was certainly no Evangelical. Which, at the end of Noll’s hefty tome, leaves intellectually inclined Evangelicals with no real heroes. Perhaps I missed something in America’s God, but I can’t recall any Evangelical figure discussed here who can serve as a model of Christian thoughtfulness—as a model of someone who figured out how to be in the world but not, in one way or another, of it. Admittedly, Noll’s book focuses on the published and popular; small-time armchair theologians, let alone ordinary folk, aren’t his concern. But even Jonathan Edwards loses points for toying with revivalistic “enthusiasm.”
The unspoken conclusion—not only of this book but of Noll’s oeuvre generally—seems to be that, for thinking people, Evangelicalism is a lost cause. The exodus of Evangelical graduate students from Bible churches to Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Anglicanism suggests that others have come to a similar conclusion.
At the same time, a survey of the stuff produced in recent years by Evangelical “intellectuals” suggests a desire, frequently embarrassing in its frankness, to absorb and domesticate the protocols of high political correctness.
So if Evangelicalism as traditionally construed is a lost cause for many of the brainy (as Noll seems to have concluded), the variety of Evangelicalism promoted by its remaining intellectual hipsters is unlikely, for its trendiness, to be of use in the long run. (For my own part, I’ll take a fire-breathing preacher who loves Jesus over a graduate student who wants to “engage” soft porn and mindless television violence from a “Christian perspective” any day.) However one cuts it, Evangelicalism seems to be in trouble insofar as the learned class is concerned.
America’s God is a scholarly book, the sum of years of thought and hard work. Its tone is didactic—“Evangelicals were . . . divided among themselves by four polarities”; “If evangelical religion harbored sharp internal polarities, it also passed through three distinct eras”—and Noll’s prose is more functional than elegant. But while Noll writes a lot, he isn’t chiefly a writer; he’s a scholar of a very high order, as this book’s 110 pages of endnotes suggest. But before all else, Noll is a Christian, and his disappointment at the actions of fellow Christians in previous eras comes through in these pages.
Mark Noll is not at ease in this world, or at least in this country. He seems to wish that more American Christians—and especially Evangelicals—shared his unease.
Preston Jones teaches at the Cambridge School of Dallas and has contributed to Touchstone since 1998.
Preston Jones teaches history at John Brown University.
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