This article appeared in BreakPoint's Findings Journal.
George M. Marsden is Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at theUniversity ofNotre Dame. He is the author, most recently, of Jonathan Edwards: A Life (Yale, 2003). In addition to his many other scholarly works, Dr. Marsden has written influentially on Christian higher education in The Soul of the American University and The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship. He was interviewed by Findings editor, T. M. Moore.
Findings: George Marsden, it’s been ten years since you exposed the emptiness in the soul of the American university, and seven years since you responded to your critics with The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship. Do you think the idea of Christian scholarship is becoming somewhat less outrageous?
George Marsden: I would like to think so. One hopeful development in the past ten years is that a lot of outstanding young Christian scholars have made their way into academia. One group I happen to have been associated with were the participants in the Pew Younger Scholar’s Program. Seventy students over a seven-year period were selected for generous fellowships to help them attend leading universities throughout the country. These scholars are now moving into the academic mainstream, and a number have gained attractive positions. These represent only one portion of a much larger contingent of young articulate Christian scholars who have been a presence in many of our leading graduate schools. What these and their senior colleagues have been proving is that the best way for Christian scholarship to get accepted is for Christian scholars simply to do their work well. In the light of excellent work, many of the older prejudices and stereotypes fall away.
F: When I first became a Christian 35 years ago as a university student, it was nearly impossible to find a book written about any intellectual discipline from a Christian perspective. That has changed dramatically. Do you have any thoughts about what has helped to bring about this change?
GM: The process I describe in the first answer really represents an acceleration of something that has been going on for a good many decades. It reflects successful consciousness-raising about the importance of Christian scholarship and then some kind of geometrical increase in the number of scholars actually doing it and the organizations supporting such scholarship.
F: What about in the professional societies? Is there any evidence that the kind of biblical idea of scholarship you have talked about, and others are now beginning to write about, is starting to find a place on the platforms of society meetings and in professional journals?
GM: Outside of theology itself, I think the greatest professional impact has been in the field of philosophy. For decades now identifiably Christian scholars have been recognized as leaders in the profession. In other fields, the gains are more modest. But in history, for instance, the Historical Society, founded in the past decade as an alternative to the American Historical Association, has made a point of recognizing the importance of the work of scholars who are known as Christians, even though the Historical Society itself is a diverse organization and not religious in nature. In sociology and political science, a number of avowedly Christian scholars have done such good work that others have had to pay attention.
F: What is most encouraging to you about the state of the American university today? What most concerns you?
GM: The trends I have noted above are all encouraging. I think the universities still suffer from fragmentation and careerism. The tenure system puts all younger scholars on a track of having to produce scholarship in order to get promoted, regardless of how little need there may be for such scholarship otherwise. Students are looking for the practical skills and credentials for their own careers. Very little in the structures encourages people to look at the big picture. That invites politicization and power struggles. The result is that, although universities are useful places for developing or acquiring specialized skills, their structures are not well designed to get an education.
F: In his excellent book Habits of the Mind, Jim Sire argues for the validity of the intellectual life and the calling to scholarship. This is the same argument made by Douglas V. Henry and Bob R. Agee in Faithful Learning and the Christian Scholarly Vocation. How do you respond to the idea of the life of scholarship as a Christian vocation? How might a student be able to know whether or not this is the life for him or her?
GM: Christian scholarship is certainly a valid calling. The body of Christ has many members, and one needed role is those who can step back and look at the big picture or who can aid in seeing how to apply the faith. Being a scholar is not the highest calling, but it is a worthy one for those who have the gifts. Particularly, many churches today suffer from anti-intellectualism. Pious scholars in their midst can help them from falling prey to half-baked ideas that are popular but misleading.
F: In the beginning of the American experiment, churches took a much more active interest in the affairs of higher education than they do today. Should church leaders play a larger role in helping young people prepare for and select a college? How might they do that?
GM: Yes, I think there needs to be consciouness-raising in churches about the importance of higher education and an extension of the ministries. Churches should take advantage of the fine literature that is out there in order to build strong ministries to college students and to encourage educated young people to stay close to the churches.
F: How could churches lend more support to those, like yourself, who have followed the call to a life of scholarship in service to the Lord?
GM: Mark Noll has written eloquently about “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.” The anti-intellectualism of the churches has meant that there has often been a gap between popular evangelicalism and academic evangelicalism. Thoughtful, well-educated clergy could do a lot to help close that gap. Some young people who are thinking of a calling in academia might also consider whether their calling is to be an educated pastor.
F: Your biography of Jonathan Edwards is being hailed as a classic. Having read it, and every other biography of the great Puritan pastor/theologian I can find, I am pleased to say I concur. What other projects are currently in the works?
GM: Good question. I’m thinking hard about it, but have not come to a conclusion. In the meantime I am working on a shorter book on Edwards that might be used, for instance, in colleges or church study groups.
Articles on the BreakPoint website are the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Chuck Colson or PFM. Links to outside articles or websites are for informational purposes only and do not necessarily imply endorsement of their content.