Adam Shields manages a small non-profit that focuses on developing prayer and church-based community ministries. He is also a spiritual director. He lives with his wife and two children in Marietta, GA. He has made it a spiritual practice to blog through most of the books he has read since 2009. Adam initially posted a version of this response as a comment on yesterday’s blog post. His response, however, merits more attention than comments generally receive, and I’m grateful that he agreed to have it be posted here in full.
I am not an academic. I have zero expertise to weigh in. But I wonder if we have taken the wrong lesson from Noll. It is not that places like Baylor are bad. I am thankful for the school and its work to encourage scholarship, especially over the past couple of decades. But I think Karen Swallow Prior’s new book is an example of what might be a more fruitful means of encouraging the life of the mind. Evangelicalism, and American culture more broadly, is obsessed with efficiency and getting the most bang for our buck. That is good for the short term but bad for the long term. Without imagination and the space and time to be creative and to investigate ideas, we can’t create. You are raising important questions about time for professors to do the research.
Jake Meador’s piece in the Atlantic raises similar questions about the structural incentives that are pushing people away from the church. I don’t think it is really a post-pandemic reality, but a society devoted to getting the last little drop from our efforts. That relates to the life of the mind in Christian thought to the extent that Christians involved in higher education are still a part of the evangelical world.
I remember discussing with some friends about the US healthcare system and whether it is better to have all of these top research hospitals and drug companies or whether it would be better to have a more modest socialized healthcare system like most of the rest of the world. The US system is good at curing disease and doing incredible surgeries. But it isn’t very good at routine medical care that impacts many people. If you have a rare disease, you want the US system. But more people would likely live longer overall if we had a system that was more mundane. The problem is that I think many of us want to be thought of as devoted toward excellence and doing great things for God, because we as evangelicals are trying to change the world. But our inclinations may be wrong, as the medical example shows. It may be that more people in middle range work would be better than striving after the top range, exhausting and highly competitive work.
I know several people who dreamed of being a professor and doing the top-flight research Noll advocates. But they couldn’t find jobs and decided to teach high school instead. Not everyone who dreams of being a professor can or should become a high school teacher. But there is a shortage of high school teachers, and many potential professors would make more as a high school teacher than they would at a Christian college. And inspiring high school students to the life of the mind, creativity, and imagination is also good work, if less prestigious.
I do think there is space for churches to create residencies to encourage the life of the mind. I think Esau McCaulley is a resident theologian at Charlie Date’s church. I have no idea if there is any payment or if that is a volunteer position for McCaulley or what he does, but at least in theory, getting professors into churches to expand the imagination of average lay people is one of the ways to value the life of the mind. Maybe we would be better off if more intellectually curious people were in “average” jobs, but with a bit of margin, instead of working to create institutions trying to be the next Harvard.
Again, I am no one. But I took a job to help create church-based nonprofits working for a denomination. That job ran out of funding, and I spun off what I created into my own small org. I do not make much money. We have lived mostly on my wife’s teaching salary and insurance for the past 25 years. I was a stay-at-home uncle and then dad while continuing to do part-time consulting work. I kept reading and thinking and trying to encourage the church. I went back to school to become a spiritual director in addition to my consulting, because my work as a non-profit consultant led me to think that the focus on changing the world and changing systems, while essential, was missing a component of spiritual health while doing it. My path is just one possibility.
But I think that while Jake Meador is wrong in some of what he says in his Atlantic article, what he gets right is that the church isn’t designed to compete with the world. (The Holy Post Podcast has a good discussion from starting at the 30-minute mark about Meador’s piece.) If we try to compete head-on with culture, we will lose. In some ways, making a choice to step away from the competition to focus on being healthy in an average everyday sort of way that encourages people to have margin to explore the imagination and the mind might be the counter-cultural response that is needed. Mike Erre’s summary in response to Meador (and, I think, also in response to the crisis in Christian higher education and the life of the mind) is that “The role of the church in the world is to be faithful, not effective. The goal isn’t impact, the goal is fidelity.”
There are people that want to hear from scholars like Karen Swallow Prior and others who have been faithful. You and others may not have had the impact that you want, but we can’t be wholly responsible for our impact, only for our fidelity and faithfulness. We may not be able to create new institutions. Or those institutions we support or created may fail. We may have to survive, encourage one another locally, and seek to encourage health instead of impact.