Recently some discussions have cropped up related to a book from the 1990s, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. I vaguely recall it causing a stir in the evangelical circles that constituted my entire world in the mid-90s, though I never read the book myself. But its message is still relevant today - perhaps even moreso as the rifts within the evangelical church begin to widen and the religious right wanes in influence.
The ever-thoughtful Rachel Held Evans offered a slightly different perspective, pointing out the state of the evangelical heart. Although the circles I ran in allowed for a degree of soul-searching over difficult issues like the advocacy of genocide in the Old Testament, there is still a point where a literalist, inerrantist approach to the Bible inevitably leads to some degree of cognitive dissonance. A paradox develops in which the God of love that Jesus and the prophets revealed is also a God of unspeakable destruction - a paradox that leads not to wonderment and deeper spiritual understanding but to fear and a dehumanizing of those seen as deserving of God's wrath. Obviously the Canaanites deserved to be exterminated, the literalist concludes, so why should we worry about it?
Because that cognitive dissonance lies at the root of Evans' dilemma, however, I cannot give greater weight to her concern than I can to the Deeper Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, as Peter Enns labels it. What we believe intellectually doesn't always match up with how we treat others, but the former cannot help but influence the latter. And while genuinely compassionate people who hold to a literalist, inerrantist view of the Bible do exist, they seem to do so in spite of their beliefs.
I have many positive memories of my years at a Christian college; while academic freedom was limited in many ways, it is still the place where I first began to learn how to think for myself. Compared to the fundamentalist churches I'd grown up in, it was positively liberating.
At the end of the day, though, the situation at my alma mater was (and is) as Enns says; academic inquiry and independent thought are only tolerated as long as one reaches the "correct" conclusions with them. Another Christian institution I'm familiar with advertises that it encourages freedom to think "within the limits of Scripture." To an evangelical that sounds very generous; students and faculty are allowed to disagree on many theological points where more conservative schools and churches might try to squash any dissent. When scrutinized, however, that motto is reminiscent of the constitution of the former Soviet Union, which made sweeping statements about various human rights that were officially recognized - only to render those protections meaningless by declaring that exercise of those rights "must not be to the detriment of the interests of society or the state," while leaving the government free rein to determine what constituted its interests.
Freedom of speech, as long as you say the right things.
(The above motto also fails to genuinely engage with the fact that "Scripture" is not nearly as clear-cut as conservative Christians so casually assume it to be, but that's a separate discussion.)
Even so, there are genuine intellectuals within the evangelical realm. One won't find them in the theology department (where free thinkers have a shorter lifespan than a piñata at a little leaguer's birthday party - and experience roughly the same fate), and even in other fields they don't always survive, but they do exist. It was my college history professor who first taught me that a real research paper interacts with multiple viewpoints and gives them a fair hearing, rather than just quoting sources that agree with one's conclusions and shooting down everything else. Granted, that professor was never completely happy at my alma mater and ended up leaving a few years later, but he was (at least when I knew him) a bona fide evangelical as well as a genuine scholar.
Another such scholar is Warren Throckmorton, whose commitment to pursuing the truth no matter where it leads has placed him in opposition to the many evangelicals who still believe that sexual orientation can be changed through prayer and/or therapy. He has added his own contribution to the above discussion.
Is there hope for reform within the evangelical church? It doesn't appear very hopeful; as Enns points out, "Evangelicalism is not fundamentally an intellectual organism but an apologetic one." Scratch the surface of nearly any evangelical organization engaged in any sort of research or scientific pursuit and that fact quickly becomes apparent.
But change is possible; the writers I've cited are all proof that some who identify with evangelicalism hope for its transformation into a more open-minded (and open-hearted) movement. One can only pray that their voices won't be ignored.