A response to Owen Strachan

I’m very grateful to Owen Strachan for his thoughtful response to my recent essay on Christian intellectuals. Let me go straight to what I believe to be the heart of the matter: Strachan writes, “I do wonder if [Jacobs] overplays the self-deselecting element of his public influence argument, and underplays the marginalization element.” Wonder no more, Professor Strachan! Not only did I overplay the self-deselecting element, that was precisely what I meant to do.

Here’s why: for about thirty years now I have listened to my fellow Christian scholars lament their marginalization in the academy. I have heard them complain that the leading journals of their fields and leading scholarly presses routinely reject their work, and I have heard them attribute such rejection to anti-Christian prejudice. But often when they have shown me that work, I have read it and thought: This isn’t very good. You’re not making a strong argument. You seem only to have read what your fellow Christians have to say on the subject, and are unaware of the larger scholarly conversation. Had I been the editor of that journal, I would have rejected this too.

After several experiences of this kind, I came to the conclusion that one of the best services I could provide to my fellow Christian scholars was to get them to repeat to themselves as a kind of mantra: When my work is rejected, that’s because it’s not good enough. Now, to be sure, this isn’t always true. Sometimes the work of Christians is rejected for ideological reasons, and I think there are also forces at work that prevent thoughtful Christians from entering the academy in the first place. But it is never good for you as a scholar, or as a follower of Jesus, to jump immediately to blaming others for your disappointments. It is much healthier to go back to the drawing board and redouble your efforts, reading scholars you don’t like and don’t approve of and trying to articulate thoughtful responses to them. That kind of discipline can only make your work better, and harder to reject. You won’t thereby escape the consequences of anti-Christian bias, but you’ll have a better chance of limiting its force, and in the meantime you will become a better thinker and better scholarly craftsman.

That attitude has been my watchword for decades now, and I think it has served me well, and I hope it has been helpful to others also. Insofar as my essay was written for non-Christians, I wanted them to hear a Christian voice that doesn’t just complain about marginalization, and insofar as I meant to be heard by my fellow Christians, I wanted to reinforce this message of blaming yourself first.

All that said, even if I stressed the self-deselecting element more then I believe is objectively warranted, I do believe that that self-deselection has played a major role in getting us to where we are now. But the problem is more subtle than is usually recognized — considerably more subtle than I was able to indicate in the limited space available to me in Harper’s.

Let me explain what I mean by turning to another passage from Strachan’s response:

Look, Carl Henry should have had the corner office at Yale University. E. J. Carnell should have had a 1–1 load at Princeton. George Eldon Ladd should have been famous the world over for his studies of the kingdom of God. Ockenga should have had a weekly broadcast on NBC. On and on it could go. These were fantastically gifted individuals, but their beliefs consigned them to the margins, and that was that.

I agree with Strachan that these were all first-rate intellects whose abilities deserved the kind of stature that he imagines for them in an alternate and better universe. But I also think that they had intellectual priorities that made them poor candidates for playing the role of the broadly public Christian intellectual, or for holding the top-tier university post. My thinking about this is shaped primarily by George Marsden’s great book Reforming Fundamentalism, and I think Marsden’s title gets at what these men were up to. They looked around at their fellow evangelicals and they saw people who were simply not prepared to engage with the larger world of ideas, and so they took it upon themselves to educate their fellow evangelicals in these matters. A book like Henry’s The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism — and this is true of most of Henry’s work — is not meant for a general audience, it is meant for an audience of evangelical and fundamentalist Christians. And I think all of the figures Strachan cites were basically pastoral and pedagogical in their vocational orientation. They were less concerned to engage directly with the culture at large than to provide the intellectual foundations that would allow later generations of evangelical Christians so to engage.

It is of course perfectly possible, indeed likely, that the orthodoxy of their theological views would have made them unwelcome at the nation’s elite institutions. But I don’t think they ever tested that hypothesis, because they had other concerns that seemed to them more important to attend to. They wanted to build up their own Christian community, largely through the development of that community’s institutions, and that just didn’t leave them time for publishing articles in Harper’s.

I honor those men greatly, and I think much of my own intellectual journey has been made possible by the foundations they laid. But now it’s time to see whether my generation, and the generations following mine, are prepared to live up to the hopes that Carl Henry and Harold Ockenga and others of their kind had for us. And that’s definitely not going to happen as long as we are blaming a mean old secular world for our marginalization: even if there really is a mean old secular world and it really does want our marginalization.

UPDATE: I should also add that it’s hard to say anything very specific about these matters that applies across the disciplines: The challenges for me as a literature professor are different than those of theologians, which are in turn very different than those of scientists. Even within the humanities there are major differences: for instance, Christian scholars play a much larger role in history and philosophy than they do in literary study, for complicated reasons.