The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship

By George M. Marsden
New York : Oxford University (1997). 142 Pages.

Reviewed by
9.1 (Spring 1998) : 114-116

Evangelicals have witnessed a recent flurry of scholarly publications on the subject of God in the secular academy. David F. Well's, God in the Wasteland (1994) and Mark A. Noll's The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (1994) have intensified debate as to the place of Christian thought forms as epistemological alternatives within the secular academy. Christianity Today recognized Noll's The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (cf. Trevor Craigen, review of The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind by Mark A. Noll, The Master’s Seminary Journal 7 [Spring 1996]:133-36) as "Book-of-the-Year" in 1995 ("1995 CT Book Awards," Christianity Today [April 24, 1995]:25). Noll particularly has created a firestorm of discussion within the broader evangelical community.

As a follow-up to George Marsden's essential work, The Soul of the American University (Oxford, 1994), the latest salvo in the battle for Christian scholastic credibility within the academy is The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship. Marsden is currently Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. He is a recognized scholar and, in addition to the aforementioned titles, has authored several critiques of American fundamentalism. Written as a challenge to his critics, the latest book offers religious worldviews as an alternative to the secular ideologies that operate in the modern research university. He further offers a critique and analysis of the dominant thought structures that drive contemporary research, notably the decline of religious perspectives generally, and Christianity specifically. He proposes the last two as viable alternatives to those postulated and utilized within the academy.

The essential argument of The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship is that of Christian inclusion within the secular academy. Christian thought deserves to be considered as a theoretical structure which informs research. Central to the discussion is the ability of religious thought to serve as an intellectual basis for shaping research directions and offering interpretive insights into findings. His critiques of both scientific objectivism and postmodernist relativism as extreme interpretive frameworks are both accurate and descriptive of the schizophrenic nature of the operating research philosophies that exist on many university campuses.

Upon a review of this text, several observations emerge. Marsden's work provides an excellent and accurate overview of the status of the modern academy with its operating, theoretical frameworks. He offers carefully poised responses and critiques from a Christian perspective. The thrust of the book is a scholarly polemic for inclusion of religious persuasions as a legitimate research tradition. However, methodological discussion of a "system" of Christian scholarship is largely absent. Marsden offers some suggestions in the later chapters which are helpful and encouraging, yet the book lacks extensive development of a Christian approach that integrates theological perspectives with research methodology. This is due to the polemical nature of the text and the desire to represent diverse theological and disciplinary perspectives in the argument (84).

Second, though the book recognizes and discusses the philosophic tensions between secular and religious scholarship, a latent tension exists within the broader evangelical community that will affect any scholarly discussion of the subject. Noll epitomizes this tension in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind when he points an accusatory finger at fundamentalists ("The Intellectual Disaster of Fundamentalism," chap. 5). Many thinking pre-millenarian dispensationalists took strong issue with that apparent broadside and felt Noll was guilty of the same pattern of exclusion and hypocrisy characteristic of many secular scholars. Additional interfraternal discussions and debates within evangelical-Christian scholastic communities are needed. Marsden's own understanding of both fundamentalism and evangelicalism could offer much to this dialogue. While that was not the intended purpose of The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, it is a necessary next step. The ramifications of this discussion are too important to ignore.

Finally, Marsden identifies several theological themes which might inform a scholar's research. Discussion of the implications of such concepts as creation, incarnation, and the human condition have potential research ramifications for all academic disciplines. It was noteworthy to this reviewer that Marsden opted for an incarnational rather than a propositional approach to epistemological considerations. Discussion of revelation as an important theological concept, which would seem to be worthy of inclusion in his list, was notably absent (cf. Francis Schaeffer, He Is There and He Is Not Silent, Appendix One, "Is Propositional Revelation Nonsense?").

The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship offers the reader a critical analysis of the present situation within the university. The author's polemic is an important contribution to scholars who desire to inform research by their faith. It is also a critical call to fairness among scholars and institutions that seek to silence the voice of intellectual Christians. In the present flow of literature, it is time to begin formulating definitive systems of inquiry that take into consideration disciplinary methodologies and theological realities within a rigorous structure and system of inquiry. This reviewer hopes that further studies will move beyond disputations and toward the creation of research matrices that combine theological realities, academic disciplinary methodologies, and quantitative and qualitative research designs from a distinctively Christian perspective.