Scandal and Slavery – Prof Mark Noll Comes to Belfast

One of the United States’ most distinguished historians of religion has been in Belfast this past week, delivering the annual religious studies lecture at Queen’s University and speaking at Fitzroy Presbyterian Church.

The topic of Noll’s lecture at Queens was ‘The Bible, Race and Slavery as an Enduring American Problem,’ while at Fitzroy he spoke on ‘The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind Revisited.’

Noll is the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame and the author of more than 20 books, most recently including Protestantism–A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2011); The New Shape of World Christianity: How American Experience Reflects Global Faith (InterVarsity Press, 2009); God and Race in American Politics: A Short History (Princeton University Press, 2008); The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (University of North Carolina Press, 2006); and America’s God, from Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (Oxford University Press, 2002).

Noll’s Queen’s lecture was based on his more recent work on race and the American civil war, while the ‘scandal’ talk drew from his 1994 book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. This book sparked a widespread debate among American evangelicals and is considered by many a seminal volume, akin to Ron Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, which lamented American evangelicals’ seeming disregard for social justice.

Although the subjects of both of Noll’s lectures were grounded in the American context, there are many resonances for religion on this island – especially Northern Irish evangelicalism.

Since my earliest days as an academic, when I was completing my PhD on Evangelicalism and Conflict in Northern Ireland in the Politics Department at University College Dublin, I’ve found Noll’s work helpful in providing an incisive comparative perspective.

For me, the main theme that once again emerged from me while listening to Noll’s two Belfast lectures was the importance of the Bible for evangelicals – and its use and misuse by them. ‘Biblicism’ is a defining feature of evangelicalism, as outlined by David Bebbington in his 1989 book Evangelicalism in Modern Britain (pp. 2-19):

  • Conversionism (an emphasis on the “new birth” as a life-changing religious experience)
  • Biblicism (a reliance on the Bible as ultimate religious authority)
  • Activism (a concern for sharing the faith)
  • Crucicentrism (a focus on Christ’s redeeming work on the cross)

American evangelicals have of course used and misused the Bible in different ways than Northern Irish evangelicals, but evangelicals on both sides of the Atlantic have fallen prey to what Noll called a Biblical ‘naivety.’

At Queen’s, Noll argued that in the pre-Civil War United States, four developments led to a ‘Bible only culture,’ the foundations of which were shaken during the conflict. Those developments were:

  • American Protestants adopted the Bible as the primary authority for life
  • When contention over slavery arose, American Protestants turned to the Bible for guidance
  • An interpretive style became engrained in American public life, which claimed that the Bible is ‘simple’ and open to all who read it. Biblical interpretation was thought to work in the same way that one might interpret nature – through literal observation
  • Americans’ Biblical interpretations reflected their unconscious racial assumptions, which often had very little to do with the Biblical texts. But these engrained assumptions led to their reading their racial prejudices into the Biblical texts, for example, by equating Africans with Ham, the son of Noah who was cursed.

The ways of reading the Bible detailed above were used to justify the American slave system. And as Noll argued in the Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, in more recent decades similar ways of reading the Bible have discouraged greater evangelical intellectual engagement not only in the academy, but in the wider culture.

For readers familiar with Northern Irish evangelicalism, it’s worth asking to what extent Northern Irish Protestantism relied on a ‘naive Bible-only culture’ – particularly at key periods in history – to interpret their relationship with Catholics and justify how they interacted with them.

Of course, there have always been dissenting ways of interpreting the Bible, which differ from the dominant interpretative paradigm. Noll’s Queen’s lecture detailed the nuances of such debates on American slavery, outlining how evangelical Christians in the northern and southern states used the text to justify their opposing positions. He also highlighted the more often overlooked African American theologians of the day, who rather than seeing Biblical texts as justifying their own enslavement, identified with the Israelites in the Exodus story.

His Fitzroy lecture updated the intellectual health of American evangelicalism, which Noll said had improved markedly since 1994 with concerted efforts, especially at American universities and colleges run by evangelicals, to nourish it.

Though there is still a long way to go, this nourishment includes moving beyond Biblical naivety and developing the capacity to critique their own evangelical culture, in particular the ways it has been enmeshed in politics.

Of course, we do not have institutions like the evangelical third-level evangelical universities and colleges in the United States on these islands, but it is worth asking if evangelicals have paid similar attention to their intellectual development on this side of the Atlantic? To what extent are evangelicals here concerned with the life of the mind?

Over the course of the two lectures, Noll also made the point that evangelical Biblicism has been a double-edged sword.

For example, it is too simple to condemn American evangelicals for using the Bible to justify slavery, without recognising that the Bible also provided the inspiration for evangelicals who contributed to ending slavery.

In a similar way, the Bible continues to be a powerful resource for evangelicals, on both sides of the Atlantic, who believe that God calls them through the pages of the Bible to act to achieve a vision of a better world.

But what a better world should look like still remains very much open to debate, and should cause us to ask whether our own interpretations of the Bible are contributing to present-day versions of slavery and scandal.

(Image sourced on flickr photosharing, by knowhimonline)

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