I intended to do a review of this little book (it’s precisely 200 pages, so as a supercilious academic I’m obligated to call it a little book) back in November when I finished it, but then life happened. Go figure.
Moreland is a philosophy professor at Talbot School of theology, and he has also done some church planting. Both vocations come forth in this book that synthesizes the academic and pastoral vocations, calling for radical change in the best Latin sense: he wants to get down to the roots of things.
(I get to make comments about Latin when I review this one: it’s a book on the intellectual life.)
Moreland’s book happens in four sections, proceeding from an overview of Christian anti-intellectualism and towards a vision of congregational life that places intellectual formation in its proper place. The third and most tedious section, “What a Mature Christian Mind Looks Like,” comprises four of the ten chapters.
Moreland’s central project is one that this teacher of college English applauds loudly: a call for churches to escape the self-imposed anti-intellectualism and the resulting moron stereotypes by returning to historical awareness. We Christians should remind one another of our collective contributions to the sciences, literature, philosophy, and other intellectual pursuits; and we should remind one another that the cloud of witnesses surrounding us consists not only of the faithful and the charitable and the brave but also the wise. Thus our love of wisdom (Greek philosophia is not a decorative addition to the faith, much less a detriment to faithfulness, but the shape that some of our holy vocations take.
Everything I like most and everything I like least about evangelical apologetic reasoning happens in this book. On the good side, Moreland calls into question some of the commonplaces (from inside and outside the Church) about Christians and reason, holding up the rich history of Christian intellectual practice against the stereotype of blind followers, the contingent character of modern atheism against claims that Christianity is some kind of therapeutic mental prosthesis, and the Bible’s own respect for Solomon and Daniel against claims that “worldly” learning is useless or even harmful for Christians. On the bad, he often slips into catch phrases that I’ve heard for years but as yet have not heard explained well. Moreland’s book left me searching still on that point. Just to point to an easy example, I still do not know what a proponent of “propositional” truth has that someone who believes that God is true (in all of that clause’s multivalence) lacks. Besides that, he has the conservative’s bad habit of talking about things such as “feminism,” “postmodernism,” and “socialism” as if they were monoliths. (Think about the way that sloppy liberals talk about “fundamentalists” or “the religious right” for an analogue.)
The section I called tedious might actually prove helpful to the audience for whom Moreland writes. In a few short chapters Moreland lays out the basics of formal logic, worldview philosophy, and casuistic ethics. (He doesn’t use these terms, but that’s what I call them.) My own frustration, I suppose, comes from the fact that I have already done formal study in these topics, and the necessity for brevity leads Moreland to take shortcuts and leave things unexplained that I might explain were I to teach such things.
But the midsection does nothing to dim the brilliance (or the controversy) of the book’s conclusion. Moreland calls for some measures that make good sense without making waves: he suggests that every congregation should pair any parishoner who is starting graduate school with a mentor in her or his field for the sake of conversation and encouragement. He calls for the church library ministry to set up a table before and after services in the main entrance to encourage people to check out and to read books, and he wants church bulletins to have book reviews. (I would prefer putting them on the church website, but I’m a bit green that way.) And he suggests that preachers plan their homilies a week ahead of time and offer extensive study notes on paper or on the church’s web site for further study. Such measures would make some extra work, but I don’t imagine anywhere near VBS or Sunday night services make.
Going a bit further, Moreland suggests that every fourth Sunday or so, the one preaching should “intentionally pitch a message to the upper one-third of the congregation, intellectually speaking” (194)with a sermon, preaching an unabashedly difficult sermon for the sake of those parishoners with the most education. He concedes that such a move will go over some people’s heads, but he argues that it will at once give those folks an impetus to develop their minds and avoid talking below the heads of the eggheads all the time and driving them outside of the congregation to live out the sum total of their intellectual lives.
His most radical call is for the pluralization of the preaching ministry. In a time when megachurch preachers are preaching on closed-circuit television for remote campuses, Moreland says, “The local church should be led and taught by a plurality of voices called elders, and those voices should be equal” (190). If the congregation lacks more than one person comfortable delivering a Sunday morning oration, Moreland writes, the congregation’s first order of business should be to discern who might be gifted to teach and to train at least a second preacher. Expanding on this, Moreland calls for congregations in which no individual preaches more than 26 Sundays in any calendar year and ideally in which four or more teachers take four-Sunday blocks to develop rigorous and intellectually edifying series of orations.
The implications of this idea, I think, have to be towards bi-vocational ministries, situations in which no one person receives a full salary from the congregation’s coffers. Moreland does not go so far as to suggest that outright, but the numbers add up.
When I finished this book I told Mary that I was glad that I’d already committed to finishing my Ph.D and teaching college for the next couple years; ideas as exciting as these have almost convinced me to become a church planter.