Evangelicalism’s Intellectual Ghettoization

Do you find it at all odd that on an almost weekly basis, some pastor, seminarian or graduate student publishes an allegedly devastating refutation of a book written by a professional academic in the prime of her career?

Suppose I told you that one day, as a college student in Chapel Hill, I was shooting hoops down at Woollen Gym, when in walks Vince Carter—a proud UNC alumnus then in the prime of an illustrious NBA career. What if I told you that I challenged him to a game of 1-on-1? And what if I told you that I not only defeated peak Vince Carter in that game of 1-on-1, but did so in humiliating fashion—exposing every weakness in his game. (I’ll admit that I was a bit surprised by this outcome, though not entirely shocked. After all, I did start at shooting guard in the state finals as a senior in high school.)

If I asked you to believe that anything remotely like that sequence of events occurred in the actual world, you’d say I was delusional—delusional for believing it myself, and delusional for expecting anyone else to believe it. Yet something roughly like that scenario plays out in the minds of some evangelicals on a regular basis: a full professor—who’s devoted decades of her life to crafting arguments and sharpening her skills in highly competitive environments—writes a book based on her research. And a few months later, her entire research agenda is dispatched in a few thousand words authored by a celebrity pastor in the course of a weekend. That sounds completely delusional, does it not? And is it less delusional than imagining I dominated Vince Carter (or any other pro basketball player for that matter) in a game of 1-on-1? Marginally, perhaps. But if you think the two cases are radically different, then you likely have no idea what goes on in a university.

Here’s a quick primer: you don’t get tenure for crushing it at beer pong in the faculty lounge. And you don’t attain the rank of full professor by sinking years of effort into books in your area of specialization that are riddled with obvious errors. That’s just not how it works. (Plenty of seminary faculty know this, by the way. I probably don’t say this enough, but by a wide margin the majority of the seminary faculty I know are scholars who spend their time publishing legitimate research. But I digress.)

I have absolutely no interest in litigating the details of any particular example here. I genuinely don’t care whether some or other allegedly devastating critique happens to include a salient minor objection. That would be analogous to arguing over whether, in the course of *very much not* destroying a pro basketball player in a game of 1-on-1, I happened to get lucky and bank in a fadeaway skyhook from the perimeter. It’s irrelevant to the delusion at hand. What interests me is the delusion itself. Specifically, what conditions make it possible for otherwise reasonable people to believe that the carefully considered arguments of accomplished scholars are vulnerable to obvious and devastating objections raised by non-experts? (By this point I’ll be accused of elitism. So I ask: who’s the elitist? Who’s the one convinced that he has more penetrating insights on a subject than a scholar who’s spent decades studying and contributing original scholarship on that subject? Who does he think *he* is?)

Here’s a theory of how this delusion reproduces itself. One of the more pernicious effects of evangelicalism’s intellectual ghettoization has been the emergence of gatekeeping media within evangelicalism that mimic those outside evangelicalism. Most laypeople understand, e.g., that the gold standard for research is a genre of academic literature known as peer-reviewed journals. So if evangelicals want their scholarship to be taken seriously, they need to publish in peer-reviewed journals. But there’s a problem. No reputable journal will publish an argument, e.g., that commends “biblical patriarchy” or young earth creationism. So if evangelicals want their agenda to be taken seriously, they need to create their own peer-reviewed journals. Thus we see “peer-reviewed” journals that deal entirely with issues of concern to ultra-conservative evangelicals, with editorial boards whose members received their training from one of a handful of seminaries or from a university located some country where they’ve never lived. And since these journals only exist as a means of churning out “peer-reviewed” literature that legitimizes some agenda, such journals invariably serve to promote the pet doctrines of their founders rather than advancing or preserving knowledge of truth. All that really matters is that the journal has a process for submitting and reviewing papers that mimics the peer-review process of legitimate academic journals. So technically the author doesn’t know the identity of the reviewer. But the author knows that regardless of who reviews their paper, the reviewer will be someone who has certain sympathies vis-à-vis the journal’s basic agenda. And technically, reviewers don’t know the identity of the author whose paper they’re reviewing. But the reviewer knows that the author is a friend of the journal who’s interested in promoting the journal’s agenda.

That’s not really how a peer-reviewed journal is meant to operate—it’s more like a lightly anonymized editing service for people who share an ideological interest in promoting the same foregone conclusion. This is why we find such gut-wrenchingly bad arguments in publications like the Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. The quality of the reasoning is irrelevant. All that  matters is that the journal churns out “peer-reviewed” papers that support the journal’s ideology. Everyone wins. The journal creates a trail of “peer-reviewed” papers supporting “biblical patriarchy,” and everyone involved in the journal, from authors to editorial staff, can bulk up their CVs with empty calories. Very few of these folks spend any sustained time living and working in the presence of colleagues who hold a diverse range of views on, say, “biblical” patriarchy. Consequently, they never really learn how to argue with those who fundamentally disagree. This shows up in the way that they argue, and in the rapturous applause of otherwise sensible people upon the publication of a critical book review that offers 10 or 15 distinct objections, ranging in length from a couple short paragraphs to a single throwaway clause. (Who can forget: “First, it is likely that Junia is a man, not a woman. Second…”?) This tactic is called ‘Gish-galloping’—perfected by creation scientist Duane Gish, famous for overwhelming opponents with dozens of shallow arguments predicated on faulty implicit assumptions that no one has time to unpack. Crowds love it. Scholars find it unspeakably irritating. Should I explain why each objection ultimately fails? No. Why not? Well, for basically the same reasons I’m not going to give my two year old a detailed account of why it’s inappropriate to run around the living room with his My Size Potty seat on his face shouting “I’m a little blue astronaut.” I’ll talk to him about germs, but I’m not going to explain microbiology to a two year old. I’m not even going to try. It would be fruitless. Ultimately, I’m just going to tell him he can’t do that because “germs” and hope that someday he understands.

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