Skip to main content

Culture Books

Man-made notions


Man-made notions

Exploring academic pretensions

When walking Greeley, my dog named after the 19th-century editor, I sometimes listen to Conversations With Tyler, a podcast featuring interviews by a smart George Mason U. economics professor who leans toward libertarianism. But Tyler Cowen’s Stubborn Attachments (Stripe, 2018) offers two philosophical starting points that cancel out each other. First, “‘Right’ and ‘wrong’ are very real concepts which should possess great force,” and second, “We should be skeptical about the powers of the individual human mind.”

Say what? Since God is absent from Cowen’s universe, human minds define what is right and wrong, yet since we should be skeptical of those minds, shouldn’t we also be skeptical about the concepts those minds originate? What makes those man-made concepts “very real”? Cowen points out that in 1900 the high-school graduation rate was only 6 percent, and he’s glad that many more people now graduate not only high school but college—but once belief in God is gone, more education often leaves us with higher degrees but also higher levels of foolishness.

In 1994 Mark Noll, then a Wheaton professor, produced The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, which in its opening line defined the scandal this way: “There is not much of an evangelical mind.” Now a book with essays by Noll and others, The State of the Evangelical Mind (IVP, 2018), is making the rounds: The verdict is still largely negative, and some suggestions—Ph.D. holders at Christian colleges should teach fewer classes and have more time to write academic articles—are the same old same old.

Only the last essay, by James K.A. Smith, proposes a real alternative: “The future of the evangelical mind needs a generation of careful Christian scholars who are willing to take up the cross of being ‘popularizers’—careful thinkers … willing to forgo the typical academic ladder of success [by] taking up their scholarly work in a diaconal mode and putting their gifts and energies at the service of the wider Christian community.”

Let’s put aside academic arrogance. Yes, I have a Ph.D., so I can say from experience rather than covetousness that (except for university job-hunting) it’s worth what John Nance Garner, FDR’s vice president, said his position was worth: “a pitcher of warm spit.”


Graciousness: Tempering Truth With Love by John Crotts (Reformation Heritage, 2018) lucidly shows how to cultivate graciousness in our hearts, actions, and communities. Seeking a Better Country by D.G. Hart and John R. Muether (P&R, 2007 and 2018) ably tells the story of three centuries of American Presbyterianism. John Piper’s Why I Love the Apostle Paul (Crossway, 2019) gives 30 reasons.

Textual notes make the Africa Study Bible (Oasis International, 2016) a good correction to Eurocentric prejudices. John Frame’s Nature’s Case for God: A Brief Biblical Argument (Lexham, 2018) sees natural revelation as a real witness to the true God—but since sinners suppress that truth, only through the spectacles of Scripture will we be able to read that witness rightly.

Jonah Goldberg’s first sentence in his Suicide of the West (Crown Forum, 2018) is, “There is no God in this book.” Later, though, he writes, “The notion that God is watching you even when others are not is probably the most powerful civilizing force in all of human history.” If we have witnessed what Nietzsche called “the death of God,” then the suicide of the West cannot be far behind.

Two new biographies are surprisingly good reads that take us into different worlds. T. Martin Bennett’s Wounded Tiger (Onstad Press, 2016) is the slightly fictionalized, interwoven story of the pilot who led the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and an American flyer captured after the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo: Mitsuo Fuchida and Jacob DeShazer became brothers in Christ. Jeremy Smith’s Breaking and Entering (Houghton Mifflin, 2019) is the amusing and cautionary tale of “Alien,” a brilliant but anarchic hacker who moved from MIT to major league cybersecurity. —M.O.