Nicholas D. Kristof had a nice op-ed piece in the Sunday New York Times contrasting the British evangelical John Stott and a few rather loud American evangelicals (Falwell and Robertson). Kristof describes himself as “not particularly religious” but he does see evangelicals like Stott as examples of living an authentic Christian life, while the others “come across as hypocrites, monetizing Jesus rather than emulating him.” Amen and amen, preach it!
Toward the end of his column, Kristof made an excellent observation about the level of education required to be a religious leader:
“Centuries ago, serious religious study was extraordinarily demanding and rigorous; in contrast, anyone could declare himself a scientist and go in the business of, say, alchemy. These days, it’s the reverse. A Ph.D. in chemistry is a rigorous degree, while a preacher can explain the Bible on television without mastering Hebrew or Greek — or even showing interest in the nuances of the original texts.”
This is brilliant. The reversal of what defines and “educated” person has completely reversed in the last two hundred years. There was a time when the local pastor was the most educated person in the village. Today pastors do not have an educational advantage, many have not completed advanced degrees and there are some (usually conservative) denominations which will ordain people without completing a Bachelors Degree! Can you imagine someone without a BS degree getting a job in a major pharmaceuticals company doing research? Could a self-taught physicist get a job at JPL and work on the next Mars project?
But I do not think his comments are totally accurate. Many denominations still require a Masters of Divinity for ordination and most serious denominations have a rigorous process to ordain ministers and other religious workers. Those who really do go out and get a PhD in Theology or Biblical Studies from a real University do in fact have a rigorous degree and they have mastered the essential tools of scholarship. They do make positive contributions to the intellectual life and culture. For the most part, they are not “blowhards” or hypocrites. As Kristof himself says at the end of the article, many evangelicals are “disproportionately likely” to be giving to charities as well as volunteering in organizations which really do relieve human suffering.
The people targeted by Kristof are the theological alchemists of our day, they are quack doctors selling snake oil to the masses. Unfortunately, the internet has given these people a voice. Anyone can make a video explaining “Revelations” and put it on YouTube, whether they know what they are talking about or not (I am looking at you, Third Eagle). Anyone can put up a blog and spout their opinion without any sort of formal (or informal) training whatsoever. Knowing how to use Strong’s Numbers does not qualify one to translate God’s Word. It does not take much computer savvy to create a professional looking blog, whether the content has any value or not.
The real problem is that when the media wants an “evangelical” opinion, they go to the blowhards rather than people like John Stott. It is better theater since the blowhard is going to say something incendiary and bump the network’s TV ratings or generate hits on their website. I think the type of evangelical Kristof respects in this article ought to be the ones interviewed, they ought to be the ones writing op-ed pieces in the local papers, they are the ones who ought to be shaping discussions and transforming culture.
I think they could do it, but they are too busy out in the world being the Church, meeting human needs.