The Need of Evangelical Cultivation of the Mind

In C.S. Lewis’s classic The Screwtape Letters, he writes as Screwtape, a mentor demon, to Wormwood, an apprentice, providing counsel on how to keep his “patient” out of the grips of the Enemy. Throughout the work Lewis provides a fascinating insight into the nature of temptation. Interestingly, one of the most valuable insights in the book comes in the first chapter of the work where he states,

It sounds as if you supposed that argument was the way to keep him out of the Enemy’s clutches. That might have been so if he had lived a few centuries earlier. At that time the humans still knew pretty well when a thing was proved and when it was not; and if it was proved they really believed it. They still connected thinking with doing and were prepared to alter their way of life as a result of a chain of reasoning. But what with the weekly press and other such weapons, we have largely altered that. Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to have a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn’t think of doctrines as primarily ‘true’ or ‘false,’ but as ‘academic’ or ‘practical,’ ‘outworn’ or ‘contemporary,’ ‘conventional’ or ‘ruthless.’ Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the church.

Poor thought has come to characterize our age. The life of the mind remains the most undervalued aspect of American Christianity. Perhaps we have lost the ability required to exercise our intellectual faculties. More likely, however, we have lost the discipline to do so.

screwtapeThinking carefully and critically requires time, patience, and an embrace of delayed gratification. Unfortunately, these have become increasingly marginalized in our society. The average person reads more than a thousand words per day on Facebook (assuming that most post ranges from 30-50 words and that most people look at 40-50 post per day). Additionally, media and advertisement, in all their varying forms, bombard us with messages.

In reality, we consume massive amounts of information every day. The question that we must answer is whether we intentionally consume valuable information. For American Christianity, and particularly Evangelicalism, to attain the cultural impact of which it is capable, we learn to think once again. But this won’t happen because a cadre of elite intellectuals engages in thoughtful debate on our behalf. For American Evangelicals to impact the culture, we must engage it with our minds.

Past Presidential administrations have shown that merely showing up to vote cannot elicit the type of long-term cultural change that we desire. We may have hopes for the incoming administration, but it will disappoint us because the shift that we wish to see in public will not happen at the political level without first occurring among individuals.

As Lewis famously wrote through Screwtape, “Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the church.” If this is true, then argument, well-reasoned and robust, is our best ally in bringing people to church, helping them see the truth and allowing the Lord to change their minds. To make these arguments we must cultivate the art of thinking, reading, and evaluating. Making arguments that can change culture requires us to develop the life of the mind.

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