Thoughts on Christianity Today's Profile of Albert Mohler
The cover story of this month’s Christianity Today is a lengthy profile of Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. The story is written by Molly Worthen, a writer and journalist finishing her Ph.D. at Yale. The article covers the history of the Conservative Resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention as well as Mohler’s influence in the wider world of evangelicalism. After reading the story a few times, I wanted to weigh in with some thoughts.
First, I deplore the way that many evangelicals (particularly those in the conservative circles I run in) belittle Christianity Today. I’ve heard the jokes: Christianity Astray, Capitulation Today etc. Some dismiss CT as if the magazine never takes strong stands based on solid biblical reflection.
I have critiqued CT articles from time to time, but I don’t join the chorus of constant CT-critics. Generally speaking, the issues I sometimes have with CT’s coverage tend to be issues I have with the prevailing sentiments of evangelicalism. CT provides a snapshot of the para-church big-tent wing of evangelicalism, a tent that encompasses Christians with different views on a number of important issues. If I were to agree with everything I read in CT, I would no longer be reading the type of publication that CT seeks to be: an evangelical magazine that speaks from and to village-green evangelicalism.
Enough with that. Now, on to the cover story.
When I first heard about CT doing this profile, I thought, It’s about time! Albert Mohler is highly influential in a number of circles that are, in turn, highly influential for evangelicals. When you put these different circles together, you realize just how much influence Mohler exerts. Three circles stand out:
- The Southern Baptist Convention. (He is a denominational strategist who played an important role in the the Great Commission Resurgence, not to mention the fact that he casts the vision for the Convention’s mother seminary).
- The Religious Right. (Though he eschews the term “culture warrior” and is more nuanced than the typical voices in conservative politics, his cultural analysis is very popular. He has become a sort of spokesman for this wing of evangelical thought.)
- The Reformed Resurgence. (Through his leadership in Together for the Gospel, the Gospel Coalition, and his well-known Reformed theology, he has carved out a role as a guide to young Reformed types seeking church and cultural renewal.)
Looking at Mohler from the perspective of the Reformed Resurgence, the Religious Right, and the Southern Baptist Convention reiterates his status as a mover and shaker for evangelicals. In many ways, he resembles one of his mentors, Carl F.H. Henry. Speaking of Henry, the most ironic part of CT’s cover story is that it paints Mohler as being outside the mainstream of evangelicalism for his complementarian and inerrantist views when, in fact, it is Mohler (and not CT) who is carrying the mantle of former CT editor Carl Henry on these and other issues.
Worthen’s profile of Mohler is not condemnatory. She carefully presents his views on many issues. The best parts of the article are when Worthen is quoting Mohler or summarizing their conversations. She ably describes the building blocks of Mohler’s vision: for Southern Seminary, for the Southern Baptist Convention, for the conservative political movement, etc. Overall, Worthen’s article is neither a hack job nor a puff piece.
That said, Justin Taylor rightly described the article as “condescending.” The tone is negative at times, and Worthen’s condescension comes out in some of the offhanded remarks she makes in her reporting.
For example, when speaking of Southern Seminary’s current theological outlook, Worthen includes a parenthetical remark:
“As proof of the seminary’s current ‘diversity,’ some faculty protest that they are only four-point Calvinists.”
Her sarcasm aside, Worthen fails to understand the administration’s adherence to the Abstract of Principles, which ensures that all faculty fall in line as at least a moderate Calvinist. Her remark assumes that great theological diversity in a faculty is a virtue, whereas Mohler believes it is more virtuous for the faculty to be faithful to the confessional statement of the seminary founders.
Southern Seminary students aren’t portrayed nicely either. She describes the student visitors to Mohler’s personal library as “goggle-eyed” and gullible.
When it comes to Mohler, Worthen conveys respect for his accomplishments, but she wonders out loud if he is the intellectual everyone thinks he is. She writes of his personal library:
“A self-conscious air pervades the library, in the jumble of cultural artifacts intended to convey worldliness; in the shelves lined with a conspicuous number of Great Books, Harvard Classics, and other pre-packaged sets that seem the fruit of a single-minded mission to conquer a body of knowledge, or at least to give that impression.”
So the library may be part of Mohler’s attempt to come off as smart? As if the man, after all of his academic accomplishments, needs a big library to demonstrate his intellectual fortitude?
Later, she goes further, saying that Mohler is not so much an intellectual or theologian as he is an “articulate controversialist.” She trots out two of Mohler’s controversial positions (though it’s hard to imagine that his creationist views are that controversial for evangelicals, most of whom fall squarely into the Answers in Genesis camp and not Biologos). Because of the space she devotes to controversies, Worthen leaves out Mohler’s more important view of ”theological triage,” a concept that is very influential for conservative evangelicals seeking to uphold sophisticated theological distinctions and yet engage in partnerships with Christians who hold other views.
Worthen’s most perplexing comment is her charge of elitism. She writes:
“Mohler is just as elitist as the moderates of Old Southern: he is certain he has the truth, and those Baptists who protest simply are not initiated into the systematic splendor of Reformed thought.”
It appears that, for Worthen, elitism equals being certain one has the truth. Is that necessarily so? Cannot agnostics be elitist? What about postmodern theologians who revel in uncertainty and easily dismiss the “ultra-rationalistic” theological viewpoints of earlier evangelicals? What about journalists who are certain that certainty equals elitism? If Mohler comes across as an elitist in this article, a closer reading makes Worthen come across even more so.
In the end, Worthen gets a lot of facts and details right, but she puts them together in a way that makes her portrait of Mohler unflattering. Yes, the article could have been worse. But it could have been better too.