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Albert Mohler certainly doesn’t need me to defend him, and Christianity Today, the flagship magazine of evangelicalism, certainly doesn’t have to like everyone or everything I like. But the recent cover story by Molly Worthen on Southern Seminary’s president deserves comment for other reasons.

I could talk about the condescending attitude that permeates the piece, where presuppositionalism is defined as “a system of thought that boils down to the slogans” offered by Francis Schaeffer, Al Mohler is described as “not so much an intellectual or theologian as he is an articulate controversialist,” and Southern Seminary is cast as a group self-conscious fundies buying blazers and Redken hair products “to counter outsiders’ stereotypes of fundamentalism.”

I could talk about the way Worthen continually injects her beliefs into the story, calling old Princeton “hyper-rationalist” and inserting a parenthesis at one point to clear up that “Calvin’s own theology is distinct from that of his followers.”

I could talk about how the two sides that jockeyed for power in the SBC get termed “conservatives” and “moderates.” Mohler’s take on things is “pugnacious;” he’s an “inerrantist,” “doggedly fundamentalist,” and a “culture warrior.” Those opposite Mohler come across more reasoned, more balanced. The only time “liberal” appears is to describe the old Southern faculty that ran afoul of “fire-breathing trustees.”

I could mention the eye-rolling line that the current “diversity” at Southern means there are some four-point Calvinists or the sneer about Mohler being an elitist because he is certain he has the truth, “and those Baptists who protest simply are not initiated into the systematic splendor of Reformed thought.”

This long piece has a lot to say about Mohler, much of it helpful, much of it not. The bigger issue, however, is not what the piece says about Al Mohler, but what it says about Christianity Today. This is a magazine begun under the editorial leadership of Carl Henry, an inerrantist, a Calvinist, even one might say, a rationalist. Anyone familiar with Henry’s massive God, Revelation, and Authority would easily conclude, and rightly so, that it is Mohler who stands in the tradition of Carl Henry, and CT, at least as represented by this piece, stands, well, somewhere else.

Mohler is certainly controversial and it is right for journalists to explore controversies and get both sides to a story. But to paint Mohler—a champion of inerrancy, substitutionary atonement, and the historic Christian positions on abortion and homosexuality—as nothing but a controversialist and an heir of Prostestant scholasticism and dreaded Old Princeton is hardly fair, and hardly in keeping with CT’s general editorial philosophy. I have several years worth of CT’s in my office. There are dozens of profiles and virtually every one of them is warm and flattering, some almost puff pieces. I’ve read stories on Bill Gaither, Jack Hayford, Shane Claiborne, Donald Miller, Beth Moore, even Ted Haggard (before his “fall), and they are overwhelmingly positive. If CT is known for one thing it’s their penchant for writing favorable reviews of most everyone under the broad label “evangelical.”

So why such a condescending piece on one of evangelicalism’s most well-known leaders? Why go on the subtle offensive against one who is a defender of so much that Christianity Today was launched fifty years ago to defend? It would have been nice to see the magazine of “evangelical conviction” look at the man who, under God, led the largest denomination’s flagship seminary back to historic orthodoxy, and portray him not as a “culture warrior” wrapped in pseudo-elitist garb or as the intellectual heir of slogans and scholasticism, but first and foremost—and I know this sounds crazy—as an evangelical.


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50 thoughts on “Christianity Today and Al Mohler: A Long Profile in the Wrong Direction”

  1. Reg Schofield says:

    I have long given up on reading Christianity Today.It has drifted too far for me to even enjoy. Plus I want to keep my blood pressure down. In all seriousness , I did find the article on Mohler as very condescending and negative in tone. The fact a piece like this could end up in the magazine tells volumes of the direction of the editors . The only reason I read it was do to it being mentioned on a site I visit. All it did was remind me of why I gave up reading Today.

  2. Chris S says:

    “Al Mohler is described as “not so much an intellectual or theologian as he is an articulate controversialist,”

    He doesn’t exactly help his cause by publishing moralistic – and incredibly poorly argued – pieces on his website like the recent one on Christianity and Yoga.

  3. JW says:

    Well, Justin, I guess I get to jump in here before the snide CT bashing begins in earnest in the comments.

    Mohler is certainly, as you note, “one of evangelicalism’s most well-known leaders,” but isn’t he also one of its most controversial? Isn’t Mohler and Southern at the center of several overlapping centers of ongoing and bitter controversy (SBC infighting, neo-Reformed issues, inerrancy, perhaps neo-fundamentalist concerns)?

    I didn’t find the piece condescending so much as critical, and I’m not sure why that is such a problem? As noted again and again on this very blog, Mohler’s camp has huge problems/questions/concerns with wider evangelicalism, why can’t a magazine like CT raise critical concerns/questions of Mohler?

    And I agree the connections to Carl Henry are ironic. But I am one reader VERY glad that CT isn’t the same magazine it was when Henry ran the ship, and not because he was wrong or did a bad job, but because that was decades ago (I know your readers won’t like that reasoning, ah well). And it seems to be the critical issues have changed (though my impression is that Mohler would disagree).

    And one other question: Given all the negative comments I have read hear about CT over the last year or so, why are you surprised? By many admissions on this very blog, CT does not reflect your concerns/emphasis, etc.

    But I suspect many of your readers will agree completely with your assessment: All this will be made clear by all the comments below about how this crowd (TGC, etc.) has long since stopped reading the suspect and perhaps even heretical CT. Sigh.

  4. Gunner says:

    JW,

    You’re actually responding to Kevin DeYoung, not Justin Taylor.

    Gunner

  5. JW says:

    Gunner,
    You are right, my bad. I did realize it was Kevin, but I read both blogs and get confused!
    Reg beat me to what I was talking about.
    Here is my main point: condescending is not the same thing as negative.

  6. KS says:

    I’m not in a position to evaluate the Mohler story, but the recent stories on Beth Moore were superficial at best. One writer took quotes out of context to prove her point.

  7. Joel says:

    I disagree. As far as I know, Worthen isn’t a Christian or is a liberal (heterodox) Christian, so that explains some of her categorizations – “moderate,” etc. But she is a good and fair reporter IMO.

    As far as Van Til and presuppositionalism: I didn’t take her as saying that it boils down to slogans, but rather she was summarizing it via the slogan “there is no neutrality.” I think that is a fine summarization of Van Tillian thought and one that is often used amongst Van Tillians themselves.

    I’m not a CT reader, so I don’t know what their coverage is like generally, so perhaps this article would be better in the NY Times where she has written before. But all in all I think it was a good overview of the theological struggles of Mohler and the SBC.

  8. Keith Marriner says:

    It’s one thing for a journalist to quote others who are critical of Mohler and the theological positions he upholds. The CT piece did this at times, and there is no reason to be upset with that. That is good journalism. However, the writer time and again takes digs against Mohler and his tribe. This is not good journalism. Now I could be wrong, but it appears that someone getting their Ph.D. in journalism would now the difference between a journalistic piece and an editorial. If this was intended to be a strict editorial, then my critic is unfounded. However, if the intent of the writer was to give CT’s readers an even-handed journalistic piece on Mohler (critiques from his opponents included), it failed.

  9. Hayden says:

    JW,

    The Oxford English Dictionary defines condescension as ‘an attitude of patronizing superiority’. I read the CT article and that can be seen often. (Usually at the end of paragraphs in the piece, read it aloud and you will see it)

    Kevin hit the nail on the head. I do not mind that they are critical of Mohler, but the little comments throughout the article betray a condescending tone.

  10. I agree whole-heartedly. Is soon as a read the article I wrote a letter to the editor at CT. I too thought that the article was demeaning, mocking, and completely inappropriate. I mean, they accused Mohler of collecting books to make himself look smart (an obvious judgment of motives). Where is there room for this kind of assessment in brotherly love? I was confused. I commented to the editor that he or she should check the comments section to see if the article bore the fruit of the Spirit. It seems to me that it just either disheartened people, or stirred up a self-righteous indignation. I hope they follow that article up with an apology and/or clarification.

  11. Malin Friess says:

    When Al Mohler says “the theory of evolution is incompatible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ even as it is in direct conflict with any faithful reading of the Scriptures” he becomes more than controversial. Dr. Mohler becomes a divisive voice in evangelical circles.

    Many credible evangelical Christians (CS Lewis, Francis Collins) believe that evolution (not philosophical darwinism) are indeed compatible with being a believer in the risen Christ.

  12. Kevin DeYoung says:

    I would be careful saying Worthen isn’t a Christian or is a heterodox Christian. I don’t know her background at all, but unless you really know she isn’t a Christian (and I’d be very surprised if that’s the case), we should be extremely careful not to slander her.

  13. Joel says:

    @ Kevin, I agree with you and do not intend to slander her. I follow her pretty closely, and what I’m saying is simply a guess, not a fact. But if you look at her columns at Yale I think you would agree. I love her work. She has done great articles on Rushdoony, New St. Andrews and Mark Driscoll. As a Van Tillian post-reconstructionist myself, I find her work as fair as you will get from a secular point of view.

    I’m not a Mohler fan, although I think he is OK, so maybe I’m not as outraged as some on here. I don’t find her demeaning or taking “digs” at him. She is confirming Van Tillian thinking in that there is “no neutrality.” Therefore, she classifies his positions in certain ways and from a mainline Protestant POV (which I think she is coming from) – her characterizations make sense. I think the issue is what CT uses in choosing *their* POV. I have no idea what that would be since I don’t read the magazine. Maybe she shopped the story and they bought it rather than the NY Times or Church History (where she wrote about Rushdoony). I don’t know how that works.

  14. Doc B says:

    This was (apparently, from the comments) more of why I dropped my CT subscription 15 years ago. Just another MSM rag.

  15. Dave Sarafolean says:

    CT has fallen greatly from the days of Carl Henry as has evangelicalism in general. Read his autobiography, Confessions of a Theologian, and you’ll understand what I mean.

    I recently allowed my subscription to CT expire. The main reason is this: the magazine counts just about everything under the sun as relevant and helpful except people who take creeds and confessions seriously (I would include men like Al Mohler in that category).

  16. John says:

    I really didn’t find this piece offensive at all. It sounds exactly like what one might read in the NYT or Washington Post. I think the issue is CT’s choice to publish only this perspective. A choice which is made sour to me by the fact that this same rag publishes glowing reviews of clowns like Haggard.

  17. Jeff Schultz says:

    “Condescending” is probably the best single word to describe the article.

    I’m neither a Baptist nor a follower of Mohler. It was painfully obvious from the article that Worthen doesn’t like Mohler, his theology, or his work. He comes across as a more polished (if no more intelligent) Jerry Falwell. Perhaps that’s who he really is. But Worthen missed an opportunity to help us understand Mohler and his significance by consistently injecting her judgments into the piece.

    This was bad journalism.

  18. As I read this article, I found myself cheering in the way that a capitalist would cheer when reading a communist’s carping about the economic power and productivity of capitalism.

    Decades ago, I departed Southern Baptist Christianity for ecclesiastical climes that were more robustly Biblical, less good-two-shoes moralistic. If Al Mohler had been around SBC circles back then, I’d likely still be in that fold today.

  19. Michael says:

    From some of the comments here, it is not surprise CT still hold sway in Christian circles. What was once “Biblical” is not castigated as “fundamentalist”, and history is revised to the more moderate view. The world has sunk its teeth into many Christians and they aren’t willing to throw it off just yet. Here is exhibit A:

    “When Al Mohler says “the theory of evolution is incompatible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ even as it is in direct conflict with any faithful reading of the Scriptures” he becomes more than controversial. Dr. Mohler becomes a divisive voice in evangelical circles.”

  20. Michael,

    You’re spot on here. You should read how tightly evangelical pooh-bahs’ panties got twisted when Henry Morris published _The Genesis Flood_. He was just as controversial in his day (and with the same sorts of folks) as Mohler is today, who is simply saying what Morris and others like him say: “We believe what the Bible says. You should too.”

  21. Scott C says:

    You forgot to mention that Mohler’s mentor Henry was also a literal 7-day creationist. But then again, some people in Mohler’s camp are embarrassed by that and would rather keep it hush-hush.

  22. Dana Olson says:

    Did anyone else notice that in his opening column, Editor David Neff calls her piece on Mohler “sensitive”? I wondered whose sensitivities he had in mind? Hopefully Dr. Mohler will accept this “good and decent” attack as an evidence that he’s having an enormous impact which is making many people nervous.

  23. I read the article and had many of the same concerns as you, Kevin. In light of Henry’s role in the magazine’s genesis, it is interesting that Worthen included Mohler’s story about the discussion he had with Henry that precipitated a conservative shift in his own understanding of the biblical roles of men and women.

  24. Thanks for reminding me why I no longer read CT.

  25. Ben says:

    If the same tone had been taken in an article profiling Rob Bell or Brian McLaren how would we respond? Would we be this worked up at the shoddy ‘journalism’ or would it be greeted with “yes and amen”?

    I’d guess the latter.

    Perhaps this question is tangential to the point of the post, but perhaps at times — when it suits our purposes — we’re just as (un)objective at as the article in question.

  26. Kevin, you are the second blogger I have noticed lately that implies that The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. is the “largest” SBC seminary. I don’t know where you are getting your information from but according to enrollment figures Southern is second in head count(HC) and third in fulltime equivalent(FTE) and size of faculty. Southwestern is largest in all categories (HC, FTE and number of faculty). Just thought you ought to know. (info found on page 10 of http://www.ats.edu/Resources/Publications/Documents/AnnualDataTables/2009-10AnnualDataTables.pdf)

  27. Kevin DeYoung says:

    Richard, thanks for the correction. I’ll change that in the post.

  28. Paul says:

    As far as I can tell, Mohler believes that theistic evolution is incompatible with Christianity. If that’s the case then Mohler thinks huge numbers of evangelical pastors, teachers and others (including presumably large numbers of people who work at CT) aren’t really Christians. Is is therefore surprising that evangelicals that Mohler thinks are all going to hell have just a teeny bit of a problem with that and write articles that say that Mohler’s “intellect” is over-rated? I don’t find that surprising at all and I’m surprised anyone thinks it is surprising.

    It might be legitimate to criticize CT for being inconsistent in being condescending to Mohler but not to eg. Haggard. On the other hand, perhaps CT have realized that they can’t continue to write puff pieces about evangelical leaders like Haggard because if they do they run the risk of being exposed later as naive fools. Maybe, Mohler is the first to get the new, more critical, CT treatment.

    In any event, I don’t agree that one should criticize a journalistic piece for being condescending. The issue isn’t whether the tone is condescending but whether what CT said about Mohler is correct or not.

  29. Tony Mator says:

    Paul,
    There are many things that are incompatible with Christianity. For example, if John Doe were to say that Jesus’ mother’s name was Amy, then that would be incompatible with Christianity, for the simple reason that it is contrary to the traditions passed down to us from Christ and his disciples. It doesn’t necessarily mean that John Doe is going to hell.

    There are degrees of error, and degrees of heresy. Al Mohler doesn’t seem foolish enough to think that everyone who believes in a common ancestry is outside of Christ. However, he is intelligent enough to see that the evolutionary narrative is contradicted by the teaching of Scripture. At at a metaphysical level, it can be downright poisonous.

  30. Paul says:

    Tony,

    You might be correct and I hope you are, but I honestly doubt it, given what Mohler himself says. When Al Mohler writes that:
    “the theory of evolution is incompatible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ”
    it sure sounds to me like he thinks that theistic evolutionists aren’t really Christians. If that’s not what he means, what else can he mean? My understanding of Mohler is that he’s an exclusivist so he believes that people who aren’t Christians go to hell. Therefore, Mohler by his own words, believes theistic evolutionists go to hell.

    Are you saying Mohler thinks that someone can believe something “incompatible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ” and still be a Christian?

  31. Jeff Schultz says:

    “condescending: showing or implying a usually patronizing descent from dignity or superiority; patronizing, disdainful, supercilious.”

    It’s a problem for a news piece when the writer leaves the position of reporter and interjects herself and her opinions into the story to guide readers to the “right” answer. It’s clear from Worthen’s piece what we’re supposed to think of Mohler. There are no neutral reporters, but Worthen’s biases and blind spots are so obvious that it’s hard to take this as reporting and not an op-ed.

    Even if she has her facts correct, an opinionated piece like this does a disservice to readers. Those who agree with her opinions will pat themselves on the back for their shared superiority to Mohler, while those who disagree will dismiss it because of the obvious biases and miss the good that is in it.

    There’s more at issue than whether CT got their facts straight. There are the issues of Worthen’s adversarial interpretation of those facts, armchair psychoanalysis, and assigning of bad motives. Did Worthen get those things correct?

  32. Tommie says:

    Can I buy u a mega phone. Everyone should hear this.

  33. Dan says:

    I totally agree with you Kevin. This article on Mohler was terrible. Molly Worthen was completely biased and it showed in almost every paragraph. It is a shame that she could not have been more professional than that. It also shows where CT is heading. CT is fast becoming the new Christian Century. However, at least CC is honest about where they are coming from – they don’t pretend to be Evangelical like the publishers of CT do.

  34. Ronald says:

    Pastor Kevin,

    Did you read [?] ….”Non-Calvinist consevatives, Mohler says, “are not aware of the basic structures of thought, rightly described as Reformed, that are necessary to protect the very gospel they insist is to be eagerly shared.”

    It seems you are quick to defend Dr. Mohler against Molly; but are you willing to defend Non-Calvinists against the condecending attitude of Dr. Mohler.

    Did you discern a condecending spirit when Dr. Mohler made this statement and others?

  35. Justin says:

    I am no Al Mohler apologist, but I am a bit shocked that anyone would attempt to defend this article on journalistic grounds. The author clearly shows her cards in the section concerning Mohler’s library, where she implies, more than once, that he is a phony scholar looking to impress. It is quite evident that the author believes one cannot believe what Mohler believes and be a true intellectual.

  36. Gunner says:

    Paul,

    I’m a student at Southern and a graduate and former staff member at two other institutions that stand (even more) strongly against theistic evolution. I am confident that the leadership of both places would not claim what you’re attributing to them. Though Mohler and others would stand strongly against both evolution and theistic evolution, there is still a significant difference (obviously) between the two views, and leaders of Mohler’s stature recognize that. I realize that I’m speaking only from experience and not giving you hard evidence, but based on the theological logic and boundaries of these conservative leaders, I feel comfortable saying that Mohler would not fit your theological sketch. I hope this helps.

    Gunner

  37. Kevin,

    Your analysis of CT is right on. Could this reflect that CT was so successful that eventually the broader evangelical movement took the helm? Something similar happens when Christian schools become very successful (i.e. the broader academic culture takes the helm, and they often begin to take more liberal stances, in some cases becoming indistinguishable from secular Universities).

    Could it be, ironically, that Henry’s vision for a more robustly Reformed Christianity, because it entailed a more intellectually engaging Christianity, struck such a deep chord with the broader evangelical movement that eventually everybody wanted “in” on it and therefore CT, rather than transforming the broader evangelical movement, ended up being (incidentally) taken over by this broader movement?

    Just trying to get at answering the question you raise in your post about what this article says about CT.

    Bradley

  38. Paul says:

    Gunner,

    Thanks for your post and clarification. I think it’s clear that if you are a student at Southern that you’ll know more about Mohler’s beliefs than I do.

    I am still curious, however, what Mohler means when he says “the theory of evolution is incompatible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ”. Assuming you are correct that this doesn’t mean that Mohler thinks all theistic evolutionists are non-Christians, what does it mean? You may not know with certainty but if you’d care to speculate based on your experience at Southern, I’d be interested to read your speculation. Obviously, Mohler thinks theistic evolution is false but he could say it’s false without saying it’s “incompatible with the Gospel”. To me “incompatible with the Gospel” is strong language (much stronger than “false”) and it’s unclear to me why Mohler would use that kind of language if he is happy to believe theistic evolutionists can be real Christians.

    Paul

  39. Joe says:

    CT of course can publish what it likes. But WHY would it choose a liberal Yale student to profile a heavy hitter like Mohler and not request edits on portions like the library tour, which were simply caustic and more appropriate for a piece like Vanity Fair’s Creation Museum slam. Of course many people see him this way, but is CT publishing for kudos from the NYT players who will see this piece as “admirably” objective, or from readers? No need for a puff piece, but if you are going to look at church leaders critically, how about having someone do it who does not disdain historic Christian beliefs or histories, or assume she knows them when she misrepresents them (see Helm’s Calvin & The Calvinists). Disheartening.

  40. What scares many in the SBC more than Mohler’s being reformed is the fact that that he is indeed evangelical.

  41. Gunner says:

    Paul,

    I think the first step would be to define “theistic evolutionist.” Are you talking about the age of the earth, the reality of a historical Adam, or the credibility of the entire Genesis creation account? I would guess that Mohler and others would view each of those issues with an increasing level of seriousness. For instance, Mohler makes his “theological triage” clear in this statement in which he followed up his message at Ligonier:

    “How are we to reconcile the absence of an historical Adam, for example, with Paul’s very clear and unambiguous affirmation of Adam’s headship and its centrality to the gospel? The age of the earth is not the central question, though it is an unavoidable and important question.”

    http://www.albertmohler.com/2010/10/01/evolution-when-atheists-and-baptists-agree/

    I would also imagine that you would find more explanation from Mohler himself in the Ligonier message in which he made the statement. I haven’t heard the sermon personally (and maybe you already have). I hope this helps a bit, though I wish I had more time to expand on these things.

    Gunner

  42. Justin Mosebach says:

    Here’s her webpage on Yale’s website (which includes her email address)… http://www.yale.edu/religiousstudies/MollyWorthen.html

  43. Steve says:

    what’s really funnny is that CT somehow still counts as a “not for profit”

  44. Susan Thompson says:

    We won’t be renewing our subscription to CT. Pitiful.

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Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (PCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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