An evolving relationship

Author: Arts and Letters

Mark A. Noll, a man many Americans may never have heard of, reclines in his office chair dressed in jeans and a polo shirt. A soft-spoken man and now a professor of history at the University of Notre Dame, he was named one of the top 25 most influential evangelicals in America by Time magazine in 2005.

Unlike the late Jerry Falwell, known for his booming personality and media savvy, Noll has achieved recognition within the evangelical community and beyond through his powerful scholarship and many well-received books.

Noll accepted the position of Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History, an endowed chair, at Notre Dame in July 2006 after leaving Wheaton College, a private evangelical Protestant liberal arts college near Chicago where he spent 27 years as a teacher and scholar.

The evolving relationship between Roman Catholics and evangelical Protestants, Noll says during a recent conversation, is what led a Catholic university such as Notre Dame to invite him to join its faculty.

Fifty years ago, evangelicals and Catholics had almost nothing to do with each other, Noll says.

“Today, there are all sorts of conversations, discussions and partial agreements.”

On its side, the university is glad to have Noll, says John McGreevy, chairman of Notre Dame’s history department, adding, “Mark brings to us strength in American and religious and intellectual history, which has long been an area of focus within the department.”

Noll also will build on the work of history professor George M. Marsden, who will retire in spring 2008, McGreevy says.

Noll is stepping into big shoes. Marsden is the recipient, among other awards, of the Bancroft Prize for Distinguished Books in American History and the Louisville Grawemeyer Award in Religion for his book “Jonathan Edwards: A Life.”

“I’ve benefited from George Marsden’s work and Notre Dame’s work, and it was an honor to be asked to help with undergraduate teaching and graduate students,” Noll says. In fact, Noll has included some of Marsden’s books — “Fundamentalism and American Culture” and “Jonathan Edwards: A Life” — on the syllabi of some of the courses he teaches.

About the classroom discussions that he anticipates having, Noll says, “Notre Dame mixes up Catholics and Protestants and Jews and Muslims and nonbelievers. I’m looking forward to that kind of mixture.”

Noll says he also looks forward to working with students pursuing a doctoral degree, as Wheaton lacks a doctoral program in history.

In the two classes he has taught so far at Notre Dame — Religion and American Politics, and Twentieth Century World History of Christianity — Noll says he noticed that Catholic and evangelical students voice similar insights. The main difference, he says, is that Catholic students tend to think a little more in terms of community, linked to the Catholic Church’s worldwide structure, whereas Protestant students, lacking such a structure, respond from an individual, more independent perspective.

Of his teaching goals, Noll says, “I want people to understand how Christianity has been important in a broader American culture and how the broader American culture has been important to Christian faith.”

As an example, he mentions Protestant churches that, with their strong volunteer organizations, have contributed to America’s grass-roots character. In turn, our country has helped shape Christian churches’ democratic practices — for example, voting on ministers, Noll says.

Noll describes his own interests as centered on two spheres: religion’s relationship to intellectual life, or academia, and to politics. In fact, his next book, “Race, Religion and American Politics From Nat Turner to George W. Bush,” will explore how race and religious issues have influenced public policy. During his tenure at Wheaton College, the books that Noll wrote included some with intriguing titles: “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” (1994) and “Is the Reformation Over?: An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism” (2005).

In “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind,” Noll writes that “evangelicals should take learning more seriously because God made learning possible.”

The problem, Noll says, lies in biblical interpretation.

“Evangelicals have been strong in relying on the Bible but weak in their premature judgments about the Bible,” he says. Some evangelicals believe their own way of understanding the Bible is right and other differing views are not only wrong, but evil, Noll adds.

The issue is not as simple as a literal reading vs. a metaphorical reading of the Bible. How someone reads the Bible, Noll says, depends on the Bible passage and on the reader’s traditional upbringing.

The debate today about the proper use of science and technology also revolves around interpretation, Noll says.

“The perception of human progress is tricky,” he says. Change does not always mean progress. Change can mean progress or falling back. Medical science’s development, that’s progress. Manipulating human life, that’s not."

Abortion, euthanasia and cloning are all examples of manipulating human life and playing God, Noll says.One issue that attracts a wide variety of opinions within the evangelical community is the possibility of theories of creation and evolution coexisting, Noll says.

“I happen to believe the natural world and the Bible come from the same place: God.”

The evolving relationship of evangelicals and Catholics is discussed by Noll in “Is the Reformation Over?”

Noll says that on the political scene, evangelicals and Catholics have agreed with each other on issues such as abortion and euthanasia.“Once you’ve been an ally with someone in a political debate, you tend to respect and listen to them a little bit more,” he says. Although evangelicals have recently garnered more media attention following criticism by members of the Democratic Party, Noll says, he declines to state his opinion on the validity of their remarks.“I think the controversy is over whether the use of religious issues has been legitimate in building up a political force,” Noll says. “Democrats say that Republicans and evangelicals have not respected the separation between church and state.”

Another controversy involves evangelical students who have filed lawsuits against their professors claiming discrimination in the classroom based on their faith.

“It certainly happens, but I don’t think it happens a lot. But I don’t know,” Noll says. “Religion has become polemical. When that happens, there are more flashpoints.”

By flashpoints, Noll says he means issues such as immigration policy, the war in Iraq and abortion that become even more contentious when religion and politics are added to the mix.Although the media gravitates toward tension, conflict and deviance, they have generally done a better job in reporting on evangelicals in the past few years, Noll says.

Instead of focusing solely on politics, the media also report on evangelicals acting similarly to other religious groups — engaging in worship or charity efforts.

For Noll, that worship takes the form of attending, along with his wife, Maggie, South Bend Christian Reformed Church and reading the Bible.

“What I’ve taken out of the Bible,” Noll says, “is why I need Jesus and why Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s plan of all humanity.”

Academic background

Mark Noll is the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame.

He earned his bachelor’s degree at Wheaton College; master’s degrees from the University of Iowa and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School; and a doctoral degree in 1975 from Vanderbilt University.

Noll was named one of the 25 most influential evangelicals in America in the Feb. 7, 2005, issue of Time.

After 27 years as a Christian scholar and teacher at Wheaton, a conservative evangelical Protestant school (one of its most famous alumni is the Rev. Billy Graham) located about 25 miles from Chicago, he joined the faculty of the history department at Notre Dame in summer 2006.

The majority of Noll’s research and writing has dealt with subjects involving the history of Christianity and the intellectual or political history of the United States (and Canada). He has published articles and reviews on a wide variety of subjects involving Christianity in modern history. Currently, Noll is working on a short book on race, religion and American politics, and a more extensive study of the Bible in North American public life.

Titles of Noll’s recent books include “The Civil War as a Theological Crisis” (University of North Carolina Press, 2006); “Is the Reformation Over? An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism” (with Carolyn Nystrom, Baker Publishing Group, 2005); “The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield, and the Wesleys” (InterVarsity Press, 2004); “America’s God, From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln” (Oxford University Press, 2002); and “Sing Them Over Again to Me: Hymns and Hymnbooks in America” (co-editor, University of Alabama Press, 2006).

In 2006, Noll received the National Humanities Medal.

Noll and his wife, Maggie, a reference librarian, are the parents of three grown children. They attend South Bend Christian Reformed Church.

Sources: The University of Notre Dame; Mark Noll:

Originally published by Mariem Qamruzzaman (in the South Bend Tribune) at on June 21, 2007.