A Call for Public Intellectuals

Dr. James Emery White
Dr. James Emery White
2021 13 Sep

Several years ago, Russell Jacoby wrote a provocative book titled The Last Intellectuals. If you have heard the phrase “public intellectual,” this is where it comes from. 

His lament was how younger intellectuals had given themselves over to professionalization and academization. Unlike earlier intellectuals who tended to write for the educated public, Jacoby observed that thinkers in his day flocked to the universities where “the politics of tenure loom larger than the politics of culture.” 

Jacoby contended that younger intellectuals became professors who geared their work toward their colleagues and specialized journals. In an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, reflecting on the heart of his original thesis on its 20th anniversary, Jacoby wrote that, “The new thinkers became academic – not public – intellectuals, with little purchase outside professional circles.” Or as he wrote in his original work, “Campuses are their homes; colleagues their audience; monographs and specialized journals their media.”

His conclusion? 

“Big brains, small impact.”

Both then and now, Jacoby has his fair share of critics, most coming (as you might imagine) from academia. He has been accused of prizing an anti-intellectual simplicity.

I think he has a very important point to make, which is the need for true public intellectuals. People who are neither anti-academic nor purely commercial. Scholars who engage the rigors of the academy but refuse to bow down before its altar and become academics alone. Those who work hard to write for mass consumption, but without the dumbing-down that leads to error.

My concern is that evangelicals have largely polarized between a populist camp and a purely academic camp. The populist camp is atheological and devoid of any semblance of a Christian mind, often led by charismatic speakers who enter their pulpits armed with a few out-of-context verses slapped on to a manuscript that could have been copied from the latest Oprah. 

This has been widely condemned, and rightly so. 

But less critiqued are those in the purely academic camp. I remember attending the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society some years ago, and writing down the titles of some of the papers that were to be presented:

The 16th Century Basel City Council
Isaiah’s Leviathan in His Near Eastern Context
The Story of the Bulgarian Bible
Aristotelian Anthropology and Melanchthon’s Shift on Free Will
The Sixth Century Debate Over the Shape of the Earth

And my favorite:

Jesus and Jewish Menstruation Traditions 

Yes, there were many good and noteworthy addresses. But let the point at least be entertained that academization can be as vacuous as commodification. 

We need the middle ground of the public intellectual. 

Consider the greatest apologist for the Christian faith of the 20th century and the most influential Christian intellectual of the 20th century. He was an academic, but it wasn’t the academy that gave him influence. In fact, C.S. Lewis was discounted by his fellow academicians first for his less than serious focus of study. As Alan Jacobs has noted, when Lewis began his career as an English literature don, he was entering a field that was quite popular among students but highly suspect among other dons, almost like pop culture programs in today’s universities. His effort to write popularly for mass consumption didn’t help, particularly since what he was attempting to popularize was the Christian faith. It began to be “said regularly that Lewis was wasting his time on cheap popular sermonizing and science fiction, time that would have been better spent on scholarship.”  

It is not that Lewis was not an able academic—just read his book Poetry and Prose in the Sixteenth Century. But in many ways, that is the point. How many people know that this work – considered by many the greatest of all of Lewis’ academic writings – even exists? Lewis’ brilliance lay in the popular communication of ideas which can be argued is the work of the academy at its most impactful.

In one of his letters, this to a priest who wanted Lewis to write a book commending Christianity to the “workers,” Lewis offered the following:

“People praise me as a ‘translator,’ but what I want is to be the founder of a school of ‘translation.’ I am nearly forty-seven. Where are my successors? Anyone can learn to do it if they wish.... I feel I’m talking rather like a tutor – forgive me. But it is just a technique and I’m desperately anxious to see it widely learned.”

The “it” in that last sentence is simply the “translation” of Christian thought into vernacular terms that ordinary people can understand. Who will be the C.S. Lewis of our day? That is as ridiculous as asking who the Billy Graham of our day will be. The right question is, “Who will be the translators of our day?”

In other words, who will aspire to be more than an academic, and ascend to the realm of a true public intellectual.

James Emery White

Sources

Russell Jacoby, The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe (Basic Books/Noonday Press, 1987).

Russell Jacoby, “Big Brains, Small Impact,” The Chronicle Review, January 11, 2008, B5-B6.

Alan Jacobs, The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis (HarperSanFrancisco, 2005).

C.S. Lewis, Poetry and Prose in the Sixteenth Century (Oxford University Press). The original title, before OUP retitled the work, was English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (Excluding Drama).

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book After “I Believe” is now available on Amazon or your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.