Fit Bodies, Fat Minds:
Why Evangelicals Don't Think and What to Do About It

Author: Os Guinness
Date: 1994
Publisher: Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, Michigan
ISBN: 0801038707
Reviewed by: Allan H. Harvey, steamdoc@aol.com


The Author

Os Guinness is a native of the U.K. who now lives in the U.S. where he is a Senior Fellow with the Trinity Forum. He has written several books on Christian topics.

Preliminary Comments

Os Guinness had this book in the works for a number of years. In September of 1986, I was in graduate school at Berkeley and attended a seminar series by Guinness on "Thinking Christianly in Today's University." I dug out the notes and discovered that the outline we received for one session was very close to being an outline of this book. It was even titled "Fit Bodies, Fat Minds."

It was a worthwhile topic then as now. The lack of careful thinking among evangelicals both harms our witness to the world and is disobedience to God. As Guinness puts it:

[E]vangelical anti-intellectualism is both a scandal and a sin. It is a scandal in the sense of being an offense and a stumbling block that needlessly hinders serious people from considering the Christian faith and coming to Christ. It is a sin because it is a refusal, contrary to the first of Jesus' two great commandments, to love the Lord our God with our minds [pp. 10-11].
Guinness wrote this short book not as an academic survey of the decline of thought and the rise of anti-intellectualism in evangelical Christianity, but rather as an alarm and a call to action. As such, the book necessarily skims over or omits some important areas. But it covers enough to make the problems clear. The first section traces historical trends that contributed to the decline in evangelical Christian thinking, while the second section covers influences from modern culture. In the final section, Guinness attempts to sketch out some corrective steps.

Part One: A Ghost Mind

Guinness begins by pointing out that there is no necessary contradiction between evangelicalism and thought. In fact, evangelical Christianity has a great intellectual heritage, most notably from the Puritans. This first section of the book traces how a variety of influences have decimated that heritage, leaving the world of Christian thought abandoned like a ghost town.

The section names eight influences, all beginning with the letter "p." With one exception, the first-letter gimmick works without straining the words excessively. The influences are Polarization (specifically, the false dichotomy between heart and mind), Pietism, Primitivism (in its bias toward the simplistic and against learning from the past), Populism, Pluralism, Pragmatism, Philistinism, and Premillenialism (in its Dispensationalist form).

It is interesting that, in 1986, Guinness used the same list except that the last item was Privatization, the desire for one's faith to be wholly private rather than interacting with the world. This aspect has been partly subsumed under Pietism in the book. The new category of Premillenialism is the one where readers are poorly served by the first-letter device; as the chapter explains, the problem has not been premillenial doctrine per se but rather the extremes of dispensationalism where preoccupation with end times keeps Christians from thinking about the present times.

Guinness makes it clear that many of these trends have not been wholly bad. Pietism restored a sense of personal relationship with God to churches that had gone cold with impersonal doctrine, but it also tended to shortchange doctrine and the thought behind it. Pluralism (here understood as the fact that our society has a variety of beliefs) has led Christians to think more about different viewpoints, but at times it has led to relativism and a sacrifice of truth in the name of getting along. Pragmatism has helped churches grow, but has sometimes caused "Will it work?" to be a more important question than "Is it true?" Guinness does not suggest that we repudiate all these influences, but rather that we recognize and overcome the bad aspects while keeping the good.

Part Two: An Idiot Culture

This section was named "A Junkie Spirit" in 1986; its new title is taken from a 1992 New Republic essay by journalist Carl Bernstein. Guinness discusses eight trends in modern culture that contribute to a "dumbing-down" not only of society but of the Christians who live in it.

The targets are well-chosen. Several chapters offer variations on the theme of how our culture has degraded from one in which thinking and carefully considered words mattered to one dominated by images and feelings, as manipulated by advertising, entertainment, and the media in general. Sensationalism, empty imagery, and sound bites have replaced truth in public dialogue, not only in trivial areas like the clothes we buy but also in important areas like political discourse. None of this is a revelation, but it is still depressing to think about the extent to which style has triumphed over substance in modern culture. There is also an insightful chapter on postmodernism. Rather than the typical rant at how ridiculous it all is, Guinness notes that modernism, at least that part of it that elevated human reason above all else, was itself anti-Christian. He then goes on to say that, much as we might like to celebrate the decline of modernism, postmodernism is also unacceptable from a Christian viewpoint, in large part because of its denial of the concept of objective truth. Chapters on generational differences and the dangers of cyberspace and virtual reality close out the section. Guinness points out that his list of cultural pressures in opposition to Christian thought (or thought in general) is not comprehensive. One good feature is that several of these chapters have key books listed where the reader can find the subject covered in greater depth.

Part Three: Let My People Think

Guinness closes by briefly discussing eight steps that evangelicals, individually and as a body, can take to recover the Christian mind. The first step, appropriately, is repentance from the anti-intellectualism that still permeates much of evangelicalism. The second step is to recognize that we don't just need more thinking - we need more thinking that is specifically and intentionally Christ-centered. The third step is to put aside the myth that equates foolishness with faith.
True faith is unquestionably childlike and simple, but it is never childish or simplistic [p.138].
The fourth step is to count the cost and recognize that thinking Christianly may, at times, be viewed as madness by the world. The fifth step is a commitment to thinking Christianly as active obedience to God. In other words, working at it. Guinness' sixth step is a warning about several pitfalls. The one that struck me most was the danger of "particularism," where we assume that our thoughtful conclusions on some matter are the only acceptable Christian position and question the faith of those who think otherwise. Step seven is devoted to developing a Christian style of thinking, which among other things views knowledge as a responsibility and a means to be used to the end of serving God. The eighth step in this section is a recovery of thoughtful apologetics, which Guinness views as being in a sorry state.

These steps toward recovery of the Christian mind could easily rate a book of their own; maybe someday Guinness will write one. But they do at least provide a starting point. Guinness closes with one more spur to action by pointing out the quantity and quality of people who have left evangelicalism because of its anti-intellectualism.

Evaluation

One cannot help comparing this book to Mark Noll's 1994 book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Noll is more oriented toward the activities of evangelical academics and other intellectuals, while Guinness aims toward the mind of the individual believer in the pew. The one area where I think Noll did a much better job was in tracing the influence of fundamentalism on the decline of evangelical thinking. While at one point Guinness says he is intentionally excluding fundamentalist anti-intellectualism, I don't think it is possible to divorce that from his subject. Noll sees dispensationalism and fundamentalism as the two largest negative influences on the evangelical mind. Guinness covers the first (and cites Noll in doing so), but ignores the other. As Noll shows, while fundamentalism's effect on evangelical Christianity has not been entirely negative, several of its features (such as simplistic views of Scripture) have been disastrous for evangelical thought. Noll also covers the important current manifestations of evangelical anti-intellectualism in science and politics; Guinness ignores science and only briefly mentions politics. On the positive side, Guinness covers the influences of popular culture which Noll does not address. On the whole, I found Noll's book to be more satisfying, but Guinness' book still serves its (somewhat different) purpose in alerting evangelicals to the dangers of anti-intellectualism.

The book is generally well-written, though I could have done without the artificial division of everything into eight points. As befits a book that is intended to stimulate discussion rather than be an academic exercise, much of the material is anecdotal. The anecdotes are usually well-chosen to illustrate the points being made. At times the author's personal theological views crept in unannounced; I was mildly annoyed at the way "Calvinist" sometimes seemed to be used as a synonym for "thoughtful."

There was an aspect in which the book seemed disjointed. The first part did a good job of surveying the historical roots of evangelical anti-intellectualism, and left me primed for an exposition of the ways in which this manifested itself today. Instead, the book jumped to the influences of popular culture. This is not entirely a non-sequitur, since the intellectual vacuum left by the influences documented in the first part has in part allowed the influences of culture to corrupt the thinking of the church and of individual Christians. Still, I wished for a greater degree of connection between those two sections.

Finally, there was one omission that left me flabbergasted. While admittedly it was not intended to be a comprehensive study, it seems inconceivable that Guinness could write a book about evangelical anti-intellectualism without ever mentioning young-Earth creationism. I don't think this reflects a desire to avoid offense or controversy, since Guinness seems to have no qualms about taking shots at Arminians, Faith teachers, and mega-churches. Nor should it have been due to his not considering fundamentalist thought; while the creationist movement marched through fundamentalism after originating in Seventh-Day Adventism, it is now firmly entrenched among evangelicals. Noll devotes an entire chapter to evangelical attitudes toward science in his book; I wish Guinness had at least given a paragraph or two to what is in my opinion the quintessential example of mindless anti-intellectualism (and the biggest needless stumbling block to non-believers) in evangelical Christianity today.

Despite that curious omission, Fit Bodies, Fat Minds is worth reading, both for evangelical leaders and for the rank-and-file. Though I fear that too many of the latter may not find the book accessible; one unfortunate consequence of the "dumbing-down" of society Guinness describes is that fewer people will have the background knowledge and/or attention span to read his book. For those who do read it, Fit Bodies, Fat Minds should provide a challenge to change our ways of thinking (or not thinking), and to begin working to love God with our minds in conjunction with our hearts.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this review are the opinion of the author of this review alone and should not be taken to represent the views of any other person or organization.

Review originally written May 1996.
Page last modified September 2, 2000