SBTS panelists examine Bloom book on its 20th anniversary

Communications Staff — April 12, 2007

Allan Bloom’s “The Closing of the American Mind,” remains an important book for Christians to read 20 years after its publication because the work shows that cultural chaos ensues when absolute truth is denied, a panel of professors at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary concluded April 4.

Published in 1987, “The Closing of the American Mind” lamented the loss of absolute truth and the resulting spiritual rootlessness and restlessness among college students. This eclipse of truth had led students to abandon big questions such as God and the nature of man, Bloom argued. Bloom, who died in 1992, was a professor of humanities at the University of Chicago.

Seminary President R. Albert Mohler Jr., who led the panel discussion that marked the 20th anniversary of the book’s publication, said Bloom’s work remains insightful for Christians because it exposes the dangers of postmodern thought, particularly as it is commonly taught in public universities.

“Bloom suggested that value relativism and a relativistic understanding of truth were the enemies of true openness since it closed persons from learning from anyone at any time,” Mohler said.

“It led to the breakdown of the university and what we would now call the advent of postmodernism. He suggested that what was championed as a great openness in the academy was actually a great closing of the mind and the end of liberal learning…I would recommend that (Christians) read this book because I believe it still rings with a prophetic voice about the collapse of civilization around us.”

In addition to Mohler, panelists included Russell D. Moore, Jim Orrick, Shawn Wright and Mark Coppenger. Moore serves as dean of the School of Theology and senior vice president for academic administration at Southern, Coppenger is distinguished professor of Christian apologetics, Orrick is professor of literature and culture at Boyce College and Wright is assistant professor of church history at Southern.

The most profound section of the book is its chapter on relationships, Mohler said. There, Bloom rates divorce as a key factor that undermines clear, cogent thinking among American students.

“This is incredible bravery written by a man who never married, but who did understand something about the impact of divorce on his students,” Mohler said. “I wondered how many Christian preachers would have the courage to write what he wrote, how many pastors would have the temerity to take it on?”

Panelists agreed that Bloom gave an accurate diagnosis in the first half of the book with regard to the cultural decay associated with the loss of truth, but they also pointed out that Bloom offered a decidedly wrong-headed cure in the second half of the book. Bloom’s solution fails to consider the existence of God and amounts to a subtle atheism, Mohler noted.

For Bloom, the cure for societal ills is found in reading classical literature and developing a culture populated by erudite citizens. But Christians know that the solution is found in the redeeming work of Christ, Moore pointed out.

“Bloom says we need a utopianism in order to know which way to go,” Moore said. “I agree that we do, but where is the utopia? It is not in the New Jerusalem for Bloom. I think the first half of the book is Romans 2—the law written on the heart starting to express itself. But the second half of the book is Romans 1, and he is really showing his flight away from God as Creator.”

Bloom’s vision for the recovery of truth is troubling for Christians because it has more in common with the worldview of 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche than Christianity, Mohler pointed out. A nihilist, Nietzsche is best known for his argument that God is dead.

Another problem with Bloom is that he locates the antidote for society’s ills in an improved version in man and not in the grace of God, Coppenger noted. “Bloom argued for a superior man, a sort of stiff upper lip fellow with the right tastes,” Coppenger said, “It is a very high kind of arrogant humanism.”

Reading the bestseller will help strengthen a Christian’s faith because Bloom’s worldview will remind believers of the great store of truth that they have in Scripture, Wright said.

“As I was reading it, I actually felt very sorry for (Bloom),” Wright said. “He is asking incredibly insightful questions and coming up with very wrong-headed answers. I would read it to be strengthened in your faith. We have the answers in Scripture and they are not found where he was looking for them.”

While “The Closing of the American Mind” locates the recovery of civilization in the reading of great books and in a return to classical intellectual disciplines, Orrick said such a recovery is actually dependent upon the pulpit and the preached Word.

“In my opinion the greatest hope for the reclamation of the damage that is already done and continues—and this will sound incredibly naïve—is found in consistent, expository preaching,” he said. “Because in consistent, expository preaching, you are teaching a book that is true, not just a great source of values, but it is true, it is coherent, it is one of the lone bastions of dominant reason that is left in our culture.”

While Bloom’s book contains many profound insights, Mohler cautioned would-be readers, reminding them that a Christian with an open Bible holds a far superior grasp on truth.

“I suggest that a Christian read this book in order to be reminded of the grace and mercy of God, that we have more to say than this,” he said. “At the end of the day, learning, as important as it is, is not the most important part of life. Knowledge, as precious as it is, is not the most precious thing that we know.

“At the end of the day, the little saintly lady in the Calvary Baptist Church in the Shiloh Association who knows ‘Jesus loves me this I know,’ ‘Jesus paid it all, all to Him I owe,’ and ‘on a hill far away stood an old rugged cross,’ knows more than Allan Bloom.”

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