On Tuesday night, four prominent intellectuals from evangelical Christian backgrounds—bestselling pop sociologist Malcom Gladwell, New Yorker literary critic James Wood, former The Nation books editor Christine Smallwood, and, as moderator, journalist Caleb Crain—gathered in Manhattan to discuss the impact their religious heritages have had on their work. But this being New York, the conversation between these (uniformly lapsed) Christians was organized by a Jewish editor (Mark Greif) of a heavily Jewish literary journal (n+1); the panelists all described the anxiety of influence they felt toward their Jewish forebears; and the panel opened with remarks about Jewishness, and closed with a question from an audience member who happened to be a rabbi. In fact, this Jewish intellectual ubiquity was the very impetus for the panel, Greif explained in his introduction. Growing up, Greif said, he was steeped in the lore of how 20th-century Jewish thinkers, with their Talmudic ear for argument and their revolutionary outsider politics, had shaped American intellectual life. (His relatives “were very proud of it despite the fact that none of them had anything to do with it.”) More recently, he continued, he became aware of the fact that a number of brilliant contemporary thinkers came from evangelical backgrounds, and wondered if how they thought about their own intellectual genealogies mirrored how their Jewish predecessors felt about theirs.
Both Gladwell (who is Canadian) and Wood (English) were raised with forms of liberal British evangelicalism; Smallwood grew up attending a “mini-megachurch” in a world of WWJD bracelets, conversions at Christian rock concerts, and biblical literalism. All of them have since lapsed from faith, though they’ve all carried over practices of close reading picked up from Bible study, as well as a profound irritation with “New Atheists,” like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, who dismiss religion as humbug.
Discussing their religious backgrounds in public appeared to be a novel experience for all of the panelists, which, they were well aware, was in itself striking given the frequency and ease with which many Jewish intellectuals, even non-practicing ones, address their Jewishness. The panelists agreed that if they were Jewish, their intellectual sensibilities might be more legible to others. After all, everyone assumes she is anyway, Smallwood said, a bit wistfully, despite the fact that you can’t spell “Christine” without “Christ.” Later, an audience member asked whether the panelists thought that Isaac Newton could be considered an intellectual if he lived today, given that he was a total man of faith. Without skipping a beat, Gladwell deadpanned, “Isaac Newton could quite happily exist today if he was Jewish. He’d be living on the Upper West Side and going to one of those big Reform temples up there.”
The last audience member to come up to the mic was an older man who identified himself as a rabbi. “We’ll have you,” he told Christine. “Your conversion is immediate.”
“This is like a dream come true!” Smallwood replied. The rabbi went on to tell a somewhat incoherent joke and to make a confusing argument, both of which seemed to revolve around the idea that Jews are smart, great, and everywhere.
“It’s not enough to have the intellectuals,” Gladwell grinned in response. “You have to hijack them, too.”
Ari M. Brostoff is Culture Editor at Jewish Currents.