To Think Christianly, Charles E. Cotherman (Foreword by Kenneth G. Elzinga). Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.
Summary: A history of the Christian study center movement, beginning with Francis Schaeffer’s L’Abri, and James Houston’s Regent College.
A Presbyterian pastor goes through a personal renewal, embarks with his family on a mission in Europe and ends up establishing creating a hospitable place for the deep questions students and drifters are asking. And so L’Abri in Huemoz, Switzerland was born, and the very public ministry of Francis and Edith Schaeffer. And through them, according to Charles E. Cotherman, the Christian Study Center movement may trace its origins.
L’Abri was distinguished by four marks that have been evident in the study centers that followed. Foundational to L’Abri was its spirituality, grounded in the prayer life of the Schaeffers for daily provision of both people and means, and the awareness of the Gospel’s implications for all of life, from eating to art to deep intellectual questions. Second was the intellectual community, that supported honest questions, and devoted four hours a day to study, as well as talks with the Schaeffers and weekly discussions. Third was the practice of hospitality, from clothing for the ill prepared, to feeding, and housing, as well as an ethos hospitable to ideas and art and music, and the dress of those arriving at their doors. Finally, L’Abri cast a vision for all of life under Christ’s Lordship that was rich and multi-faceted, from thought and the arts, and the meaning of work, and a vision of Christian presence in society, and the wonders of the artistry and in the life of a community.
Half a world away, a group of Plymouth Brethren in Vancouver, influenced by L’Abri took the idea of a learning community in a different direction, launching the graduate school for Christian lay education that would become Regent College under the leadership of James Houston. Beginning with summer courses, students many others enrolled in the year long program, and the question quickly became one of finding a location, and developing additional academic programs.
From here, Cotherman traces the replication of the idea of study centers in various forms throughout the United States. Again and again, Francis Schaeffer and Jim Houston played significant roles in the beginning of these centers. Cotherman profiles four of earliest centers. The C.S. Lewis Institute, began at the University of Maryland, moving to Washington, DC, and then propagating around the country. The Ligonier Valley Study Center in Stahlstown, Pennsylvania began as a residential study center in the mountains east of Pittsburgh, closely connected with the Coalition for Christian Outreach Ministry as well as drawing many other interested lay people before morphing into the media ministry of R. C. Sproul based in Orlando, Florida.
New College Berkeley grew out of the Jesus Movement and the street paper Right On, edited by David Gill and Sharon Gallagher. Cotherman traces the financial struggles of this effort to form a Berkeley version of Regent. Finally, the first of the student-oriented study centers near a university campus is profiled with the beginnings of The Center for Christian Study in Charlottesville, near the University of Virginia. From the work of Beat Steiner and Daryl Richman with economics faculty Kenneth Elzinga, we see the growth of the Center under the leadership of Drew Trotter as a gathering place for ministry leaders and students, and a hospitable host for thoughtful students.
The concluding chapter chronicles the multiplication of these centers to a number of other campuses, featuring Chesterton House at Cornell University and Upper House at the University of Wisconsin. The development of these centers and the movement they represent has been facilitated by Drew Trotter, through the formation of the Consortium of Christian Study Centers.
Cotherman’s account captures the pivotal role of Francis Schaeffer during the L’Abri years. Many of us were captured by the vision of L’Abri even if we never visited and Schaeffer’s books led us to think about engaging our culture with the mind of Christ. The decades of creative literature coming from Regent faculty have enriched us for that work. David Gill’s work helped so many of us make the transition from the communal experiences of the Jesus movement to a thoughtful Christianity. I first heard Bill Lane speak about discipleship in Mark in R. C. Sproul’s living room and tapes from Ligonier helped lay a theological foundation for a young campus minister.
He also traces the changing cultural landscape and how each of these efforts shifted and adapted the focus of these centers, particularly as programs shifted from educational efforts for lay people to student ministry and engagement with the people and ideas of university campuses. He chronicles the development of study centers from “houses” near a university campus to the innovative Upper House, more like a campus student center with meeting facilities, kitchen, study areas, and classrooms, an effort of the Steve and Laurel Brown Foundation.
More than a walk down memory lane, this book reminds me of why I have so loved work in the world of collegiate ministry: providing hospitable places to explore life’s most important questions, and bridging the divide of Christ and culture. It also reminds me of the great debt of gratitude I owe to the places and people Cotherman chronicles–from Francis Schaeffer and how he first helped me think Christianly, to Jim Houston and the influence he and Regent had on a close ministry colleague, to the vision of the doctrine and life that I acquired through Ligonier, and the vision of campus engagement Ken Elzinga and the Center for Christian Study have given so many of us. Because of these, To Think Christianly is not merely a book title, but a way of life for so many of us.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.