Review: To Think Christianly

to think Christianly

To Think ChristianlyCharles 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.

wp-15905421394511057296728316081743.jpg

Kitchen and meeting area just off the Main Room of Upper House, Madison, Wisconsin. July 2016.  © Bob Trube, all rights reserved.

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.

Review: Blueprint for Theocracy: The Christian Right’s Vision for America

Blueprint for Theocracy: The Christian Right's Vision for America
Blueprint for Theocracy: The Christian Right’s Vision for America by James C. Sanford
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have to be honest. I was prepared to dislike this book. Calvin, Abraham Kuyper, and Francis Schaeffer are personal heroes to me and they are included in Sanford’s critique of the Christian Right’s vision as intellectual forbears. Furthermore, I have taught “worldview” as a heuristic that is helpful in discerning the underlying premises of everything from a TV ad to a work of philosophy to a college textbook, something I believe important to critical reading skills.

What I found instead was a carefully researched history of the intellectual lineage and practical efforts to bring a Christian Worldview into our national discourse. Particularly significant is his work on the contribution of J.R. Rushdoony’s proposals to institute biblical law in contemporary society and the ways that Francis Schaeffer helped popularize these notions late in his career. He surveys the landscape of political activism that arose in the 1980’s beginning with the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, and succeeding movements and how these were influenced by what he calls “Christian Worldview” ideas. He chronicles well the political alliances (which I would call a form of political captivity of the church) formed with conservative Republicans at the state and national levels pursuing everything from introducing Intelligent Design into schools to electing a President.

My fundamental concern as I finished this book was the tone and some of the rhetoric that I believe represents a mirror image response to the kinds of ‘secular conspiracy’ rhetoric he chronicles with regard to the Religious Right. His repeated usage of language like “idealogues” “absolutists” and, most notably “Jihadists” is inflammatory and creates the kind of “be afraid, be very afraid” tone that I think undercuts the good descriptive research he has done. While every movement has extremists, it is unjust to define a movement by its extremists. For example to equate a Nancy Pearcy or the late Charles Colson with isolated incidents of people who murder abortion providers only perpetuates the us/them divide of which he criticizes the Religious Right.

Similarly, instead of a nuanced discussion of the intellectual and activist lineage he traces, he paints the whole thing as absolutist, dogmatic, and intolerant. Too often in our national discourse, these words are easily thrown about to dismiss what we don’t like without doing the careful work of distinguishing between what might be right or commendable in an interlocutor’s ideas and where we think they are wrong and why. For example, the idea that if there is a God, that God may well be sovereign over all physical and human affairs stands to reason and has been affirmed by most orthodox believers through history. To conclude then that we must attempt to forcibly impose our understanding of the sovereign God’s commands on the political order is wrongheaded. God Himself does not do this in the Garden, nor does Christ or any New Testament writer commend this to the church. Similarly, Kuyper’s sphere sovereignty recognizes that the sphere of government is just one of a number and is a good protection against tyranny. Some thoughtful commentators like James Skillen have extended these ideas both to encourage political engagement and define the limits of political engagement in very different ways from the Religious Right. My point is that good critiques look for common ground as well as points of difference rather than pursuing a “scorched earth” approach.

The usage of the term “Christian worldview” as the umbrella under which to gather the intellectual influences and current players in Christian Right is unfortunate. As I noted early, it fails to differentiate between those who use it as rhetoric to underscore a perceived cultural divide, and those including authors like James Sire, who use this primarily as a heuristic to promote understanding and irenic engagement with those holding different premises from our own.

To conclude on a positive note. the author speaks in terms of having an “open” rather than naked or sacred public square. Open, or as Os Guinness has termed them, civil public squares allow for the expression of diverse and disparate ideas. Civility in particular seems to imply refraining from ad hominem attacks and inflammatory rhetoric on all sides while encouraging critical engagement that looks both for common ground and recognizes and respects important differences. The author calls for critique of the views of the Christian Right and their successors and I would agree with the need for this. However, I would like to suggest that “what is good for the goose is good for the gander.” What if each “side” to these discussions were committed to improving the thinking of the other in a common pursuit of the public good? This will only happen if we stop believing the worst of each other and affirm the good wherever we see it. I hope the writer of this book will devote his excellent skills of research and articulation to help foster the understanding and civil engagement so much needed at this time in our history.

I received a complimentary copy of this book for review from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

View all my reviews