Book Review: ‘To Think Christianly: A History of L’Abri, Regent College, and the Christian Study Center Movement’ by Charles E. Cotherman

Review by Daniel G. Hummel, who is an honorary research fellow in the history department at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and a staff member at Upper House, a Christian study center based there. He is the author of Covenant Brothers: Evangelicals, Jews, and U.S.-Israeli Relations (University of Pennsylvania).

In the May 1972 issue of Christianity Today, Frank Nelsen, a history professor from the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, proposed creating “evangelical living and learning centers for undergraduate students [to] be built on private property near large state universities.” These centers would provide students with space to pursue “an intellectually honest investigation of the Christian faith and its relation to secular disciplines.”

Nelsen suggested the idea—targeting a niche between campus ministries, local churches, and Christian liberal arts colleges—as a solution to what CT had identified a year earlier as the “Crisis in Christian Education.” The postwar boom in higher education was waning, and evangelicals were unprepared to respond. Rather than stick to an aging model, Nelsen asked: “Is there an educational alternative to the private college for evangelicals to consider in the light of current economic stresses and strains?”

The question is, unfortunately, as timely in May of 2020 as it was in May of 1972. Once again, universities—both public and private—are facing a tidal wave of new “economic stresses and strains.” And what of Nelsen’s proposal? In the almost-half-century since, “evangelical learning centers” have popped up on dozens of college campuses, from flagship public institutions such as the University of Virginia and the University of Wisconsin–Madison to elite private schools including Yale and Duke. The 30 or so individual centers have formed a national Consortium of Christian Study Centers, founded in 2008. While the details of Nelsen’s proposal never came to fruition (he suggested separate Christian dormitories and accredited coursework), the idea took on a life of its own.

The path from CT article to national consortium was anything but straightforward. Charles Cotherman’s new book, To Think Christianly, is the first comprehensive history of the Christian study center movement and its many roots in postwar evangelicalism. Focused on an influential, if small, class of educated evangelicals pursuing deeper cultural engagement with contemporary thought, To Think Christianly carefully reconstructs a vast web of intellectual networks and institutional struggles that most recent histories of postwar evangelicalism ignore, resisting the dominant narrative of evangelical cultural engagement since World War II.

Two New Frameworks

To Think Christianly may be the first time many readers encounter the institution of the Christian study center. Cotherman, it should be clear, is exclusively concerned with the genealogy of “evangelical learning centers.” In the 19th century, organizations like the YMCA and the Chautauqua movement fulfilled a similar role for lay Christians. Catholics have built a vast Newman Center network, and mainline Protestants founded centers like the Ecumenical Institute at Bossey, Switzerland, in the late 1940s. Even Christian Science Reading Rooms resemble Christian study centers. Cotherman ignores this wider Christian history in favor of explaining contemporary evangelical study centers in particular. This may rankle some readers, but the choice also sharpens his focus on a distinct evangelical engagement with culture that remains understudied.

Evangelical Christian study centers trace their roots to two progenitors: Francis Schaeffer’s L’Abri community in Switzerland and Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia. While both were founded outside of the United States, they were deeply attuned to midcentury American evangelical concerns. Founded in 1955 in the Swiss Alps, L’Abri became a destination for travelers and wanderers to learn at the feet (or more often at the cassette tape) of ex-fundamentalist Francis Schaeffer. A one-time missionary, Schaeffer and his wife, Edith, recognized the growing appeal of hosting young travelers in their home. As Cotherman observes, L’Abri’s “home-based hospitality” of open-ended stays, communal work, and eating together made it “a working, living, studying, praying community before communal living became a countercultural standard.”

L’Abri’s “radical hospitality” helped to popularize Schaeffer’s novel conservative Protestant engagement with art, philosophy, and culture. By the late 1960s, Schaeffer was a best-selling author with speaking tours across the United States. Yet there were limitations. Especially as he became a leader in pro-life politics in the 1970s, he developed a guru-like aura among his followers. Rather than engage directly with other thought leaders, he maintained an insular circle of intellectual partners. While most historical accounts of Schaeffer linger on this later phase of political activism, Cotherman emphasizes how a generation of intellectually inclined evangelicals were inspired by Schaeffer’s earlier period at L’Abri.

If L’Abri’s hospitality modeled a new type of evangelical community, Regent College suggested a novel framework for evangelicals to pursue academic knowledge. Initiated by a circle of educated Plymouth Brethren in Vancouver, Regent started as a graduate school for lay Christians, eventually affiliating with the University of British Columbia. Regent’s founding in 1970 was shaped by its first principal, James M. Houston, a Scottish geographer who left Oxford for the job. Houston quickly assembled an impressive faculty, including J. I. Packer and W. Ward Gasque, which led to growing enrollment.

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Source: Christianity Today