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On college campuses, some evangelicals find room to reflect

Students interact and study in the library of the Center for Christian Study at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. RNS photo by Yonat Shimron

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (RNS) — The regulars punch a code in the front-door lock at any hour of the day or night. Rows of hot coffeepots greet the students as they enter through the hallway. And three floors of tables, chairs, couches and sofas are available for studying or lounging.

The Center for Christian Study at the University of Virginia has been beckoning students since 1976 as a place to cram, but also as a place to  explore the relationship between faith and learning.

The WiFi is free. The library has a few desktop computers (not to mention 12,000 books). And, of course, there’s a kitchen.

Christian students come here to socialize, listen to a lecture, participate in a book study or a small group, get mentoring or counseling. Founded to serve students spiritually and intellectually, the center attests to an evangelical willingness to take on science and the liberal arts.

Over the past decade, the Christian study model has been quietly multiplying. Today there are 24 Christian study centers at universities across the country including the University of California at Berkeley, Cornell, Yale, the University of Wisconsin and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Like the one in Charlottesville, housed in a 1926 red-shingled house on fraternity row, less than a block from campus, these centers are each privately owned and run and funded by alumni and local Christians.

They draw hundreds of students a week and are usually staffed by half a dozen Christian educators tasked with programming and hospitality.

“It’s like my second home,” said Christy Ochs, a third-year student at UVA. “I feel like I’m welcome here and encouraged to welcome others in the name of Christ.”

Many conservatives look askance at the nation’s universities, listing grievances about liberal bias, political correctness, relaxed social mores, and secular humanist ideologies.

Evangelicals in particular, have long harbored misgivings about academia, viewing universities as places where faith goes to die.

Study centers, however, want to cast off the perception that evangelicals are anti-intellectual or anti-science. Protestants, after all, established most of the universities known today as the Ivy League, and these centers want to restore respect for learning and scholarship.

Though they are unambiguously evangelical in their theology, if not in their politics, study center leaders have an irenic view of the secular university.

“We love knowledge and are grateful for the ways universities disseminate knowledge and work on integrating knowledge for the betterment of society. We appreciate that,” said Drew Trotter, executive director of the Consortium of Christian Study Centers, a loose fellowship of 24 centers, based in Charlottesville. (Each study center is independent but contributes dues to the consortium.)

These evangelicals are open to science and eager to pursue a life of the mind.

At UVA, one of the most popular study center offerings is the Faith, Reason, and Science Group, which has been a long-standing partnership with the Virginia Atheists and Agnostics. Participants might reflect on a chapter from a book by evolutionary biologist and atheist Richard Dawkins one week, and by geneticist and evangelical Francis Collins the next.

The study center’s biggest event last year, drawing some 1,500 people, was a forum with Massachusetts Institute of Technology physicist Ian Hutchinson, who argues that Christianity and science can be reconciled.

Anna Grace Freebersyser checks in on Barrie the dog at the North Carolina Study Center on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. RNS photo by Yonat Shimron

This semester, it is hosting a five-week seminar on the biblical story of the binding of Isaac taught by a UVA lecturer in the Jewish Studies Program.

This emphasis on interaction with scholars is intentional. The study centers encourage students to think seriously about vocation and how they integrate their future professions with their Christian life. At the North Carolina Study Center, a conference last year brought community leaders in business and academia to talk to students about how they might live faithfully after college and contribute to the broader world.

 “Universities might do a great job of teaching — here are instruments to use to flourish as an individual — without much discussion of what does that flourishing actually mean or look like,” said Madison Perry, executive director of the North Carolina Study Center. “That’s where I see a space for well-informed, traditioned voices that can say, ‘here’s what we think that means.’”

This focus on integrating faith and learning distinguishes study centers from Christian ministries on campus whose main mission is evangelism or worship. Many of these ministries, such as InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, or Cru, are membership oriented, whereas the study centers are open to all. It’s not uncommon to find Catholics, Muslims or atheists popping in and flipping open their laptops.

Christian ministries, by contrast, often struggle to find space. Since 2010, InterVarsity was stripped of its status as a recognized campus organization on several campuses because it requires student leaders to affirm a statement of faith — a violation of the schools’ “all comers” policy. Many of these ministries now rent space at study centers, which are typically off campus.

Where InterVarsity or Cru might offer a Bible study that’s mostly devotional in nature, study centers are open to exploring biblical texts within a wider body of scholarship. To that end, they might partner with university scholars.

“Part of our dream is to be a positive influence in the life of the university,” said John Terrill, director of Upper House, a Christian study center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“Universities are increasingly professionalized. You’re in your silo and you’re rewarded to stay in your silo and not necessarily to look laterally. The presence of study centers can raise the game,” said Terrill, who is a member of the RNS Board of Managers.

This desire to have an influence may strike some as proof that the study centers with their evangelical credo have an ulterior motive. Not necessarily, said D. Michael Lindsay, author of “Faith in the Halls of Power,” and president of Gordon College, a nondenominational Christian college in Wenham, Mass.

“It’s not like they’re trying to take over the campus or they’re trying to infect the campus with a certain partisan mindset,” Lindsay said. “It’s more modest. They want to bring their faith to bear on certain key questions and they want to be relevant to the cultural conversation taking place today.”

One way to be more relevant has been to start literary journals of Christian thought.

A progenitor of such journals was “Wide Awake,” a magazine produced by students at UVA, and the subject of a 1995 Supreme Court case. After UVA refused to subsidize the journal, citing religion-state entanglement, students sued — and won. The Supreme Court ruled that the university could not discriminate against a religious point of view.

Wide Awake is now defunct. But other Christian journals, such as Yale’s “Logos” continue in its tradition.

Parker Marshall, a sophomore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. RNS photo by Yonat Shimron

Students at UNC Chapel Hill’s study center are now planning their own, called “To the Well.” The first edition will be distributed in the fall of 2018.

Parker Marshall, a sophomore at UNC, and the journal’s editor-in-chief, said he envisions mostly essays, but also some poetry and short stories. He got hooked on the study center after attending two book groups there, one on Augustine’s “Confessions,” the other on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Life Together.”

“Broadly, it’s a place I can pursue Christianity in a way that engages my mind,” said Marshall, who is majoring in economics and journalism.

The Tennessee native who grew up in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, a small mainline denomination, said he’s come to appreciate the study center as a “safe place” where students are free to think aloud. He looks forward to a panel discussion in April on the future of American evangelicalism.

Sarah Macris, a biology and religious studies undergraduate at UVA who also lives in an off-campus woman’s dormitory sponsored by the study center, said she too appreciates the spirit of open inquiry mixed with warmth at the center.

Study center regulars don’t agree on hot-button issues such as human sexuality, President Trump’s politics or the evangelical label, but she said the leaders as well as the students active in the center are committed to respecting other people’s beliefs.

“The goal isn’t to shut down discussion by how right you are,” she said. “It’s a conversation in which you love and care about one another in pursuit of truth.”

About the author

Yonat Shimron

Yonat Shimron is an RNS National Reporter and Senior Editor.

18 Comments

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  • I’m not sure, though, from this article and the following that the teachers & students at these Christian study centers are 100% rooted in the gospel of salvation through the crucifixion, burial & resurrection of THE Christ Jesus. Or are they all in this to puff themselves up in knowledge, which often ends up a stumbling block to a Christ-centered witness during an interpersonal conversation?

    According to Molly Worthen, “Hallelujah College”, New York Times, January 16, 2016:

    “The staff and students involved in these [Christian] study centers and journals position themselves … as conveners of a conversation meant to grapple with the ideological divides that secular liberalism’s mantra of tolerance so often elides: How do people with clashing assumptions about what is real and good communicate and coexist? … [They] to seek serious conversation about humans’ profound disagreements over morality and the nature of truth — questions that campus liberals, despite their professed concern for dialogue and critical thinking, often avoid in the name of tolerance and inclusion. … [And so, for instance, to the] idea that human nature is a collection of identity categories, that I as a human being am composed of a gender identity, a sexual identity, a racial identity and so forth … the Christian response has to be: There’s something more to what a human being is than just these collective attributes.”

  • “Study centers, however, want to cast off the perception that evangelicals are anti-intellectual or anti-science.”

    HUH??? Evangelicals’ worst enemies are science and thinking. Both activities threaten every aspect of the lives of evangelicals. Thinking and science are both anti-dogma, anti-ideology, anti-certainty.

  • Sounds about the same as the Baptist Student Unions popular back in my 90s college days.

    Although I reject the claims of Christianity, if they wish to open dialogs about their beliefs, other beliefs and how they differ…I’m all for it.

  • as a faculty member in Religious Studies at a public institution, much of this is the focus of the Humanities in general, minus the specificity of faith. in other words, working agains the “silo” effect and having students think critically about culture, meaning, symbolism, power, etc. while i don’t have any issue with faith communities providing spaces for pondering the Big Questions (in fact, i think they provide valuable interactions) i do think exploring beyond one’s own comfort zone is a key feature of higher ed. merely looking to practicing your faith in a professional context is certainly benign enough, but meeting the world where it is and understanding context is a stretch that even Cru and denominational unions need to allow History, Literature, Religious Studies,etc. the room to work.
    in other words, quit sending me students that are reluctant to explore different perspectives. trust their ability to consider ideas that may be uncomfortable without fear of “losing their faith.”

  • Evangelicals as a whole are against anything resembling education rather than memorizing dogma. Bottom line they simply reinforce their narrow anti-intellectual views rejecting science and critical thinking.

  • “And so, for instance, to the] idea that human nature is a collection of identity categories, that I as a human being am composed of a gender identity, a sexual identity, a racial identity and so forth … the Christian response has to be: There’s something more to what a human being is than just these collective attributes.”
    And yet, despite this, many evangelicals, especially the evangelical political movement, define my entire life, faculties, weaknesses, strengths, goals, morals, gender, philosophy, desires for family and connection, career options, familial options, and participation in society by how much they are offended by what makes Pvt. Johnson stand to attention.
    Go figure.

  • Actually, John 3:16 (or more precisely, your detailed and poignant rejection of it), is what has really defined and delineated your life. Not even the gay thing has weighed as heavily in your life, as this one issue, this one choice of yours.

    Yet it’s not too late. There’s still time.

  • I don’t know why you insist that you know something you clearly know nothing about. rejecting Christianity because of John 3:16 was significant enough to you, significant enough to remember for ME, but not significant enough to regret or think that it was ever so important as it is to you.

    It only defined my life in the sense of any road not taken. I know that I would have eventually rejected any religious orientation.

    You,re right, it’s not too late. It’s too never gonna happen.

  • Good point. Neither article clarifies these Christian study centers’ attitude toward “the evangelical political movement”, but mostly, primarily, even, over against so-called liberal, progressive activists on campus. And they’ve been around since the late 1960s, so their relationship to the Christian Right and Christian nationalists can only be suspect. I’ll bet, though, the usual suspects have been mentoring these guys (big name Evangelical thinkers according to them, at least).

    Help me out here, though. What does “what makes Pvt. Johnson stand to attention” mean? A reference to some video game? To a real life black soldier hero?

  • Typical problem with Evangelical students these days, though, is (1) they don’t know God & Jesus deep down and (2) they don’t know what’s going on in the world. Their “fear of ‘losing their faith'” is simply symptomatic of this marooning in the church and in the world – both. Pity.

  • Me too

    Learned from Friendly Atheist that University of Miami has a full-on degree program in atheism & secularism

    Wish my uni had that back in the day

    Makes for a real dialogue of great relevancy nowadays

  • A johnson is slang for that every man has and that polite society prefers to behave as if it didnt exist.

    Pvt. Is short for private which is not only an army rank but the singular of the things which we behave as though they didn”t exist. Soldiers stand up ramrod straight when they are at attention.

    Pvt. Johnson ‘s brother in arms is Pvt. Potts.

    That was fun. I said nothing i could be forbidden to say and yet i said it all.

    Btw, good point and good catch.

  • Actually, it was how you described that critical rejection event in such poignant, personal detail, that caught my attention.

    I don’t claim any special knowledge of you. It’s just that I have a good memory, and sometimes you get utterly real & honest & articulate about some of the key personal events of your past.

    I’m not inventing stuff here. I’m going by what you chose to say out loud — and the way you said it.

  • I don’t think that that is how I described it at all, but I can see why you would see it that way,

  • I’ve embarrassed myself, haven’t I? Been too self-sheltered, you think?

    Honestly, though (though I don’t know why I say this now), I did some summer internship with a bunch of Catholic seminarians. Our first project, you asked? A downtown gay bar. We’re to be trained according to the curriculum by mingling in a gay bar. I learned nothing except 1 and only one thing: all the washroom cubicles had no doors! What the …

    Now, “That was fun.”

  • No, you have not embarrassed yourself at all. It’s just slang, and not even all that common.

    I’m not surprised at your catholic experience. One of my friends A long time ago decided to enter seminary.. He was gay, and obviously so. But he felt he was being called, and so did a lot of what was necessary.

    He was shocked to find when he finally got to the seminary exactly how much homosexuality was on the minds of so many of his fellow seminarians, and how under the table it all was. He went to the seminary to escape his sexuality, only to find out how rampant it was.

    Quoting Mark Twain, more or less: it was no place for a Presbyterian, and he did not remain one for long.

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