Tonight at dinner in Charlottesville (The Local; try the goat cheese cheesecake), one of my hosts, Bill Wilder, executive director of the Center for Christian Study at the University of Virginia, asked me what the top two things I learned on my trip to DC and Charlottesville were.
I told him this:
1. How hopeless it is for Christians to expect that Congressional Republicans will do anything effective to defend religious liberty, in particular the liberty of our institutions, including schools and non-profits. The Left has no incentive to compromise, the Democrats don’t care about religious liberty anymore, and the Republicans are sick of the whole issue, as well as scared of being called bigots. Plus, big business has chosen sides. We really are on our own now, and had better start digging in, building networks and, as one influential Washington pastor told me, “tarring the ark.”
2. What an amazing lesson in the Benedict Option there is here on UVA’s campus, including the Center for Christian Study, a terrific place, and the houses where Christian students live in various forms of intentional community.
About these houses. Here’s a link to Chancellot, a house for Christian men who are students at the university. From their vision page:
This is a cross-class community, for two reasons:
Discipleship — we learn by sharing stories, experiences, and wisdom with each other.
Continuity — only a third of the residents graduate in any given year, which helps preserve the community’s core values over time.
This is a missional community. This means:
It doesn’t exist for its own sake; it exists to be a light and a blessing to our neighbors, to offer an alternative vision of what male community can look like in college and to invite others to experience that.
It is not an exclusive or elite clique; it’s a tight but welcoming community. We seek closeness with each other in order to enhance our relationships with those outside the community, not crowd them out. We build tight community for the purpose of inviting others to experience the fellowship we have with each other and with the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ (1 John 1:3).
Our doors remain open whenever possible.
This is an intentional community. This means:
We hold each other to a high standard of behavior and spiritual discipline as leaders and role models in the Christian community. We strive to be “above reproach” (1 Tim 3), to be “united in mind and thought” (1 Cor 1:10), and to “live such good lives among the Gentiles that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God” (1 Pet 2:12).
Residents are committed followers of Christ seeking to grow in spiritual maturity, and have committed to involvement in one of the chapters of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at UVA. All are willing to submit to the core values and vision of the house.
Proximity can facilitate community, but it won’t accomplish it for you. We make an effort to step out and spend time with people we wouldn’t otherwise be in community with.
The UVA community has a number of these houses for men and women. I spent a good portion of Monday meeting with Christian students who live in these houses, asking them about their experience of community there. I learned a lot. One student said, of his time in the community, “I would find people there who would tell me stories that helped me to know who I am, and to make sense of the world.”
(“Saints cannot exist without a community, as they require, like all of us, nurturance by a people who, while often unfaithful, preserve the habits necessary to learn the story of God.” — Stanley Hauerwas)
I didn’t take extensive notes today; it was more important for me to ask questions, then listen to the answers. I was startled, and delighted, by how serious these young men and women were, and how much they visibly loved their life in common in their houses. They all seemed so thoughtful and happy. Each house is governed differently. Some require signing a covenant; others are less intentional. All are about building Christian community. Some I talked to were so marked by their years at UVA living and serving in community that they decided to stay on in Charlottesville after graduation, finding jobs and deepening their friendship.
We talked about the challenges and the possibilities of replicating the college Christian communal living experience in Washington, or other big cities where graduates of UVA’s Christian houses might go after graduation. Why not?
These houses are so obviously a good and necessary idea that you can’t imagine why they don’t exist at other universities. Maybe they do. I’ve never heard of them before today, but as you can tell, I am impressed. And I like how the Center for Christian Study is a hive of activity. They made the best room in the house, the one with the greatest view of the gentle valley, the library. And they have thousands of volumes there, and plenty of rooms for students to gather. It is a place of light and happiness. The whole community seems very L’Abri somehow. Standing at the podium tonight addressing the audience, I found myself saying, without meaning to flatter anybody, that I would strongly consider sending my kids to UVA, not only because of the quality of the education, but as much or moreso from the formation they would receive in the Christian community here, especially by living in one of those houses.
At the Center this morning, I spoke to a gentle older professor, Ken Elzinga, who teaches economics. He was open, kind, and modest, and he invited me to stay in his and his wife’s lake house if I wanted to work on the Ben Op book there. I was so grateful. Later, folks told me that Prof. Elzinga is a legend at UVA. He has taught here for over 50 years, and his influence is in inverse proportion to his modesty. That is, he’s a giant, but you’d never know it to talk to him. “It’s probably true that we wouldn’t have any of this Christian community here if not for Ken Elzinga,” someone said.
“He’s like your own St. Benedict,” said I.
There is no question that when I begin writing the Ben Op book formally, I will return to UVA and spend more time studying the Christian houses, and their connection to the Center. This is very much a form of the Benedict Option, one that I could see other universities, both secular and Christian, creating. Why can’t churches close to college campuses create residential housing like this for Christian students who want to live in intentional community, and be formed and discipled within them?
The Benedict Option is alive and well at UVA, and I’m betting that more than a few graduates of these houses go on to innovate in Christian community-building in the post-college world.
Exciting stuff! I thought Leah Libresco had all the ideas and all the energy in her generation, but as hard as it is to believe, it’s not so. One of the young men involved in a Christian house stayed around to talk, and said that this Benedict Option book is going to be big. He said Christians are ready for it. I hope so. This trip has given me the ideas and the impetus I need to finish the proposal this week. I’m ready to go. The time is right, and there are people all over this country doing great things in their churches and elsewhere. (I spent an hour or so with Pastor Greg Thompson and the ministry team at Trinity Presbyterian; it was all off the record, just for informational purposes, but the things they were telling me about were innovative and exciting and based on Benedict’s Rule. Calvinists getting in touch with their inner Benedict — who knew?
So, after a morning event at the Covenant School with Ken Myers, I’ll be off to Starhill again, arriving on Nora’s ninth birthday. Home is always and everywhere my favorite journey, but the next journey I make to UVA to write about the Christian houses of this college will be a bona fide pleasure. Thank you, Charlottesville friends, for making this such a great visit.
(Note to Bill and Fitz: Why don’t we host KenFest (a.k.a. “Mars-Hill-a-palooza”) at the CSC?)