The Passing of the Torch(?): Thoughts on the Passing of Charles Colson

Chuck Colson passed away this weekend, leaving a massive vacancy within the evangelical world. Colson’s work was remarkable for its diversity, a diversity that Sarah Pulliam Bailey astutely pointed out reflected the evangelical movement that Colson was so much a part of:

In many ways, Colson’s life encapsulated the eclectic nature of evangelicalism. His example shaped how evangelicals would promote ministry and social justice, evangelism and ecumenicism, cultural and political engagement, radio and writing, and scholarship and discipleship.

I never had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Colson. Though he was kind enough to send me an encouraging note after Christianity Today featured me, we were never able to get our paths to cross.  I’ll regret the missed opportunity, naturally, as many people I know speak highly of him.

Colson’s most lasting legacy will be, I hope, to serve as a reminder that the transformation wrought by Jesus is a genuine possibility for our lives.  There’s not many people in the public eye whose lives have gone off in such radically different directions than Colson’s did after Jesus found him.  That alone would be enough witness to a culture that can’t persuade itself that change is possible, even while we deploy every remedy imaginable to find it.  That Colson did not merely reform himself, but set out reforming the world is a testament to the power of goodness at work in his life.

Like many people my age, my familiarity with Colson began in the later part of his life.  My parents had read his earlier books, but he was by no means a household name for us.  (That changed when Colson and my friend Nancy Pearcey published How Shall we Then Live?  Though I’ve not read it in years, it lingers somewhere in the back of my consciousness.)  Colson’s work with the Manhattan Declaration was controversial within evangelical circles where, admittedly, the differences of opinions make nearly any position on public matters reason for dispute.

But while Colson was often included within the “Religious Right,” his politics were conservative but not particularly partisan.  His positios on prison reform are the most common referent for this point in the tale.  But two years ago, before the 2010 elections, Colson floated the idea of Christians voting for a third party on grounds that Republicans had become nearly as useless as Democrats. No one took him very seriously, which is understandable given how implausible the call was. But as someone who thinks that we ought to avoid partisanship for its own sake even while we affirm broadly conservative positions, Colson’s candor was refreshing.

One word about “worldview,” which Colson famously championed: Evangelicals are currently in the midst of trying to move beyond it, and probably for good reasons. It is not the perfect category, and changing hearts and minds may not change the world.

But for many younger evangelicals, “worldview analysis,” as the task is known, functioned as something of a halfway house between the uncritical anti-intellectualism of our pulpits and the more dialectical approach of the great books world or the more directly scholarly mindset of the academy.  Within the evangelical world, the approach necessarily shifted attention away from questions of politics per se toward those fundamental human questions that lie at the heart of any society. In that sense, Colson’s work opened up the space for a rethinking of the civic order along nonpartisan lines, even if for the most part the worldview crowd caucuses with Republicans.  Which is simply to say, his mission and message all seemed to be of a piece.  And in a fragmented world, that is itself an impressive accomplishment.

There will, no doubt, be some question about the media about who will step into the yawning gap that Colson has left.   Michelle Boorstein raised them last year in her profile on Colson, and there will doubtlessly be others.  (It is significant how few, if any, of the original signers of the Manhattan Declaration were under the age of forty.)  Folks like my friends John Stonestreet will doubtlessly soldier on, working for the renewal of society (language that seems to be generally acceptable everywhere except Charlottesville).

But the question itself, I think, is nonsense:  the moment that made Chuck Colson will never make another and the legacy he has left will invariably be altered even as it is carried forward.   The generation that comes receives in gratitude, but that which is received is altered in the saying.  The germ will unfold in new directions, directions that Colson himself may have even resisted (like challenging the concept of “worldview”).  That is simply how tradition works, when it works at all.

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  • http://frcblog.com Chris Marlink

    Matt, what do you see as replacing the concept of worldview? I understand it as a shorthand way of explaining a person’s philosophical or moral presuppositions. It’s insufficient in so far as most people are living with (and unaware of) their own contradictions. As such, labels are often inadequate to explain their views. Do you see worldview shorthand as a significant obstacle to sharing and explaining our faith?

    • http://bookwi.se Adam Shields

      Matt has his own opinion I am sure. But my issue with the way that the world view teaching has evolved is that it is focused on ‘right belief’ not ‘right action’. I know plenty of people that have their theology and beliefs lined up correctly and it become a way of saving ourselves. But there is no actual submission to Christ.

      A second weakness is that Colson and many others explicitly were teaching a world view that mixed politics, economics and theology in a way that was not always helpful. Do you need to become a Republican to be a Christian. I think Colson was more aware of this than many others, but he still had problems (as we all do) separating.

      I saw this most with Colson with his indignation over the revelation of Deep Throat. After all these years he thought that whistle blowing was improper. That seems like it has to be an ideological issue for him as I understand it from the interviews and articles that he wrote about it. But I am not sure how revealing government corruption could be theologically deemed inappropriate.

      (I have a huge amount of respect for him and believe that he was a great Christian leader. But this is one area that I think that he was wrong.)

      • John Stonestreet

        Adam,

        Your critique of worldview can be lobbed toward several advocates of worldview, but to lob them at Chuck reveals you didn’t really know his work or life.

        He clearly advocated right belief (not least of which through his 2 decades of living the Gospel in the prisons before asking the worldview question as to why so many more people were headed there than before). He also clearly bucked the Republican party through Justice Fellowship and his understanding of how to restore convicts to society. He warned numerous times of the temptations to power, particularly political power.

  • http://Bensonian.org Christopher Benson

    I’ve been reading a lot on Colson since his died and nothing compares stylistically and substantively to what Michael Gerson wrote in the Washington Post:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/finding-freedom-in-prison/2012/04/22/gIQANabcaT_story.html

    These words are lingering in my head: “Charles W. Colson — who spent seven months in prison for Watergate-era offenses and became one of the most influential social reformers of the 20th century — was the most thoroughly converted person I’ve ever known.” In my opinion, Colson was that rare leader who overcame the either/or fallacies that beset Evangelicalism: he combined deeds and creeds, worship and worldview, action and ideas, social justice and evangelism.

    Gerson writes:

    Chuck was a powerful preacher, an influential cultural critic and a pioneer of the dialogue between evangelicals and Catholics. But he was always drawn back to the scene of his disgrace and his deliverance. The ministry he founded, Prison Fellowship, is the largest compassionate outreach to prisoners and their families in the world, with activities in more than 100 countries. It also plays a morally clarifying role. It is easier to serve the sympathetic. Prisoners call the bluff of our belief in human dignity. If everyone matters and counts, then criminals do as well. Chuck led a movement of volunteers attempting to love some of their least lovable neighbors. This inversion of social priorities — putting the last first — is the best evidence of a faith that is more than crutch, opiate or self-help program. It is the hallmark of authentic religion — and it is the vast, humane contribution of Chuck Colson.

    • James M.

      Well said.

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