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Davenant House, Christian Community, and the Work of Study Centers

March 22nd, 2016 | 24 min read

By Jake Meador

Recently I got the chance to do an email exchange with my friends Brad Littlejohn and Alastair Roberts. The focus of our discussion was Davenant House, the residential study center that the Davenant Trust, a non-profit I serve as a board member, is planning to launch this summer.

That being said, we covered a lot of additional ground as well ranging from the challenges to Christian community today, the work of study centers, and our hopes for works like Davenant House. You can read the full interview below the jump.

I also want to note that we just today released a series of videos over on the Davenant Trust website specifically about Davenant House. If you’d like to learn more about the work (beyond what is said in this interview), head on over to the Davenant Trust blog to watch the videos. And on that note, on to the interview:

Alastair: Brad and Jake, it is a privilege to have the opportunity to speak to you both about the work of Davenant House. Thank you for agreeing to this conversation.

For some of the readers of this interview, this may be the first time they have heard of Davenant House. To kick us off, Jake, what exactly is Davenant House and what sort of work does it do?

Jake: The goal of Davenant House is to create a place of study, reflection, and hospitality in the southeast United States that can serve the interests of both the church in that region and the American church more generally. We are inspired partly by the foundational work done by Francis and Edith Schaeffer at L’Abri and then also in part by the broader work of the Christian study center movement of the past 20-30 years. The goal of Davenant House is to provide a place for contemplation and growth in Christian wisdom for interested young people.

Who is the ‘we’ behind Davenant House and how did the vision for it first arise? Can you tell us a little more about both of your backgrounds, how you came to be involved in Davenant House, and what especially excites you about it?

Brad: Well, lots of people are going to be involved in some way or another; I’m handling most of the big-picture administrative decisions, while Jake here has been key throughout the process in helping to hone the vision, given his extensive experience with L’Abri study centers in the past. Our Vice-President, Peter Escalante, has long cherished dreams of crafting a curriculum for a Christian study center that would give a richer and more historically-rooted road into Christian wisdom than most of those on offer. He will be helping teach the summer programs based on such a curriculum, and will be joined by a couple that we got to know recently through our Davenant Latin Institute program, Jonathan and Shawna Tomes. Jonathan is a librarian at Baylor, and his wife is an art teacher; they will be managing the property and mentoring students throughout this summer.

The vision first arose at the beginning of last June, just before we held our Third Annual Convivium Irenicum at the property, then called Laureldale Cottage. The owners had graciously let us use it for that purpose the past three summers, but we learned the property was soon going to up for sale, as part of an ecologically-friendly development (much of the surrounding woodland was slated to become part of a land conservation trust). We were brainstorming other locations we might use for our Convivium in future years, so I put together a map of where all the people in our Davenant network lived around the country, and upstate SC, where Laureldale is located, turned out to be something of a bullseye. Too bad we couldn’t just buy the property, I thought, to host more frequent Convivia and other events, especially as our Davenant Latin Institute program was ramping up and we were looking for a good place to host residential intensive courses. Right around that time, Jake wrote to me to say how he and his wife were feeling called to pursue L’Abri ministry within the next few years. I put two and two together, pitched the idea to the board and some friends in the area, was surprised to find them enthusiastic as well, and we set about trying to line up the funds and personnel, which came together wonderfully!

I originally grew up in the area—the little Blue Ridge corner of upstate SC. That’s how I knew about the Laureldale property to begin with and chose it for our Convivia. It’s really a perfect part of the country for this sort of thing. Culturally and demographically, it’s still very Bible-Belt evangelical, with Christian colleges of one kind or another scattered all about, but the Christianity is increasingly a mile wide and an inch deep, as the saying goes. I can’t imagine it’s going to stay very evangelical for another generation without some intellectually serious discipleship for young people, so I think this is an important and strategic location for the kind of study center we want Davenant to be. The geography is also pretty perfect. You’ve got what feels like a really secluded spot up in the foothills, surrounded with incredibly rich flora and hiking trails, but less than an hour away from the vibrant (and booming) cultural centers in Greenville, SC and Asheville, NC. I can’t think of many other places in the country that are so well situated for a study/retreat center.

Jake: I grew up in a fundamentalist church that, by the time I got into my late teens, left me with more questions, resentment, and frustration than answers or anything like a robust Christian faith. By the summer before my senior year of high school, my parents had become deeply concerned about me. I’d read enough books to have some good instincts about things (I picked up Schaeffer in 8th grade and Lewis in 9th or 10th with Chesterton to follow in 11th grade) but didn’t know how to square my experience of church and of individual Christians with what I encountered in those books. So I suspect if it hadn’t been for my parents, I likely would have left the church after I graduated high school. But my parents wanted to do something to help and they knew that Schaeffer had started a branch of L’Abri in Rochester, MN—which was only about six hours from our home in Lincoln, NE. So we made arrangements and I spent two weeks at the Rochester L’Abri the summer of 2005 and then a month there the following summer in 2006 before starting college. During that time, I saw and experienced a Christian life that not only seemed more plausible to me, but that I actually found attractive. L’Abri also was my first experience of the PCA, which would become my home denomination after I got connected to RUF while a student at the University of Nebraska.

So that is my background—I’m one of the many people who can say they likely would not be Christian today were it not for L’Abri. And that is what most excites about Davenant House. At L’Abri I encountered a Christian life that was radically different from what I had seen in the church I grew up in. It was intellectually engaged, loved God’s creation, was tender and patient with people, and was not cowed in the face of hard questions. In the years since my time at L’Abri, I’ve become convinced that more people need the experience of Christianity that exists at L’Abri. And that’s what I hope we can offer at the Davenant House.

A friend of mine who studied at a similar house said to me a few years ago that the key to the experience is that when people enter the place, it needs to feel like parting the coats in the wardrobe and stepping into Narnia. That’s how L’Abri felt to me. It was this wholly other experience where people had time for each other, where we asked hard, intellectually serious questions, and where we followed the truth wherever it led. It was a place where we enjoyed good food, we took the time to observe and enjoy the created order all around us, and where people were given freedom to ask the questions and voice the opinions that were close to their heart. It all felt a million miles from the fundamentalism of my youth. So I’m excited to be part of a work that is trying to bring together these various strands—intellectual seriousness, care for each individual, a love of nature, and a high regard for conversation.

Both of you have mentioned L’Abri and the Schaeffers: What are some of the particular ways in which Davenant House has drawn upon the example of L’Abri? 

Jake: One of the primary goals we have for Davenant House is that it would be a place for cultivating Christian wisdom rather than simply being another worldview training program. There are a couple of benefits to this approach. In the first place, even if we appealed to all the exact same people as a worldview training program, we believe that training in Christian wisdom is a superior approach because it is, as one of our board members has put it, training people so that they have the principles of reality in their mind and can translate those principles into practical action in their particular place, church context, etc. The other benefit to talking about wisdom is that it frames the work of Davenant House around relationship and conversation in ways that more strictly academic programs sometimes struggle to realize.

That point in particular explains the way that L’Abri helps shape the way we think about the program at Davenant House. We are not a L’Abri clone, but we are influenced by L’Abri in that we share the belief that has always been deeply embedded in L’Abri that much of the growth and maturing that happens through the work of the place is based in conversation and discussion rather than lectures and reading alone. At L’Abri you have a reading program that you develop with your tutor—and it can be extremely personalized. During my time as L’Abri student I read Understanding Dispensationalists by Poythress, The Gagging of God by Carson, and Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Last time I was up there I read Susan Macaulay’s For the Family’s Sake.

But alongside the reading you have discussion meals six days a week, film discussion nights, post-lecture discussions after the weekly lecture, and several hours every day spent working around the property where you can also discuss what you’re reading. We would like Davenant House to look like that. In addition to the reading we hope to do with our students, we also want to have extensive time of conversation about the readings, regular discussion meals, and ample time for conversation while students are working around the property, either assisting with the work on the land trust or doing work in the house such as cleaning, preparing meals, etc. The reading is important, but it has to happen within a context and way of living that values conversation, that treats questions with respect, and that is based on the idea that, as Schaeffer put it, there are no little people.

More generally, I believe that it is fair to say that Francis Schaeffer’s vision of Christian thought has been very important in forming the minds of those involved in Davenant House. How is Schaeffer’s vision relevant in 2016?

Brad: The legacy of Schaeffer is certainly not unambiguous, but it would be unfair to attribute all the fault of some of Schaeffer’s followers to him. He might have indulged in too cookie-cutter an approach to movements and ideas—both historical and contemporary—but his basic insights were sound: namely, (1) that there was a profound conflict in contemporary Western culture between the legacy of Christianity and its modernist rivals, a conflict that could not be avoided, (2) that while this conflict could not be engaged on purely intellectual grounds, it must at least be engaged on intellectual grounds, and (3) that this engagement must always be a personal engagement. It is perhaps this last feature that is most lost sight of by many worldview warriors, and that we really want to resurrect with Davenant House. If it is a matter of equipping disciples with the intellectual tools to be faithful witnesses in the world, that discipleship must be personal, must be not merely the infusion of ideas, but the mediation of character, piety, and virtuous, skilled practice. If it is a matter of persuading the adversary or the inquirer, the personal dimension is even more important. So few Christians today have any clue any more when it comes to the art of persuasive conversation and thoughtful disagreement. Schaeffer certainly had those virtues, and we hope Davenant House can be a place to pass them on to the next generation.

The notion of Christian ‘worldview’ thinking has been very prominent over the past couple of decades. In a number of the things that have been written concerning Davenant House you contrast your understanding of the appropriate formation of the Christian mind to such ‘worldview’ approaches. What are some of the things that set apart your vision from these approaches?

Jake: The chief difficulty with worldview analysis is that it can easily become a kind of rote process disconnected from the complex reality of individual human persons who almost never fit into the boxes that worldview analysis loves to create. I remember reading a lot of Colson and Pearcey early in college and, while there was real value in it, it also handicapped me in major ways as a young person at a secular university as I tried to relate to peers and professors. The worldview training taught me that there are a dozen different boxes with different labels on them that refer to different worldviews. And inside each box you have a set of core beliefs and principles. The worldview training then gives you answers to those specific questions that are found in those specific boxes.

But people are never as simple as that. We don’t have a worldview we hold to with absolute consistency—and I think that’s also very true of Christians too. So if you’re training young people to look at their neighbor and say, “Ah, you are a materialist,” and then relate to them on the basis of the script they’ve been given for “handling” materialists… well, a) that’s not honoring to your neighbor who bears the image of God, and b) it’s not even that effective because your neighbor has probably not even heard of “materialism” and has never thought about their beliefs in the terms laid out so clinically by the worldview analysis.

In contrast to this, Christian wisdom is laying down a positive set of foundational principles for understanding all of life. As a person becomes more deeply familiar with these foundational ideas, they are also more equipped for being neighbors, family members, friends, laypeople, and citizens. The key here is that there isn’t a script nor are there neatly labeled boxes for identifying people outside the church. Rather, there is a close acquaintance with the core principles of Christian wisdom which equip people for thinking for themselves about their own local contexts and discerning how they can best be used in those places.

Essentially, our concern with worldview training is that it doesn’t reflect how people actually work and it makes Christian people permanently dependent on the script writers who publish the apologetics books that answer all their neighbor’s objections to the faith. That’s not what we want to create at Davenant House. We want to help train Christian people who can be good neighbors and citizens, who respect the image of God in their Christian and non-Christian peers, and who are able to translate the principles of orthodoxy into appropriate action in their specific context.

In recent years, especially through the work of writers such as James K.A. Smith, evangelicals have become more receptive to moving beyond narrowly information-focused approaches to Christian development to approaches that are more alert to formational concerns, to the shaping of our desires, our loves, and our imaginations. How does Davenant’s House’s vision for Christian wisdom encourage the integrity of the Christian, the uniting of heart and mind, life and truth?

Jake: It runs parallel to Smith’s work in many ways, I think. The problem with worldview, as we’ve already noted, is that it doesn’t really teach people to think for themselves or cultivate the habits of mind and ways of thinking that make them useful lay people, citizens, neighbors, etc. So one of the big things with Davenant House is that, even though we do have a reading list, the real work of the place is going to be happening in conversation and work on the land. We aren’t just asking people to read books and then write a paper or something; we’re reading books and then taking the time to discuss them throughout the day. The conversation is key because it helps people translate what they are reading into their own terms, ask intelligent questions about it, and hear how other people are also thinking and talking about the books. 

Alongside this work, the land that Davenant House is located on will play a major role in shaping the work as students will be doing work to maintain the land and, eventually, maintain a large garden on the property that will provide some of our food. That work—raising and then preparing and eating food that has been grown right there on the land—also ties in to another interest of ours. One of the challenges for Christians who want to see God’s creation today is that our imaginations have been deadened by centuries of industrialization and our minds no longer hold the words, concepts, or knowledge needed to really understand what we’re looking at. If you think about the experience of a pre-modern person going out and looking up at the sky—they are seeing “the heavens.” When we do it we see “space.” And that little difference says a great deal about how we experience creation in such drastically different ways. 

So I think the work of tending the land, raising food, and then sharing that food with other students will in itself be a transformative thing for some students. In a letter to his friend Arthur Greeves, Lewis wrote that “Tolkien once remarked to me that the feeling about home must have been quite different in the days when the family had fed on the produce of the same few miles of country for six generations, and that perhaps this was why they saw nymphs in the fountains and dryads in the wood—they were not mistaken for there was in a sense a real (not metaphorical) connection between them and the countryside. What had been earth and air & later corn, and later still bread, really was in them. We of course who live on a standardised international diet (you may have had Canadian flour, English meat, Scotch oatmeal, African oranges, & Australian wine today) are really artificial beings and have no connection (save in sentiment) with any place on earth. We are synthetic men, uprooted. The strength of the hills is not ours.” You might say that what we’re trying to do at Davenant House is help “synthetic men” somehow become more real.

Why ‘Davenant’ House?

Brad: Well, if we were starting purely from scratch, odds are we would’ve chosen a slightly more trendy name than that of a forgotten 17th-century English bishop. But having already named our organization as a whole after Davenant, it was the natural thing to do. John Davenant, although terribly neglected, really does model, we think, the kind of theology we need to retrieve—enormously erudite and sophisticated, in the interest not of intellectual showmanship, but of achieving thoughtful disagreement and reconciliation in essentials for the church of his day. People today tend to think that you have to choose between precision and peace—the only way to be peaceable is to blur definitions and remain fuzzy. But the old Protestant masters understood it was just the opposite—only by learning to be very clear about what you thought and why it mattered could you learn to live at peace with those who might think differently.

A distinctively Protestant form of ressourcement—a recovery of the wisdom of classical 16th and 17th Protestant thought—appears to be a key aspect of your vision. What are some of the particular things that you believe that these sources have to offer us at our juncture in history?

Brad: What I’ve just described is certainly one key thing. My doctoral research was on the Reformers’ concept of adiaphora—”things indifferent”—which meant, roughly, things that people could disagree on without casting question on the authenticity of their Christian profession. But this didn’t mean those things were necessarily unimportant—they might be very important in their own ways! Among these were many ethical and political questions, on which the Reformers and their heirs spent a great deal of time and thought.

In the contemporary atmosphere of identity politics, we often tend to oscillate between making certain ethical and political stances constitutive of our Christian identity or on the other hand dismissing them as unimportant. We have to reclaim the ability to reason thoughtfully and disagree maturely about such matters, and I think this is one area where the early modern Protestants can help us a bit. After all, their Catholic opponents had a comparatively easy trump card—thus saith the Pope, and therefore it is essential—whereas Protestants had no choice but to puzzle through the conflicts that an insistence on Scripture alone rendered unavoidable. But having mentioned sola Scriptura, I would also add that our earlier Protestant forefathers were under no illusions that this principle meant Scripture was our only guide in anything. They knew than any educated and competent Christian needed to know a good bit about philosophy, and law, and the natural world. We need to recover this kind of holistic Christian wisdom, and the Davenant House program is one little step toward that.

Davenant House is overtly Protestant in its identity. Jake, you are also the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy, whose name alludes to the common ground of Christian orthodoxy articulated in the work of such as Chesterton and Lewis. What does unapologetic Protestantism have to offer to mere Christianity?

Jake: There are a couple ways you can approach this. One point to make is that a classically understood Protestantism is going to reframe that idea of “mere Christianity” a little bit, I think. The reformers didn’t see themselves as going out and starting a new church or creating one tradition that exists amongst others. They saw themselves as reforming the existing church in the west. And even when the institutional rupture in western Christianity did happen, it was Rome that broke from the “evangelicals” (as they were known) rather than the other way round. Even into the 1540s there were major Protestant leaders like Martin Bucer working for ecumenical renewal in the western church.

So I think a classical Protestantism can naturally be more comfortable with mere Christianity because there isn’t this weird tension that can develop if you’re Catholic or Orthodox where you might want to be irenic and nice and talk about “mere Christianity” but your own church’s confession says the sacraments in that Protestant church down the street are not valid, your Protestant friends can’t partake of the eucharist in your churches, parts of their theology have actually been anathematized by your church, etc. It should tell us something that Tolkien, a staunch Latin Mass Catholic, had so little regard for his Anglican friend Lewis’s theological writings. (To be sure, I’m really happy to have so many Catholic and Orthodox friends who are unfailingly kind to me and are absolutely lovely to spend time with and who have taught me a great deal about living the Christian life. All I’m saying here is that I think Protestantism can talk about and promote a “mere Christianity” with far less difficulty than Roman Christians or Eastern Orthodox Christians.)

That polemical point aside, there’s also a more basic point that can be made about this as well, I think. One of the concerns of Protestantism has always been with the individual Christian’s encounter with God in the Gospel and the Spirit-led life of Christian fidelity that follows. So I think Protestantism forces a level of agency upon individual believers that Catholicism and Orthodoxy certainly can but sometimes do not because so many of the strict liturgical practices, if cut off from the robust life of the Spirit, can take on a kind of rote feel that ends up meaning relatively little to the people engaged in those rituals. (That was my dad’s experience from growing up Catholic in a liberal, post Vatican II diocese, for example.)

One way of getting at the point is to simply ask how many “nominal” evangelicals there are compared to “nominal” Catholics. Because of the combination of historic church practices, long-standing institutions, and thick cultural norms, I think Rome and Constantinople both in different ways can easily drift into a sort of empty nominalism. Schaeffer actually talks about this a lot and uses the phrase “dead orthodoxy” to describe it. Because Protestantism has such a singular focus on the individual’s encounter with God—and this obviously goes all the way back to Luther’s own personal anguish in his Wittenberg cell late at night in his monastery—it resists that sort of nominalism. (To be fair, there are obvious flip sides to this observation that highlight the strengths of Rome and Constantinople and weaknesses of Protestantism. I am aware of that.)

What are the specific programs that Davenant House offers? For whom are they designed? What specific training do they offer? How can we sign up?

Brad: This summer, we have two main programs scheduled, with more likely to be added next year. The first, which is tied in with our Davenant Latin Institute, is a residential intensive Latin course in June, basically designed for anyone starting with little to no Latin ability and wanting to go from 0 to 60 in just two weeks. It will be the kind of immersion course that people do for French and Italian and such, but almost never nowadays for Latin, and it will be specifically focused toward teaching people theological Latin—that is, the kinds of Latin vocabulary and grammar you’re likely to find in theological texts. This is mostly for teachers, pastors, and grad students, though really anyone out of high school can participate if they want. 

Our main program, which tries to incorporate all of our major goals for Davenant House, will take place from early July through early August and is intended to be a sort of concentrated L’Abri experience. Like L’Abri, there’s a combination of work and study, with mornings spent working on the property (there will be gardening, landscaping, trail maintenance, even probably some construction work), afternoons spent reading, and evenings spent in guided conversations about the reading. Unlike L’Abri, there will be a set of texts that everyone is reading and group conversation focused around those readings and topics. We’ve got some classic texts, ancient and modern, on theology, philosophy, nature and science, ethics, and politics, with the plan of using these as launching pads for Socratic discussion and friendly debate. Shawna Tomes is also hoping to lead interested students in art lessons, including mixing their own pigments from materials found on the property. Days will begin and end with times of worship and meals together—think of it a bit like a short-term Protestant monasticism.

The program is open to anyone over 18 in principle, though the target audience is college students or recent college graduates—young people who want a holistic, theologically grounded framework to prepare them to answer the hard questions they’re encountering and to effectively serve Christ in their vocations. The ideal student should enjoy reading, at least, but more importantly, should be someone that likes the challenge (or wants to learn to like the challenge!) of having to grapple with hard questions and being forced to defend their answers on the spot. To sign up, just fill out the form on our website, and be sure to provide contact information for a pastor/mentor and a teacher who can recommend you for the program.

What should a student in one of the summer programs expect to experience during their stay at Davenant House? In what particular ways should they expect to benefit from the training?

Jake: This is our first summer so we’re going to be learning some of this for ourselves. This isn’t a bad thing and it shouldn’t keep a student from coming, but it’s something to bear in mind. I’ve been in study center contexts where the work has been going in much the same way for decades, where the work is being refreshed by new leadership, and where a completely new work is being begun. All of them are enjoyable but in some ways I think my favorite of the three was actually being there for a brand new, first-time program. (My wife and I were part of the first ever apprenticeship program at Prairie Whole Farm in Ida Grove, IA.)

We have a very good idea of what we want the day-to-day work to look like. There will be time for reading, time for conversation, time for work, and shared meals. We’d also like to have a little free time built into the week so that students can make the 45 minute drive either to Greenville in one direction or Asheville in the other, both of which are really amazing towns with fantastic downtowns. (The small mountain town of Tryon, NC, which is basically a smaller, less pretentious Asheville, is also only a 10 minute drive from Davenant House.) The work will be a mixture of outdoor work in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains where we hope to clear some old walking trails for future use and perhaps start a garden and indoor work simply maintaining the house—cleaning, making meals, etc. 

As far as isolating 1-2 specific benefits a student might to obtain from their time with us, I’d actually caution against approaching the program with that mentality as much as one can. If I had gone to L’Abri or Prairie Whole Farm with that mentality I think I would have focused so much on those 1-2 things that I would have missed out on a lot. I think the best thing to do is to go with the aim of participating in the life of the place and seeing where that leads you. Often we ourselves do not know what we need or what will be helpful to us.

That being said, certainly it’s reasonable to want to have a clear idea of how one might grow, particularly given that one is giving a great deal of time (and money) to being part of the life at Davenant House. So I’d say expect to grow in your ability to converse with others naturally about the life of faith without relying so much on pre-written talking points from experts who publish lots of books. Expect to grow in your appreciation for and knowledge of God’s created order—hopefully when you come back from Davenant House you’ll look up and see the night sky in a new way. Expect to grow theologically from the readings and discussions. And expect to grow intellectually as you read challenging, enjoyable historical works and discuss them with the other students and the workers at the house.

What are some of your hopes and plans for the ministry of Davenant House in the longer term future?

Brad: Long-term, we want this to be a year-round study and retreat center, like most of the L’Abri’s are. For now, outside of the summer months we’ll make it available to churches, seminaries, and small groups wanting to use it for retreats and small conferences, but eventually we want to fill a lot of that fall and spring time too with terms when students can come for more relaxed, informal, and self-guided periods of study. Of course, key to that is finding the right people who want to take up the ministry of living there and mentoring students year-round, so we’ll see how long that takes. We also hope that local churches and academic institutions will find it valuable on an ongoing basis for their ministries, as a supplement to their teaching and for small group retreats.

What are some ways in which readers could support the ministry of Davenant House?

Brad: The best way people can support us right now is just by getting the word out to anyone they know who might want to participate in these programs. We’re also looking for more financial supporters, to be sure, especially churches that buy into the vision and want to partner with us. Without that, we won’t be able to grow the program to the scale we’re hoping to, or run it on a year-round basis. So, if you like the sound of what we’re doing, particularly if you live in the southeastern United States, get in touch with us and we can talk about ways you might get involved.

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Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).