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Evangelicals stake Lewis' claim on liberal Mass. turf

 

RNS

The late C.S. Lewis counted atheists and skeptics among his closest friends; that broad-based outreach is the inspiration behind the new C.S. Lewis College, which is scheduled to open in 2012.

(RNS) At the point where Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts come together, and about a mile from a forest called Satans Kingdom, Northfield, Mass., isn’t exactly what you’d call a hotbed of either conservatives or evangelicals.

Yet when a new evangelical college opens there in 2012, founders hope to help end acrimonious culture wars and usher in a new era of cultural engagement marked by Christian charity.

Named for a celebrated Christian author who counted atheists and skeptics among his closest friends, C.S. Lewis College will intentionally seek to prepare believers to engage and understand those who see the world differently.

The school’s location near five secular and famously liberal colleges will allow students to follow Lewis’ example and learn from their non-Christian neighbors, according to C.S. Lewis Foundation President Stan Mattson, who unveiled plans for the school in December.

“The problem for so much of our relationship with the secular community is we set up these debates [where] neither side is listening to the opposition, and both are waiting to see who scores points,” said Mattson, who will be the school’s first president.

“We need to go in a very different direction. We will be much more inclined to set up forums where people can engage each other openly, out of genuine interest to discover more of what the other party is talking about.”

The college, which expects to have 400 students and 40 faculty on opening day, plans to offer a different type of education than most other Christian colleges. Students will read only “great books,” or classic texts of Western civilization, including works by non-Christian thinkers such as Aristotle, Plato, and Euclid. The curriculum will also emphasize visual and performing arts. Textbooks and professors will be replaced by faculty “mentors” who will pose questions and facilitate discussions.

 

To spark conversations

That approach diverges from other relatively young Christian colleges, such as Liberty University (1971) and Patrick Henry College (2000), which equip undergrads with biblical knowledge and political know-how to go out and fight for conservative Christian causes.

Mattson said the school’s arts center and a C.S. Lewis studies center are both likely to be located well off campus – in other words, closer to Smith College, Amherst College, and other area schools – for the purpose of transcending traditional boundaries and sparking new conversations.

The school will be housed on the former campus of the Northfield Mount Hermon School, a boarding school founded by evangelist D.L. Moody in 1879. The 630-student prep school will continue at its main campus in Mount Hermon, Mass.

On the surface, Lewis and Moody would seem to have little in common. Moody was an American commoner who preached hope for the hopeless in New England and the Midwest. Lewis, a prolific writer who penned such classics as “Mere Christianity” and “The Chronicles of Narnia” trilogy, was an Oxford intellectual.

C. S. Lewis College/RNS

The former campus of Northfield Mount Hermon School in Northfield, Mass., will be the home for the new C.S. Lewis College, scheduled to open in 2012.

Yet both shared a charitable spirit and a penchant for making the gospel accessible, according to Timothy George, dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University and author of the 2005 book, “Mr. Moody and the Evangelical Tradition.” The time is ripe, George added, for just such a spirit to revive among Christians in an age marked by strife and sectarianism.

“We are squeezed into a polarized position, and that characterizes too much of the evangelical world today,” George said. “That [polarization] is contrary to both the C.S. Lewis and the D.L. Moody models.”

Some graduates of Northfield Mount Hermon, meanwhile, have expressed concern that the school sold a picturesque, 217-acre parcel and about 43 buildings for $100,000 to Hobby Lobby, an Oklahoma-based Christian craft chain that most recently helped rescue Oral Roberts University with a $70 million gift.

 

Concerns over funding

In an online forum for discussing the campus’ fate, alumna Beth Palubinsky of Philadelphia said she was “troubled by the sale of the campus to entities and individuals with ties to Oral Roberts.”

“Roberts was notorious for deceitful, self-serving evangelism, for religious fear-mongering, and for building a personal fortune through his ultra-conservative values and sermonizing,” Palubinsky wrote. “I think D.L. (Moody) is weeping, not smiling, in his grave, wondering how the NMH administration and trustees got so far off track.”

Hobby Lobby has pledged to invest $5 million in renovations to the Northfield property. In 2007, Hobby Lobby bought the former campus of Bradford College in Haverhill, Mass., and later gave it to Zion Bible College, a training ground for the Assemblies of God.

Hobby Lobby isn’t targeting Massachusetts or the Northeast, Hobby Lobby real estate analyst Les Miller said, but simply happened to find a couple of suitable opportunities in the region. Even with that disclaimer, he said the company would be pleased to see Christian faith spread across increasingly secular New England.

“Perhaps these opportunities came about for a reason and that reason is for God to do something to touch the area,” Miller said. “I don’t know. I would never presume upon God. But certainly if something like that were to occur, we would consider it an amazing thing and a real blessing.”