As promised, here is something I wrote about Chuck Colson for Christian Courier. It appeared in the 14 May issue:
As a young man, I cut my political teeth on the Watergate scandal, which brought down a sitting president and led to the conviction and incarceration of several members of his administration. One of these was Charles Wendell Colson, known to everyone as Chuck. As Special Counsel to President Richard Nixon, he gained a deserved reputation for ruthlessness in the conduct of his office. Thus the announcement in 1973 that he had become a Christian was greeted with a general sense of disbelief by many who knew him. Could someone so thoroughly imbued with the ethos of Machiavelli suddenly take on the mantle of evangelist?
Yet Colson’s conversion was the genuine article, and for the next nearly four decades he devoted his life to the cause of Christ in a very public way. After serving time in prison, he founded Prison Fellowship in 1976, an outreach programme to prisoners and their families aimed at turning around lives that might otherwise be wasted within the bowels of America’s criminal justice system. There were a number of elements in this ministry, including Angel Tree, which has enabled prisoners to give Christmas gifts and messages of love to their families on the outside.
Had Colson limited his efforts to assisting prisoners and their families, he would have been justly remembered for having performed a great work for the cause of the gospel. But he went beyond this, focussing further on the domestic justice system, political action and encouraging among ordinary Christians the cultivation of a biblical worldview. This made him a latter-day heir of William Wilberforce, Abraham Kuyper and Francis Schaeffer, three Christians whom he admired and whose efforts for the kingdom of God he sought to emulate.
Wilberforce, for whom the think tank arm of Prison Fellowship is named, was the great English statesman who successfully ended the slave trade, laying the groundwork for its eventual abolition in the British Empire just days before his own death in 1833. Kuyper, of course, needs no introduction to readers of Christian Courier. Schaeffer, who along with his wife Edith founded l’Abri in Switzerland, authored several books from the late 1960s until his death in 1984 in which he analyzed art and literature with an eye towards discerning the underlying worldviews therein.
From my perspective one of Colson’s most significant contributions was to raise Kuyper’s profile amongst North American evangelicals to an unprecedented degree. I first became aware of Kuyper’s rich legacy at age 20 through a friend at a Christian university in the States. At that time Kuyper was not at all well unknown outside of Dutch Reformed circles, but this is no longer the case, due in no small measure to Colson and more specifically to his one-time collaborator Nancy Pearcey, who once studied with some of my friends, former teachers and colleagues at the Institute for Christian Studies.
Not surprisingly, Colson was no stranger to controversy. He was castigated for reviewing books and films in his broadcast Breakpoint commentaries which he had not actually read or seen. Such commentaries were apparently written by others for him to read over the air. Colson’s prolific book output was aided by staff writers who, it was charged, did most of the work but for little or no credit. A dispute over who would receive top billing led to a break between him and Pearcey after their successful collaboration on How Now Shall We Live?, with Pearcey making not so veiled allusions to this episode in the final chapter of her own Total Truth a few years later.
Moreover, Colson sometimes made it seem that Christian political involvement was for the purpose of saving America rather than for being faithful to a God who sovereignly works out his purposes throughout the world. Like the Social Gospellers of old, he tended to confuse the cultural mandate (Genesis 1:26-28) with Christ’s redemption of creation, a conflation with potentially troublesome consequences for an orthodox doctrine of salvation.
Nevertheless, he successfully built bridges of co-operation between evangelicals and Roman Catholics, along with his friend Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, who preceded him in death by three years. In this too he followed the example of his mentor, Abraham Kuyper, who forged an enduring political alliance with Catholics in the Netherlands a century ago.
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