Reading Owen Strachan’s newest work, The Colson Way: Loving Your Neighbor and Living with Faith in a Hostile World, was like retracing the pathway that gave rise to my vocation and convictions, convictions I deeply cherish to this day.
I first heard of Chuck Colson from a tattered copy of Born Again that my parents gave to me when I was in high school. Quite frankly, I didn’t pay attention to who the author was. I just read a collection of encouraging testimonies about how meeting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior transformed people into new creatures with a new set of goals and values. Of course, Colson’s story was told within that book, and as a young, politically interested teen, I was struck that a man of such immense power and intellect had been captured by the gospel.
In college, while at Focus on the Family’s Leadership Institute, I was assigned How Now Shall We Live? In that volume, Colson clearly demonstrates that the gospel is a public truth with very public implications. Reading that book helped me see that the gospel not only transforms hearts, but can transform societies, too.
But what I loved most about Colson is that he put first things first: gospel first, public life second. It’s not that he saw public life as unimportant. It was all where the accent lay; with Colson, the accent lay first with the gospel. Colson simply emphasized that a right society begins first when its people possess a right relationship with God.
For Roman Catholics, the brilliant and eloquent Richard John Neuhaus set a paradigm for political and social engagement. According to Owen Strachan, evangelicals need a Neuhaus-like figure of their own—someone who can cast a vision for evangelical social engagement. As he writes, “Many of us might point to a Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Martin Luther King, Jr., but is there anyone in the last forty years who comes to mind?”
Charles Colson is that man. In The Colson Way, Strachan, associate professor of Christian theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, offers an introduction to Colson—President Nixon’s “Hatchet Man”—whose conversion to Christianity was as unlikely and profound as was Colson’s enormous impact on an engaged, public Christianity.
A Broken Man, a Bigger God
Strachan writes with one primary goal: to introduce Colson and his ways to a generation of evangelicals in need of bold, intellectual engagement within an increasingly secularizing culture. Strachan believes that by examining the life of Colson, a new generation of evangelicals can gain a glimpse of what effective public square engagement must look like both in tactic and style.
Born into a middle-class New England family, Colson’s combination of natural brilliance and hardworking grit catapulted him to vocational success. Turning down a scholarship to Harvard, Colson entered Brown University on an ROTC scholarship and studied political philosophy. Upon graduating, Colson took a number of government jobs, demonstrating his administrative skills in each. Eventually settling into a lucrative legal career after graduating from George Washington University Law School, Colson used his natural abilities and social connections to then-Vice President Richard Nixon to become a special assistant to the eventual President Nixon. The rest, as they say, is history.
A man of tough ambition and fierce loyalty, Colson was seen by his colleagues as an inveterate “fixer” capable of making problems and obstacles disappear, qualities that President Nixon would find particularly useful. Unaware of Nixon’s ties to the Watergate scandal but implicated nonetheless, Colson himself was eventually convicted of obstructing justice. A business executive friend who had had a newfound conversion to Christianity told Colson of his need for redemption. Reading a passage from C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, Colson was confronted with his sin against a holy God. The greatness of God compared to the filthy rags of Colson’s own brokenness brought him to the recognition that only God could truly redeem the sinner. A radical conversion followed, which Colson depicted in his bestseller, Born Again. Colson’s conversion was the catalyst for all of his future endeavors.
After a short stint in federal prison that deeply affected him with the realities of prison life and the destitute misery of many prisoners, Colson left prison determined to minister to those whose need for grace matched his own.
This led Colson to found Prison Fellowship and a host of associated ministries all based on the conviction that the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the gospel alone, is what can bring lasting peace and reconciliation with God and with one’s neighbors. Indeed, at the heart of The Colson Way is the significance of conversionary Christianity—a Christianity that is deeply personal and affective, one that transforms a person’s desires and hopes while also bearing public witness to personal transformation.
Reclaiming the Christian Worldview
Detailing the transforming work of Colson for the “least of these,” Strachan tells the story of Colson’s work on educating American Christians on the role and impact of the Christian worldview. For Colson, Christianity poured over into practical witness. Yet that witness originated with a person’s understanding of the world. Colson insisted that only the Christian worldview answered the deepest questions of human existence in a way that led to personal wholeness and social transformation. As Strachan shows, Colson’s interactions with such evangelical luminaries as Francis Schaeffer, Carl Henry, R.C. Sproul, and older theologians such as Augustine, Abraham Kuyper, and William Wilberforce all set the stage for Colson’s mission to educate Christians about the depths of Christianity’s relevance to social life.
Less a detailed biography than an overview of the lessons we can learn from Colson about Christian engagement in the public square, Strachan’s portrait of Colson is equal parts explanation, implication, and application. While each chapter examines a stage of Colson’s life, Strachan provides devotional commentary on how Colson’s life and witness offer guidance for a new generation of Christians seeking to engage their culture. The devotional nature of the book is both a strength and a weakness. The Colson Way should not be considered an exhaustive biography of Colson; but an introduction. Furthermore, Strachan’s manner of biography includes the use of vignettes of Colson’s life to help draw conclusions for what a faithful evangelical public witness ought to look like. The stark turn that Strachan takes from biography to devotion can at times be too abrupt.
The book also downplays criticism of Colson—particularly his ecumenism and involvement in forming Evangelicals and Catholics Together. To his critics, many of whom are from the Reformed community, Colson downplayed the disagreements that spawned the Reformation. Critics accused him of sacrificing Reformation theology for the sake of Christian moral witness and co-belligerence. This criticism would be a lasting criticism of his initiatives, particularly the Manhattan Declaration.
Strachan, who also serves as President of the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, observes that Colson’s witness on issues of family life and sexuality is particularly relevant for our times. Strachan picks up on the themes at the core of Colson’s involvement with the 2009 Manhattan Declaration, of which Colson was a primary architect:
The stakes are high. If those who stand for life and marriage and the family and the goodness of religious institutions are outworked and outvoted, we should expect to see our society deteriorate. If our vision of flourishing is not driven by serious personal and political investment, we should plan on other visions of flourishing winning the hearts and minds of our neighbors.
As one of Colson’s mentors, Carl F.H. Henry, would say: “If the church fails to apply the central truth of Christianity to social problems correctly, someone else will do so incorrectly.”
Reinvigorating Christian Witness
This picks up on a common theme of the book, which could be summed up in the Latin phrase Richard Neuhaus invoked and Strachan himself uses: Contra Mundum, Pro Mundo “Against the World, for the World.” Or, as Strachan puts it, “advance justice and oppose evil.”
Entrenched and embattled against the prevailing zeitgeist, Christianity works within the social arena to subvert the zeitgeist in hopes of displacing it with the truths of Christianity lived out in all areas of life. As Colson so often noted, institutions of common life, such as the university and the hospital, have their roots in a Christian vision of human flourishing, learning, and care for the infirm. In Christianity one finds the roots of charity and dignity, two themes that worked to displace the barbarism of the Roman Empire and that continue to displace the barbarism and conceit of contemporary Progressivism.
Pastors and parents looking to introduce church members or young adults to the heroic witness of Charles Colson should read The Colson Way. A short work that is eminently accessible, theologically rich, and written with an eye toward application and encouragement, Strachan’s book has done a young generation of evangelicals a deep service by mining Colson’s life for today’s turbulent times.
The portrait that Strachan captures of Colson is both political and theological. While the political remains a looming backdrop through which to understand Colson, it was the gospel of Jesus Christ that gave him reason to wake each day. Today, Colson’s legacy is incalculable. Many of today’s publicly engaged Christians, motivated by a deep love of the Gospel and a concern for culture, are trying to retrieve the Colson legacy for a new day—a day that’s as badly in need of the gospel as Colson once was.
At the annual gathering of the Southern Baptist Convention in 2009, Colson spoke to pastors and signed books. I approached that larger-than-life figure, whose tall and aged profile still seemed Herculean. I expressed my thanks to him for his influence during very tumultuous years when the soft-pedaled heresies of the Emerging Church were gaining steam. Colson helped me see through the fog of postmodernism, relativism, and nihilism. The gentlemanly Colson and I exchanged a few other pleasantries as he signed my copy of God and Government. In it, he wrote: “To Andrew: Love your country, but love your God more. Chuck.” I can’t think of a better way to summarize Colson’s take on public engagement.
Andrew T. Walker serves as Director of Policy Studies for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.