John Stonestreet Interview: Worldview Thinking, Curriculum Development, Cultural Engagement

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For over fifteen years he has helped head worldview training at Summit Ministries, a Colorado based organization that educates high school students on how to think about the big questions of life from a Christian vantage. Thousands of Summit students have learned under his direction, and have taken what they learned and integrated it into their subsequent college and graduate school experience.

During that time, Stonestreet has also been active with the Chuck Colson organization (Colson died in 2012) in “applying sound Christian worldview thinking to the key issues of the day.” Stonestreet, along with Eric Metaxas, has played a pivotal role in the Colson Center's BreakPoint Radio program, which “airs daily on 1,200 outlets with an estimated weekly listening audience of eight million people.” In August 2015 he was named president of the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview.

We have asked William Dembski, who was a longtime friend and colleague of Chuck Colson, to conduct this interview on behalf of TheBestSchools.org. In the interest of full disclosure, TheBestSchools.org receives no commissions or other benefits from either Summit or the Colson Center. The views expressed in this interview are those of William Dembski and John Stonestreet, and not necessarily those of TheBestSchools.org.

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William Dembski on behalf of TheBestSchools.org

John, thanks so much for being willing to do this interview with TheBestSchools.org. We tend to do very thorough interviews, but we also find that our interviewees in the end appreciate the opportunity to be put through their paces (as do our readers). You and I actually had the chance to meet, briefly, at an apologetics conference at Southern Evangelical Seminary a few years back. I heard you speak and was very impressed with your grasp of the main currents that are influencing our culture. We have a lot to talk about, and some of the questions will be tough, reflecting the tough issues that increasingly face our culture. But let's start off with your background. Please describe to us your early life and education. Where are you from? What were your early days like? What role did religion play in your younger days? Describe your education and life experiences, especially as they prepared you for your work with Summit and the Colson Center.

John Stonestreet

Thanks Bill. I'm honored to participate in this interview. I grew up in a Christian home with committed Christian parents. I attended a Christian school that was connected with my church from kindergarten until high school graduation. I had teachers and mentors who were very committed to Jesus and Biblical morality.

There was rarely, however, any emphasis on the Christian mind, or Christian worldview. It was in college that I was first exposed to the notion of understanding culture from a Christian worldview, and it changed my understanding of Christianity, the church, and discipleship.

WD

You've been principally associated with Summit and the Colson Center. Let's start with Summit. How did you get involved with this organization? Who were some of the key figures that drew you to Summit? Describe its goals and vision. How has this organization changed since you got involved with it over a decade ago? What, to this day, most excites you about Summit? If a high school student were to ask you why he or she should attend a Summit class or workshop, what would you say? What are the different ways students can get involved with Summit?

JS

I was invited to help out with the Summit conferences in Tennessee first in 1999 by Dr. Jeff Myers. Jeff had been mentored by David Noebel, the founder of Summit and its president for nearly 50 years. Jeff had helped David expand the Summit to other locations, which led to Jeff and I working together at Bryan College. It's an incredible ministry. A few years after meeting Jeff, he and I began to work very closely together on Summit-related projects, as well as other initiatives. Jeff really helped me improve and expand my public-speaking platform as well.

Jeff is now the president of Summit Ministries, which has summer youth conferences on worldview, apologetics, and leadership in Colorado, Tennessee, and California. It also has advanced programs for budding Christian leaders in Colorado and Oxford, England.

WD

Give us some examples of “success stories” of young people who have attended Summit meetings and been positively impacted. Describe also for us some long-term successes where young people have taken the lessons learned at Summit and applied them successfully in their subsequent academic and professional careers.

JS

One of my favorite Summit stories is of a girl who came to Summit, and soon thereafter jumped into her first year of college. She was shy, but confident because of the training Summit provided. She landed in the class of a notoriously anti-Christian professor, but because of her training at Summit, courageously stood up for her faith. Most days, the professor just shot her down, but one day after she challenged him on a particularly offensive insult to Christians, he kicked her out of class. She went by his office and apologized for her disrespect, but continued to stand up for her faith.

As the semester went on, she noticed that the professor was allowing her more time to challenge his views before shooting her down. By the end of the semester, she and the professor were having respectful debates in front of the class, and he asked her to be his teaching assistant the following semester.

Of course, there's also the senator, the business professional, the private school headmaster, scores of moms and dads, and other stories of God using Summit to help students become adults who know why they believe what they believe.

WD

Summit focuses on worldview training, specifically in the Christian worldview. Why is such training important? What advantage do Summit students have over other Christian young people who have not experienced its training? If a Christian high school has the resources and commitment to train its students in the Summit program, how should it proceed? Is Summit able to send instructors to high schools to conduct an intensive program in worldview training? What would that look like --- a weekend? a full week? something else?

JS

Our culture features a full collision of worldviews. In fact, there is not a single aspect of our culture where you do not see this collision: academics, politics, commerce, arts, sports, etc. Students need to know what worldviews are claiming their allegiance, how to analyze and discern them, and then what a Christian worldview would be.

Summit is a indispensable resource for Christian schools. They offer top notch training conferences for students and adults, curriculum from elementary through high school, and conference speakers for events of differently lengths and formats. Summit also partners with organizations like AXIS, who help students think critically about culture from a Christian worldview.

WD

You and your colleague Eric Metaxas are big into getting young people to be readers, and that means not just the desultory reading of bouncing around on the Internet, but the sustained reading of books. This, likewise, is a major emphasis of ours at TheBestSchools.org, as evidenced in our recent interview with Dr. Ben Carson, in which he underscores the crucial role that reading books played in his success in becoming a world-class pediatric neurosurgeon. In any case, leaving aside the Bible, what are the key books that you think every Christian young person should, ideally, have read before graduating high school as a way of dealing with the challenges that he or she is likely to encounter in going off to college? Please feel free to be as detailed as you like in answering this question.

JS

Oh, so many books, so little time! First, I would say Mere Christianity, Screwtape Letters, and Abolition of Man – all by C.S. Lewis. Second, students need to read in worldview and apologetics, and there are many great options. Understanding the Times is great survey of worldviews, as is Chuck Colson's How Now Shall We Live? I also think the major issues of abortion and marriage must be covered. Scott Klusendorf's The Case for Life and my book (co-written with Sean McDowell) is called Same Sex Marriage, and helps students think through the main aspects of that debate.

Other than that, I agree with Lewis that we should read old books. Every student should go through Augustine's Confessions, Pascal's Pensées, and John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress.

WD

Let's now shift gears and talk about your work with the Colson Center. First off, please tell us about how you got to know Chuck Colson and his impact on your life. I might mention that I first got to correspond with Chuck in the early 1980s when I wrote him about his book Loving God, with which I was quite taken as a young Christian. He was kind enough to write me back. Over a decade later, he proved to be a big supporter of my work and that of my colleagues on intelligent design, endorsing several of my books and even writing the foreword to one of them (The Design Revolution). He and I met at various conferences over the years, and we always had a warm relationship. But enough about that. Please tell us about your personal experience with Chuck. What does your friendship with Chuck mean to you to this day?

JS

Working with Chuck Colson is one of the great honors and experiences of my life. We met through a mutual friend, T. M. Moore, a mentor of mine who was one of Chuck's theological advisors. I was honored when Chuck asked me to be part of the Centurions Program (now called The Colson Fellows) and the project that produced The Manhattan Declaration.

I learned more from Chuck than I fully can articulate. He was an amazing man, a mix of humility, brilliance, and love for people. What struck me most about Chuck was how he was so fully alive: great sense of humor mixed with a great sense of duty. And, I learned from Chuck how to be fully on mission. If he believed in something, he acted on it.

WD

The Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview is part of the larger ministry that Chuck started called Prison Fellowship. Can you give us an overview of the various things that this ministry does and the specific role of the Colson Center within this larger organization. Why does a ministry concerned with helping prisoners also focus on the Christian worldview? Please tell us about your new position as President of the Colson Center and what you hope to accomplish in that new role (which you assumed last month)?

JS

Both Prison Fellowship and the Colson Center are distinct expressions of Chuck's life and legacy. For Chuck, they reflected his journey from caring about prisoners, to caring about justice, to questioning why our culture was producing so many more criminals. Also, Chuck was a student of theology and worldview, which meant he devoured Augustine, Calvin, Kuyper, and Schaeffer. He had to speak out on the cultural brokenness he was seeing, which led to BreakPoint radio, his books on worldview and culture, the Centurions program, and other initiatives. These were combined under the umbrella of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.

In June of this year, the Prison Fellowship board unanimously voted that the Colson Center should be a separate organization. We've being sensing the Lord leading us that direction for a while, and it was an answer to prayer that the board did as well. We are now separate, but will always be connected because of the work and legacy of our founder.

WD

Tell us about the BreakPoint radio program. How did you get involved with it? What has been your working relationship with Eric Metaxas at BreakPoint? Back in the late 1990s, I wrote one or two scripts for BreakPoint. I recall the colleague who put me in touch with BreakPoint telling me that the reason Chuck decided to do radio spots rather than television was that when people would tell him that they had seen him on TV, he would ask them what he had talked about, and they typically couldn't remember; but when people said that they had heard him on radio, they were much more apt to remember what he had talked about. Do you find that as well, namely, that radio can be a more effective medium than television in transmitting ideas and helping listeners to retain them?

JS

Radio has been an incredibly effective medium for BreakPoint. Each day, Eric or I comment on something happening in the culture, but from a uniquely Christian perspective. I meet our listeners everywhere we go, and it's always moving to know we are part of their families and  their conversations. I even have pastors tell me that they use BreakPoint to help them with  sermon preparation.

Our radio audience has remained solid since Chuck's passing, which is amazing and humbling at the same time. He was such a giant. At the same time, more and more people receive the daily commentaries through email, podcast or our Colson Center mobile app. So, we see it more as a commentary distributed through a number of channels, not just as a radio program.

As for Eric Metaxas, he is a brother to me. He's funny, he's passionate about Jesus, and he's committed—despite all of his other commitments—to carrying on Chuck's legacy through BreakPoint.

The effectiveness of BreakPoint, I think, is due to a few things. First, it's short enough to be consumed in a single setting. Three and half minutes, or two and a half pages, and you've learned something. Second, it informs and equips at the same time. That's very important to us. We want our listeners, because they've walked through an issue with us, to be better equipped to think about the culture on their own. Third, I think people find comfort and encouragement in knowing that they're not crazy—that yes, these are confusing, challenging times for Christians, but God and His promises and His Truth remain the same. We remind them of that every day. And that leads to my final point: We're not driven by outrage. We are driven by hope. We are convinced that outrage, while sometimes appropriate is not an adequate cultural strategy. In 1 Peter, the apostle told his readers that they were to be defined by hope. Hope doesn't ignore evil, but it realizes that the resurrection is not in doubt – our hope is secure.

WD

I want now to change gears and ask some tougher questions. Let's start by taking another look at the role of worldview training. There's no question in my mind that it can deeply influence certain people, but what is its general appeal and importance? I think, for instance, of a book like Ron Sider's The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, in which Christians who would subscribe to many basics in a Christian worldview end up living no differently from the rest of the population (same divorce rate, same adultery rate, same besetting sins, etc.). It seems that more is necessary than simply assenting to certain propositions characterizing a Christian worldview. But if so, what are we missing?

JS

Believing the right things is essential, of course, but the Gospel is holistic. Heart and mind. Thought and action. Word and deed. One of the things I loved about Chuck is that he was a perfect example of believing and doing. In fact, his work in the prisons gave him access and credibility to speak to the culture.

One of my mentors, Bill Brown, now directs the Colson Fellows training program at the Colson Center. I love how he puts it: “You may not live what you profess, but you will live what you believe.” I think worldview is a concept that has been hijacked by some, and reduced to a certain issue or a political agenda. That's unfortunate, because I do not know of a better term to describe that application of Christian truth to all of life, personal and cultural.

WD

How would you respond to the claim that by any objective measure, the Christian worldview is holding less and less sway in American culture? One thinks of recent Supreme Court decisions. One thinks of Rod Dreher's piece “Christians Must Now Learn to Live as Exiles in Our Own Country,” in which he promotes a “Benedict Option,” essentially counseling monastic withdrawal from the wider culture. One thinks of James Davison Hunter's book To Change the World, in which he charges that Chuck Colson's approach to worldview engagement is essentially political and that it has failed to achieve the transformation of society that it promised.

Would you agree that we live in a post-Christian culture and that our task, as Christian worldview thinkers, is essentially to make the best of a bad situation? Or do you take a more optimistic view---but if so, how do you justify that optimism? I should add that I recall distinctly when Chuck Colson and Nancy Pearcey's magnum opus on the Christian worldview came out in 1999: How Now Shall We Live? What has happened to the hope and promise that at the time accompanied that book?

JS

I think it depends on the measure we are using. There has been incredible transformation in many aspects of our culture. For example, there are far more Christian academics in prominent positions than when Chuck and Nancy wrote in 1999. That's good news.  Also, global abject poverty has been cut in more than half in the last 30 years, and a big part of that has been the application of Christian notions of work, dignity, and the role of the state. That's good news too. Christian filmmaking is better than it used to be, and there are many involved in the arts. The pro-life movement is having amazing cultural success, too.

And in neighborhoods all across America, as Warren Smith and I wrote in our recent book Restoring All Things, there are Christians whose names we will never know doing amazing work to help the poor, the addicted, the incarcerated, the sick, the abused, etc. I think we often think everything is getting worse because we are only focused on the top of culture: DC, Hollywood, and big media.

Of course, there's lots of bad news as well. I just think proclamations that “we've lost” or “worldview didn't work” is profoundly shortsighted in a number of ways.

WD

What are the most promising signs for cultural renewal that you see on the horizon? What initiatives (such as the Manhattan Declaration, perhaps?) do you think have helped keep a lid on cultural decay? Whom do you regard as some of your best allies in trying to preserve the Christian legacy? Why is there reason to hope?

JS

The best work I see is happening locally, as I mentioned earlier. DeTocqueville recognized that America was strongest in the middle — the mediating institutions and local ways that citizens took care of their own needs. Christians are highly involved in the middle, and there are tons of opportunities for even more work to be done. We do need faithful Christians at the “top” of culture too, of course. Some are called to national politics and media. I think we ought not underestimate the local political, journalistic, and artistic opportunities as well.

WD

Even though I was in my early 50s at the time, a few years ago I withdrew from teaching at conservative theological seminaries and have not been back since. My reasons were varied, but at the heart was a certain unreality about theological education as I perceived it. For instance, it was clear to me that many of my students were involved in viewing pornography, and yet rather than admit that this was a problem, seminary administrations tried to deny or sidestep the issue. Pornography is just one example. Others can be multiplied. What I'm saying is that the conservative Christian community in which you and I find ourselves seems to have fundamental problem admitting that we have our own house to bring into order. We'd rather pretend that everything is fine rather than squarely address our own dirty laundry. Your thoughts and reactions?

JS

I think that's a fundamental recognition of a truly Christian worldview. The fall is not just “out there.” It's “in here” too. Many conservative Christian colleges struggle with this point, in my view. They think through policies and so-called “purity of doctrine,” they can protect students from the culture. I had a similar experience as you described teaching at a Christian college that was more interested in technology filters and internet policies than the hard work of education. Unfortunately, the wrong-headed approach has spilled into other areas of governance, and the college is very much struggling today.

I always appreciated that for Chuck (including with the Manhattan Declaration), the primary audience was always the church. He wrote about this extensively in The Body, and I agree wholeheartedly. When Christians live out the Gospel, it is compelling and transformative for individuals and entire societies.

WD

Talk to us about the Bible. Is a Christian worldview, which you are promoting at Summit and at the Colson Center, the same as a biblical worldview? What do you say to someone who claims that a biblical worldview requires believing that the Earth is 6,000 years old or that it requires believing that Christ will return under certain particular circumstances (as in the Left Behind series?) or that it requires a particular view of God's sovereignty (as in a strict Calvinism)? It seems that a Christian worldview, by focusing on certain key fixed points universally acclaimed by Christians in all ages, can avoid the sectarianism sometimes associated with a, quote-unquote, “biblical worldview.” And yet, the importance of the Bible in a Christian worldview is hard to avoid — after all, whence does a Christian worldview ultimately derive except from the revelation in Scripture? Please speak to us about how Christian worldview thinking can avoid the sectarianism that has often so deeply divided the Christian community.

JS

This is a very good, very important, and very difficult question. As I said earlier, I do think the concept of worldview has been hijacked for one issue or one doctrine causes. In fact, I wrote my master's thesis on this!

Obviously, a Christian worldview isn't Christian unless it is Biblical. But the Bible is interpreted, so what one group or person means by “being Biblical” isn't the same as others. We should be informed, as we interpret Scripture, by the history of theology and the church, as well as sound hermeneutics (I often give a talk called “being Biblical as we try to be Biblical”!).

I would suggest that a Christian worldview should be shaped by at least the following beliefs: (1) God exists, (2) God has revealed Himself as the ultimate sovereign, (3) the world is a creation, (4) Humans are imago dei, (5) there is no secular/sacred distinction, all things are under the jurisdiction of their Creator, (6) humans are fallen, and the entire world has been impacted by sin, (7) Christ is God in the flesh, who has accomplished redemption by his defeat of death, and (8) Christ promised to make all things new. All of these are premised on the belief that this God has communicated in the Old and New Testaments.

There are other ways to put these essentials, and there is room, I think, for nuance in how we understand them. And I think these essentials are easily seen from the Biblical narrative.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8dOi2fp8Rns

WD

The Stoic philosopher Epictetus, who lived a few years after the time of Christ, remarked that “only the educated are free.” His comment is all the more striking since he himself was a slave. And yet, he seems to be on to something. Moreover, Christians will find much to agree with in this statement because even though they will claim that it is faith in Christ that ultimately saves and sets free, yet Jesus' primary title was that of rabbi (or teacher); and in the Great Commission at the end of Matthew's Gospel, we find Jesus enjoining his followers to make disciples of all nations. Thus, the dynamic between teacher and student (or disciple) is essential to Christianity. Talk to us, therefore, about the role of education in your efforts to engage culture. Are there any educational reforms that you are actively pursuing? In a few words, how would you articulate your educational philosophy?

JS

It is our telos to love and know God. Education has been reduced to regurgitation in so many ways, mainly because it no longer is shaped by a higher vision of what it means to be human. Christian education, as T.S. Eliot aptly described, assumes a Christian anthropology. Education should serve our God-given identity as image bearers of our Creator, and lead to know and love the true, the good, and beautiful. In doing so, we know and love God.

WD

Leaving aside higher education, do you have a picture of what you take to be the ideal primary and secondary education? What are the best examples of primary and secondary education that you know of? What do you think of the classical curriculum? What additions or subtractions would you make to it? Who are some of the contemporary thinkers that you look to for inspiration about education? Who are some of the thinkers of the past that you look to in this regard? If a mother and father came to you and asked you what should be indispensable in the K-12 education of their children, how would you respond?

JS

These are tough questions to answer in a short space. My wife and I have subscribed to a classical model for our kids, as well as a hybrid of homeschooling and classroom. There are a number of reasons for this, but primarily I think the model we choose should be seen as a means, not an ends. It is my job to educate my children, but the tools used to accomplish this are not absolute, as some assume.

And so, the best examples I know are the hybrid models, in which resources are used from a variety of sources. Also, the best examples recognize that there is no such thing as an educational “one size fits all.” Room must be made in the educational process for the unique giftedness and calling of each student. The best examples see students as the image-bearers they are, and are oriented toward shaping their loves as well as filling their heads. We want our kids to not only know the right things, but to love the right things.  I believe this point so deeply because I've been influenced by the following thinkers: T.S. Eliot, Dorothy Sayers, Steven Garber, St. Augustine, and James K. A. Smith.

I would tell parents that the most indispensable things in their child's education is them. Parents are to subcontract their children's education, not outsource it.

WD

Thanks very much for taking the time to answer these questions. What are your plans for the near future? Where would you like to be five years from now? Ten years from now? Any final thoughts that you would like to share with our readers? What is the most important piece of advice you would like to leave with our readers?

JS

I've committed the next phase of my life to lead the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, and I've no exit strategy. I think the legacy of Chuck Colson is not one to be preserved, but one to be stewarded and advanced. Imagine if Christians could live in this cultural moment with confidence, clarity, and conviction? Imagine if Christians were not so thrown by this incident or that Supreme Court decision, but were able to live in this culture moment from the perspective of the Biblical story? Imagine if Christians were to work together for cultural renewal?

And so the most important piece of advice I could leave is that we must be people of hope. Hope is central to Christian identity and witness. If we are people primarily known by alarm or despair, we are culture-shaped, not Gospel-shaped. That vision of the Christian life drives me and our team at the Colson Center.

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