By / Jul 24

American culture is quickly evolving. Christian witness is now met with increasing resistance. The social compact that held together a fragile civil religion has been broken. In this new paradigm, many young Christians are looking for models of faithful cultural engagement.

To meet this need, Owen Strachan, author, professor, and scholar, offers an unlikely candidate: the late Chuck Colson.

For one generation of Americans, Chuck Colson was remembered only as Richard Nixon’s “hatchet man,” willing to “walk over my own grandmother” to ensure his boss’s reelection. For another generation, those familiar with his powerful conversion and decades of post-prison ministry, Colson was a leader in a renewal of Christian worldview. However, most millennial Christians are are likely unfamiliar with Colson’s life story or his work in the public square. It is Strachan’s desire, then, to introduce this titanic figure to a new generation of evangelicals. In his book The Colson Way, Strachan presents the life and work of Chuck Colson as an enduring model for those wishing to apply the gospel of the Kingdom to moral and ethical issues.  

In the marketplace of ideas, Christians have often resigned themselves to playing defense and have been reluctant or unable to articulate a positive vision of humanity. Recognizing the public square as the place where spiritual, political and cultural questions are debated, Chuck Colson’s approach was to play offense, engaging the most difficult arguments with persuasion and winsomeness.

Although not a comprehensive biography, Strachan nonetheless offers an abbreviated chronology of Colson’s life, highlighting foundational experiences, such as service in the Marine Corps and an Ivy League education at Brown University. Both military service and academic preparation would serve Colson well throughout his career, specifically as he engaged worldview conversations. Pre-conversion, pre-Watergate experiences are often overlooked in Colson studies but are vital for understanding his later work.

Strachan’s book serves a twofold purpose; it is both descriptive and prescriptive. It is descriptive, detailing the major moments, relationships and accomplishments in Chuck Colson’s life. It is prescriptive in offering a compelling vision for contemporary evangelical cultural engagement. To fully live out the gospel, followers of Christ can’t afford to adopt a pietistic approach, privatizing their faith to Sunday mornings. The people of God must advocate for human dignity, family stability, and religious liberty.

Strachan sums up Colson succinctly: “We must not privatize our convictions. We need to out our faith in the rough and tumble of a fallen world. Let us make this as plain as we can: more evangelicals, many more, need to get plugged into the momentous public square issues of the day” (139).

Chuck Colson possessed a model of public theology that outlived him. And Owen Strachan presents the best of the Watergate hatchet-man turned evangelical intellectual in an accessible format for a new generation. He details Colson’s friendships with leading theologians and pastors, and shows how these great thinkers influenced Colson and helped prompt his intellectual engagement.

Owen Strachan’s newest book is the first treatment of Chuck Colson’s life and legacy since Colson’s passing in 2012. It sets the record straight on Colson’s Watergate involvement and documents the Prison Fellowship ministry that now exerts worldwide impact. Perhaps most important for Christians, it also sheds light on how deeply transformed Chuck Colson was by the Gospel. Strachan explains: “Chuck Colson was not ruined by Watergate. He was ruined by the gospel of Jesus Christ, which hunted him like a hound of heaven and claimed him when he was at his most vulnerable” (34).

The Colson Way articulates a prophetic message through the lens of a modern day prophet. Colson’s contra mundum pro mundum (against the world, for the world) template for cultural engagement is instructive for believers looking to influence their culture. This is especially true for a generation of Christians fed a steady diet of antagonism toward a previous generation’s cultural witness.

The best biographical books examine historical figures, explain their significance, and inspire others to emulate them. Owen Strachan’s The Colson Way accomplishes these aims at a crucial time for evangelical cultural engagement. Christians will be inspired live out the gospel with kindness and conviction in the tradition of William Wilberforce, Martin Luther King Jr., and most recently, Charles Wendell Colson.

By / Apr 21

Editor's note: This is an excerpt from The Colson Way: Loving Your Neighbor and Living with Faith in a Hostile World.

Chuck Colson was weeping. Not muffled crying—these were wracking sobs. The man whose life revolved around political theater, the need to perform and posture in order to gain position, was not acting. He was distraught.

This was not normal for a man who lived his life from strength to strength. By the time he was forty, Colson had amassed an enviable chest of life victories won by his blend of bravado, determination, and talent. He was not driven only by conquest. Colson was a conservative, a man who followed his gut, and a patriot to the point that he would die for his country.

Colson was also motivated by a powerful sense of pride. He wanted to win. Specifically, he wanted his enterprises and projects and candidates to win, and he went well beyond expectations in this pursuit. This was especially true in Colson’s role as Special Counsel to President Richard Nixon, a role he filled from 1969 to 1973. He cut corners, feelings, and did whatever was necessary in his eyes to fulfill his duty to the president.

Colson was not amoral by any stretch, and later press coverage would exaggerate his role in the Watergate affair. Yet here was the essential reality: Colson fit the stereotype of the Nixon White House in the early 1970s. He was a shrewd, successful, and tough political operator. He was fearless, he idealized Nixon, and like the ex-Marine that he was, he went to great lengths to meet and exceed the charge given him by his leader.

Colson was by no means the key participant in numerous unsavory schemes that later came to light. He was, however, a vital and outspoken part of the Nixon administration. This led, in the mid-1970s, to his professional undoing. It also prompted this moment in his car on the road to Dover, Massachusetts, in which for the first time he realized that before the bar of divine justice, he was guilty.

Colson saw his existence in God-centered terms. He now recognized that he was not a “good person,” as one naturally thinks. He was a sinner, accountable to a holy God who had created him and given him all he had. Yet to this point, Chuck had not thanked his Creator, nor sought to know him and honor him. He had instead ignored God, shutting out the central truth of life. This amounted not simply to neglect. It left Chuck “unclean,” a remarkable summation. God was holy; Chuck was not. He was shot through with pride, condemned by his sinfulness, and without any hope of his own.

Here was a crisis Colson could not solve. There was no explanation to give. There was no story to plant. There were no political wheels to turn. Chuck Colson, forty-two years of age, famous the country over, wealthy and accomplished, the conqueror of a challenging background and too many other trials to count, had come to the end of himself. The sense of the divine had once been a flicker. Now it was a blinding light, enveloping Colson, exposing him, undoing him.

As Colson considered his sin, he wept so hard that he could not drive. As he wrote thirty-five years later, “I was crying too hard—and I was not one to ever cry. I spent an hour calling out to God. I did not even know the right words. I simply knew that I wanted Him. And I knew for certain that the God who created the universe heard my cry.” These were not tears of “sadness,” however, but “tears of relief.” As Colson cried, he prayed, over and over, Take me. The man who had evaded even the thought of the Almighty now begged to be his possession.

Chuck Colson was not ruined by Watergate. He was ruined by the gospel of Jesus Christ, which hunted him like a hound of heaven and claimed him when he was at his most vulnerable. He was not looking for God, but God was looking for him. Colson did not simply check the box beside the name “Jesus Christ” on a list of religious options and then go about his life. As he pondered the weight of this event, he saw that he had to turn away from his old self. He had to renounce devious ways. He was forced, most of all, to look his pride in the face. He had a heart of darkness, and his only hope was divine grace.

By / Apr 21

Name: Charles “Chuck” Colson (October 16, 1931 – April 21, 2012)

Why you've heard of him: Colson was Richard Nixon's “hatchet man” and spent seven months in prison for Watergate-related charges. Entered Alabama's Maxwell Prison in 1974 as a new Christian and became a staunch advocate for prisoners. After telling his story in the bestselling memoir Born Again, Colson used the royalties to found Prison Fellowship, the world's largest outreach to prisoners, ex-prisoners, crime victims, and their families.

Position: Colson served as the founder and chairman of Prison Fellowship and Prison Fellowship International (1976-2012). He was also a commentator for the daily radio broadcast Breakpoint from 1991 until his death.

Previous career: Captain, U.S. Marine Corps (1953-55); Assistant to the Assistant Secretary of the Navy (1955-56); Admin. Asst. to U.S. Sen. Leverett Saltonstall (R-Mass.) (1956-61); Partner, Gadsby and Hannah Law Firm (1961-69); Special Counsel to President Richard M. Nixon (1969-73); Partner, Colson and Shapiro Law Firm (1973-74).

Education: B.A., Brown University (1953) J.D. with honors, George Washington University (1959)

Area of expertise/interest: Restorative justice; worldview analysis and cultural criticism

Honors: Won the $1 million dollar Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion (the prize money was donated to Prison Fellowship); Born Again was made into a movie in 1978.

Books: Colson wrote more than 20 books, including Born Again (1976), Kingdoms in Conflict (1987), The Body (1994), Loving God (1997), and How Now Shall We Live (with Nancy Pearcey) (2000)

Assessment: Other than St. Paul, there are few ex-prisoners who did more to fulfill the duties of a Christian like Charles Colson. Along with Prison Fellowship, he oversaw the founding of Justice Fellowship (the nation's largest faith-based criminal justice reform group) and Angel Tree (a program that provides Christmas presents to more than 500,000 children of inmates annually on behalf of their incarcerated parents). The ministries now reach over 40,000 prisoners in 100 countries around the world.

As an author, Colson wrote some of the most influential books in the evangelical community, including The Body and How Now Shall We Live? (both co-written with Nancy Pearcey), and Kingdoms in Conflict (1987), a centrist view of the relationship between church and state. In 1994 he was the co-author, along with the late Catholic priest Fr. Richard John Neuhaus of Evangelicals and Catholics Together, a controversial ecumenical document that highlights how the two groups can work together while still respecting their profound theological differences.

While others have used the infamy of Watergate to line their own pockets, Colson donated all of his speaking honoraria and book royalties to Prison Fellowship and accepted only the salary of a mid-range ministry executive as compensation. The man who was once considered “Nixon's evil genius” became a model of Christian charity and service. Colson was a prime example of how God can transform a person's life and use them for his purposes.

By / Mar 9

Editor’s Note: We asked several ERLC research fellows to weigh in on books and thinkers that have helped shape and solidify their convictions and worldview. Be sure to check out other posts in this series here

I was raised in Southeast Georgia, close to the buckle of the Bible Belt. I came of age in the mid-1990s, when the Christian Coalition was at the height of its influence, Newt Gingrich was making contracts with America, and it seemed like national revival was closely tied to the fortunes of the Republican Party. Those were heady days for politically conservative evangelicals, Bill Clinton’s presidency notwithstanding. I was a proud member of the College Republicans and listened regularly to D. James Kennedy and James Dobson on American Family Radio.

I was also what a friend calls a “cultural anorexic.” To my thinking, American culture was decadent and should be avoided by believers—with the exception, of course, of voting for Republican politicians. I didn’t listen to secular music for a couple of years. I didn’t watch any R-rated movies and avoided most PG-13 movies. I even avoided G-rated movies (at least the ones made by the Walt Disney Company). I wore a lot of Christian t-shirts and rocked a “What Would Jesus Do?” bracelet. As I have reflected on those years, I think I meant well. I really wanted to honor God. But I was an arrogant, condescending, and pretty ignorant religious reactionary.

All this began to change the summer between my junior and senior years of college. Simply put, I discovered Chuck Colson. Previously, I had listened to the “Breakpoint” radio program, so I knew Colson’s name. But that summer, I read his book How Now Shall We Live?. Next, I read The Body: Being Life in Darkness. I started subscribing to Christianity Today, and Colson’s columns became a monthly highlight. I started reading every essay of Colson’s that I could find on the internet. By the time I graduated from college, by God’s grace—and with Chuck Colson’s help—I was no longer a religious reactionary.

Through his writings, Colson taught me three lessons that have continued to shape how I think about the relationship between faith and culture.

Worldviews matter

Chuck Colson believed that worldviews matter. In How Now Shall We Live? Colson and his co-author, Nancy Pearcey, argue that, “The church’s singular failure in recent decades has been the failure to see Christianity as a life system, or worldview, that governs every area of existence.” They then go on to explain the basics of a Christian worldview: the goodness of creation, the horror of sin, the cosmic scope of redemption, a Christian view of culture, the importance of work and witness and worship.

How Now Shall We Live? introduced me to the thinking of Francis Schaeffer and Abraham Kuyper, two figures who further helped to reorient my thoughts about faith and culture. In fact, it would be fair to say that my understanding of the Christian worldview has been nurtured through a combination of Schaeffer, Kuyper, John Calvin, C. S. Lewis, Carl Henry, William Wilberforce, Al Wolters, Richard Mouw and Jonathan Edwards. Colson put me on the trail of about half of these figures.

Cultural engagement is more than political engagement

Thanks to Colson, I had come to believe that the gospel transforms the mind and the Bible provides a particular grid through which to interpret all of life. I now had a healthier, more robust, more biblical way of thinking about how best to engage culture. Politics remained an interest, but as I matured in my understanding of the Christian worldview, I became less partisan. Increasingly, I was able to maintain a bit more critical distance from any particular political party. I now knew that politics was only part of the story—and a part that was as likely to disappoint as any.

As a Christian, I’m to care about how God is at work in the arts, and education, and the sciences, and the family, and public justice. Everything matters to God. Colson introduced me to the Kuyperian concept of “sphere sovereignty,” a topic I later learned about in greater depth from Kuyper himself and other Kuyperian thinkers. Christian should be concerned with the full range of human existence and how God’s common grace is displayed in every human culture. I’m committed to what I think is a biblical vision of human flourishing, and I’m indebted to Chuck Colson for first putting me on this path.

The Church is bigger than I thought it was

The second Colson book I read was actually his earlier work, The Body. In that book, Colson and co-author ‎Ellen Vaughn looked at how various Christians from every denominational tradition were living out their faith in witness and service to the world. Colson argued that the church is both against the world and for the world, a balancing act that should be reflected in our cultural engagement. Tim Keller and others have captured this same theme in recent years by referring to the church as a counterculture for the common good.

I found Colson’s view of the universal church challenging. I was a Baptist collegian who was suspicious of other denominations. But without rejecting my sincere and strong commitment to biblical doctrines such as the sufficiency of Scripture and justification by faith alone, I came to recognize that God’s people transcends our denominational traditions. Our denominations have real and important differences. Furthermore, nominal faith remains a persistent threat. Nevertheless, all who claim Jesus is Lord should find as many ways as possible to work together to be salt and light in a world that hates everyone who acknowledges the Bible as God’s Word, affirms biblical ethics, and embraces the faith summarized in the creedal consensus of the ancient church.

I’m thankful for the life and ministry of Chuck Colson. I’d urge those reading this blog post to read Colson’s many writings. I’d also encourage you to be on the lookout for Owen Strachan’s forthcoming book The Colson Way: Loving Your Neighbor and Living with Faith in a Hostile World.