Thursday, September 22

Faith Camp: Christian students gather and prepare to defend their beliefs

From the issue dated September 23, 2005


Manitou Springs, Colo.

Every year, several hundred thousand visitors pass through this small mountain town. The motels and restaurants that line the main drag depend on tourist dollars for their survival, as do the T-shirt and trinket shops. Most come to marvel at the view from atop Pikes Peak, the very panorama that inspired Katharine Lee Bates to write "America the Beautiful" -- her paean to spacious skies, fruited plains, and the grace of God.

Christian teenagers flock here for a different reason. Each summer more than 1,200 of them come from around the country to attend a two-week workshop on how to defend their faith during college. They listen to lectures on creationism versus evolution, abortion, homosexuality, Christianity and the media, euthanasia, and postmodernism, among other topics. While the workshop is sometimes referred to as a camp, that moniker is misleading: On an average day, students sit through six hours of classes. This is not about horseback riding or leather tooling; this is serious business.

Spend a couple of days at the workshop and it becomes clear that, for many of these students, college is fraught with peril. There is the pressure to party, to drink, to have sex. There is also the subtle pressure to conform to a non-Christian worldview. There are biology courses that ask students to accept evolution, which workshop organizers and most of the students reject as untrue and ungodly. There are literature courses that see any text, including the Bible, as open to multiple interpretations. And there are philosophy classes that view absolute truth as nothing more than an illusion.

Professors are often portrayed not as keepers of knowledge, but as clever propagandists determined to undermine the beliefs of gullible Christians. "The dirty little secret of education is that our young people are being indoctrinated into another faith, but they're not told that," says the Rev. David Noebel, the president and founder of Summit Ministries, which runs the workshop. "They're being told that secular humanism is somehow agenda-free and value-neutral when it is not."

What this means for Christian students, he says, is simple: "Either they're going to get serious about their faith, or they're going to lose it."

'You Better Be Prepared'

When David Noebel started Summit Ministries in 1962, the group's focus was on communism. In the early days, only a dozen or so students would sign up; Mr. Noebel taught all the classes, and his wife, Alice, cooked all the meals. He also wrote books and pamphlets warning of the dual threats of communism and rock 'n' roll. One of those books, Communism, Hypnotism, and the Beatles, has become an underground classic among memorabilia collectors. Its cover features the disembodied heads of the Fab Four floating beneath an ominous-looking hammer and sickle.

Even after more than 40 years, the 69-year-old minister and author seems to revel in the company of his young students. He calls them "Tiger" and they call him "Doc." As it happens, Mr. Noebel did not finish his Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Wisconsin, though his rapid-fire references to philosophers and theologians tend to impress listeners. "Did you know he used to read a book a day?" one teenager asks, her voice full of awe.

Summit's headquarters is a 61-room former hotel with a large cafeteria and an auditorium where classes are held. Mr. Noebel bought the well-worn building in the 1960s for a song. Since then Summit has acquired 10 houses and 24 cabins located nearby for staff and visiting speakers. Summit has 15 full-time, year-round employees; in the summer, the number grows to nearly 50. The facilities can accommodate a maximum of 180 students at a time. To meet demand, Summit offers seven separate two-week workshops each summer.

The days begin with an hour of Bible study led by Mr. Noebel, followed by a lecture from one of the visiting speakers. On a recent Thursday, the guest lecture was delivered by Dave and Mary Jo Nutting, a husband-and-wife team who founded the Alpha Omega Institute, which is devoted to "exposing the fallacies of evolutionary worldviews and defending the accuracy of the Bible," according to its Web site. They have put together an entertaining two-hour PowerPoint presentation to promote creationism. In one sequence, Mr. Nutting shows a cartoon of a man standing next to a pile of lumber covered with dynamite. The cartoon man lights the fuse and -- boom! -- suddenly the lumber is gone and in its place is a lovely house. "That, folks, is evolution," Mr. Nutting says.

Other regular guests include Mike Haley, whose bio says he was "involved in the homosexual community as a teen and young adult" and is now married (to a woman), and Kevin Bywater, a former Mormon, who is "dedicated to helping Christians understand and effectively reach members of pseudo-Christian religions." One of the most popular lectures is given by Eric and Leslie Ludy, the authors of When God Writes Your Love Story: The Ultimate Approach to Guy/Girl Relationships. The married couple speaks about the importance of maintaining both physical and spiritual purity.

About half of Summit's expenses are covered by student fees. The other half comes from the 6,000 or so donors who consistently support the program. It doesn't seem to hurt fund raising that the workshop has been endorsed by some of the most prominent evangelical leaders in the country, including Tim LaHaye, co-author of the extraordinarily successful Left Behind book series, and James Dobson, president of Focus on the Family, located in Colorado Springs, just a few minutes from Summit's headquarters. Mr. Dobson, who sent his son, Ryan, through the program, writes that Summit helps teenagers "suddenly understand the civil war we have described and what it means to them personally."

The "civil war" Mr. Dobson refers to is between those who share Christian values and those who do not. And nowhere is that battle being waged more vigorously, according to Mr. Noebel, than on college campuses: "We tell students, 'You're going off to college and here's what you're going to discover there, so you better be prepared.'"

Bibles and Battles

Craig Thomas wants to be prepared. Mr. Thomas begins his freshman year at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor this fall, where he plans to major in English. He is a big fan of the Christian writer C.S. Lewis and wants to be able to defend his faith with the same kind of rigor and intelligence. Mr. Thomas has an out-of-control mane of curly blond hair and a tendency to become overexcited. At one point, midconversation, he dashes off to look up a quote by the political philosopher Edmund Burke so he can recite it word for word.

Even though he is a devout Christian, Mr. Thomas chose to attend a secular college because it will "make me a more well-rounded person." Still, he is worried about what he will encounter in the classroom. "You always hear horror stories about professors treading on students' beliefs," he says. "I hope they won't ignore my point of view." When a professor or fellow student asserts something that runs contrary to Christianity, Mr. Thomas intends to speak up. And now, thanks to the workshop, he knows what to say. "Without Summit, I would have been very much unprepared," he says.

That's how Sarah Keyes feels, too. Ms. Keyes, a sophomore at Columbia University, came to Summit before her freshman year and decided to return this summer "just to reaffirm what I learned." As part of its well-known core curriculum, Columbia undergraduates study the Bible not as divinely inspired scripture, but as literature. For Ms. Keyes this was distressing. But, she says, Summit taught her that the Bible is "historically accurate," and this knowledge kept her from believing that it belonged on the same plane as Homer or Aeschylus. "It equipped me to think through things and not accept everything I was told," she says.

Still, she experienced plenty of challenges to her faith, and she felt like a second trip to Summit was necessary. "There were several times when I felt professors were trying to undermine my faith, though perhaps not intentionally," Ms. Keyes says.

Most of the students who come to Summit plan to attend non-Christian colleges. During a workshop this summer, Mr. Noebel asked students who were going to Christian colleges to raise their hands. Fewer than 20 went up.

One of those hands belonged to Kendra White. She begins her freshman year this fall at Asbury College, a small Christian college in Kentucky. Even so, Ms. White says she expects to meet students and professors who do not share her beliefs -- and she wants to be ready. She was home-schooled using a Christian curriculum and has participated in Bible memorization competitions around the country. She has committed nine books of the Bible to memory (although, she admits, she's a little rusty on Galatians). She begged her parents to pay the $700 fee and put her on a plane to Colorado.

What specifically does she think she will run into at a college like Asbury? Ms. White has heard rumors from her older brother, who also attends Asbury, of "homosexuality and other stuff that shouldn't be going on at a Christian college." She has already prayed over photographs of each of her fellow incoming freshmen. "I want to put on the full armor of God before I go into battle," she says.

The idea that a Christian student might lose his or her faith at a Christian college might strike some as strange, but not Mr. Noebel. "You don't just lose your faith at the University of Michigan," he says. "You can lose it at Calvin College, too."

Taking Sides

The workshop has only one session devoted to homosexuality, but the topic seems to come up frequently. Mr. Noebel contends that gay and lesbian organizations wield more power than any other group on college campuses. "Much of the faculty is scared to death of them," he says. "The homosexual agenda has been around for a long time, but it's now really at the top." In a book he co-wrote with Tim LaHaye, homosexuality is grouped with drug use, "kids killing kids," and abortion as "true signs of a decaying society."

The students are less harsh in their condemnations. "I don't agree at all with homosexuality," says Davy Desmond, who will begin her freshman year at George Fox University in the spring. "But it's not like I'm going to say, 'Hey, you're going to hell.'" Bri Johnson, a high-school junior who isn't sure yet where she will attend college, jumps in: "Yeah. I mean, you dislike the action, but you love the person, you know?"

Students here also seem to agree on abortion. On one day of the workshop, Lyndsay Bennett wore a black T-shirt with the words "Abortion is Homicide" printed in white letters across the front. Ms. Bennett, who is attending Carl Sandburg College, says students watched a video earlier in the week that showed graphic images of an abortion "with a baby's little arms and legs and how the face gets torn into pieces." The video was disturbing, she says, but "they gave us lots of good arguments to use" against abortion.

Students are encouraged not only to take sides on controversial issues like abortion, but also to evangelize whenever possible during college. Some of the more fearless ones even fan out into Manitou Springs to attempt to convert locals and tourists. This is not always appreciated. They are no longer welcome at a certain New Age gift store, and one local innkeeper says students "come up to you and say awful things about how you're going to hell." Other merchants say the students are polite and that they are happy to have the extra business.

Politics and theology mix in a none-too-subtle manner at Summit. In the lobby of the main building hangs a framed drawing of Ronald Reagan. Among some students the words "liberal" and "atheist" are used as synonyms. Mr. Noebel's views on a range of issues, including free-market capitalism (he's in favor of it) and environmentalism (he seems to be against it), slip out during lectures. "The best way to save the spotted owl is to eat them," he says. "Charge $25 a plate, and they'll be millions of them. Trust me. And they taste good -- they taste like bald eagle."

While Mr. Noebel may be kidding about the spotted owl, he does believe in blending politics and religion. In his book, The Battle for Truth, he argues that "the state was established to administer God's justice" and encourages Christians to run for political office. "If the people rejoice when the righteous rule (Proverbs 29:2), the righteous need to rule," he writes.

There are a few dissenters, and even a non-Christian or two, who end up at Summit. At 16 years old, Isaac McBride is one of the youngest attendees, albeit a somewhat unwilling one: His mom made him come. He calls himself "definitely one of the most liberal people here." He says he was concerned about the session on homosexuality but found it less objectionable than he had feared. Many of the students here seem overwhelmed with the workload -- "Our brains are packed, man!" one exclaims -- but Mr. McBride says he wishes there had been more substance. In particular, he thinks that some of the views of non-Christian philosophers should have been discussed more fully. "There's a lot of things Derrida and Foucault can teach us, and to just dismiss them -- it's kind of disappointing," says Mr. McBride, who plans to apply to Reed College.

Such criticism is rare among students, most of whom say they are glad they came. In recent years, Summit Ministries has grown considerably and now offers satellite workshops in Ohio, Tennessee, New Zealand, and Australia. While little known outside of evangelical circles, word-of-mouth advertising has made Summit a household name in many youth groups and Sunday school classes. When asked how they heard about Summit, several students can't remember. "Everyone knows about Summit," one of them says.

On the final night of the workshop, Mr. Noebel's usual after-dinner lecture is replaced with an extended worship service. Students and staff members give personal testimonies of sin and redemption. Then everyone sings. The overhead lights are switched off, and the lyrics are projected onto a large screen at the front of the room. As they're singing, some of the teenagers close their eyes and sway gently to the music, their arms outstretched, their palms turned toward heaven.