Written by Karl Johnson

Karl Johnson


Karl Johnson received his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees from Cornell University. Karl previously served as the Dan Tillemans Director of the Cornell Team and Leadership Center, a division of Cornell Outdoor Education. Karl was recognized as a 1999 Academy of Leisure Sciences Future Scholar and has received several writing awards, including the 2014 Literary Award of the Christian Society of Kinesiology and Leisure Studies. His interests include human relations with the natural landscape, from wilderness to urban environs. Karl currently serves as Chief Strategist for The Octet Collaborative, the center for Christian study at MIT.  Beginning in January 2021, he will serve as the Director of the Consortium for Christian Study Centers.

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June 8, 2011

Chesterton House aims to help students prepare for life and to glorify God in all that they think, say, and do. Toward this end, we now offer residential living-learning communities in addition to our public lectures.

Christian study centers are popping up on campuses all over the country, in part because of the discouraging data on Christianity and college life. According to a 2006 study, three-fourths of children from churchgoing families disengage from religious practice as young adults. The reasons for this disengagement are several. Students encounter challenges to their faith both in the classroom, where some professors propose competing worldviews, and outside the classroom, where student life staff challenge traditional ideas regarding sexuality and lifestyle choices. Given that religious disengagement is even higher among those who do not attend college, however, other factors may matter more. These include everything from pop culture and K-12 education to the failure of families and churches to effectively impart faith. Finally, behavioral factors contribute to religious disengagement, most notably binge drinking and casual sex.

In “Bacchanalia Unbound,” Cornell graduate Mary Eberstadt paints an alarming picture of the “nocturnal doings of the quad.” Forty percent of students binge drink, and 20 percent do so regularly. Alcohol-related deaths among college students are approaching 2000 per year. Drinking is related to sexual activity and not only of the consensual sort. Almost half of men surveyed who play drinking games report “sexual manipulation” as their motive. Nearly one in five college women experience sexual assault,* with underclass students and sorority members at greatest risk. All of this is to say nothing of the hook-up culture or depression, much less the link between the two. Eberstadt’s account is corroborated by titles such as Pledged, Smashed, Unhooked,andUnprotected, all written within the last few years and, tellingly, all by women.

To be sure, these developments are structural as well as cultural. The higher drinking age, for example, effectively privatized partying among college students. Likewise, relations between the sexes have changed largely because the conditions in which relationships develop–i.e., supply and demand–have changed. Because of internet pornography and the gender imbalance on campus (women now receive 60% of bachelors degrees), men in particular have meager motivation to marry. In any case, binge drinking and casual sex further create an atmosphere unfriendly to faith. As legal scholar David French puts it, they create a culture characterized by decadence (physical temptation and glorification of the baser vices) and stigma (scorn of traditional virtues such as sobriety and chastity). In keeping with French’s suggestion that students sometimes stop professing faith because they first stop practicing it, sociologist Mark Regnerus observes that even “many young adult Christians are making peace with premarital sex.” Needless to say, worshiping on Sunday is made more difficult by partying on Saturday.

Sustaining faith in a largely secular environment is no small challenge, and this challenge is the root of the question that Christian parents everywhere are asking: where can I send my child to college? What we need are places that support both belief and behavior, conviction and community, orthodoxy and orthopraxy.

Toward that end, Eberstadt offers two solutions: opt out by attending a religious college, or join the counterculture within one’s university. Although opting out has much to recommend it–Christian colleges are an excellent option for many students–creating countercultures within “secular” universities is equally important, for the large majority of students, including the majority of Christian students, attend secular universities. French comes to the same conclusion as Eberstadt: “If there is one firewall against the temptations of hedonism and the dispiriting Christian stigma, it is vibrant Christian ministries on campus. [These groups are] the single most important factor in maintaining a faith presence on campus.”

And it is toward that same end of supporting both Christian belief and behavior that we launched a men’s residential living-learning community last year and are now launching a women’s community. At their best, the thoughtful conversation and alternative social life of such communities address both the direct challenges encountered in the classroom and the taken-for-granted assumptions about pleasure and the good life encountered after hours. By the grace of God, Chesterton House aims to create something like a Christian college environment within one of the world’s finest research universities. It is a hopeful project and vision, grounded in our hope in Christ, the author and sustainer of our faith (Heb 12:1-2).

Postscript: Five days after this post, the Wall Street Journal published a piece by John Garvey, president of the Catholic University of America, that made many of the same observations.  See “Why We’re Going Back to Single-Sex Dorms.

*May 2014: This statistic is now being called into some question. See “One in five women in college sexually assaulted: the source of this statistic.”

Chesterton House Painting