Faith integration: C.S. Lewis Institute book group at CSU
“All art is about the presence or absence of God in someone’s life, about how our lives are filled or empty based on what we know or don’t know about Him,” said Dr. Cole Jeffrey.
Religion is a constant topic of discussion in literature, especially at a school like Charleston Southern University and with an author like C.S. Lewis. Lewis was, like many of us at CSU, a devout Christian in his life. However, he didn’t start this way. The author wasn’t sure of his religious stance at first and even for a time considered it fantasy.
Lewis’ relationship to God led to some of the greatest Christian stories and realizations of religion. His devotion, stories, and ideas would go on to create a legacy upheld by the C.S. Lewis Institute, an organization working toward creating disciples that understand not only their faith, but how best to share it and teach others to accept theirs in every aspect of life.
The institute currently has 15 locations, one location being Charleston. There was significant interest upon the announcement of the opening of this location, particularly from Dr. Cole Jeffrey, associate professor of English. He reached out to the couple heading the location, James and Cathy Amendolia, to see how he might get involved. After sitting down to dinner with the couple, Jeffrey got a call from Michael Bryant, vice president of strategic planning, faith integration, and Christian leadership, asking about leading a book study for the Institute on campus.
As someone who went through a crisis of faith himself in his 20s, Jeffrey saw this as a great way to help mentor students who may be going through a similar struggle. He attributed his relationship with God to his undergraduate Christian professors and C.S. Lewis himself, so Jeffrey is especially passionate about being able to discuss Lewis’ ideas and help guide students to not just his points of view, but other authors’ points of view on religion as well.
Dr. Ross Parker, associate professor of Christian studies, was similarly interested. Parker already knew of the work of the Institute broadly and similarly met with the Amendolias before the creation of the book study. He especially finds it interesting to be able to have a group like the C.S. Lewis book study where students and employees can come together to discuss their ideas. This is meant to be an especially different setting as “In the classroom, there’s a dynamic with reading that makes students anxious, as often it involves a test,” Parker said. “Here there’s no tests. We’re all on an equal plane. And there’s something great about everyone being on an equal level like that.”
Being on an “equal level,” as Parker says, allows everyone to share their ideas no matter their beliefs. Jeffrey says that with this openness, there is certainly a chance for tension. He says he understands, for any in the group or on campus, what it’s like to be the odd man out when it comes to one’s beliefs, so the group is certainly sensitive when it comes to the discussion.
In today’s society where there is a constant battle over politics, a shift, Jeffrey says, since his college days, it’s dangerous to assume that what one believes is based on theology. “What you believe doesn’t matter so much as politics anymore. However, theology involves both beliefs and politics.”
Parker empathizes this point, saying that while there certainly is potential for limitation and tension, the group’s sense of openness and the discussions themselves are important. He (and Jeffrey) both comment on how ultimately, the tension can come from misunderstandings and assumptions about Christianity. Parker puts a positive spin on the usually negative assumptions however, saying “[As a group and as Christians,] we’re working with the assumption of wanting to come to the truth. We’re all acknowledging we’re limited and want to learn from each other. This truth isn’t meant to be oppressive or limiting.”
This truth, as Jeffrey would agree, is ultimately “God’s truth,” meaning there’s a goal of growing in one’s own understanding, no matter the end result. Jeffrey states that there are two main reasons that someone would accept God: the rational and heart reasons. These two reasons are greatly implemented at CSU as a school that focuses on learning of God and Christ through chapel and other groups like the C.S. Lewis Book Study.
The book group is currently discussing The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life by Dr. Armand Nicholi. The book imagines what it would have been like if the author and psychologist truly would have discussed and debated these topics and look, from a Christian worldview and an atheist worldview, at the potential answers to the big questions of life. This book is one that facilitates true open discussions about religion and beliefs, something both professors say really does help in facilitating students’ own beliefs.
The group started its biweekly meetings already this semester, but anyone who may be interested in either on or off campus participation can reach out to Jeffrey, email@example.com, to learn more about the group and how to obtain a copy of the book.
Hanah Kerrigan is a junior English major and is a spring 2023 intern with the Office of Marketing & Communication.