How Christians Became Countercultural in Pasadena and Beyond

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The President of Providence Christian College, Dr. Jim Belcher, gave the inaugural chapel address in Witherspoon Hall on January 13, 2019. He addressed three questions he had been repeated asked recently: “Why is the church that had been here since 1927 no longer here? Why did we just send out an email to prospective students saying, in part, that we were countercultural; what does that mean? Why have we renamed this building ‘Witherspoon Hall’?”

Dr. Belcher listed large and beautiful church buildings constructed in the Old Pasadena area during the early 1900s: All Saints Episcopal Church (1924), Pasadena Methodist Church (1923), Pasadena Presbyterian Church (1908), and the building now occupied by Providence, the former First Congregational Church (1927). He noted how “all these churches, grand buildings in the heart of Old Pasadena, demonstrate the cultural importance and influence of these churches in the early to mid-twentieth century.”

The churches “were at the height of their influence and membership” by the 1950s, but decisions of mainline denominations “to side with” the sexual and cultural revolution of the 60s caused membership losses in Pasadena and throughout the country. “And now they can barely afford to keep their doors open,” he said, “many of them renting out space for years just to pay the bills. And some, like this church, have decided to sell their buildings.”

The “rise of the ‘Moral Majority’…was short-lived” and “the march of the 60s continued” until “the once radical and countercultural movement” has become “mainstream” and “controls our culture,” he said. “And this new reigning cultural narrative, built on a rejection of biblical truth, ethics, virtue and responsibility to others,” has caused the current situation of Christianity and Christians being “barred from the public sphere.”

Addressing the second question, Dr. Belcher asked: “If the counterculture of the 60’s is now the mainstream culture, then who is the counterculture today?” He answered, “Christians! And Christians who hold a high view of Scripture are the most counterculture of all.”

He then described biblical beliefs that are countercultural today and said, “Prepare to be mocked, ridiculed, accused of being all kinds of nasty things. It’s already happening.”

Pointing listeners to 1 Peter, Dr. Belcher noted that Peter wrote to a “persecuted, small, fragile church,” reminding believers of the gospel and their call “to live differently” and “duty to live like Christ” despite rejection and ridicule. “Peter exhorts them to form a community that is so radical that, even as they are persecuted, their opponents in the culture would see their good works and glorify God.” Dr. Belcher summarized, “So, to be countercultural today means to live by a different narrative, to live together in a different alternate community, and to live in such an honorable, ethical, and moral way that, even though people get mad at us and say all kinds of negative things about us, they can see our character and see our importance to the city.”

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Witherspoon Hall, formerly First Congregational Church, built in 1927

Dr. Belcher then addressed the third question regarding why the building had been named Witherspoon Hall. He explained how college officials searched for a historical figure who stood for the biblical, orthodox Reformed faith, who understood the gospel as “vital for salvation” but also “to engender and inspire and support good works”; someone who understood how true countercultural community is formed and how “our Republic could not stand without liberty, and that liberty could not continue without virtue, and that virtue had no future without religion”; and someone “who trained people in the need for Christians to take up the mantle of statesmanship and who believed in educating for liberty.” That search “landed on one name: The Rev. Dr. John Witherspoon.”

Witherspoon was born in Scotland in 1723 and studied under “some of the best minds in the world” in Edinborough. He became a “well-known Presbyterian pastor” in the Reformed tradition, who came to America in 1768 to assume the presidency of the college that soon became Princeton. A proponent of the Revolution, he was “the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the ratification of the US Constitution.”

Under Witherspoon’s instruction as professor of moral theology and president of Princeton, many future statesmen were educated and went on to provide crucial leadership. Witherspoon “trained scores of future church planters, pastors, and other leaders in the church and the community and in business.”

Belcher challenged Providence students: “Are some of you ready to receive that kind of training and answer the call to serve our nation and the church the way Witherspoon’s students did?”

Belcher-mic-smallHe pointed out how distinctive aspects of Witherspoon’s Princeton sounded a great deal like the Providence in Pasadena. He noted that the “countercultural” email message also spoke of Providence as “Christian, classically liberal arts, and American.” He said, “Providence clings to our commitment to the classical liberal arts and learning from the best of Western civilization.” At Providence, he added, “We are American and we champion our nation’s religious and political liberty because we believe they were (and are) deeply informed by a reformed Calvinist view of human nature, God, and human authority.” But Providence is primarily “committed to being deeply Christian.”

He concluded. “We know that persecution may come, but we … will continue to live out our narrative of the gospel, seeking the shalom of the city, doing good to all who revile us, and praying that our good works will glorify God.”

The above article by Glenda Mathes appeared on pages 8 & 9 of the March 29, 2019, issue of Christian Renewal.

 

 

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