Every July, a group of students from Biola’s Torrey Honors Institute goes to Cambridge, England, for an intensive three-week class. If you know the Torrey program, you can imagine what it would be like to experience it in an environment as rich and stimulating as Cambridge. Students read classic texts from various disciplines, discuss them under socratic guidance from two Biola profs, and explore the city. Our tag-line for the class is “Great Books in a Great Place.”
The annual trip is the brainchild of Torrey director Paul Spears. He and I have collaborated on the curriculum and have co-taught it for three years. Here is a brief description of our main activities in July 2012.
Late June, before the class starts: Six of the students enrolled in Torrey Cambridge went there two weeks early on a mission trip, reaching out daily to international students in cooperation with trustworthy local ministries and churches. “Team Cambridge” built friendships, performed music and skits in parks and coffeehouses, and showed the Jesus Film to international students in Henry Martyn Hall. After the mission trip, these six students (joined now by several others in our class) kept up their contacts and continued to meet with international students. To me, this is the most exciting new initiative of the year, but it’s not technically part of the course, which starts on….
Sunday July 1: Orientation Meeting. Jet-lagged and travel-weary, our students converged on Cambridge from all over the United States and from several points in Europe. We stay in Downing College, one of the 32 colleges that make up Cambridge University. Downing has a beautiful campus with lots of enclosed green space and lovely facilities. We equip our students with Kindles, UK mobile phones, and rented bikes, and we’re all set for three weeks of seriously educational fun.
Monday July 2: Class session on Galatians. The heart of this trip is an immersive reading experience in Galatians. Following an old, powerful method of Bible study, we read this short book every day for three weeks. This first class session is a socratic discussion of the book itself, but for three weeks all the rest of our readings are chosen to draw out particular themes and tensions within it: freedom and form, spirit and flesh, nature and grace, faith and love. This curriculum keeps us circling back around to the Bible, and we find it deeper and richer each time, always a few steps out ahead of the other authors. In the afternoon we pick up rental bikes out in the flat fenlands, and that evening we dress up nice and have our opening banquet in the dining hall at Magdalene College, which has hosted people like Samuel Pepys, Charles Kingsley, C.S. Lewis, and too many more to list.
Tuesday July 3: Instead of a class session on a book, today is our big Cambridge tourism day. First thing int he morning, we get into punts at Laundress Green and steer down the Cam past the Backs, the most famous visual spectacle of Cambridge. We let the punt guides lie to us as usual (though sometimes you get a really knowledgeable one). We disembark at Magdalene Bridge and walk to the Round Church, the home of Christian Heritage. Guides Ranald Macaulay and Ian Cooper take us on an informative tour of major historic sights in the city center. Later in the day we wait in the rain outside Kings College and get seats for a choral evensong service under the largest stone fan-vaulted ceiling in the world. The Magnificat and Nunc Dimitiis never sounded so good.
Wednesday July 4: Today’s class session is a discussion of a set of essays by C. S. Lewis. Lewis is mainly an Oxford guy, but it was Cambridge that gave him a chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature, and he served here for the last decade of his life. On this trip we will read several things that he wrote during his Cambridge years. Today we read his inaugural address for that post, De Descriptione Temporum, as well as an essay on “Imagination and Thought in the Middle Ages” and his chapter on the Renaissance and Reformation from the Oxford History of English Literature volume. In the afternoon we try to fit in a bicycle trip to Grantchester Meadows but are defeated by rain. In the evening we have a lively lecture (with Q&A) on Puritanism in Cambridge by Lee Gatiss, director-elect of The Church Society. It’s the fourth of July and we’re in England, but we are mutually respectful about the whole thing. Lee only calls us rebels a couple of times, and he’s mostly joking.
Thursday July 5: Class on H.C.G. Moule’s biography of Charles Simeon. This odd little book is a double-dose of evangelical Cambridge awesomeness, written by Moule (1841-1920, graduate of Trinity College, principal of Ridley Hall, and Norrisian Professor of Divinity) about Simeon (graduate of Kings College) who preached for more than 50 years in Holy Trinity Church, Cambridge. Moule rambles a bit as he tells the Simeon story, but he writes beautifully and he understands the spirit of Simeon better than more disciplined professional historians have tended to. In Moule’s biography we get to see Simeon as a young man who took mandatory chapel requirements more seriously than his school did, and went on to take the office of preaching so seriously that he revolutionized the church’s approach to bringing the word of God to the people of God. After class, we took the train to London for a quick run through the Churchill War Rooms (with Spears) or the National Gallery and Tate Modern (with me) and then back.
Friday July 6: Class session discussing Charles Simeon’s sermons on Galatians. We hold this discussion not in our normal classrooms, but down the road in the sanctuary of the very church that Simeon preached in for over five decades, Holy Trinity, Cambridge. A month ago, most of my students didn’t know who Charles Simeon was. Today, they are star-struck at the privilege of being in the room where his historic ministry took place. Simeon’s major publication was a 22-volume set of sermons (or sermon outlines) on the entire Bible, the Horae Homileticae. We read about twenty of his Galatians sermons. In these sermons, Simeon is a great spokesman for the classic Reformed view of God’s law in the Christian life, arguing well for the distinction between moral and ceremonial aspects of the law. He is especially good (and, after reading his life, credible) in his treatment of how the law works within the limits of the gospel as a guide to righteousness.
Weekends are open, and the students disperse. Some go to London, some go to Ireland, some to the Continent. Many stay put in Cambridge: they have a list of several dozen great things to see in town (museums, colleges, churches, botanic gardens, memorials, etc.), from which they are obligated to choose six as their local elective menu before the month is out. Faculty and their families went to Ely Cathedral, an impressive edifice in the middle of the fenlands, and heard a choral evensong in which seven male voices sounded like several choirs of angels. Breathtaking moments of beauty, and they happen every day on this trip. Cambridge is blessed with a number of good evangelical churches, and I provide students with a list of recommended places to worship. My family always goes to Eden Baptist, while the Spears have been enjoying St. Andrews the Great.
Monday July 9: Class discussion on C.S. Lewis’ The Four Loves. The elderly Lewis makes things easy for the reader in this book, scattering great insights and observations all over the place. He’s also fun to argue with, blurting out Donnish opinions left and right in a way that I find charming, disarming, rarely alarming. But sit with this book for a little while and you realize it’s his most sophisticated theological work, bar none. It’s a treatise on the ordering of the affections, on the relation of nature and grace, on Plato and Paul as rival roads to heaven. Paul wins: our natural loves must die and rise with Christ if they are not to claim divine status and thereby become demonic. We break for lunch, and in the afternoon we gather at the church of St. Edward King and Martyr. This is where the first Protestant sermon in England was given (by Robert Barnes), where Latimer preached (from a pulpit still in use today), and where many great writers worshiped. Malcolm Guite, author of Faith, Hope, and Poetry, is associate chaplain here, and gives us a tour as well as a reading and explanation of some great Cambridge poets (Herbert, Donne, Smart, Tennyson).
Tuesday July 10: Session on William Wilberforce’s Plain Account of Real Christianity. We could have read Clarkson’s 1786 treatise against slavery, also a Cambridge document, but Wilberforce (in addition to being the subject of a movie!) is a clearer example of a well-placed and influential thinker who brought Christian arguments to bear on a social problem. Wilberforce’s Cambridge years (St. Johns alum) actually were more about a period of drifting, avoiding ultimate issues, and squandering his privilege. We can have lunch in the classic pub (The Eagle) where he spent, by his own later admission, far too much time. The contrast between the young trifler and the world-changing adult brings us face to face with a central question in Cambridge: what will we do with the power, privilege, and influence we are given? The afternoon weather is good, so most of us bike the two miles out to Grantchester Meadows and have tea in the apple orchard. Later that evening we re-assemble at the beautiful Selwyn College for a lecture by Dr. Sarah Dewar-Watson on the influence of Aristotle’s Poetics on William Shakespeare.
Thursday July 12: Class session on Tennyson’s In Memoriam. This long poem was so famous in the late 19th century that it’s hard to believe it has dropped into such obscurity so quickly. Students take to it easily, tracking with Tennyson through faith and doubt. About a dozen students asked me, “When he says ‘better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all,’ was he the first one to say that?” Yes he was, and a hundred other memorable turns. After session we go to Tyndale House, the residential library where so many good things are always happening. We hang out for tea time, and then go upstairs to the hexagon room where Warden Peter Williams gives us a wide-ranging lecture about translation.
Friday July 13: Class session on Edmund Spenser’s Fowre Hymnes. Next to Galatians, this is the most important work we read on the trip. Spenser is the man behind the longest great poem in English, The Faerie Queene, which we read in the core curriculum in Torrey. The Fowre Hymnes include two brilliant but misguided poems he wrote as a young man, and two poems he wrote near the end of his life in order to recontextualize and correct his youthful work. Taken together, they make up a remarkable Protestant poetic testimony. C.S. Lewis has said of Spenser’s writings that “nothing is repressed; nothing is insubordinate… to read him is to grow in mental health.” Though Lewis had an inadequate appreciation of Spenser’s achievement in the Fowre Hymnes, what he praises in Spenser is manifest here above all.
This second weekend of the trip is also free time for students. But I realize I have left out a major component of this trip. About half of the 36 students have also signed up for personal supervisions with local academics on key subjects. A half dozen students each are meeting in office hours with experts on Shakespeare, John Milton, and Galatians. Before the end of the trip, they will each write a short paper and get critical feedback from Cambridge-area experts. It’s sort of a “major” within the class, and an invitation to go deeper into one of our texts. It was a pilot program this year, and worked well. We intend to do more such supervisions in the future.
Monday July 16: No morning class session, which gave everybody a very long weekend for more ambitious travels. I visited friends in Southhampton, and we had students get as far away as France and Germany. But everybody is required to be back for an evening performance of Merry Wives of Windsor by the players of the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival, staged in the gardens of St. Johns college. Some years we read a play in advance and even have a discussion of it, which makes us the best-prepared and most responsive audience you could possibly want. This year, fearing that I was overloading students with too much reading for a summer class, we just attended cold. Also rainy, but that’s another story. Also, they pulled my son and one of our students out of the audience for non-speaking parts.
Tuesday July 17: Class session on F.F. Bruce’s account of Paul’s theology. For the last two years we’ve read the hefty Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free, which pulls together dozens of Bruce’s articles into a synthesis of Paulinism, but with a distinctly Galatian emphasis. For some reason, the book was available on Kindle last year but is no longer so. (O brave new world! This kind of thing was not supposed to happen in the future!) With that best book unavailable for our Kindle-based class, we had to improvise. We substituted John Pollock’s popular-level biography, The Apostle: A Life of Paul, which worked very well. If you’re reading a letter of Paul in depth, I strongly advise a quick read of Pollock (a Cambridge man, by the way: Trinity College and Ridley Hall); it really situates the letters well and keeps you from mentally reducing an epistle to a string of words without context. After reading Galatians over and over this month, we were in danger. To make sure the discussion was pointed, we also read a short F.F. Bruce book, Paul and the Mind of Christ (pdf free online). Bruce’s take on Paul emphasizes freedom; he gets hold of the theology of Galatians from the opposite end of Simeon. In the afternoon we bike to Waterbeach and back. In the evening we hear an excellent lecture on the young Milton’s formative years in Cambridge, from Dr. David Parry.
Wednesday July 18: Session on John Milton’s Comus. This odd little piece by the young Milton is part drama, part poem, part debate between the forces of virtue and the advocates of vice. A young woman gets lost in the woods, separated from her two protective brothers, and runs into the evil tempter Comus. The offspring of Circe and Bacchus, Comus specializes in getting people so drunk that they become swinish but think they are growing more beautiful. When Comus speaks, he makes the logic of evil seem attractive and compelling, but when the young lady replies (her name is not given), the force of her words threatens to tear the forest down around Comus’ pointy ears.
Thursday July 19: Session on Lewis’ Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold. One way of approaching Lewis’ most artful novel is as a dramatization of the ideas he set forth in The Four Loves. Since we just read The Four Loves, we do dive into this novel with a set of categories from that earlier book. But that makes the novel sound wooden or didactic, and this is perhaps the least didactic and the most elliptical of all Lewis’ fiction. No spoilers here, but by the time the book ends it develops into a meditation on truth-telling, and especially on speaking the truth toward God. By the way, this week we’ve been meeting for a brief morning prayer time in Downing College’s stately chapel, which has added a lot to our time together and has even made our singing voices sound better. We hold a final banquet in a nearby restaurant on this last evening together.
Friday July 20: Final class session brings us back to Galatians, and after three weeks of being immersed in it, the words of Paul have taken on a fullness and a depth for us. This second session on Galatians is a good index of how well the immersion method of Bible study has worked for us, as 36 students are able to exchange ideas about the book with a fluency and solidity not yet evident in the first session. Students are free to go at noon, the class is over.
And though this post is far too long, it’s just a description of the main set pieces of the trip. The students on Torrey Cambridge 2012 trip lit up their social media networks with beautiful photos, reports of fun discoveries in the museums and countryside, and an intense life together under the word of God. I don’t know if Cambridge is the most beautiful, the most stimulating, or the most anythingest in comparison to other cities; it must hold some sort of record. But I do know it’s a unique place that takes a little bit of dwell time to reveal some of its deepest charms.
This may sound like an advertisement for Torrey Cambridge 2013: “MORE Great Books in a Still Great Place!” But it’s really just my chance to do a little mental packing up after a great summer class that I am grateful to have had a part in.