Essay / Uncategorized

Colossians in Cambridge (Torrey Cambridge 2024)

This July, professors Paul Spears and Fred Sanders are taking a group of Torrey students to Cambridge, England to read Colossians with all our might for three weeks.

Every July since 2010, a few dozen students from Torrey Honors College have done this special summer course in Cambridge. We cycle through Galatians, Ephesians, and Colossians over the years, and 2024 is a Colossians year.

Great Books, or At Least Very Good Ones

The students are drawn from every major, and the course itself is as interdisciplinary as the Honors College’s overall general education design (great books pedagogy, perennial curriculum). This frees us up to dip into theology, philosophy, history, literature, Biblical studies, art history, and general humanities. Every weekday morning we have a Socratically guided, three-hour class discussion on a great text.

What counts as a great text for this course? In their four years with us, Torrey Honors students read a blessedly predictable curriculum of great books: big, famous, influential masterpieces. For summer intensive programs, we shift our standards a bit. For one thing, we only read short books. We know that any student who’s on this trip is also somewhere in the middle of their four-year journey through the main curriculum, so we view our summer curriculum as supplemental to that: students who have read, or will soon read, Paradise Lost at Biola can more profitably read Milton’s shorter works on this trip: Comus and Samson Agonistes work extremely well, for instance (for our Galatians and Ephesians years, respectively). Tennyson’s In Memoriam, once universally known but now less so, doesn’t quite make the cut for our home curriculum, but students already invested in Wordsworth are glad to meet this more accessible Victorian continuator of the tradition.

But the real trick of the Torrey Cambridge curriculum is this double twist: We orbit Colossians, and we read local authors. Orbiting Colossians means that we select one of its major themes, and then choose books that engage that theme. Reading local authors means we choose books by people who studied at Cambridge and/or worked there. So we are after short, great books by Cambridge authors on a theme from Colossians.

Science, Magnetism, Narnia

For 2024, the big idea from Colossians is the dominion of Christ over all fields of knowledge. To narrow that down a bit, we have a special focus on the Cambridge-appropriate topic of the cultural power of science. We read C.P. Snow’s 1959 lectures The Two Cultures, which situates scientific inquiry as a social force in relation to others, and for us has the pedagogical merit of stirring up great interaction between our undergrad science majors and humanities majors. It was a Cambridge scientist who first theorized the earth’s magnetic field, and while Gilbert’s On the Loadstone (1600) is a certified classic (it’s in Britannica’s Great Books set), it’s a bit too long, dry, and unphilosophical for our treatment. Instead we read Samuel Ward’s 1640 Wonders of the Loadstone, a kind of extended theological devotion on the power of magnetism, carried out in the mode of early modern natural philosophy. This work is admittedly not famous; in fact I had to prepare a sharable PDF edition of it in order to assign it (PDF here).

We further explore the theme of science’s social power by reading Tennyson’s In Memoriam (1850). Though the long poem is primarily about personal loss, the active presence of modern scientific cosmology in the poet’s mind is one of the main devices for expanding the experience of grief to epic proportions. Tennyson’s struggle to maintain his faith is especially colored by doubts arising from his understanding of science in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Torrey Cambridge makes special room for C.S. Lewis in our curriculum. We are well aware that Lewis is mainly from the other place, Oxford. But he ultimately held a chair in Cambridge, and on this trip we intentionally read works from his Cambridge period. In particular, Lewis summarized the thesis of his Discarded Image for a more sciencey, Cambridge audience in the essay “Imagination and Thought in the Middle Ages,” published in Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature. This is perfect for us. And since we’ve got the collection in our hands, we also read his essay “De Audiendis Poetis,” which was apparently a draft chapter for a book he intended to write. For us it serves as an introduction to hermeneutics, as Lewis carefully shows how readers might mis-interpret books from other times and places. We also read The Magician’s Nephew, which Narnianizes scientism from Uncle Andrew’s tech obsessions, through the obviously nuclear “deplorable word,” to the story of creation. (Disputed question: does Narnia belong to Lewis’ Cambridge period? Probably not in any deep sense. But Lewis took the Cambridge chair in 1954; Magician’s Nephew was published in 1955; and I’m in charge.)

Deep Into Colossians

This three-week course is in some ways an immersive study of Colossians. Our first class session is a three-hour discussion of it, and so is our final class session. In the intervening three weeks, students are assigned to read through Colossians daily. They don’t study it daily, they just read it: just 95 verses, only 12 minutes to read aloud. Oddly, the result of these fast daily re-reads is a peculiar kind of mastery of the book. You don’t memorize it in detail, but you know where everything is and you intuit how it all relates. Beginning and ending with full sessions on the same short text lets students gauge their growth in understanding.

We do our best to turn Cambridge itself into a kind of Colossians learning lab by also engaging great historical expositions of the book that have happened here. There are many to choose from! But the winners are John Davenant’s massive 1627 Colossians commentary, from which we read just 100 pages on verses 1:15-23 (PDF here). Students are not usually aware that English Protestantism produced scholars of such depth and breadth as this; the Protestant Scholastic period is a kind of second dark ages to current Christians, but 100 pages of Davenant is a good dose of the cure. We also read Charles Simeon’s 19th-century sermons on Colossians (PDF here), and discuss them in his own church.

The combination of fast daily re-readings and commentarial deep dives into Colossians is powerful. And our other texts, from On Magnets to In Memoriam, also make constant connections to Colossians. In fact, cycling out from Colossians into other great books usually has the effect of making Colossians seem ever deeper, ever greater, ever richer. It’s kind of Bible Camp under the broadest possible intellectual horizon.

Philemon, Slavery, and Abolition

While we’re immersed in Colossians, we fold in the tiny letter to Philemon, which accompanies it. By taking them together, we get a view of the lordship of Christ over social structures like enslavement. We use our setting in Cambridge to investigate this in two ways: first, Cambridge academic Handley Moule wrote a classic short commentary on the book (PDF here), so our discussion session is on Philemon but is commentary-enriched. Second, we read the epochal 1786 study by Thomas Clarkson, An Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species. Clarkson’s essay is widely praised as a cornerstone of the British abolitionist movement, but is rarely read. Clarkson’s argument is immersed in Greco-Roman classics and in Scripture; this is a double barrier for some modern audiences, but actually works pretty well for students in Torrey Honors, who have already done some of the most helpful background reading.

Also the Sights and Activities

This is just the most bookish side of the three-week course, which leaves nobody in doubt about the academic nature of the undertaking. But we also make the most of this being an abroad trip: we go punting, attend a choral Evensong service, do guided walking tours of both Cambridge and London, share festive meals in historic college dining halls, hear lectures from local experts on some of our texts and authors, see a Shakespeare play at the Globe and one in Cambridge (Taming of the Shrew and Love’s Labors Lost), and walk out to the apple orchard in Grantchester. Students have one long weekend to travel (Ireland and France are popular trips) and somehow, especially after the first week, quite a bit of free time to explore or relax.

Share this essay [social_share/]