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Winter 1998

REFLECTIONS ON A TRIP TO CAMBRIDGE

 

Tal Brooke, SCP President

 

 

 

I had the unusual honor this past October of speaking at Cambridge University for the sixth or seventh time. On this occasion my talk was during "fresher's weekend," the pivotal opening weekend of the academic year. I felt both immensely energized--as I invariably do--as well as sobered by the unique responsibility such a privilege carries, realizing that my efforts could have always been better. As in the past, when this chastening mood passes, I can sometimes glimpse God's providential hand when we "the players" see our tiny shadows from an eternal perspective. Cambridge especially has a way of doing this. It is immense in almost every sense.

As a boy growing up in London I loved to see the famous boat race on the Thames at Henley between Oxford and Cambridge. I always identified with Cambridge, yelling for them as they headed towards the finish line. When my family took trips to Cambridge, I would stand in quiet wonder. I attended an English school and Cambridge was where I had my sights set. Many of my English ancestors attended this great University (including a certain distant cousin who went to Kings College, lived in Grantchester, had tea at the Orchard--along with Bertrand Russell, Virginia Woolf, Wittgenstein and other beautiful people--and wrote poetry during World War I on the field, only to die at an early age.). But time clouded my dreams of going to this great University, and when it came time to apply, America's golden opportunities were right before me. Nevertheless, in God's design, I would return to speak and pray, if nothing else.

Historical perspective

Oxford and Cambridge are probably the two finest universities in the world, comprising a Who's Who of academic excellence. Their legacy of world class thinkers reaches back centuries ( to the 1200s and earlier for Oxford) to such minds as Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton. Newton became Master of Trinity College and Lucasian Professor of Mathematics. The same place where, hundreds of years later in our day, Stephen Hawking (cosmologist and theoretical physicist) holds the same Lucasian chair as Newton. Indeed, Trinity College alone holds more Nobel prizes than most countries. Hundreds of its graduates have filled the pages of history--from poets such as Dryden, Tennyson and Byron to novelists like Thackeray, historians such as Macaulay, philosophers such as Francis Bacon and Bertrand Russell, architects such as Wren and John Neville, scientists such as Rutherford and Babbage (who invented the earliest computer)--a veritable chiaroscuro of diverse brilliance. To include graduates of Cambridge's other 34 colleges in this list of luminaries, we would add Oliver Cromwell, John Milton, Charles Darwin, and John Maynard Keynes among the many who fashioned the world we live in, both for good and for bad, depending on where you stand.

These two universities have been unique spiritual battlegrounds, spitting out a CS Lewis on one side and a Richard Dawkins on another (the zoologist author of The Blind Watchmaker). A christian and an atheist stand at counterpoint, dueling over the minds and souls of millions. CS Lewis once told his Oxford students at Magdalen college (in a powerful address later written up as The Inner Ring) that there would be powerful forces vying for their souls then and in the future--the promise of wealth, prestige, acclaim and luxury on one hand and the cost of discipleship on the other, involving hardship and suffering towards the throne of Christ. The latter path could be an unbearably straight path for these privileged undergraduates, testing character to the limits. Such a costly choice was exemplified earlier in the century in the life of Cambridge cricket captain CT Studd, a celebrated student athlete who threw it all in to go to the mission field while leaving the glamor of family wealth and acclaim behind. The promises of earthly rewards pulled hard at these great universities. My dad once said of this temptation for the good life and the praise of men, "You don't know what it is like unless you have tasted it." And he was a man who had eaten at Buckingham palace and the Connought and had been to the lavish estates of friends and acquaintances as a diplomat peering close enough into a another world to feel its pull.

The Pull of Earthly Glory

If you saw the Academy Award winning film, Chariots of Fire, you saw recreated the regal splendor of Cambridge in its heyday when England still had its Empire upon which "the sun never set," when life's opportunities seemed limitless for the elite few. It portrayed an era of privileged Edwardians who would leave their storybook estates in Bentleys and Rolls Royces for grand dinners and the theater when not taking trips abroad. Their Eaton and Harrow educated sons went to Oxford or Cambridge.

In this older and perhaps grander world, excellence was held as a virtue above conformity. Chariots of Fire recounted this with finely crafted scenes--the Gilbert and Sullivan Club (near the Fabians) practicing at the Cambridge "fresher's weekend," Kings parade swarming with students, the foot race around the Great Court of Trinity College, students going off to London for Dinner at the Connaught or the Savoy, then an evening at the theater. Then Images of Lotus Elans, Austin Healeys and green MGs storming down pristine country lanes to some estate. Who can forget the English Lord practicing hurdles that his servants had lined with overflowing glasses of champaige? Could life get any more romantic or lush than that? And against this backdrop was a central drama of the film, the testimony of a Christian Olympic gold medal runner, Eric Lyddell, who was willing to abandon his goal of winning the Olympics to obey God, and who spurned the glories of this world to live and die on the mission field in China.

The images from Chariots of Fire showed a unique era which passed by like a waning Olympic torch entering the stadium, and now barely a memory in 1990s multicultural Britain. It has been replaced by a land that is at war with its own "upper crust" past, its excesses, its elitism, its decadent nobility. But the past cannot be silenced.

From the walls and buttresses of Oxford and Cambridge one can still hear the distant voices of bygone eras--from those of Edwardian glory to something much further back. Thundering like a turbine in the depths of an ocean vessel, and far grander than the famed pomp and circumstance, are the deeper spiritual engines of these two great universities. So many of names of the colleges themselves are a testament in stone to the foundations of these Universities--Trinity College, Jesus College, Emmanuel College, Christ's College, Corpus Christi College, Magdalen College, Saint John's College. Does this not reveal their beginnings? And is it any surprise that from this foundation revivals have come down the centuries, not celebrating the transient glory of men but the decrees of God.

When the Reformation and the Great Awakening exploded through Oxford and Cambridge, history's giants appeared long enough to reset the course of history. It was for Christ alone, his glory, that they battled for the truth and captured their culture. This is the deeper foundation of Oxford and Cambridge, a legacy that has been shrowded by modernism and postmodernism, but which is as real as the names of the colleges themselves which loom into the sky in an architectural statement pointing to God's glory and grandeur.

The true foundational intent of Oxford and Cambridge was to know and glorify God. As in earlier eras, they have wandered and are mission fields once again. Surely they have known the lures of glamor, and pomp and circumstance, but before that there was the knowledge of God.

When I spoke at Cambridge this time, sharing the weekend event with my old friend Lindsay Brown (a Welshman who went to Oxford, was Captain of the Oxford University rugby team, President of the Oxford Intercollegiate Christian Union and who is now general secretary of IFES), our prayer was that we might somehow add to the spark that might awaken some future Tyndale, Latimer, Cranmer, Wilberforce, or Cromwell--giants of the Reformation who all came out of Cambridge. How great it would be to see their modern counterparts explode into our impoverished era armed with the sheer brilliance, character, boldness, and unbending will of these Christian giants who changed history in their time--and were willing to pay the price with their lives. In the province of God's grace, such things are possible again.

Tal Brooke, Lindsay Brown,

and George Verwer on a prior mission

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