The Christian Way
Evangelicals and Catholics Together
Statement in December 2017 First Things
Christians freely obey Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God. “Come,” he beckons, “follow me.” Being a Christian requires more than intellectual or moral agreement with Christian teachings. Christ asks for our love and loyalty. Following him requires conversion, which leads to membership in the Church, the Body of Christ. To be a Christian means being a citizen of a city that has a rich inheritance and glorious future. As the Psalmist says, “Walk about Zion, go round about her, number her towers, consider well her ramparts, go through her citadels; that you may tell the next generation that this is God, our God forever and ever. He will be our guide for ever” (Ps. 48:12–14). Christianity is a community of faith shaped by the Holy Spirit, by worship and proclamation, by prayer and spiritual discipline, by ancient rites and teachings that are received from those who have gone before. Within this community of faith, we come to know and enjoy the presence of God.
Christianity is not a religion, if by that we mean one among many expressions of the natural human impulse to encounter the divine. The Christian way of life is rooted in the people of Israel. Christians share with Jews a common heritage reaching back to a time well before the age in which Jesus of Nazareth lived and preached. It begins with God’s gracious promise to Abraham: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves” (Gen. 12:1–3).
Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house. The search for God is perennial. Religious beliefs and rites are found in all cultures. Yet Christianity does not arise out of natural human impulses, desires, or instincts, not even of a religious sort. Just as God calls Abraham out of his father’s house and homeland, so Christ calls his followers to live in accord with a new reality. We possess a natural religious sense, but the good news that God is love and desires to bring us to himself comes as an unexpected gift and amazing grace. We cannot lift ourselves up to the divine; God comes and lifts us to himself. The Christian way is transcendent and supernatural, based in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Jesus reiterates God’s call to Abraham when he tells his disciples, “If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). He speaks with authority over the natural ties that bind us together. He does so not for the sake of destroying or undermining them, but in order to manifest his transcendent authority. He is the Lord over all things. Neither spiritual principalities nor worldly powers override Jesus’s call. That holds for our otherwise healthy sense of familial responsibility, just as it is true for career, pleasure, and other gifts that can become idols that pervert and distort our lives. Jesus is the incarnate Son of God, sharing in the divine life of the Father, the one true God. In the power of the Holy Spirit who searches all things, the Lord Jesus reigns supreme over the Christian way and over all creatures. Those who follow him are to have no other lord.
Christ’s lordship gives the Christian way an indomitable character that can turn the world upside down (Acts 17:6). As finite beings, we live in a world ruled by many “satraps, prefects, governors, counselors, treasurers, justices, and officials of the provinces” (Dan. 3:2). In our time, worldly authorities have other names: experts, therapists, managers, bureaucrats, and more. They rule and exercise their authority in the normal course of life, sometimes for good, sometimes for ill. Christianity encourages critical assessments of all worldly authorities. And, as a way of life, Christianity fiercely denies their final authority: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exod. 20:3).
God is one, and as Creator of the world, he exercises transcendent authority. This assertion is expressed with special force in the proposition central to Christian faith: God, the Father, has raised the crucified Jesus from the dead through the power of the Holy Spirit.
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In the affairs of men, death claims final authority. It lords over every magistrate and worldly power, over every culture and civilization. “From dust you have come, and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19). Viewed from a worldly perspective, the annihilating nothingness of death seems all-powerful. “One fate comes to all, to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to him who sacrifices and him who does not sacrifice” (Eccl. 9:2). Yet God lovingly intervenes in history and says otherwise. The Easter affirmation—“The Lord has risen”—is a joyful acclamation that unseats death from its high throne: “For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living” (Rom. 14:9).
The dominion of sin is another cruel idol toppled by the risen Lord. The Bible describes the power of sin in different ways. It holds us in chains, enslaves, and imprisons. In the thrall of sin, we become willing instruments of destruction, transgressing against God, our neighbors, and ourselves. We both choose sin and feel it as an alien compulsion. Our consciences rebel against our wickedness, yet we feel powerless. This produces a heavy weight of shame we cannot cast off, a defilement or stain that cannot be cleansed, and a debt that cannot be paid. Christians throughout the ages have debated the degree to which sin dominates our lives. All affirm, however, that the transgression of our original parents, Adam and Eve, put us under sin’s power.
As with death, Christ overthrows sin’s supposed everlasting power. In Christ, transgression is not inevitable, and it does not control the future. St. Paul writes, “Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death” (Rom. 8:2). The First Letter of John: “The blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). The Book of Revelation envisions the destruction of Babylon, the city ruled by sin’s power. The precise way in which Christ’s cross and resurrection topple the idol of sin has been a subject of reflection and debate for centuries. But all Christians agree that in Christ, the dominion of sin is overthrown. (See the ECT statement “The Gift of Salvation.”) The Christian is often still debilitated by sin’s ongoing effects, but the Christian way is not governed by its power. In faith, the Christian is enrolled in a pattern of life ordered toward God, and in God there is no hint of darkness.
Christ’s triumph over sin and death frees his followers to live in joy and praise. Obedience to Christ’s call of discipleship is paramount and overriding. Mammon, the idol of wealth, is another worldly power that seeks to enslave us with promises of security and happiness. But as Jesus teaches, “You cannot serve God and Mammon.” These are the words of a jealous God. This jealousy is not petty or self-interested, concerned with protecting divine prerogatives. It is the jealousy of a loving Father who will deliver his children from harm and destruction (Jer. 31:33–34). The commanding authority of Christ frees us from our slavery to sin and death, allowing us to live with joy in fellowship with God. Our delight is in the law of the Lord (Ps. 1:1). His call of obedience is merciful. A self-directed life invariably circles back to sin’s bondage. Following the way of Christ, we are empowered to reject Mammon’s claims upon our lives, as well as the claims of other idols. “You are slaves of the one whom you obey,” writes St. Paul, “either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience [to Christ], which leads to righteousness” (Rom. 6:16). To acknowledge Christ as Lord liberates his followers: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).
Christians seem recalcitrant in the eyes of the world. No currents of public opinion, inner feelings, cultural traditions, political ideologies, or historical developments countermand Christ’s authority. This spiritual freedom exasperated prominent leaders in ancient Rome. They could not understand why the stiff-necked new Christian movement would not accommodate itself to the widely accepted duties of ritual sacrifice to the civic gods. We see a similar attitude today. One of the conceits of modern Western culture is that it presents us with fundamental (and fundamentally) new insights and unprecedented challenges. By this way of thinking, Christianity is outmoded and must change, adapting to “new realities.” Failing to do so evokes charges of irrationality, reactionary fear of change, and bigotry.
This attitude misunderstands and misjudges the Christian way. It is pure idolatry to allow any worldly power to usurp a Christian’s obedience to God’s transcendent call. Christianity is not a malleable tradition that will eventually accommodate itself to the dictates of “history.” The Christian way prizes obedience to God, not relevance to the world. As the Bible teaches, “Fear God. Honor the emperor” (1 Pet. 2:17). Faith trusts the wisdom of God, which is unfailing and ordered toward human fulfillment and the redemption of all creation in Christ, not the wisdom of the moment, which though fashionable is often harmful.
Christianity thus has an intrinsically dogmatic character, which is to say it remains confident in the truths on which it is founded. The Christian way is not based on pious feelings and good intentions. Inspired by the Spirit, faith is the enduring disposition of assent to and reliance upon God’s revealed Word. A Christian assents to truths made evident by God’s self-disclosure in Scripture, truths about God as Trinity, creation, redemption, and the consummation of all things at the end of history. These truths are reliably transmitted by human beings who, inspired by God, have also been shaped and influenced by their historical circumstances. They have been communicated, reformulated, and deepened in ways that invite ongoing discussion and debate about their full meaning and import. (See the ECT statement “Your Word Is Truth.”) This does not undermine the dogmatic character of faith. The Christian way uses reason to understand more fully divinely revealed truths, not in order to decide whether or not to believe them.
Many think that Christianity’s dogmatic faith leads to close-mindedness and an insular mentality. In truth, Christianity has been uniquely open to a wide variety of influences. It affirms as sacred Scripture the extraordinary diversity of the Old Testament. Early Christianity not only preserved the philosophies of ancient Greece and the legal traditions of ancient Rome, but incorporated both into its own self-understanding, deepening and developing them in innovative ways. Medieval Christianity was enriched by an extended engagement with Islamic philosophy. The Reformation spurred the development of rigorous historical study of ancient texts, including the Bible itself. Faithful Christians played indispensable roles in the development of modern science, the abolition of slavery, and the articulation of human rights. Today, a church-affiliated Christian university is likely to host a wider range of political and philosophical discussion than a secular university.
This ability to recognize and engage truths beyond the boundaries of revelation is no coincidence. Because the Christian way is obedient to the sovereign authority of God, its faith is not insecure. Religions, cultures, and traditions are not rival gods that compete with the one true God. Instead, Christian faith can recognize in them partial expressions of truth. By contrast, those who remain bewitched by idols often lack the spiritual freedom to see and affirm the full scope of our common humanity. Christianity’s dogmatic faith is broad and capacious, secure in its vision yet open to truth wherever it may be found.
To the land I will show you. When God calls Abraham out of his father’s house, the patriarch’s future depends upon God, not the powers of this world. Sustained by God’s promises, Abraham’s way of life already contains, in germinal form, freedom from the power of sin and death. Yet those who are called by God are still hobbled by sin, which, though dethroned from control over the future, remains powerful in the present. And they must face death. In this life, therefore, the earthly and heavenly cities remain intermixed. Our true home is above us, already ordered around the love of God—and it is before us as the full and final fulfillment of God’s promises at the end of history. The Christian yearns to rest in the peace of the city of God, which means that Christians are disloyal to the present age. Our citizenship is of another city.
God commanded the Israelites when they were in captivity in Babylon, “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jer. 29:7). Christians are involved in public life not just to protect their religious interests as Christians, but for the sake of the common good. Yet in every instance, our public or political allegiances are subordinated to what is primary: our participation in the Kingdom of God.
Christianity is not a “Western” or European religion. The Christian way is just as much in exile in contemporary liberal regimes today as it was in the monarchies of earlier ages. Christianity rightly weighs the merits of different cultural and political arrangements, for the Christian way has no perfect or permanent cultural home: “Here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come” (Heb. 13:14). The primary mission of Christianity is to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to those lost and in bondage to sin and death, and this can be done in a wide variety of circumstances. Each culture and civilization has distinct spiritual corruptions; each presents unique spiritual opportunities.
In recent centuries in the West, the Christian way has been criticized for its disloyalty to the world. Karl Marx denounced the promise of heaven—“the land I will show you”—as “the opium of the masses.” More recently, secular liberals have warned that transcendent loyalties lead to fanaticism and violence. If we are to be responsible citizens in a pluralistic society, we must, so it is said, commit ourselves to “public reason.” We are told that this means setting aside theological principles when engaging in political debates. These criticisms have a basis in truth. Christians have only provisional loyalty to the cities in which they find themselves. At bottom, we are strangers and sojourners. We are meant to serve God first and foremost, not men. We promote the good of the world most fully in prayer and worship, reminding our fellow citizens that they too are meant to enjoy the heavenly peace of the city of God.
I will make of you a great nation. Christianity is a shared, communal way, with its own institutions, rituals, and laws. It is not an idea; it is an encounter with a person, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who forms a unique people: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Pet. 2:9). The Christian way is a continuous pattern of life that can be traced back to Jesus and his first disciples, and through them to the people of Israel. Christians do not live as individual believers but as a people on a pilgrimage toward God.
The root of “nation” is natus, “born.” A nation is a community of those born into a shared way of life. As we know, foreigners can become citizens by adoption. The term used for this adoption is “naturalization.” Those who are not born French, for example, can take on French identity by being “born again,” as it were. This often involves a ritual oath of loyalty in a ceremony that marks the “new birth.” Baptism, analogically speaking, plays this role in the Christian way, although in a more dramatic and fundamental manner. It “naturalizes” individuals from many different nations and cultures into the one Body of Christ. It takes those outside God’s people and incorporates them into his household.
The rites of baptism differ among Christian churches, as do theologies of baptism; however, the basic dynamic should not be in doubt. Baptism is an unrepeatable event, administered with water, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. The individual (or in some traditions, the parents on the child’s behalf) renounces his loyalty to the earthly city ruled by the powers of sin and death and pronounces his loyalty to the heavenly city under Christ’s lordship. In baptism, those who seek to enter into the Christian way ask for citizenship in the Church, God’s new people. At the same time, God announces his willingness to accept them and consecrate them as subjects in his kingdom. Jesus Christ is central to any account of the meaning of baptism, just as baptism itself is central to the message of forgiveness and the way of the cross. Through baptism, the body of Christ is built up, its members marked as Christ’s own, enrolled among those who live in him. “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4).
The Eucharist or Lord’s Supper is the ceremony that renews the unity of Christ’s followers, both with him and with each other. This sacrament or ordinance—the terms used by Christians vary—has been celebrated in many forms throughout Christian history. Like baptism, it is central to the Christian way.
On the eve of his arrest and crucifixion, Jesus gathered his disciples to share a common meal that was at once a sign of his intimate friendship with them and the means of entering more deeply into communion with them. Following this pattern, Christians have always gathered, in one fashion or another, and with varying regularity, for a shared meal of bread and wine, remembering Christ’s death and Resurrection, and invoking his presence. This shared meal, celebrated in the presence of Christ, serves as both a sign of and means for Christians to be in communion with their Lord and with each other. It is the expression of, and instrument for, building up a living body of believers united in Christ. It provides a foretaste of the eternal banquet and perfect peace of the heavenly city.
Along with baptism and the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper, the new people God calls into being is governed, instructed, and shepherded by a divinely given leadership. Christ is the Lord of the Christian way. All authority in the Church flows from his authority, which he exercises by delegation. “His gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:11–12).
Different Christian communities have distinct ways of designating those who exercise Christ’s authority within the Church, as well as diverse theological explanations of how that authority is conferred, conducted, and corrected. Nevertheless, the people Christ calls around himself are led and pastored by divine authority delegated to individuals raised up and endowed by God. They are answerable, finally, to God.
Make your name great. Christianity is powerful, though not in the way the world measures power. “When I came to you,” St. Paul writes to the Christians in Corinth, “I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in much fear and trembling; and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Cor. 2:1–4). The wisdom of God is “secret and hidden,” and “none of the rulers of this age understand this” (1 Cor. 2:7–8). But the Christian way brings this wisdom into the open, proclaiming Christ crucified. This proclamation is transformative: “It is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith” (Rom. 1:16).
In a passage from the Timaeus, Plato wrote, “It is difficult to discover the Father and Maker of this universe; and having found Him, it is impossible to declare Him to all.” Christianity proclaims that God himself has removed this difficulty by coming among us in the history of Israel and in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. A Christian, therefore, does not know God from afar. The divine always exceeds human understanding. But Christian faith knows the Father in an intimate, if incomplete, way through fellowship with the incarnate Son. “No one has ever seen God.” This observation in John’s gospel accords with Plato’s recognition that the divine transcends the human power of reason. However, John’s gospel continues, “The only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known” (John 1:18). The eyes of faith see in a way that reason cannot. Thus, Christians speak of God and his purposes with boldness. We proclaim that the one, true God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We preach Christ, who died for our sins and was raised from the dead. We look forward to the resurrection of the dead and life everlasting.
St. Paul describes what the Son has made known as foolishness and scandal, a revelation that reverses the world’s expectations by prizing weakness over strength, serving over being served, and love over power. And yet, paradoxically, this divine weakness in Christ is stronger than strength, more powerful than power, and it inspires us to serve the one who came to serve. The example of Christian martyrs epitomizes this strength and power. They imitate Christ in their deaths—and rivet the imagination of the world with their example. The destruction of their bodies testifies to the triumph of their faith.
Many Christians today face martyrdom in the Middle East and elsewhere. Those in the West are not subject to this mortal threat. Nevertheless, heroic witness is always within reach. It does not take extraordinary intellectual gifts or wealth to follow Christ with self-sacrificial love. One need not come from an advantaged background. Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are the merciful. A holy life is not remote and inaccessible. Feed the hungry; clothe the naked; visit the prisoner. The Christian way does not require traveling to visit remote gurus or making long, arduous preparations. Evangelicals and Catholics alike honor Mother Teresa, who recognized that the circumstances of human loneliness and need provide ample occasion for the fullness of a life of discipleship. Her witness reminds us that the yoke of Christ is easy and his burden light.
Aristotle thought few could attain the status of a great-souled man. Today, many agree, at least implicitly. We think a good life requires notable achievements, along with exotic travel, comfortable wealth, good health, a tasteful home, a successful marriage, and children who go off to prestigious colleges. These are not within the reach of many. St. Paul opposes this limitation of glory. We do not need to depend upon our own strength to ascend to heavenly glory. God comes to us: “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (Rom. 10:8).
I will bless those who bless you, and curse those who curse you.Christians are called to be peacemakers. But the rebellion of sin turns God’s peace into a sign of contradiction. This means that until the end of this age, Christianity will be divisive. “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth,” Jesus warns. “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt. 10:34). In Christ, God draws near, and the sword he brings comes in the form of a fundamental choice. It is not possible to stand at a distance and be a spectator. God advances and intrudes. He offers himself to us; he offers his love, mercy, humility, and truth. Will we receive him or not? Will we allow ourselves to be transformed by him?
These questions cannot be avoided, and our answers sow divisions between those who, dependent on grace, harken to God’s call—and those who do not. The divide runs through the Christian community itself, as well as between the Church and the world. “For I have come to set a man against his father and a daughter against her mother” (Matt. 10:35). The Christian way can tear a man out of his fatherland and send him to the ends of the earth as a missionary. It can galvanize the convictions of a young person, making him unable and unwilling to accommodate himself to the moral consensus of the moment. It can frustrate those who wish to believe that Christianity is one of many different but equally valid ways to God. It can shock and anger unbelievers who are offended by the urgency of proclamation and do not like having their souls aroused by frank talk of sin, repentance, and redemption.
Christ penetrates the many walls of defense we erect to protect ourselves. He speaks of the Holy Spirit as a prosecuting power. “I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will convince the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:7–8). But the world is not eager to learn that it has been redeemed by the power of God in Christ. Those of us in the Christian way are sometimes instruments of God’s often unwelcome instruction. Our offense can stem simply from being a Christian, for our faithfulness makes the divine demand of loyal obedience to the one true God visible to those who would like to temporize, delay, and avoid the choice they also face. “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). There is no way around the offense of Christianity.
By you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves. At the end of the Gospel of Matthew, the risen Jesus gathers his disciples at the top of a mountain. As they overlook the world from on high, Jesus tells them: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:18–19). Over the centuries, the Church has fulfilled Christ’s commission, teaching men and women to worship the one, true God. This is the great gift that Christianity brings to the world—to be the voice of God calling those whom he has created in his own image to enter into the fullness of life he has prepared for them. The Christian way is universal. In love and service, as well as proclamation, Christian mission seeks to prepare the entire world for the return of Christ when he will fully manifest his lordship over all creation.
Even now, the Christian way bears witness to the fullness of life promised in Christ. Caring for the sick and the poor, friendship for the prisoner and the outcast, comforting the sorrowful and educating those who need instruction: These are works of mercy that embody the love of God in Christ. This active witness is crowned by ongoing prayer for the needs of fellow Christians, as well as for the world. The Christian overleaps the boundaries and limits imposed by a broken world. As Jesus teaches, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:44–45).
The last century has seen the explosive growth of Christianity in many parts of the world, not its recession. Some find the missionary dynamism of Christianity a regrettable cultural imperialism. But Christianity is a way of life both authored by and ordered toward God. There are distinctive historical and cultural elements, of course, many of which color the Christian way in different shades during different eras and in different parts of the world. Yet these are not essential. The Christian way, at root, comes from God. And what is God’s concerns all creation. Today, when they proclaim the gospel anew, missionaries from Africa and Asia are blessings to the secularized nations of Europe.
I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6). The Christian way is founded upon and seeks ever-greater union with the Lord Jesus Christ. “He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities—all things were created through him and . . . in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:15–17). The Christian way concerns all of reality. We seek to be faithful to the truths God reveals in Jesus Christ, truths testified to in the Old Testament as well as the New, truths found in the book of creation as well as in sacred texts. As Christians, we are not trying to promote our beliefs. We testify to “that which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life” (1 John 1:1). The Christian way has to do with the Creator, who is with us and for us in Christ Jesus.
The Christian way seeks to be faithful to that which has been given by God, which turns it outward rather than inward. It serves God’s love for the world. Evangelization seeks to bring people to Christ. But this is not so that Christianity might grow more powerful and “win.” Instead, the Christian mission proclaims the good news that God, in his mercy, offers deliverance to humanity from the power of sin and death, opening up a new future in which the fullness of life reigns. The Christian way prepares for the Lord’s return in glory, the time when God makes his dwelling place among us, beating swords into plowshares, and wiping away every tear. “The Lord is at hand,” St. Paul reminds us. Even now he bestows on us the blessings of his peace.
Members of Evangelicals and Catholics Together
Bruce Riley Ashford
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
Regent University School of Divinity
Eduardo J. Echeverria
Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit
Dr. Joel C. Elowsky
Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, MO
Theological Institute for the New Evangelization
St. John’s Seminary
Beeson Divinity School
Thomas G. Guarino
Seton Hall University
James F. Keating
Peter J. Leithart
Bishop James Massa
Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn
Gerald R. McDermott
Beeson Divinity School
Francesca Aran Murphy
University of Notre Dame du Lac
R. R. Reno
Laura A. Smit
Colson Center for Christian Worldview
The King’s College
Kevin J. Vanhoozer
Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
Ethics and Public Policy Center
Robert Louis Wilken
Evangelicals and Catholics Together is an ecumenical group founded in 1994 by Richard John Neuhaus and Chuck Colson.