Recently I’ve read this book to get an idea of what Tom Wolfe’s experience was with modern campus life while researching this book. I regret that I cannot recommend it for general reading because of the pervasive profanity and sexually explicit scenes. Throughout the book, I noticed only two real differences that I could identify with my own experiences as a Christian at a secular university in the late 1970’s. First, there does seem to be a greater amount of profanity in regular conversation according to the narration, although profanity was very definitely a part of what some saw as their coming of age to adulthood. Second, the coed bathrooms were a different feature, although I’ve read that private bathrooms for each dorm room is part of new construction now. Maybe there were more complaints by parents and alumni than had been publicized.
I’ve heard some evangelical commentators speak of the main character, Charlotte Simmons, as an example of someone whose Christian background was overturned by her experiences at a secular university. Frankly, I did not see her as an example of someone with a background of more than church association — what I’ve termed evangelical churchianity. Her Christian commitment seemed pretty shallow, as more of a church association with her family, and as a social and family influence that had produced real little depth of character.
Here are some ways in which she demonstrated her rootlessness. A series of small compromises led to her eventual moral downfall, and in the conclusion, she did not seem to come to any kind of real repentance and spiritual renewal. These then point out some ways which I and others of my age group maintained our faith and grew in Christ even amidst a secular university. It should be noted that these criticisms are, after all, only criticisms of a fictional character, and not those of any real person. But I am hopeful that real people might find some guidance through the following points.
Neglect of Christian Disciplines
Not once is Charlotte Simmons shown as cracking open her Bible to read for her own spiritual growth or to seek guidance on any issue. Not once is she shown as spending any time in private prayer or praise. It does not seem that she had developed any kind of personal devotional life prior to or during her coming to the secular university.
By contrast, the time in the secular university was where I and many others found that having a personal time in the Bible and prayer was utterly necessary to maintain the depth and reality of one’s faith in and walk with Christ. The challenges that we faced spiritually, intellectually and socially, drove us to the Word and to our knees before God. This kept my own contact with the Lord Jesus real, and my heart warm and fervent for him amidst influences which could easily cause the heart to grow cold.
Isolation from Christian Fellowship
Charlotte Simmons neither had nor sought any relationship with an evangelical church or any other evangelical student fellowships or any other evangelical students while she was on campus. This is one of the key factors for, if not spiritual growth, at least spiritual survival. Separation from fellow believers, the ministry of preaching and teaching in the church, and regular praise, prayer and fellowship cannot but make the heart grow cold and backslidden.
By contrast, I count contact with a strong and caring pastor and fellow students who shared a like precious faith in Christ as one of the factors that helped me to stand firm and grow in Christ through these key years in the secular university. For many years afterward I have maintained contact with these fellow believers. The roots of Christian commitment can reach deeper and become stronger if there is continuing contact with other believers.
Lack of Scriptural Standards for Dating and Courtship
Charlotte Simmons fell into exploitative dating relationships. Apparently she had no standards for dating, courtship and eventual marriage beyond wanting to be the recipient of the attraction of a prominent fellow student. The result was over a series of small compromises she eventually became just another sexual conquest. Her virginity upon coming to the university does not appear to have come from a scriptural conviction that sex outside of marriage was against the will of God for her life. Nor does she appear to have had any scriptural guidance or standards to her dating life as far as her choices on whom she would date and why.
This is the one area in which many believers on campus can fall into coldness, backsliding and transgression of scripture. Yet for many of us, the challenges here again called us to search the scriptures, and find God’s standards. We learned not to pursue romantic relationships with those who did not share our faith in Christ or who were lukewarm and shallow. We stayed by the scriptural standards of sex within marriage even when we were mocked and ridiculed and our manhood and womanhood were being challenged.
Lack of Scriptural Guidance for Spiritual and Intellectual Exploration and Growth
Charlotte Simmons fell into the view of a secular university as a place for experimentation with anything and everything, where anything goes. She did not let the Lordship of Christ guide her explorations and continue to use scripture as her guide for life. Therefore she ended up exploring into areas which scripture’s exhortations are to ‘flee.’
In contrast, I and many others found that our time of Christ centered exploration in the secular university became a time of tremendous spiritual growth and discovery. For myself, I discovered the works of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Francis Schaeffer, among others. It was a time where the exploration under the boundaries of scripture meant a great deepening of convictions and strengthening of spiritual disciplines that formed the foundation of a growing Christian life. I came to know several strong Christians with deep spiritual lives and intellectual convictions among the faculty and staff at the university. Certainly there were many professors who did not share my evangelical convictions, and some that did actively try to ridicule and overturn the evangelical convictions of their students, but this testing of our convictions became rather a strengthening in the end.
Lack of Family Preparation for Challenges
The parents of Charlotte Simmons did not appear to have any sort of awareness of the challenges that their gifted daughter would face. No one else in her life appeared to do anything to help prepare her for the spiritual, intellectual and social challenges that she would face at the secular university. While many Christian parents and churches do neglect their students, many more do try to do what they can to prepare them for the challenges that they face.
In writing these things, I am fully aware that the book I Am Charlotte Simmons is a work of fiction. My hope and prayer is that for the vast majority of those students from an evangelical background who attend secular universities that it remains so, and the experiences depicted are a warning but not a reality to them.
Above all else, guard your heart,
for it is the wellspring of life.
Put away perversity from your mouth;
keep corrupt talk far from your lips.
Let your eyes look straight ahead,
fix your gaze directly before you.
Make level paths for your feet
and take only ways that are firm.
Do not swerve to the right or the left;
keep your foot from evil.
All scripture references taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION, copyright 1973, 1978 by the International Bible Society and used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.