Pete Steen—legend or legacy?
Pete Steen—legend or legacy?

Pete Steen—legend or legacy?

In his day, Pete Steen's battle-cry was "Life is Religion." Now, of course, we're much cleaner, clearer, more precise, with slogans like "creation-fall-redemption" illustrating Christ's redemption of all things. But let's not forget—or let's meet in these pages—an academic Johnny Appleseed who was a serious life-saver, controversial and feisty and... pioneering: Pete Steen, a twentieth century neocalvinist prophet.
Appears in Winter 2006

Pete Steen was an itinerant philosopher and Christian worldview activist, a pioneer visionary in the cultural movement Comment serves. Many of the readers of Comment will have heard his name, even though he died nearly twenty-five years ago. It engenders now, as it did when the man was alive, a mixed array of reactions (sometimes within the same person). The tired old saying, "you either love him or hate him," doesn't really do Pete justice. Usually, if you knew him at all, you both loved and hated him. But mostly loved.

Pete was indeed larger than life—boisterous, visionary, optimistic, flamboyant. He was driven to spread the vision of neocalvinist thought—the worldview explored in these pages where the reign of Christ is seen in biblically-informed thinking for the sake of cultural renewal. It made him appear almost omnipresent. Steen taught classes literally all over Pennsylvania, Ohio, Ontario, and even West Virginia. Even though he held brief professorships at Trinity Christian College of Illinois (the state made popular by Sufjan Stevens) and Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania (the town made famous by the sexy New York Jets superstar Joe Namath), and was adjunct at the Institute for Christian Studies of Toronto, he is best known as the itinerant philosopher, an academic Johnny Appleseed, sowing the seeds of worldviewish Reformed faith wherever he held forth. More often than not, he could be found, a "to go" cup of coffee in hand, in church or in dorm basements, interstate diners, fast food restaurants or in borrowed college classrooms. (Ah, how he enjoyed debunking the humanistic creeds of the autonomy of Reason while set up in the famous Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh).

Steen was a professor, bookseller, storyteller, pastor, prophet, priest and king to anybody that would take the time to stick with him. He loved to network—linking a conservative Dutch Protestant with a mystical Catholic professor from Europe he happened to meet, or introducing a Methodist church renewal leader with a black urban activist who might teach him a thing or two, bringing together Anabaptist peaceniks with Reformed politicos, introducing professors and authors, students and teachers. He was always promoting something—a conference in Philadelphia, a study-club in Pittsburgh, a short-term course in St. Catharines, Ontario— and always some recently translated book or article. There were times when we prayed for gas money since when Steen said you needed to be somewhere, he was usually right.

The good doctor—whom nearly everyone called Petesteen—was a modern day Renaissance man (even though he taught us to look with suspicion at any positive use of that word—and, hey, don't even think about liking the modernist Enlightenment!). He was learned in philosophy and well-read in theology, politics, economics, sociology, urban studies—he told us about Jane Jacobs long before the now trendy New Urbanist movement. He was interested in sports, church history, education, science (and that was on a slow day).

It is not an accident that one of the battle-cries of that era of what we called "the reformational movement" was "Life is Religion." Now, of course, we are much cleaner, clearer, more theologically precise—more like Pete's good friend Al Wolters—with "creation-fall-redemption" as our slogan of choice to illustrate how the biblical drama points to Christ's restoration of all things. Folks didn't always know what our "Life is Religion" bumperstickers meant, until they got to know Pete. Then that much, at least, became powerfully clear.

Rejecting meagre religiosity, embracing real answers

It worries me that there is afoot a sense which tends to (unintentionally) trivialize Dr. Steen's significant impact on Christian organizations in the Western Pennsylvania area, especially, by remembering him for his often outlandish classroom style, his colourful language, and his occasionally harsh tones. To hear folks joke about his apparent lack of piety (with stories that may be apocryphal) tends to undermine the Holy Spirited zeal of a man who studied the Scriptures more than any person I've ever met. It certainly could be said that he was a man who had the "zeal of the Lord"—it shouldn't come as a surprise that one of Pete's favorite choruses was "the joy of the Lord is my strength."

Pete had his foibles, as all clayfooted folk do. It may be, for those who were left in the wake of his complex lectures or who were put off by his seemingly sacrilegious bent, hard to forget these shortcomings. But—analyze as we might—it is a disservice to Pete's memory to dwell on such matters. When I hear "Petesteen Stories" on campuses from Kent State to Dordt College (or from world-renowned scholars who knew him) it makes those who best knew him smile—and sometimes cringe. He was boisterous and funny. But he was a serious life-saver to many, especially those involved in the tumultuous late-60s to mid-1970s counter-culture, as he helped us reject the truncated and meagre religiosity that so alienated us from standard-fare evangelicalism. Francis Schaeffer used to say that the hippie drop-outs and Marxist activists of those years often had a righteous critique of the established order, but too few answers. Steen—citing everyone from Augustine to Kuyper, Goudzwaard to Seerveld—showed us real answers.

Pete not only left his memorable mark on individuals, but on regional institutions as well. It is my opinion that Steen was the most important person to work for the Pittsburgh-based Coalition for Christian Outreach (CCO) in the organization's thirty-plus-year history of campus ministry. He nearly singlehandedly nurtured a community of radical Christian believers—mostly students—in the tri-state area around Pittsburgh, who, in the spirit of the fully orbed revival in the Netherlands of which he so passionately spoke, submitted ourselves to a vision of the Word of God for life. He taught us the meaning and modelled a punchy, visionary interpretation of Matthew 6:33 ("Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you"). When Tom Skinner or Tony Campolo preached to 2000 young people at the CCO's annual Pittsburgh Jubilee conference on the Kingdom of God, because of Pete we knew what they meant!

Although Pete regularly visited pastors and church leaders in their parishes (à la the book of Acts), Steen opened up an understanding of our faith that transcended "churchianity." It is no accident that Pittsburgh hosted numerous non-church, independent Christian social organizations: an arts company, unique Christian schools, labour-management reconciliation projects, Christian housing ministries, health-care facilities which serve the poor, not to mention a network of Christians concerned about promoting the reformation and renewal of cultural life (all of this decades before the current emergent conversations on postmodern culture or the recently energized social ministries of many evangelicals). Pete didn't start any of these himself, although he did encourage the forming of several businesses, a few of which stand today. But the impact of Pete's teaching us to think in terms of uniquely Christian social structures left its mark in the spiritual tone of much of western Pennsylvania-area evangelicalism.

Electric, mind-boggling conferences

Much work needs to be done to reconstruct, perhaps through oral histories and the large Steen tape archives, the history of Pete's work in western Pennsylvania and his impact in various denominational circles. Most know of his dismissal from the philosophy department at Geneva (despite packed classes and generally favorable evaluations) and his short-lived stint with the CCO. He was controversial, but at his peak—in terms of followers and the quality of his powerful rhetoric and public teaching—from 1972 to 1976. There was a string of electric, jam-packed, mind-boggling conferences organized at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and Grove City College. Most of the staff of Toronto's Institute for Christian Studies made speaking tours of fellowship groups or lecture halls of campuses where CCO ministered, and inter-campus networking was common. Steen had a way of helping us to see how important it was to take in various opportunities for integral Christian learning. It was not unheard of to hitch-hike to Toronto, to "road trip" to Niagara, or to take off for a weekend to who-knew-where on some Steen suggestion.

I was fortunate to have CCO staff at my campus who knew Pete well. They served as invaluable liaisons, helping to remind those of us who were not philosophically oriented as to why studying the historical roots of dualism was so important. It didn't take me too long (well, maybe it did) to quit asking, "But is this practical?" as I knew what the answer would be: a lengthy digression into the history of the (of course unbiblical) theory/practice dualism. Or else, I'd get the common rejoinder, "Borger, that's a bad question." While Pete chided me up until his last month for what he labeled my "activism," I know in my heart that—despite his eccentric avocation as an arcane philosophical scholar—he was usually right about the dangers of not thinking properly. In the words of a much-used and very helpful article by Al Wolters, "Ideas Have Legs."

When the "movement" was no longer a movement

Near the end of Pete's ministry, he became critical of what he called "triumphalism." When Kingdom marriages began to struggle and Kingdom businesses began to falter and Kingdom schools lost their students and Kingdom newspapers never materialized and the NACPA—National Association of Christian Political Action (now the solid Center for Public Justice) never turned into a Kingdom political party, we all grew up a bit.

One disciple of Pete's, a steel worker, offered a Christian critique and alternative proposal for some aspect of union work at his plant and was subsequently fired. Another friend, who designed and built a ferro-cement, geodesic dome (an article on how architecture reflects worldviews was circulating then) got death threats—his young daughter was later murdered. Several leaders of the reformational movement—Bob Carvill, editor of the monthly magazine Vanguard, the ICS professor and Steen supporter Bernie Zylstra, and Peter himself—came down with cancer. Pete's friends John Olthuis and Gerald Vandezande, from Canada's Citizens for Public Justice, failed in a several year struggle to stop the development of an ecologically damaging, unjust and unstewardly pipeline project from Canada's arctic north. A mutual friend in South Africa was tortured and exiled and a member of a Steen-influenced intentional household community committed suicide. All of these things impressed upon us the seriousness of sin—personal and structural—and Pete was increasingly drawn to intense study of the Apocalypse. He never failed to encourage bold Christian action in the world—he was Reformed through and through and never doubted the sovereignty and faithfulness of God the Covenant Keeper.

But he died when the "movement" was no longer a movement. The grandiose ideas for Basilinda (a reformational retreat center) ended up little more than an organic garden run by a local poet. The incredible CES (Christian Educational Services) computer full of Christian term papers written by students from all over the area had long gone unused. His beloved Vollenhoven chart became mildewed in the damp CES office at Chatham College. Vollenhoven, the brother-in-law of the Dutch philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd, developed a serious flow-chart mapping out the history of Western thought from which Pete would occasionally teach. We would sometimes put names of Peter's adversaries on it at inappropriate places. That was even worse than being put below Francis Schaeffer's famous "line of despair."

Maybe I'm an idealist or an optimist or a Myers-Briggs ENFP-type or something, but I never felt comfortable with Pete's furious foray into the book of Revelation. I rejected then, and now, the popular criticism of triumphalism. I think a little triumphalism would do us good. I think I'd rather have students expect too much rather than too little... (Campolo's right, you know. It may be Friday, but Sunday's a-comin'!)

Sow the seeds of worldviewish life

And so, it pays us well to know a bit about Peter J. Steen's powerful and lasting impact. Especially in this year of the thirtieth anniversary of the important Jubilee student conference at the Hilton in Pittsburgh, it is important to recognize Pete's role in shaping that event into what it now is—the premier conference to assist young students in developing a distinctive approach to the university years and collegiate learning.

But—in true biblical fashion—we cannot just memorialize our past leaders. It may seem maudlin or clichéd to say this, but the best way to pay tribute to this late twentieth century prophet of the neocalvinist vision is to redouble our efforts to live out the perspective for which he stood in our twenty-first century context.

Let us think often and deeply about the distinctives and sustainability of his Dutch neocalvinist tradition of whole-life discipleship and thoughtfully faithful social engagement—whether one is a calvinist or not, and whether one is Dutch or not. Let's continue to familiarize ourselves, especially those of us who are college students, who Steen so enjoyed, with the call to "think Christianly" and to bring our studies under the Lordship of Christ. Today, I am sure, Dr. Steen would be amazed by the power of the internet to promote neocalvinist scholarship, to enhance the spirituality of those who are eager to read and learn, and to network those of common mind. Using resources such as the online Comment or the CCO's resource page or *cino's Catapult I am sure that we can do more than pay homage to the memoir of an early pioneer of neocalvinist, missional perspectives. We can live out the transforming vision of a creation made new, as Steen routinely preached.

Lastly, in the spirit of Petesteen . . . "Be bold! Fear not! And have fun!" For, after all, as he often sung in his pitchy, loudly confident Dutchman's voice: "The joy of the Lord is our strength!" May it be so for a new generation of thoughtful, feisty, well networked, Christian college folk.

Topics: Religion
Byron Borger
Byron Borger

Byron Borger owns, with his wife Beth, Hearts and Minds Bookstore in central Pennsylvania. He is also an associate staff member of the Coalition for Christian Outreach.


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