Biola University President Answers Why Christians Fail at Engaging Today's Culture
In 2007, Barry Corey became the eighth president of Biola University, officially launching the celebration of the university's centennial year. During his time at Biola he's led the development of Biola's Center for Christian Thought; the Center for Christianity, Culture and the Arts; the annual Imagination Summit; and Open Biola - an online database for free educational content created and curated by the university.
Under his leadership, Biola has seen the highest enrollment in the university's 105-year history, with the construction of new facilities to serve the needs of the campus. But while his career is about education, his passion is how the Christian community engages today's culture. He's committed to raising up a generation of students who can make a difference in today's secular world.
I sat down with Dr. Corey and asked him about how Christians should re-think how we share our witness with the world.
Biola has been an influential force in the Christian community for a long time. What's the secret to its lasting influence?
Corey: I would like to think that Biola's best days are still to come in being an influential voice in the Christian community. I would also like to think that we have a place at the broader table of academic inquiry as a university serious about grappling with the most pressing issues of the day in a way that attracts thinkers outside of the Christian compass.
The secret, although I believe this is neither new nor novel, is for us to be clear on our ideological core but not triumphalist in our spirit.
Not long after I joined the team at Biola University, a pastor stopped me after another one of my rookie year speaking engagements and spoke one sentence to me as he walked out the door. "Barry, if I could give you some advice as you start this job, spend more time on what you are for than what you are against." He meant that those outside the church are not won over by watching evangelicals lob accusations either at each other or at the culture at large. He believed, and I agree, that it's a new day for a winsome Christian witness without a diluted gospel message. I guess at it's heart this is not new. It's how Jesus was.
Biola University has always been theologically conservative, but you've been quoted as saying, "theologically conservative doesn't mean being closed minded." Explain what you mean.
Corey: Stated most simply, "theologically conservative" means we work hard at understanding what the words of Scripture meant to the original audience. This protects us from wandering off course with a relative meaning of the Bible that fits our own ideological or political agenda. Theologically conservative thinking does not mean picking and choosing verses that support our point of view. It is actually the most thoughtful way of understanding our faith, in that it drives us back to study and ponder what the writers intended and the hearers understood.
Carl F. H. Henry, one of the twentieth century's leading evangelical theologians and provocateurs (in the highest sense of the word), minced no words in his conviction that the Bible is relevant to the whole of modern life and culture. Serious biblical faithfulness should be a non-negotiable for Christians. Now more than ever, Christians need the staying power of deeply held biblical principles to shape them into godly and global leaders to impact the world for Christ.
How Christians engage the surrounding culture has always been a priority for you. What are the biggest mistakes you see in how we attempt to influence the world today?
Corey: Leadership that is Christlike and effective is far more about carrying a staff than a scepter. I like the Moses example more than the Pharaoh example. When God called Moses out of the burning bush and asked that backcountry shepherd to a radical career change from hustling sheep to leading his people out of Egypt, Moses responded by bending down and unstrapping his laces, standing barefoot before the presence of God.
I want Biola to be a community of barefoot followers of Jesus, where we learn to take off our shoes and understand that leadership and servanthood are about unlacing our shoes when God calls us, not putting on steel-toed boots to kick the heresy out of our brother or Jesus into our culture. Going barefoot is the position Jesus' disciples took as he washed their feet, teaching them about being servants and telling them to go and do likewise.
I want Biola students to engage the culture with a deep conviction in truth, but in a way that is meek, loving and graceful. We need a firm center and soft edges. No fist shaking. No saber rattling. We need to be the aroma of Christ, the smell Paul talks about to the early Christians living in a pagan culture.
How can we do it better?
Corey: We do this better by understanding Matthew 10:40, what I believe is one of the most compelling yet overlooked verses of Scripture. It's the verses before 40 which get the attention, important words of Christ to his disciples about following him and carrying the cross. I learned the power of this verse not through a sermon or a Bible study. I learned about this verse from watching my father.
In Matthew 10:40 Jesus says to his followers, "Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me." It's almost Christmas now, and we hear the replayed quip that it's more blessed to give than to receive. I think we should actually flip that around and say it's more blessed to receive than to give. Let me explain.
When I was a kid some of the most awkward moments for me were when my father, a small-framed Canadian preacher with a heart as big as the Canadian prairies, expressed his love for people. I remember his hugging the Islamic gas station attendant. He struck up conversations with strangers that lead to his own story about Jesus. He'd ask to pray with the cobbler fixing his shoes, and reached out his hands to the old man as he did. My father once held the face of a Jewish office furniture merchant and told him he loved him. As I said, it was awkward for me, his young son in tow.
Then one day the pieces began to fit together for me, late January 1991, when the two of us went for a walk. I had been researching in Bangladesh for several months when my father paid me a visit. Each morning before breakfast he and I would walk together, catching up on all that was happening in our lives. My father had no seminary degree. He never completed college. But as we walked, Hugh Corey began to share with me what his life in Christ had taught him.
"And he that taketh not his cross and followeth after me," he continued, recounting with me the words of Christ, "is not worthy of me. He that findeth his life shall lose it; and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it. He that receiveth you receiveth me, and he that receiveth me receiveth him that sent me."
Then he stopped talking for a few minutes, and I replayed the words of Christ he had just spoken. "Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me."
He said, "Barry, I don't fully understand what Jesus meant when he said these words, but this I do know. In everything I do I must make myself receivable to the people God places in my life. If the lives God intersects with mine do not have the opportunity to receive me, how will they ever know the infinite love the Father has for them? I must live my life in a way that strangers, friends, aching, lonely, family . . . they receive me and receive through me the amazing love God alone has authored." As he spoke, all those awkward childhood moments came back to me. The cobbler. The gas station attendant. The furniture merchant.
My father now is long gone, but as I have gone back to that walk many times over these past years, I have come to understand that moment as one ordained by God when I would receive my most cherished gift. On the fetid streets of Bangladesh, the bedrock of my faith was being passed on to me, a son.
My father was epic in life because he was epic in love, and he lived a Matthew 10:40 life. The more we can be a Matthew 10:40 university, the more we are able to influence culture. And that means we make ourselves receivable by building bridges and not walls.
Is it possible to stand by our convictions, and yet be gracious at the same time?
Corey: Yes. As Christians serious about the Scriptures, we must understand the big issues of the day (human sexuality, financial stewardship, compassion, etc.) through both the Old and the New Testaments. We err by cherry-picking verses that support our uninformed biases or our cultural acceptances. But where Christians have fallen short is when we have a strong biblical conviction and no grace in living out that conviction.
We also need to get beyond the myth that taking the Bible seriously means we don't take our intellect seriously. And we need to stop stereotyping or being stereotyped that our understanding of the Bible links us to a certain partisan camp or just a handful of social issues. It means thinking biblically about a wide range of important questions of the day. When was the last time we heard thoughtful biblical perspectives for how we think about immigration or health care, gun control or mental illness, illiteracy or whatever?
How is Biola University uniquely training the next generation to impact secular culture?
Corey: Few colleges are faith-neutral. There may even be an undeclared and ideological bent toward dismantling faith at some universities.
Philip E. Wentworth in The Atlantic Monthly wrote,
To say that college does something to the average student's religion is to state a truth which will be conceded by anyone who has given the matter a moment's thought. Nine young men and women out of ten who will receive their degrees this June would probably admit, if they were called to testify, that education has acted as a poison to their faith. In many instances the virus generated by the reasoning processes induces only mild distemper of skepticism, but in others it works like an acid, eating its way into the bump of credulity until in the end this estimable organ is completely corroded. Devout parents and clergymen have frequently observed this phenomenon and deplored it.
What Mr. Wentworth meant when he talked about those who "receive their degrees this June" was not June of 2014. His comments were penned 80 plus years ago. He wrote the article in the 1930s. This faith-dismantling in higher education is nothing new to our generation. Many universities have faculty dead set on doing all they can to upend the faith of a student, a faith they see as narrow and baseless.
Every year, parents who've raised their children in households of belief are sending them off to colleges and universities where their faith is dismissed, seen as irrelevant or even attacked as an enemy to rational thought. I applaud those Christian students who not only defend but live out their faith at these educational institutions.
There is a danger of a university without a soul. When there are no guiding principles or undergirding convictions, the purpose of education can become merely material: how can I make the most money and achieve the highest status for myself? And with a moral foundation in shambles, graduates can feel ever more free to acquire success for themselves by whatever means necessary.
And this is exactly why we need more and stronger colleges leading from a Christ-centered core.
We need more Biolas because we need more schools that are unafraid of having a spiritual core, stating it, and living it out in all arenas of study and vocation. We need more Christ-centered universities because our students need to have their souls nurtured, as well as their minds. We need more Biolas that understand our calling is to fix that which is broken, to be people of integrity and truth, and from this faithful presence (to steal a line from James Davidson Hunter) to influence culture for the common good.
What's next for Barry Corey?
Corey: I'm certainly focused on taking Biola University to the next level, but I'm also starting a new book about having a "receivable faith." Based on Matthew 10:40, I believe to engage today's culture we have to make sure our message is "receivable." The truth can't work if no one is listening. So if the Christian community is going to regain the trust and listening ear of secular culture, we need to share our faith in a way that makes people eager to hear the good news.
Phil Cooke is a media consultant, author and founder of The Influence Lab. Find out more at influencelab.com.