This year, Biola University welcomed Dr. Matthew J. Hall as its new provost and senior vice president — a key leadership position responsible for shaping the university’s academic direction, quality and culture. In this adaptation of his installation address, he offers his vision for Biola’s place and posture as a Christian university in the midst of cultural challenges.
If you haven’t noticed, these are especially perilous times for Christian higher education. So let me give you the bad news. In recent days there are reports of institutions closing, bracing for insolvency and sliding toward extinction. And of course, those stories are hardly limited to Christian institutions. Higher education as a sector continues to clumsily wrestle through its own identity crisis in North America.
And if that were not enough, we also sense the stiffening cultural headwinds that confront Christian institutions. It’s no partisan commentary to conclude that historic Christian orthodoxy is less welcome in our public square than it was a decade ago. In fact, both the political right and left seem to be gripped with their own fevers du jour.
Look under the surface, though, and you’ll notice other sociological trends that might cause you despair. In his recent book Nonverts: The Making of Ex-Christian America, Stephen Bullivant explores the phenomenon of an increasing number of Americans who are not only counted among the “nones,” those with no religious affiliation, but he looks at a subset of that group: those who have abandoned a religious identity along the way. Call it what you will, but this is a rapidly growing segment of the American population, and it is one that hits evangelical churches and institutions in a particular way.
Bullivant notes recent polling that suggests 44% of 18- to 28-year-olds are now counted among the “nones,” and those trend lines have the potential to add even further disruption to the enrollment models of Christian higher education, let alone their culture.
I do believe we are at a very real fork in the road for most Christian colleges and universities.
Hard Truths and a Haunting Request
In recent years, my own assessment of much of this moment has been especially shaped by Stephen Smith’s book, Pagans and Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac. Smith’s undergirding thesis is that T.S. Elliot was right, that the central contest in the West in our time is not between Christianity and a consistent secularism, but rather between Christianity and “modern paganism,” as he calls it. Smith distinguishes between what he identifies as positivist secularism, a minority hallmark among certain elite corners, and religious secularism, which he identifies as the surging and dominant zeitgeist. In his telling, this form of paganism embeds the sacred within the world, constructing an immanent religion and thereby eviscerating any transcendent realities. Just as the ancient pagans did this through a broad sexual ethic and cult, so he concludes that modern paganism consecrates sexual autonomy and expression. This is seen, he argues, in what he calls the “public annexation of the marketplace,” which our students are going into, in which this modern paganism now demands absolute conformity to the new sexual ethic by all, including Christians.
Now, forgive that little excursus. If Smith is right, and I tend to believe that he is, then it raises significant questions about the way that we think of the context before us and the challenge of building and stewarding institutions that pursue the kind of shalom that is to mark Christ’s kingdom, being light to the world. Demographic cliffs, social and cultural pressures, a generational shift in religious participation — have I inspired you adequately about the future of Christian institutions?
Well actually, with all that said, I want to suggest to you that now is a particularly thrilling time to be a follower of Jesus in the world and to be about the great project of Christian higher education. I say that because I believe this world and this generation of young adults is asking an urgent question, one I pray we will together have ears to hear.
I want to draw your attention to John 12:20–26. Take in the scene as painted by John, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. “We want to see Jesus.” I am haunted by that request. In John’s narrative it pierces through with unexpected force, and I suspect we need to hear it afresh today. You may know the context in John’s telling. This is following Jesus’ Messianic entry into Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, and we are introduced to some unexpected characters: Greeks, they’re in the city of David to celebrate the sacred festival. Pilgrims, they were outsiders presumably. Perhaps they were God-fearing Greeks with some religious appreciation for the traditions of Israel. But regardless, now they find their way to where the buzz is, this itinerant Galilean rabbi who has captured the crowd’s attention. So they find Philip and make a simple request, “Sir, we want to see Jesus.”
I’ll admit it’s something of a mystery to me as why they singled out Philip for their request. Perhaps they were from a region not far from Philip’s hometown of Bethsaida, and therefore they thought he was their best ambassador. Maybe that’s why Philip’s hometown is mentioned in the text. Or maybe it was Philip’s Greek name that gave them some sort of hope for an inside track for an audience with Jesus. Now it also seems that their request prompted some challenge in the apostle’s own mind. I say that because Philip has to go get Andrew and seemingly run it past him; it’s like the motion needs a second. And then the two of them team up to take the request to Jesus himself. So for those of you who think a committee is the obvious solution to every dilemma, here’s your proof text.
So, is Jesus available for these unexpected guests? Does he have time for them? Does the Messiah have better things to do? After all, he’s the heir to the throne of David, now within the walls of the City of David, seemingly about to lay hold of the kingdom. And just when you as the reader think you know how the story should take shape, it doesn’t. In fact, John doesn’t specifically tell us whether Jesus took the meeting with these Greek pilgrims. What he does make clear is that this is the moment which prompts Jesus to declare, “the hour has now come for the Son of Man to be glorified,” and in three previous instances in John’s Gospel, Jesus has said the opposite — the time had not yet come. But now in this moment, it is this request from these Greek, God-fearing pilgrims, this is what prompts Jesus to declare that something has changed. It is a different “kairos.”
Jesus then reminds them of the upside-down nature of his mission and his kingdom. He speaks of a grain falling to the ground, dying and producing much fruit. He describes loving your life in such a way that you actually lose it. He speaks of hating one’s life in this world and thereby keeping it in the eternal age to come, and he makes clear that being with Jesus means serving Jesus.
We Must Show Jesus
But I want to go back to that basic request made by those unexpected visitors: “We want to see Jesus.” I believe there is a generation of Christians, including on this campus, who are saying that again, and again, and again, and again. The question to the rest of us is, “Are we listening?”
In our message, we must show Jesus. Every generation faces the temptation to fashion a Jesus of their own liking, one made according to their own image, and our moment is no different. But the risen Christ defies that tendency, and he will not be domesticated. Our shared commitment as a university in every part of our mission, including in our teaching, in our scholarship, our research and our service, must be to keep the full gospel of Jesus Christ at the center of everything.
Jesus has a way of offending every partisan group, of stepping on all of our toes. He will not be beholden to our petty agendas, our hypocritical claims or attempts to wield him like a political mascot. We have no hope to offer the world apart from Jesus’ redemptive work. We have no words of life apart from his words. We have no assurance that guilty sinners can be justified and reconciled to a holy God apart from Jesus. And we dare not disfigure and distort the righteousness that is to mark his kingdom. Our students are asking the hard questions, so let’s give them truth, truth that is unchanging and eternal.
In our conduct, we must show Jesus. College students have a hound-like ability to sniff out hypocrisy and inauthenticity. They can smell it a mile away when someone postures as a public advocate of morality but demonstrates an absence of integrity in private. They have no patience for those who demand integrity of their leaders only when convenient or not an obstacle in the way of political power, and they have little patience for a church that blasts those on the outside of its walls for sin while turning a blind eye to injustice and unrighteousness within its own ranks.
Brothers and sisters, if education is about transformation, then how desperately we need the reviving and awakening work of the Holy Spirit in all of us, showing us in fresh and wonderful ways our own desperate need for Jesus, and driving out our own pathetic claims toward self-righteousness.
In our teaching, we must show Jesus. Faculty colleagues, this is among our most sacred trusts. Regardless of our disciplines, we are Christian teachers one and all. This means that our work should be marked by those virtues that characterize Christ’s people. My own thinking on this has been helped by Augustine: “Our greatest concern is to make it possible for those who offer instruction in faith to do so with joy. For the more they succeed in this, the more appealing will they be.”
We can and should devote ourselves to the best pedagogical methods, to be sure, but absent joy, our teaching will be hollow. May the joy of Christ mark our classrooms, every lecture, every discussion. The cynicism of this present age is corrosive, but godly joy transforms education and has the capacity to breathe new life and energy into once stale places. I would even be so bold as to suggest that we can show Jesus in our teaching via the curriculum. Here I am reminded of recent reflections from another historian, far more eminent than this one. Joel Carpenter wrote this recently: “If higher education is to be deeply Christian, then the liberal arts project, which has the habits and mandates to address the great gospel and culture questions, must take the lead.”
Finally, in our love for one another, we must show Jesus. It’s no coincidence that just one chapter later in John’s Gospel, Jesus reminds us that the way the world knows that we are his disciples is by our love for one another. At least in our very small corner of the kingdom of God here in North America, I have to wonder if the world sees so much of that these days. Love is no squishy sentiment. It has, as Martin Luther King Jr. so aptly put it, a certain “strength to love." It’s often costly, it’s always sacrificial, and it always stands out, offering to the world a higher and holier path than the one around us.
I believe deeply that the horizon is bright with opportunity for Biola University. Our mission since 1908 is unchanged, just as our Redeemer is the one who knows no change. Together, may we renew our commitment to be about his mission in the world. To proclaim his truth in word and deed. To be bold and gracious, courageous and loving. There are voices all around us saying to each one of us, if we have ears to hear them, “We want to see Jesus.”
Dr. Matthew J. Hall assumed the role of provost and senior vice president in the summer of 2022, following a year-long, prayer-filled, nationwide search. In his duties as Biola s chief academic officer, Hall is responsible for establishing academic priorities, faithfully advancing the university s mission, and providing leadership to deans, administrators and faculty.