Acts of faithfulness weave throughout the fabric of Azusa Pacific University’s long and colorful story. Before telling you about the latest, let me share the story of a chubby-faced boy who learns to read on his mother’s lap.
Dreary Belfast and a capacious house offer the boy hours of solitude for reading fantasy, folklore, and fairy tales. He dreams of becoming a famous Irish poet. But tragedy strikes when the child’s mother dies of cancer. “With my mother’s death,” he later writes, “all settled happiness, all that was tranquil and reliable, disappeared from my life.” Overcome with grief, the father banishes the children to a threadbare boarding school with an ogre for a headmaster, a tyrant later declared insane. The lad learns nothing.
For high school, the aspiring poet attends yet another boarding school where popularity and athletic prowess are prized. He has neither. He hates it. Eventually, the father turns the teen over to a private tutor—a quirky, mustachioed man named Kirkpatrick who works the boy from dawn to dusk, challenging his every assertion, plying him with every classic on the shelf.
The budding poet loves it, flourishes, and eventually gains acceptance into a university Honors College with only 28 students. There, he discovers others who think learning is an adventure, who love to study, read, and write. The camaraderie of these penniless but talented classmates energizes him. They stay up far into the night talking, arguing, entertaining ideas that had never occurred to them. They become intellectual soul mates, friends for life.
The fledgling writer soon joins the literary and debating society. He even finds a sport where he excels: skinny-dipping. He studies history, philosophy, and literature, reading Tacitus and Thucydides, Plato and Aristotle, Milton and Wordsworth. As iron sharpens iron, so bright peers, great books, and inspiring professors sharpen him.
The Honors College instructors know there is something special about their protégé, so they create tailor-made educational opportunities that become the turning point in his life. The young scholar masters the art of rhetoric, learns to critically analyze philosophical argument, and discovers the human heart’s universal longing for truth, beauty, and goodness.
This aspiring Irish poet is familiar to you, but not as a poet. He wrote two books of poetry; the results encouraged him to concentrate on prose, eventually writing books that sell millions of copies. His friends called him Jack; we know him as C.S. Lewis.
We think of Lewis as a beloved novelist and a Christian apologist. His popular writings, however, should not overshadow the fact he was a first-rate scholar, an Oxford don. His specialty, medieval and Renaissance literature, required intimate knowledge of the writings of devout Church Fathers—Athanasius, Anselm, Ambrose—and of Greek and Roman authors—Homer and Sophocles, Cicero and Virgil. As a scholar, Lewis encountered great minds grappling with life’s most important questions. As a result, he constructed a firm intellectual foundation, a perspective from which to assess and offer guidance to a broken world. He also cultivated his imagination, fashioning new ways to share truth and light, creating culture as much as critiquing it. Lewis became a leader for believers everywhere, and remains so 50 years after his death.
Recognizing that same potential in the next generation, APU now offers an Honors College, where naturally curious and highly motivated students can find a life-changing experience, as Lewis did. In the new Honors College, top-caliber students will work alongside some of APU’s best scholar-teachers in small, discussion-based classes. They will encounter great minds and great books in a humanities-based curriculum. They will experience the rigor needed to rise to their potential—particularly as leaders.
Today’s top-performing kids are tomorrow’s leaders. They will someday write the books we read, determine the news stories we hear, produce the movies we watch. They will govern communities, preach in pulpits, and make key decisions in corporate board rooms. How they lead will be determined, in large part, by the education they receive. True leadership education—contrary to many popular notions—is character education. APU’s new Honors College will help exceptionally gifted and talented undergraduates develop the moral and intellectual virtue—the right habits of the heart and of the mind—to become the leaders we hope for in our future.
The evangelical world specializes in the moral half of this tandem. Rightly thinking that young men and women require moral piety to weather raging storms, we build fortresses. But fortresses are for enduring seige, not transforming society. So we also require young adults unafraid of intellectual challenge, prepared to give a reason for their faith, ready to shape how a nation thinks and thus determine what it becomes. In other words, we need leaders who exit fortresses and establish beachheads, fighting the fight and keeping the faith (2 Timothy 4:7).
Such boldness enabled Augustine, Dante, and Milton to leave an indelible mark on Western civilization. They succeeded, in part, because they understood faith as a convergence of commitment (an act of the will), passion (a desire of the heart), and knowledge (a perfecting of the mind). So did C. S. Lewis.
We need young people who aspire to follow in the intrepid footsteps of Lewis and others like him. To become leaders who see clearly what ought to be done, who formulate winning arguments, who have the savvy to navigate challenge, and who summon grit to storm those cultural and intellectual bastions shaping contemporary life. Whenever Christian cultural and intellectual influence dwindles, despair and defeatism tempt us. Yet, we know there is reason for hope, and that hope is our faith—faith that truth, beauty, and goodness will prevail in the end, and that we are given grace and strength to seek it in the interim.
Our duty in this interim is not simple. It entails not only condemning and criticizing, but also engaging and influencing; it requires deep understanding, hard work, and faithful witness, as well as prayer and blessing. It requires us to prepare our best and brightest to serve as salt, light, and leaven.
What might our society look like if Christian colleges could put a Dallas Willard or an Alvin Plantinga in every secular university department, a Hugh Ross or a Francis Collins in every science laboratory, a William Wilberforce or a Richard John Neuhaus in every legislative chamber? What might our culture look like if we inspire students to become the next Madeleine L’Engle, Flannery O’Connor, or Makoto Fujimura?
Ultimately, our hope resides in the Lord Jesus Christ, who lived, died, and rose again. He promised to return to establish His Kingdom, in which justice and righteousness triumph. In the meantime, we heed God’s admonition to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you...for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:7, ESV). We must dutifully marshal the gifts and resources God has given us to shine the light of truth.
In this spirit, APU’s new Honors College represents an obedient act of faithfulness, a testament to the rich history of Christians in the academy, and a commitment to identify, nurture, and develop evangelicalism’s brightest young minds.