How Biola University Is Out to Prove That It’s No Old-fashioned Bible School

The school’s blending of faith and knowledge in subjects ranging from biology to filmmaking is its primary draw, but it’s also what keeps the university from getting the academic recognition that it craves
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The movie was shot on a bare-bones budget and went straight to DVD, but its Los Angeles premiere last winter felt like a blockbuster’s. Nearly 4,000 fervent fans gathered at Biola University, a La Mirada olive grove turned college campus, for a big-screen debut of The Case for a Creator, which promised nothing less than scientific evidence of God’s existence.

“Too often we look at the world through either Christian eyes or scientific eyes,” John Bloom, a physics professor and the director of Biola’s master’s program in science and religion, told the standing-room-only crowd. “Now we are learning we can do both.”

Creator is the latest salvo in the antievolution crusade known as the intelligent design movement, and although its claims that life is too complex to have evolved without supernatural assistance have been dismissed by mainstream biologists and physicists, not to mention the federal courts, there’s no question that the film—and the desire to blend faith with laboratory proof of an all-powerful creator—has enormous public appeal.

Such events have become common at Biola, a small evangelical college on the eastern edge of Los Angeles County. The school, which will celebrate its centennial next year, in its early days played a pivotal role in the founding of modern American fundamentalism before slipping into obscurity. It has catapulted itself back into prominence as a center for the promotion of intelligent design, a major front in the nation’s culture wars. At the same time, Biola has shed its reputation as an academic backwater, expanding its old Bible school offerings to include degrees in business, filmmaking, and psychology and building highly regarded programs in philosophy and literature—all taught through the lens of conservative Christianity.

Biola’s makeover has paid off. The university’s frequent Darwin-bashing events are packed. GodBlogCon, the annual international conference of Christian bloggers it launched in 2005, attracts such conservative media luminaries as La Shawn Barber and Hugh Hewitt. In two decades enrollment has doubled to more than 5,700 students, who walk to classes in the traditional uniform of California college kids everywhere, blue jeans and leather Rainbows, but who by and large hold views quite distinct from those of the average Trojan or Bruin: The earth is 6,000 years old, the Bible must be read literally and is never in error, and the Biology 101 lesson about humans’ shared genetic heritage with apes, marmosets, and garden snails is not only bad science, it’s blasphemy.

“My number one priority in all my studies … is to make sure I keep my faith growing,” says Nadine Shea, a sophomore from Wyoming who is studying speech pathology and communication disorders. Like many Biola students, she did not apply to any secular colleges and embraces the school’s educational approach—which to outsiders blurs the line between belief and knowledge but to insiders demonstrates that no such line exists. In neurology class, Shea’s professor mixes standard anatomy and brain science with Bible verses. This, he tells his rapt students, demonstrates that God not only created the mind but detailed every part in various psalms.

A private school cofounded by the first president of Union Oil, Biola declines public financing to avoid questions about separation of church and state. It insists that students and teachers sign what amounts to a fundamentalist Christian loyalty oath. This has brought considerable respect from conservative Christians, but gaining mainstream academic respect has been another story. Biola very much wants such recognition and is the only evangelical college listed in U.S. News & World Report’s annual rankings of “national universities.”

“We’re playing with the big boys now,” one official boasts. The school, however, is listed in the fourth, and last, tier—a situation it wishes to change. That creates something of a dilemma, because its main asset is also its cross to bear. As long as a biblical worldview takes precedence, it will be difficult for Biola to become what it aspires to be—a university that can compete with any institution, religious or secular.

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The nine gentlemen in their straw boaters, derbies, and three-piece suits stare out from a black-and-white photograph of Biola’s 1912 ground breaking on Hope Street downtown, back when the school was known not by its acronym but as the Bible Institute of Los Angeles. In the foreground of the photo stands Lyman Stewart, the oil magnate who conceived the school’s philosophy and whose vision of conservative Christianity animates it still. The son of a poor Pennsylvania tanner, Stewart longed to become a missionary but instead moved west to explore California’s oil fields and ended up running the Union Oil Company. He became a member of the Pacific Coast elite, but he never abandoned his devout heartland brand of evangelicalism. His religious convictions led him on a variety of crusades, which included establishing the Union Rescue Mission downtown, launching missionary efforts throughout Asia, and banning cussing in his oil fields. (His first drilling operation—four bone-dry wells in Santa Clarita—was nicknamed “Christian Hill” by his chastened roustabouts.)

In 1908, Stewart—along with pastor and educator T.C. Horton—founded a nondenominational school for fundamentalist preachers at a time when many mainline Protestant churches were liberalizing their outlooks and doctrines for the new century. The first 35 students were housed above a downtown pool hall before the Hope Street building was constructed. Stewart envisioned the institute as a preachers’ academy, a religious publishing house, the headquarters of a Christian broadcasting empire, and a missionary center that would outstrip what was then the unrivaled leader in American fundamentalist training, the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. Within a few years all of these goals had been accomplished. In 1911, Biola hired its first dean away from Moody, the Yale University-educated evangelist R.A. Torrey, who commanded huge audiences worldwide, it started The King’s Business, which quickly became the country’s top Christian magazine, and it operated KTBI, which before the Great Depression was one of the nation’s most listened-to Christian radio stations west of the Mississippi. Stewart financed twin 13-story towers at 6th and Hope that for decades were Los Angeles’s tallest and most recognizable high-rises, each eventually topped by a red neon JESUS SAVES sign. (The familiar signs were rescued from demolition and moved to the late televangelist Gene Scott’s Los Angeles University Cathedral on Broadway in 1990.)

With Biola as their hub, Stewart and his group of conservative preachers and Christian thinkers he had recruited worldwide produced a series of 12 pamphlets called The Fundamentals, an academic justification of modern American fundamentalism. Between 1910 and 1915, these were distributed free to every minister, evangelist, missionary, seminary student, YMCA official, Sunday school superintendent, theology professor, and religious lay worker in the country—3 million copies in all. Torrey was the editor of both The King’s Business and The Fundamentals, which inextricably linked the school to the birth of the fundamentalist movement.

The Fundamentals railed against modernism and argued that Christians had to believe in certain principles: the inerrancy of the Bible, the literal truth of the Virgin birth and divinity of Jesus, the doctrine of atonement through God’s grace and human faith, the resurrection of Jesus after the Crucifixion as a historical fact, and the authenticity of Jesus’s miracles and his promise of a second coming. The Bible could not be viewed as metaphorical in order to reconcile it with science, as progressive church leaders had begun to preach in the early 20th century—which meant no evolution, no four-and-a-half-billion-year-old Earth, no dinosaurs that couldn’t fit on Noah’s ark. Unstated, of course, was the irony that the publication of The Fundamentals was financed with money from fossil fuels, which consist of prehistoric marine microorganisms (along with the occasional dinosaur carcass) subjected to great heat and pressure beneath the planet’s surface over decidedly unbiblical stretches of time.

The Fundamentals was intended to be an antidote to such naturalistic thinking and to the perceived moral decay, including Darwinism, that so troubled Stewart and his allies. These days Biola identifies itself as evangelical rather than fundamentalist, a distinction that, school officials say, rests on their willingness to engage secular schools and ideas. Yet The Fundamentals matches up with the doctrinal statement concerning faith, biblical inerrancy, and humanity’s divine origins to which Biola professors and graduate students must agree in writing. Incoming undergrads make a less specific affirmation of faith, and then must take 30 units of Bible study—which is considered to be a rigorous requirement even among conservative Christian colleges.

In 1927, Biola’s reputation was damaged by accusations of liberalism sparked by a muddled book on the Gospel of Peter written by Torrey’s successor. The board of trustees took the extraordinary step of banning a book authored by the head of the college. That crisis had barely passed when the Depression hit, and Biola endured near financial collapse. (One prominent Biola alumnus, radio evangelist Charles E. Fuller, chaired the board at the time; after World War 11 he started a rival program—Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena.)

The Depression era marked the beginning of what Rob Westervelt, director of brand management, calls Biola’s “dark ages”—50 years of poor administration and scholarship. Biola, he says, was ruled by a good-old-boy system marked by isolationism, gender discrimination, anti-intellectualism, and a tendency to behave as if it were a country church instead of an urban school. In 1950, Biola departed downtown after purchasing 75 acres of farmland from Andrew McNally (of Rand-McNally fame). His grandiose plan to develop the area as a haven for wealthy gentleman ranchers fell through, and La Mirada rose up instead.

As Westervelt and others tell it, the dark ages came to an end in 1982, when current president Clyde Cook took office. The Hong Kong-born son of a missionary and a sea captain, Cook was a star basketball player at Laguna Beach High who gave up an athletic scholarship to USC to attend Biola in 1953. After he graduated, he spent time working with a missionary group in the Philippines and serving Biola as a faculty member and a trustee. When he took command of the college, he was charged with shaking it out of its long stagnation and reversing dramatic enrollment declines.

“My number one accomplishment has to be bringing to the school the realization that it was possible to achieve academic respectability without compromising spiritual commitment,” says the silver-haired Cook, who towers over most of his students and faculty. The old Biola believed academics had to be sacrificed for religious purity. Cook insisted on the opposite—that academic rigor is essential to spiritual commitment. “The truth can never harm faith,” he says.

Cook, who is 72, has enjoyed one of the longest tenures of any university president in California. He plans to retire this year, explaining that the school will be best served by having a new leader in place as it begins its second century.

He will leave behind a different campus from the one he inherited. When Cook assumed the top job, Biola was neither academically selective nor comfortable with change. While environmentalism, the counterculture, Vietnam protests, feminism, and antiapartheid drives were ripping through colleges across America, Biola remained an island apart, frozen in time. Cook, however, decided to bring his school into the 20th century before the 21st century arrived. Among Cook’s first acts was ending practices that made women second-class citizens and banned them from serving as trustees. This led to an exodus of older, extremely conservative faculty members.

“It was the best thing that ever happened to Biola,” says Westervelt. “The ethos changed.”

As Biola transformed itself into a full-fledged university, professors with Ph.D.s from secular schools were hired—and their fresh outlooks further energized the campus. Cook also wanted outside speakers and ideas brought into classes. He overcame resistance to new ideas by presenting them as Christian virtues. Would Christ want us to discriminate against half of our faculty and students? Would he lock the gates against gay activists who want to visit and exchange views, or would he open the doors and serve a hot meal?

During Cook’s administration the university’s admissions policies have become more discerning, although it’s still fairly easy to get in. About 82 percent of undergraduate applicants are accepted. Since 1982, the average high school grade point average for incoming freshmen has climbed from 3.15 to 3.53. Nearly two-thirds of undergraduates are white. Latinos make up the second-largest group. Most students come from public high schools, most of the rest from private religious schools or home schools. Biola goes out of its way to recruit home-schooled kids. Tuition and room and board cost about $24,000 a year.

Today Biola offers 33 majors in its schools of theology, business, psychology, arts and sciences, intercultural studies, and professional studies (an adult-learning and night-school program that has minicampuses throughout Southern California). Officials say the master’s program in philosophy has the most students of any in the world and that its graduates have been placed in the finest doctoral programs. The Torrey Honors Institute, a “great books” program using the Socratic method, is widely respected for its rigor. The film, radio, and television program’s goal is to bring Christian themes and thinking to mass entertainment, it has set up internships and other cooperative ventures with major studios, production companies, and media outlets eager to tap into conservative Christian sensibilities. Some of these internships are predictable—with Fox News, Mel Gibson, The Washington Times—but others are surprising, including ones with Zide/Perry Productions, best known for the American Pie films, and Film Roman, the animation studio behind The Simpsons and King of the Hill. The program claims it has assembled a network of 200 Christian media professionals who help place Biola students in Industry jobs. Students attend the Sundance Film Festival, where they are exposed to images and ideas many Christian colleges avoid. At Biola, however, even Homer Simpson’s moral dilemmas become part of a Christian classroom teachable moment.

“Here you don’t learn simply to be a businessman. You learn to be a Christian businessman,” Cook says. “Christians are vastly underrepresented in two areas: in the media and in universities. Biola is trying to change that equation, and it will make a big difference in the world of ideas.”

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Nick Patapoff had his heart set on USC’s film program—he wanted the prestigious degree and the career opportunities he believed would accompany it. When he didn’t get into USC or his second choice, Chapman University, Patapoff enrolled at Biola, his mother’s alma mater, which he had applied to as a safety school. He figured he would transfer before he was a junior, ideally to USC.

Something happened along the way. Now a film major in his third year, Patapoff has no intention of leaving Biola. He’s even on the team that welcomes new students. “It turned out to be the best choice for me,” he says. “I fell in love with the film program here. And I discovered how authentic people are at Biola.” Patapoff grew up in a devout family in La Habra and attended Troy High in Fullerton. In high school, he says, there was more sex, drugs, alcohol, and negativity about life in general than at Biola. Now, it seems, he can’t walk across campus without overhearing or joining a discussion of faith. “It was a big change for me. It required some maturing,” he says. “And that’s a good thing.”

“I’m not too worried anymore about being a Christian in the Industry,” Patapoff says. “It turns out there are several well-known producers, who’ve done major films like the X-Men series. Their faith is still very much a part of them…. There are some amazing opportunities opening up.”

Biola is surprisingly free of religious imagery. There is an enormous Jesus mural on one building, but for the most part the campus seems indistinguishable from any small suburban school constructed since the mid 20th century. Dominating the low-slung, tree-lined grounds is the central quad, in which stands the library, a peaceful refuge from the extensive expansion work going on elsewhere.

On the surface, at least, Biola students are neither less nor more cool-grungy-nerdy-isolated-stressed than the kids you see strolling around anywhere, cell phones and MP3 players glued to their ears. As at other colleges, athletic events are popular—especially basketball games—but the concept of school spirit tends to be a little more spiritual. The gymnasium sports a huge image of an eagle (the Biola mascot) and the slogan ABOVE ALL, GIVE GLORY TO GOD.

Nadine Shea, the sophomore from Wyoming, wrote a column in the school newspaper chastising students for behaving badly during a recent pep rally and basketball-shooting contest. Participants were so fixated on the $500 prize, she complained, that no one gave proper thanks to God. “Had I visited Biola at this time two years ago and attended this event, I probably wouldn’t be at Biola right now,” she said.

Biola doesn’t allow cable television in its dorms. The campus music scene is vibrant and has produced some well-received bands, most recently the alt rock Cold War Kids, which got its start by sneaking into closed buildings on campus in search of rehearsal space.

Students must sign agreements forswearing premarital sex, drugs, alcohol, tobacco, porn, and dancing. (The dancing ban was eased in recent years to include only campus and college-sponsored events.) Many say it’s relatively easy to honor these contracts, which, they add, bring tangible benefits: improved health, less pressure, and a more laid-back dating scene. Even so, in an anonymous survey conducted by the college in 2002, about a third of those responding said they drank alcohol (compared with about 80 percent of the general college population). The numbers for marijuana use and sexual activity also were much lower than average.

Chapel attendance is mandatory, but some students are known to pull the “slide and glide”—inserting their IDs into card readers to get credit for showing up, then leaving immediately. Silverware, cups, and saltshakers are ripped off regularly from the dining hall. This may be a problem at every college, but a firestorm erupted at Biola last year after the school newspaper reported the thefts of thousands of articles from the cafeteria. Cook publicly denounced the stealing as sinful and demanded that students repent. Collection boxes were placed around campus. (They did not fill up quickly.) Otherwise, Biola’s crime statistics pale next to those at most colleges. Teachers and students have the sense that problems such as cheating and plagiarism are less common here as well. The school employs extensive safeguards to limit Internet piracy and the viewing of inappropriate (i.e., pornographic) imagery on the Web, a tacit acknowledgment that this sort of rule breaking poses a particularly tough temptation.

Film major Patapoff chafes at the way Internet access is sometimes slowed to a crawl. Describing himself as “strong in my faith” but not rigid in his beliefs, he also expresses both uneasiness about Biola’s “pretty confining” doctrinal statement of faith and uncertainty about taking the biblical story of creation too literally—even if this puts him in the minority among his peers. His professors hold and accept a range of beliefs, he says, demonstrating that Christianity at Biola is not one size fits all. He finds this vastly preferable to how Christianity is treated at secular colleges, where, he worries, the emphasis is more on criticizing Scripture than on teaching its truths. A friend who transferred to Biola horrified him with an account of how the Bible was seen as mere literature at the friend’s old college. “It was so unbalanced,” Patapoff says. “I could never have gotten anything near the quality of Bible education that I have here.” He and his fellow students feel a measure of relief—and perhaps, superiority—at receiving what they see as a proper religious education rather than the misleading and destructive one they think most college students get.

Exposure to “ungodly” ideas sometimes discomfits students; many of them are more conservative than their professors. One parent recently pulled his child from Biola after learning that works by Karl Marx were in the school library. Cook has sold most of his flock on a more broad-minded vision of Christianity by insisting it is better for students to consider challenging ideas now rather than after graduation, when they will not have professors to guide them.

The school brings in speakers with alternative views. This may sound like no big deal, just part of encouraging the marketplace of ideas that college is supposed to foster—but for conservative Christian schools, this is a very big deal.

Last year Soulforce, a Virginia-based gay and lesbian group, sponsored an “Equality Ride” bus tour in which young gays and lesbians visited Christian schools that do not accept homosexuals in hopes of creating a dialogue, counseling closeted students, and eliciting media attention. At several schools, beginning with Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, the bus riders were arrested. Other campuses barred them. Biola welcomed them, making space and time for meetings with students and faculty. Love the sinner, not the sin, Cook argued when some complained. One administrator urged the visitors, “Make us uncomfortable—put us in a position to think!” Biola did not change its policies, however. Homosexuality is categorized as sinful. Gay students are offered counseling. Unmarried students—gay or straight—who are sexually active risk expulsion.

Some say tolerance can be in short supply. Former student Brendan Creecy says he was harassed after he registered as a Democrat during a campus voter drive. “‘You must be for abortion and homosexuality!’” he recalls another student shouting. “I was just flabbergasted.”

The 26-year-old from Carlsbad entered Biola in 1998 with the ambition of becoming a youth minister. He dropped out a year and a half later and works as a security guard in Orange County while studying Web programming and design at a community college. Creecy liked his teachers and friends at Biola, but he ended up rejecting much of what the school stands for, which he characterizes as radically conservative and narrow-minded. Yes, Biola does expose students to different views, he says, but dissent is only permitted within a narrow range.

Creecy left, disturbed by what he describes as a kind of arrogance, a feeling that those at the school have the answers and a key to heaven after they die, and that the rest of the world is out of luck. “I have a problem with that,” Creecy says. “Ultimately, things just aren’t that simple.”

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Biola has placed itself at the center of the debate over the origins of life and what young people ought to be taught by promoting intelligent design, the updated form of creationism that avoids biblical references and focuses on evidence intended to discredit evolutionary theory. The school has hosted a series of international intelligent design conferences, including the first one in 1996, and placed the godfather of the intelligent design movement, UC Berkeley law professor Phillip Johnson, on the faculty. Its masters of science and religion program was begun in part to promote intelligent design, and its Christian Apologetics Program—apologetics being the defense of faith and Scripture—has become the primary champion of intelligent design in the state.

Intelligent design maintains that complex biological systems—such as DNA and the molecular “machines” that operate in living cells—could not have evolved gradually or piecemeal, as evolutionary theory requires, because they do not function in simpler or incomplete forms. Therefore, the argument goes, these structures must have been designed by some sort of intelligence. By not identifying that intelligence as God or linking it to any particular religion, advocates of intelligent design are able to assert that theirs is a scientific idea, not a religious one, and appropriate for public school biology classes.

The strongest advocate has been a Seattle-based think tank, the Discovery Institute, whose chief financial backer has been Home Savings of America heir Howard Ahmanson and whose spokespeople and researchers have been frequent guests, lecturers, and visiting faculty members at Biola. Intelligent design has been criticized by every major scientific organization in the country as little more than warmed-over 19th-century creationism, but at Biola it is embraced as part of a scientific revolution.

This point of view suffered a severe blow in December 2005 when a federal judge ruled that it was improper for a school board in Dover, Pennsylvania, to introduce intelligent design into the high school curriculum. The judge, during what was billed as a sequel to the 1925 Scopes “Monkey Trial,” ruled that intelligent design was religion, not science, and that its supporters had a religious motive in putting it in classrooms.

Displeased with this ruling and by what it implies about Biola’s reputation for academic rigor, the school staged a replay of the case last spring, in which the leading lights of intelligent design were to be cross-examined once again, in a more “fair” manner. The movement’s most accomplished speakers were pitted against a panel consisting of a network news correspondent who kept apologizing for his ignorance, an animal rights activist and self-help author, and a group of earnest but outgunned professors from Cal State Fullerton, who were unable to replicate the withering cross-examination that had marked the trial in Pennsylvania and had revealed intelligent design’s flaws. The panel was headlined by British philosopher Antony Flew, who in 2004 renounced his long-standing atheism in a Biola-published journal but has remained dubious of intelligent design. His role as grand inquisitor did not work out as planned; Flew, apparently exhausted by his transatlantic flight, slept onstage throughout the proceedings.

In this friendly forum, intelligent design triumphed at last. No one spoke of the inconsistency of proponents asserting religion was not involved even as a cheering Christian college audience shouted “Hallelujah”—in recognition of the idea that if there’s a design, there must be a designer. That leaves two options: space aliens or God. It’s safe to presume that Biola would not be championing the former. Mainstream scientists say this makes intelligent design unscientific because it deals with the supernatural rather than with natural processes. Bloom, the physics professor, argues that detection of design in the natural world can be scientific, even if its findings have religious implications. He draws an analogy to the big bang theory, which is regarded by most as being scientific, even though it, too, has powerful religious implications.

In the end, though, Biola’s attraction to intelligent design is not about science. This, once again, points out the tightrope the school must walk to gain academic respectability while adhering to Christian doctrine. As Fred Sanders, an assistant professor at the Torrey Honors Institute, puts it, most faculty and students understand that the Bible cannot be read as if it were a 21st-century science text. But neither can they view it as mere stories.

“If it’s a fairytale, that’s very different than a book about the world we live in,” Sanders says. “And it is a book about the world we live in.”

Shortly before Christmas, Biola hosted its jam-packed The Case for a Creator premiere. Professor after professor marched to the lectern to join intelligent design experts and Lee Strobel, the former Chicago journalist whose book provided the basis for the DVD. All applauded the groundbreaking information they felt had been uncovered in the film.

Yet despite Creator’s focus on scientific evidence that supposedly disproved the theory of evolution, the purpose of intelligent design was revealed time and again to be—like the purpose of Biola University—rooted in faith, not science. The author of The Case for a Creator laid out this mixed message plainly to the enthused gathering.

“Our purpose is to find God,” Strobel boomed. “He has left clues.”

“Amen” came the response.

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