Tagged: Torrey Honors Institute

Because of Fairies

Recently, I spent twelve hours discussing Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream with sophomores in the Torrey Honors Institute. (What a job!) I love this play more and more. It’s easy to miss its richness–it’s such a romp!

Here’s the thing that struck me in reading the play this time, and it’s a line that I began each class with: Sometimes thing just work out.

Somehow, and Lord knows how, we inhabit a cultural moment in which we distrust narratives of resolution and reconciliation. Our cynical eye sees goodness and knows–it just knows–that things aren’t that simple. Things don’t hold together; things fall apart. Goodness from afar looks grim up close; it is joyless austerity at best, more likely a hypocritical mask covering the grim truth of humanity. Scandal doesn’t surprise us, but confirms what we already knew–that no one is as good as they appear, that all that glitters is only ever fool’s good. (If you’re looking for a trenchant essay along these lines, check out Marilynne Robinson’s “Facing Reality” in The Death of Adam.)

Christians have good reason to follow this line of thought. We believe in original sin, that, in the words of Bing Crosby in White Christmas, “Everybody’s got a little larceny working in them.” Good luck finding an untarnished heart.

But Christians also have abundant reason to follow another line of thought. We believe that God raised Jesus from the dead, and so we believe in more than mere suspicion. We believe, too, in unexpected resolution. Without an ounce of the saccharine, Christians believe that enemies can become friends, that the death can–and have, and will–rise to new life. And so I find Midsummer a marvelous tonic for my sub-Christian skepticism in the face of resolution and reconciliation. I find in it a gentle rebuke in its rollicking insistence that sometimes things just work out.

But wait–there’s more. How do they work out? Well, at the start of the play, there’s a Rome and Juliet scenario, with star-crossed lovers on their way out of town to get married, against her father’s wishes. In Romeo and Juliet, this scenario ends in a double suicide. In Midsummer, it ends in a triple wedding. What’s the difference? Why do the lovers in this place end up happily paired off, with the right men loving and being loved by the right women? One student scrunched her brow and offered hesitantly, “Because of…fairies?”

She was exactly right. Because of fairies. The lovers enter the forest, and the magic of mischievous fairies works to the end that, returning home, they are reconciled, rightly matched, and ready to get hitched. In a modern tale, were we to dare such reconciliation, we would at least be sensible enough to attribute this readiness for marriage to the moral progress of the lovers. Or perhaps they found the right recipe or followed the right plan, thus being rewarded with marriage. But that’s just it; they lovers don’t progress in character or knowledge. Moral progress and methodism have nothing to do with it. Marriage in Midsummer couldn’t be further from a reward; it’s a gift.

What I love about this play is that it defies explanation. No calculus can explain a gift, after all. Consider Midsummer a witness to the wide mercy of our God, who gives lavish gifts, and whose distribution of them cares little for the qualifications of its recipients. Midsummer is a witness to the deep truth that marriage–like all of God’s best gifts–is a gift, to be received with dumbfounded, gobsmacked gratitude. Perhaps that’s why St. Paul likens it to the covenant of God with the church–because it evokes the saving God by whose mercy things, at the Last Day, will just work out.

Remembering Chris Mitchell

On Thursday night, my dear friend Chris died of a heart attack. We in the Torrey Honors Institute were—are—in complete shock. There were no warning signs, nothing indicating that his health was in decline. (An undetected heart disease proved to be the cause.) Chris and his wife Julie had moved to LA only a year ago to work at Biola and, after a blissful first year, they had just arrived in Colorado for a long stay with kids and grandkids. In his early 60s, Chris had just begun the last leg of his career, returning to the classroom after years overseeing The Wade Center at Wheaton College, which housed the papers of C. S. Lewis and his friends. It promised to be a golden season, full of spiritual fruit in the mentoring of students, lived in the splendid company of a wife he cherished, kids and grandkids he adored, and friends he couldn’t get enough of. (The feeling was mutual.) You should hear the way Chris spoke of Julie, see him puff with pride over his children. And his friends—a more marvelous and motley group is hard to imagine. It seemed Chris knew everyone. And, he was interested in everyone. He had a knack for seeing people for who they were and delighting in their company. Whether sitting with eminent historians, farmers, or freshmen, Chris knew only peers. Needless to say, after only a year at Biola, Chris’ absence leaves many students, faculty, and staff deeply saddened. He mentored and taught with such a remarkable mix of compassion, glee, wisdom, and always, always a love for Jesus. And, while Chris wasn’t really the type to formally say, ‘I will be your mentor, my child’, he was a mentor despite himself. Quick to tell on himself, I heard Chris on more than one occasion talk about his wife’s relief that he had become so much nicer over the years. And yet he knew he could still be a son of a gun, even on his best days. He knew other people had their faults, too, but he was always eager to see past those to the mysteries and glories of each individual. He was curious—about life, people, about God and his strange ways with the world.

chris mitchell on the lake

He was humble. He loved adventure, but he wasn’t naturally a daredevil. He loved the good things of the world—his pipe, a good book, a good meal, friends. But, he never confused the good things of the world with the things of heaven. In fact, while loving the earth, Chris talked more about heaven than anyone I know. He had just a real sense of heaven and was looking forward to the reunions there, to laughter, and above all to the joys of being with the Lord. I would’ve loved twenty more years to live close to that man and become like him. As it is, in just a few years of close friendship, I caught something of the joy and wonder of being a child of God, even at an older age. Here was a mix of holiness, happiness, and hope in a man who took the Lord seriously but didn’t take himself seriously. In Gilead, one of Marilynne Robinson’s characters says, ‘I always imagine divine mercy giving us back to ourselves and letting us laugh at what we became, laugh at the preposterous disguises of crouch and squint and limp and lour we all do put on.’ Chris got a head start on that. He possessed a holy levity when he reflected on who he had been and how the Lord had renewed him. In life, Chris demonstrated how to love learning and love people and love God, all in one package, and in the right order. And now that Chris has died, we’re seeing the profound mark one mentor can make on the lives of those around him. What a gift he was to us, and to so many others.

How lovely are Your dwelling places, O Lord of hosts! My soul longed and even yearned for the courts of the Lord; My heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God. How blessed is the man whose strength is in You, In whose heart are the highways to Zion! For a day in Your courts is better than a thousand outside. I would rather stand at the threshold of the house of my God Than dwell in the tents of wickedness. For the Lord God is a sun and shield; The Lord gives grace and glory; No good thing does He withhold from those who walk uprightly. O Lord of hosts, How blessed is the man who trusts in You!  (Psalm 82:1-2, 5, 10-12)

May Chris’ joyful witness, shot through as it was with the hope of the resurrection, resound in and amongst us, stirring in us a longing for the courts of the Lord. Here’s to the resurrection of the dead.

5 Things I Learned at Torrey From John Mark Reynolds

In the previous post, John Mark announced that he was leaving the honors program he founded to become the new head of academics at Houston Baptist University. He’s continuing, of course, to be an essential member of the team at Wheatstone Ministries through insight at board meetings, speeches at conferences and events, his kind and jolly mentoring, and so much more (…and, by the way, since that’s the case, look out Houston! Before too long, Wheatstone will be rolling back into town…), but it’ll be sad when we’re unable to pop by his house on a whim to laugh and to talk.

I’m very, very grateful for his work at the Torrey Honors Institute. With his peers, he built a program so personal and so profound that it felt both like home and like a whole new world to me and to my friends when, as starry-eyed freshmen, we stepped on in. We were challenged simultaneously to achieve more and to love more. We were given an education that is so deeply based on people that we could take it wherever people go, whether to the cubicle, the halls of power, or to bedside storybook time. It’s very good.

But in addition to producing an academic program without equal, John Mark also poured himself personally into the lives of students who attended. And that’s where I feel the loss for Torrey. The Institute will keep on keeping on when Reynolds moves to Houston, and it’ll still be among the best undergraduate programs in the world, but future Biola students won’t get to sit at Reynolds’ feet like my friends and I did. I learned a lot while sitting there. I learned things that have changed the direction of my life.

Prominent among the things he taught me are the following five. You can find these ideas in Plato, Augustine, Lewis, Chesterton, and other greats to whom Torrey introduced me, but I trace my most personally meaningful encounters with them back to John Mark Reynolds. It’s because he helped me discover these things that I’m sad to see him leave the program I’ve come to love.
Through Reynolds, at Torrey, I learned that….

1 – Deepened education produces deepened love.

When I left for college, my uncle looked me in the eye and asked me not to head so far up in the ivory tower that I forgot about my family. Likewise, I’ve seen new acquaintances become suddenly less personal when they hear I studied anthropology and philosophy. A highly educated intellect just makes for personal inaccessibility, right? And, well, much of the time, yes, it does. Aspiring scholars often become snobby or prickly, and their social networks become closed, leaving others outside.

But Reynolds modeled and advocated a different, brighter purpose for increased education: increased love. He taught me that love is communicated between people by means of things they share, and that the more they have to share, the better they can communicate their love. Every new word added to my vocabulary, every conversational skill, every book I read or film I watch could become a conduit for friendship or (Reynolds’ favorite) for flirting. Rather than demanding that others step up to whatever I appreciate and rejecting them if they don’t, Reynolds taught me to use every new appreciation as a means for reaching out to others.
And he’s right (though it’s not often recommended): it’s possible to flirt using logic.

2 – Morality is bound up with joy.

Education isn’t the only characteristic with a reputation for stuffiness. If anything, morality has it beat. Being good and having fun: they’re opposites, right?

Not so with the good doctor. He exudes a downright other-worldly confidence that God’s rules for good living end up being the same as God’s rules for joyful living. He teaches me that part of what it means that “the Sabbath [and any law] was made for man” is that God’s laws must fit with human exuberance. He taught me to honestly believe in the delightful kingdom that Christ is coming to establish, and to look forward to it by pursuing foretastes of it now. Anything that’s bad turns out to be bad because it dilutes the delight of God in His creations and of His creations in each other and Him. Joy is at the center of things.

“What happened to jollification?” he asks, while blowing bubbles in the academic office, or balancing a spoon on his nose, or making puppets out of marshmallows and toothpicks. When you’re around him, you can’t help but wonder that too.

3 – Excellence isn’t perfection, and that’s a good thing.

If you’ve heard him say it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times: “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” Whether he’s advocating for amateur theatre and writing rushed plays for high school homeschool performers, or encouraging a disheartened student to keep on working when they didn’t meet their own expectations, or diffusing premature grumpiness in tech-impaired twenty-somethings who wish we still got around on horses, Reynolds reminds me that working in the real world is always better than grouching from an ideal one.

That principle ends up being at the center of most endurance. Without sacrificing idealism, we have to become people who work with what’s at hand and who strive to do our best, whatever that best might be. If we can learn to follow the principle, we’ll keep on being messy people, but we’ll be messy people who’ve made and done a bunch of nifty things, and that’s pretty darn desirable, relatively speaking.

4 – Everything can be questioned; the truth will out.

It has (thank goodness!) become an old Christian adage by now that “all truth is God’s truth,” but John Mark has a way of living it out that always refreshes me. He applies it in every direction, from the eager examination and discussion of cultural kitsch to the unblinking exploration of life’s hardest questions and Christianity’s strongest challenges. He deeply, purely believes that any question asked with honesty and humility in submission to Christ–any question–is a step taken toward truth. As best he can (and better than just about anyone I know) he strives to root out any fear, bias, or condescension that would block true questions or create dishonest ones.
This was refreshing to me as a eager, clean-out-of-the-press, happy Christian student, and it was salvific for some of my friends whose doubts and questions had been inappropriately suppressed. It involves a deep trust in God’s good intentions for us, and a rigorous commitment to honesty, humility, and hope. It means taking Christ at his word when he says, “Seek, and you will find.”

5 – Change need never be fearful.

Visiting one part of the Reynolds’ house can be something like visiting a blinking museum of technological development. An (in?)famous “first adopter,” John Mark can get downright giddy about tech’s new directions, and it shows. Yet step a room or two over, and you’ll find yourself in a space stuffed with images of czars and saints and kings and philosophers.  It can be a bit head-spinning at first, but before too long you begin to wonder why everyone else doesn’t just follow suit.

You see, Reynolds has never been too impressed by the theory that everything inevitably gets better all the time, but he doesn’t make the mistake that some anti-myth-of-progress types do: habitual nostalgia. He strives to stretch out his arms and embrace all of history, including the history that’s about to be made. He’s learned that God’s people can suffer an awful lot and still pull through, and that puts him at peace with whatever’s ahead. This wide-sweeping acceptance of what has happened and will happen allows him to look to the future keenly, and confront changes with boldness and with creativity. I wish we could all emulate him.
Because John Mark helped me discover these things while I was a student at Torrey, I’m sad to see him leave, but it’s also because he helped me discover these things that I’m proud to see him go. How could I be anything but joyful at the expectation that these ideas will spread to more people in more places? How could I not be filled with anticipation to see what this remarkable man can achieve when he sits with Robert Sloan at the helm of one of our best rising Christian universities? With a new scope for his ingenuity, and a solid base on which to build, I can’t help but think that John Mark’s years of greatest impact are still ahead of him.

John Mark, congratulations on your new position. May your love and learning be always deeper, may your life be filled with joy, may you have both room and support as you seek to excel, may you find new wonders to question and explore, and, John Mark, may your eyes be bright as you look to today’s changes and to tomorrow’s hopes. We’ll miss you at Torrey. We’re excited to expand our work with you at Wheatstone. HBU, buckle your seatbelts and get ready for a wild, jolly, and wonderful ride.