Essay / Education

What John Mark Founded

Today Biola held a special farewell reception for John Mark Reynolds, who is becoming provost of Houston Baptist University after 18 years as director of the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola. The Dean of Humanities emceed the university-wide event, at which the president gave Reynolds a genuine Jim Rice homerun baseball that he caught himself (!), Torrey prof Joe Henderson sang “All the Way My Savior Leads Me,” and incoming Torrey director Paul Spears unveiled the Founder’s Award, which will be given every year to an outstanding alum (more on this later: we still have a long weekend of graduations and receptions ahead of us).

I spoke on behalf of the Torrey faculty to say goodbye to John Mark. Here’s what I said:

John Mark Reynolds came to Biola in 1995 on an externally-funded post-doctorate fellowship. He was sent by Philip Johnson, was excited about working with JP Moreland, and according to legend he had nothing but a desk and a trash can in the corner of the Provost’s office. Without much of a track record, without any natural connection to the culture of Biola, and without any guarantee of continued employment, Reynolds made a quick reconnaissance of the situation on the ground in La Mirada, and overnight he invented a plan.

With his right hand he took hold of the thirty units of Bible that every student earns here at the one-time Bible Institute. With his left hand he scooped up the scattered general education units that every undergraduate earns here at an accredited university. He saw that they belonged together, that Bible and general education longed to be one, that they needed each other. So he melted them down in the crucible of Socratic inquiry and poured them into the mold of the great books tradition of the western world. The result was a sixty-unit something-we-know-not-what; a unique and unparalleled educational experience.

He convinced the school to let him have a handful of students, for purposes of experimentation. I see a few of them are here today. He named this thing Torrey, after Biola’s most famous founder, the soul-winning, revival-sparking Magellan of evangelical Christianity, the Yale-educated disciple of the un-educated Dwight L. Moody.

Reynolds thought he could act as a midwife, helping Biola give birth to a new expression of all that was best in its own heritage.

He was right. The Torrey Honors Institute was born. Like the young Samuel, it grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man. It thrived, prospered, and succeeded. More than a dozen faculty, hundreds of alumni, thousands of class sessions later, we are going strong. We have a lot of desks now, and plenty of trash cans. Under John Mark’s leadership, Torrey has served its students, its university, and the broader Christian community faithfully.

But what shall we say of this founder, this first director, this John Mark Reynolds?

He is a visionary. He saw the future we are now living in, and his steady vision, hard work, and inspiration gave form and substance to it.  John Mark Reynolds is a catalyst. He’s an instigator. He’s a provocateur. He’s a salesman and a statesman, a thought leader and a cheerleader.

He is, like Homer’s Odysseus, a polytropic man, a man of many twists and turns. He is full of contradictions, things you didn’t think could belong together in one man. As Walt Whitman sang of himself, he is large; he contains multitudes. But those of us who know him best know that most of the contradictions are fruitful; there is a fecundity and productivity to most of those contradictions.

He is an authoritarian executive who empowers his employees to work independently. He is a highly opinionated person who teaches socratically. He is a grandstander who creates communities, a soloist who summons orchestras, a platform orator whose main accomplishment is to get people to sit in little groups and talk to each other. He’s an extreme optimist who is always sure that the bombs are just about to land on us –and that’s the extent of what I understand about his eschatology!

John Mark is a young earth creationist, for postmodern reasons. He is an early adopter of technology who uses that technology to reminisce about the good old days before technology. He reads Trollope novels on his Kindle, has Jane Austen on his ipod, and Sir Walter Scott on his ipad. He dresses in frock coats whenever he thinks he can get away with it. He has come as close to steampunk haberdashery as a forty-something  man can come (everything but the gears). He celebrates Plato’s Timaeus and Disney’s main street. He loves Dante and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He cultivates an appreciation for the finer things in life, washed down by gallons and gallons of Diet Coke.

He is a slavophile monarchist pushing democratic capitalism. He wants to live under the Tsar, or under Mitt Romney. He longs to be a citizen of the City of God, but he nerds out on the American electoral cycle. He is an unreconstructed patriarchalist who has used his male headship to secure space for smart Christian women to become smarter, more Christian, and more womanly. He believes in chivalry, as long as it doesn’t involve real horses.

He tried to serve evangelical Protestantism by departing from it without leaving, and he tried to evangelize Eastern Orthodoxy by importing scores of Baptists and Calvary Chapel people into it.  He wants the Book of Common Prayer, the iconostasis, and the Gaither Vocal Band. He hails from West Virginia, New York, Los Angeles, and now, in a surprising move, Texas.

He is dead serious about jollification.

He is firmly committed to one idea: that people are more important than ideas.

I could go on. John Mark Reynolds has more contradictions than we have time to explore. But the best contradiction of all for us at Torrey Honors is that he specialized in general education.

He specialized: he gave his full attention, his best efforts, his full time work, his passionate concern, to the general education of students from whatever major and whatever field of expertise. General education in our time is widely neglected, disrespected, under-cultivated, sold for cheap, and lacking in professorial prestige. He went down to general education, and ascended, leading an army of undergrads to academic excellence. He has specialized in general education, and that has made all the difference.

Someone has said that a literary character is a figure who, once you have read about them, you can picture in multiple situations, and still have a good idea of how they’ll act. We all know that John Mark is a character. And we all know what to expect from him in his next role. We know he will be full of surprises. He’s predictably unpredictable.

To those of you at Houston Baptist, we who know him best say: Here comes John Mark Reynolds, the polytropic man with his Penelope, his fairest flower in all Christendom, his Hope, at his side. Get ready, Houston. It’s the same John Mark we’ve known here at Biola for these many years, with the same visionary gleam and the same appetite for construction. But now he’s got more experience, and you’re giving him more than a desk and a trashcan in the corner of the provost’s office. You’ve gone and given him the whole provost’s office.

John Mark, we’re all excited to see what you will do.

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