In the common parlance, I am an alumnus of the Institute. But the program has dubbed me, and the rest of the graduates, Perpetual Members. That may tell you as much as anything about the sort of place it is: they’re brash enough to claim they’re building lifelong learners, and unabashed in giving graduates a status that fits it. Torrey is a little odd like that, but odd in a classical and awesome sort of way, not the faux hipster way. The program wears its idiosncrycies proudly, not ironically, which makes its draw a bit tough for outsiders to understand. And all that is a direct reflection of its leader, John Mark Reynolds.
Because of that, it’s impossible for this Perpetual Member to have anything but mixed emotions about the news. John Mark has been a friend and supporter, a silent godfather to this blog (it was he who introduced the platform to us), and a mentor. He once delivered one of the best wedding homilies I have ever heard, even if it happened to be about my wife and me. In short, I know well the sort of treasure that HBU is getting.
I do confess, though: the thought of John Mark being anywhere besides the program that he founded is about as plausible as colonizing the moon. It will settle in, no doubt, and he will go on to have a considerable impact for the kingdom at Houston Baptist. But as his friend, as his student, he will ever and always be the founder of a program that I have justly called the most invigorating academic environment in Christian higher education. And for some reason, I doubt John Mark will mind that: Torrey Honors’ existence would, after all, count as a legacy for most men’s careers. John Mark built it in only half of his.
Torrey itself will doubtlessly continue to motor on ahead with new leadership. In many ways, the quality of the faculty that John Mark collected around him there is one of the best testaments to his abilities, and one of the best indicators of his future success as Provost. Everyone knows of my undying admiration for Fred Sanders. But Matt Jenson is also one of the best young thinkers I know, Paul Spears is a master in the classroom, Joe Henderson is a hidden gem, and I haven’t even gotten to my friends Melissa Schubert, Greg Peters, and…you get the point. It’s a deep pool, and I’d still send my kid there before anywhere else.
While I’m saddened by the news, then, I’m eager to see the good that is to come for Torrey. A voice and presence like John Mark’s is irreplacable, a word I do not use unadvisedly. But as sometimes happens when charismatic figures leave, the new dynamic brings other voices to the forefront and a different goodness emerges. As in when “the fourth” is absent at the opening of Plato’s Timaeus. Socrates gets it wrong that the remaining interlocutors can replace him: but the dialogue wouldn’t have gone forward in quite the same way if he was there. Both would be good, but goods with different textures.
And yes, I just used Plato there. How better to honor the man who wrote his dissertation on the book? Perhaps by using an analogy from the other direction, Michael Scott and The Office. The show hasn’t quite recovered its original glory, but the dynamic between Dwight and Jim and Andy has emerged nicely, and given the show a goodness all of its own.
Anyone who knows John Mark knows that this post could only be more befitting him if I moved over to Disney and threw in a little about the Russian revolution. (Let the Torrey student understand.)
But that’s just the sort of fellow that John Mark is–one moment, you’re toiling with the subtleties of Homeric interpretation, and the next you’re careening about trying to hammer out the nuances of Star Trek, or whatever the latest pop-culture fascination happens to be. And somehow, it all works. He may be Provost, but if Houston Baptist doesn’t demand that John Mark teach at least one class, well, then I for one question their otherwise unassailable judgment in their choice.
All that said, the road ahead for Biola is admittedly more difficult in light of the change. The new Center for Christian Thought is a good thing, and I’m excited for the prospects that it represents for my alma mater. But increasing pressure from online programs means that faculty and students’ experience will only grow in importance for schools that are charging $30,000 a year (and more!). My hope is that losing John Mark will spur Biola on to redouble its efforts at cultivating and retaining faculty members who are committed not only to the work of scholarship, but the formation of students and the articulation of Christian principles in public.
But the prospects for Christian higher education more generally just brightened up a bit. Pairing John Mark Reynolds with Robert Sloan is almost like Lebron joining up with Dwayne Wade: even if you’re a Cavs fan, you know deep down that it’s going to be pretty good basketball. And when it comes to Christian higher education, no rose might smell quite as nice as Torrey, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t let the rest of the thousand flowers bloom. As Houston Baptist continues to expand and try to position itself as a premier institution, so much the better for the Kingdom and the rest of us. And I have no doubt John Mark will play an instrumental role in making that happen.
And so tonight I look forward to the good that is to come at both Torrey and Houston Baptist while pausing to reflect with gratitude for all that John Mark has meant to Torrey, and to me. There are few individuals whose lives have left a deeper stamp on my own than his, and few seasons of my life that were more profoundly influential than my time at Torrey.
But his greatest contribution was ever and always to point us all beyond himself, backwards to the saints and giants whose voices shaped his own and upwards like Socrates to the Good, the True, and the Beautiful in the face of Jesus Christ.
And for those of us within the Torrey community who, like me, are saddened by the news, relentlessly continuing that pursuit while cheerfully facing the future is the best and most effective way to express our gratitude for all that John Mark has done for us. For we have much to hope for, and the road that leads further up and further in is marked with the boundless and everlasting joys of friendship and fellowship that distance simply cannot take away.
*If anyone is wondering how I wrote the post so fast, well, I caught wind of the announcement earlier today and waited until John Mark had written his.