A large life in Christian education

farewell1I do not know if there are any religion writers left at the Los Angeles Times, but I hope that there is someone there on the beat. Someone needs to write a news feature about the death of one of the most interesting Christian educators of the late 20th century. Clyde Cook, the recently retired president of Biola University, died Friday night at the age of 73 in his study at home. This may sound strange, but it seemed like Cook was older than 73. That is not a comment about a lack of drive or energy. I meant that as a compliment, because Cook has been a major player in Christian education for many, many years. This is one of those big men that you have trouble imagining being gone.

I honestly expected to see a major obituary about him in today's Los Angeles Times, but, alas, it seems that he may not have been on the newspaper's radar screen. Trust me, there's a lot of story to write. Check out the opening paragraphs of the school's official Cook bio:

Dr. Clyde Cook served as Biola University's president for 25 years, from 1982 to 2007, with a unique background as an educator, administrator and fourth-generation missionary. Both his great-grandparents and grandparents were missionaries to China, and his mother followed in their footsteps. While traveling there by ship, she met her future husband, an officer on the ship, and a year later was married to this Christian sea captain from Scotland.

Born in Hong Kong, the fourth of six children, Clyde was faced with adversity at an early age when the Cook family was imprisoned in three different concentration camps during World War II. In 1942, by God's grace they were reunited in South Africa.

You can even catch a glimpse of Cook's influence in Christian-college circles by reading between some of the lines in a New York Times story about growing pains at Biola.

Now remember, Biola is a solidly evangelical school that has grown into the modern era with few of the open battles -- repeat, "few" and "open" -- that are so common in higher education of any brand. It also helps to know that the history of the old Bible Institute of Los Angeles is intertwined with the publication of "The Fundamentals," pamphlets at the heart of the original, ecumenical movement made up of believers who became known as "fundamentalists." Here is an important piece of that 2004 Times feature by Samantha M. Shapiro:

Biola, whose 95-acre campus is in La Mirada, 20 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles, is part of the fast-expanding movement of ''Christ centered'' colleges -- schools that are not loosely affiliated with a church, like Notre Dame or Southern Methodist University, but that integrate Christianity into all aspects of the curriculum and require faculty members, and sometimes students, to sign a pledge of faith in Jesus Christ. The 102 American schools in the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (many of which, like Biola, are nondenominational) represent just 1.5 percent of the country's total college population, but in the last decade their enrollment has increased 67 percent, compared with an average increase of just 2 percent for American colleges and universities as a whole. ...

When I spoke with Clyde Cook, Biola's genial president, he explained that the university is as committed as ever to the principles articulated in ''The Fundamentals,'' although, he said, ''we've found different and more effective ways to deliver those truths.'' For one thing, Cook said, while ''indoctrination'' is ''still valuable,'' the school thinks it is preferable to have students internalize Christian truths through a process of questioning. Cook said he still sees the school's mission as preparing its 5,000 undergraduate and graduate students to spread the Gospel, to argue for Christianity against the tenets of secularism and of other religions. But graduates are no longer necessarily supposed to preach from the pulpit. Instead, Cook said, Biola now aspires ''to incarnate those truths in the professions -- in business, nursing, movies, government.'' Students take seminars in which they discuss how to integrate their academic studies with a ''Christian worldview.'' Where Biola once considered certain disciplines, like philosophy, to be irrelevant to Christians, these days it places graduates in top philosophy Ph.D. programs, hoping they will learn to argue in sophisticated secular terms, for example, on behalf of the rights of fetuses.

Over the last 50 years, evangelical Christianity in the United States has moved away from fundamentalism, which is still dedicated to the idea of separation from an ungodly world. Evangelicals believe that the way to change culture is to participate in it, albeit with caution. Particularly in the last decade, as the movement has matured, intellectual institutions -- journals, scholarly presses and advanced academic work -- have quietly budded within evangelical circles. Biola's evolution from a Bible college to an accredited liberal-arts university offering advanced degrees is just one manifestation of this change.

clydebobblelLike I said, Cook lived a large life and fought to build a Christian campus in a setting radically different from the norm, by which I mean a remote town or distant suburb. There is nothing small or safe about greater Los Angeles.

If you want to know more about Cook, you should visit a weblog created by journalism students at Biola. Check out the post called "Mr. Biola," written by a former student of the Washington Journalism Center (the journalism-semester program I lead here in another large American city). Rebecca Pearsey's post ends with an encounter between a new Biola student and Cook, on the day of the inauguration of the school's new leader.

Soon they were talking of everything from surfing in California to Biola's math program. ... The young man introduced his father and uncle and they began to talk. Between bouts about the different programs and people at Biola, Dr. Cook made sure to tell how much he loved his school.

"Biola's a wonderful school," he would say every chance he got. The employees kept walking by. Everyone called to him by name and he answered them by name in return. Finally the parents caught on that whoever this guy in a suit was, a lot of people loved him.

"So are you a professor here?" they asked.

"Oh no," said Dr. Cook. "I'm retired."

I wanted to speak up and declare that no in fact, they were talking to Mr. Biola himself. But his last line kept me silent as I realized how much it said about this man.

There's a story here. I hope someone at the Los Angeles Times writes it.

Photos: Biola University home page.

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