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REVIEW: Books detail histories of Christian schools

Tertullian once famously asked, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” noting the apparent divide between academics and the church.
According to two distinguished authors from two universities associated with Churches of Christ, Tertullian’s question is no easier to answer nearly two millennia later.
In their books “The Malibu Miracle” and “Soaring On Wings Like Eagles: A History of Oklahoma Christian University” William S. Banowsky and Stafford North show their universities struggling, at key points in their histories, with Tertullian’s query.
More often than not, this paradox is at the heart of the significant decisions and central conflicts that play out in the pages of the two books.
Banowsky, who was president and then chancellor at Pepperdine during the college’s attainment of university status and move from southwest Los Angeles to Malibu, is especially well placed to write his account. He was an insider during arguably the most critical period of Pepperdine’s existence, in the chaotic 1960s, when the college had to make difficult decisions about leaving its deteriorating Los Angeles neighborhood.
Naturally, his book focuses mostly on that era of the university’s history and he is remarkably frank in showing a college wrestling not only with where it would be located but also with who it would be.
Banowsky cites founder George Pepperdine’s background in non-institutional churches, and his “contempt for church-related colleges,” as the “colossal paradox in Pepperdine’s DNA.”  Banowsky shows that Pepperdine envisioned a college that would train young men and women from Churches of Christ in a Christian environment but would scrupulously avoid an official church relationship.
This paradox affected the way Pepperdine administrators responded to external and internal accusations that “the Malibu Miracle” was an abandonment of the school’s “Christian mission” in the inner city of Los Angeles. It also allowed room for the political leanings of wealthy donors to imprint their image on the University that would emerge from the turmoil of the 1960s and 70s.
North, a longtime faculty member at Oklahoma Christian, acknowledges the same ambiguity in his book. While Banowsky’s work is a memoir, written in the personal, reflective style of someone who was there, North’s work is a much more encyclopedic review of OC’s history. Nevertheless, North includes some intriguing detail on many of the most formative events in the university’s history.
One such event is a resolution passed at an early board of trustees meeting, where it was agreed that the college “should be kept separate and apart from the church” and that “no funds shall be accepted from any congregation of the Lord’s church.” Of course, the board was to be formed exclusively of members of Churches of Christ, and funds could be solicited from individuals in those churches.
Both authors show how ambiguity in the relationship between church and university may have left room for other influences.
Banowsky, in particular, makes no apologies for the political philosophies and connections that have characterized Pepperdine from the beginning and helped to make the “Malibu miracle” possible. The friendships of former President Gerald Ford and especially former California Governor and later President Ronald Reagan are shown to be pivotal in the relocation to Malibu.
Similarly, North credits President James O. Baird’s establishment of a “Citizenship Training Center” in 1959 with considerably broadening the appeal of Oklahoma Christian among prospective donors in conservative political circles. Three decades later, Oklahoma Christian was a stop on President George H.W. Bush’s campaign trail, and a few years after that he appeared on campus again headlining a Republican political rally. Though by that time the university had presumably dropped their ambivalence about donations from churches, an association with conservative political interests had been deeply stamped on its identity.
Both authors describe sit-ins by African-American students on their campuses within a few years of one another in the 60s. Baird’s and Banowsky’s inflexible handling of the demonstrations illustrates the effects of this ambiguity in the schools’ identities.
Banowsky is frank about his concern that the sit-ins would have a “disastrous impact” on Pepperdine’s “‘law and order’ supporters” during the construction of the Malibu facility. While, to his credit, he handled the sit-in without police involvement or violence, his memoir shows no consciousness that university policies or the pending move to Malibu might have given the students legitimate cause for dissatisfaction.
Recent stories in The Christian Chronicle about the changing student bodies of many of the colleges and universities that have traditionally been “ours” might suggest that it is time to revisit the questions again of who these universities are and what their relationship to the church is.
Both of these authors do their readers the great service of opening the institutions for which they’ve lived, and even their own actions, to the searching gaze of history. In doing so, they allow colleges and universities associated with Churches of Christ, along with their supporters and detractors, to consider in our day what Athens and Jerusalem have to do with one another.
PATRICK ODUM is a minister for the Northwest Church of Christ in Chicago. He is a graduate of Harding University and North Park Theological Seminary.

  • Feedback
    Odum’s review raises fair questions over the issue of social tensions that existed during that period of time in Los Angeles and the role it played in setting the stage for the move to Malibu. This is a complex story—one that has sparked healthy hallway conversations all over Pepperdine. The Malibu Miracle is a page turner with dozens of photos.
    Rick Gibson
    University Church of Christ
    Malibu, CA
    August, 18 2010

Filed under: Reviews Staff Reports

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