Higher Learning

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PHOTOGRAPHS FOR TIME BY LAURA KLEINHENZ

SPIRITED PARTICIPATION: APUís mandatory morning chapel services are part revival, part pep rally

If it weren't for the guy in the Kelly green trucker hat emblazoned JESUS IS MY HOMEBOY and the Bibles poking out of several backpacks, this Friday morning cell-biology class could be at any sun-soaked California college. At least until the day's lecture turns to evolution. "Darwin wasn't necessarily a God hater," says Assistant Professor Jon Milhon, in between slides of mitochondria. "You don't have to agree with his theory. I personally don't. But the man wasn't an idiot."

Milhon is a biologist at Azusa Pacific University (A.P.U.), the U.S.'s second largest evangelical Christian college, with 8,200 students attending its palm-tree-lined campus in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, north of Los Angeles, and seven satellite locations. Enrollment in the nation's 104 "intentionally Christ-centered colleges," as the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities calls them, has risen 27% since 1997. That's more than three times as fast as the growth at all four-year schools. A.P.U. is booming — its student population is up 53% over the same period — and it is becoming a model for how a Christian college can reinvent itself in a modern age. The U.S.'s galloping evangelical movement is fueling part of this growth, but so is a population of young adults craving an active experience with God and spirituality. As it expands, A.P.U. is challenging the stereotypes of evangelical colleges as weak academically and ultraconservative socially. Can an institution that doubts Darwin and mandates chapel attendance provide an education the mainstream world respects? God willing, say students and faculty at A.P.U.


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"Young people want to know something bigger than themselves," says senior Marcus Robinson, 24, an art major from Pomona, Calif. Robinson describes himself as "feeling out this whole God thing," when he applied to A.P.U. at his pastor's urging. Like Robinson, most college students are pondering spirituality, according to a study under way at the University of California, Los Angeles. More than three-quarters of college juniors told researchers they discuss religion and spirituality with friends, and 68% said they are "feeling unsettled about spiritual matters." But 62% said their professors never encourage classroom discussions of religion or spirituality. "There's a [gap] between the degree of interest in these issues that young people display and the extent to which colleges inspire students to explore them," says Alexander Astin, director of UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute.

At A.P.U., professors invoke religion not just in required theology courses, but in biology and English as well. Carole Lambert, an English professor and Fulbright scholar who came to A.P.U. from the University of California, Berkeley, says she introduces spirituality into classroom discussions, telling her students when reading books about war, for example, that she is a pacifist because of how she interprets the Scriptures. Professors at A.P.U. must sign a pledge affirming that they "believe the Bible to be the inspired, the only infallible, authoritative word of God" to work at the college, a requirement gladly accepted by the faculty, many of whom say they were tired of teaching "half-truths" at secular colleges and feel relieved to "come out of the closet" as Christians. The oath policy has cost the school in dealings with the outside world, including the loss of a $3.4 million government contract to run an early-education program last fall. But it also opens A.P.U. to the world of rich and dedicated Christians, who in just the past year helped boost the school's donations 50%, to $12 million. At a time when President George W. Bush is trumpeting new faith-based initiatives, schools like A.P.U. seem poised to benefit.

Yet while its status as a Christian college frees A.P.U.'s students and faculty to explore spiritual issues and enjoy the largesse of the broader community of evangelical Christians, it can also proscribe classroom debate. "I was trying to ask the professor in my foundations-of-ministry class if he thought creation could be taken figuratively," says senior Travis Taylor, 21, a math major who attended a Christian high school in Temecula, Calif. "He said that was a dangerous way of looking at things. What's dangerous about asking a question?" Not a thing, most professors would say, and most at A.P.U. do. While the school's theology professors teach the creation story, its scientists also teach evolution "as a theory," says Milhon. "It's important that students speak the language of evolution. I don't say what they should believe." Nonetheless, Taylor's experience reflects the school's roots as the first Bible college on the West Coast, founded in 1899 as a training school for Christian workers. When Lambert arrived in 1986, the campus still felt more like a revival tent than an institution of higher learning. "We used to call it Camp Azusa," Lambert says. "There was lots of singing. We were not in a scholarly mode."

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