Cornerstone University’s ICCE wants students culturally engaged
by Ryan Wenger
Special to The Herald
Imagine a world where Christian college students don’t know what the Arab Spring is, or what the Occupy Wall Street protesters are protesting. That world is here, says Matt Bonzo, professor of philosophy at Cornerstone University.
Bonzo is the head of CU’s Institute for Christianity and Cultural Engagement. The purpose of the ICCE (pronounced “icky” by Bonzo) is to make CU a place where students and professors can hospitably listen to, understand and learn from their global, non-Christian neighbors, Bonzo says.
So what’s his message for Christian college students? “WAKE UP!” the burly Bonzo shouts, in his deep, raspy voice.
It’s easy to be intimidated by his intensity, and with good reason. He has been known to go as far as throwing a podium in frustration during a class to make his point.
“In an increasingly globalized world, it’s irresponsible for students in Christian higher education to stay disengaged from the culture that surrounds them,” Bonzo says.
The only official member of the ICCE staff is Bonzo, who is teaching half the normal course load in order to focus on the ICCE, but other professors, such as Professor of English Michael Stevens, and several student volunteers help him.
“I think the typical CU student – and this is, of course, a generalization, so take it for what it’s worth – is cut off from a lot of important discussions and events happening in our world like real artistic engagement and things like Occupy Wall Street,” says Dean Dettloff, one of the ICCE’s student volunteers. “The conference and panels have tried to address these questions, and we have had surprisingly large turnouts.”
The process of creating the ICCE was initiated two years ago by the then-new CU president, Joe Stowell. At first titled the “Cornerstone Project,” the process of creating the ICCE was begun because the old evangelical models of engagement are being questioned, Bonzo says.
“We need to move beyond charity to acts of justice,” he says. It’s about reviewing the methodology the Christian church has used, not the message of salvation, Stowell says. “How do we do missions today in a successful way?”
Stowell’s ultimate goal, he says, is to graduate students who are equipped to influence and engage this world’s cultures. Just as Jesus came to influence the world for his father, we have to influence the world for him, Stowell says. Stowell describes this goal as CU’s ethos.
“At the end of the day, the ICCE is the heart of what we’re doing,” he says. “I’m very excited about this.” “We needed to have something to make it intentional,” Stowell says. “It needed to be ‘owned’ somewhere, by someone.”
There isn’t yet one particular new model of engagement that the ICCE is utilizing, Bonzo said. Figuring that out is part of the ICCE’s mission. But the main thrust of the institute’s mission is less theoretical and more practical. The ICCE plans to send students and faculty to study abroad, conduct faculty workshops, hold conferences, facilitate reading groups and host speakers to get both students and faculty more engaged with culture.
The ICCE is able to tackle all of this because of a $250,000 grant. The ICCE’s largest event so far has been the Creativity and Wisdom Conference, which was designed to coincide with Grand Rapids’ ArtPrize competition, a gigantic art showcase held throughout downtown Grand Rapids and culminating in large cash prizes for several winners, including a $250,000 top prize in 2011.
The event, in its third year, drew hundreds of thousands of visitors to Grand Rapids, each of whom is able to vote on pieces, and hundreds of artists submitted their work for consideration. Participants in the conference included people like Rick DeVos, the ArtPrize founder, Christian singer-songwriter Michael Card, and artist Bette Dickinson, who submitted a set of paintings to Art- Prize.
“(The conference) was definitely a step in the right direction,” Dickinson says.
The more that Christian universities are engaged with and supportive of art and artists, the better, she says. Dickinson’s ArtPrize entry, “What Breathes Beneath Our Story,” was originally created on a commission for Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, a division of CU. The piece represents the entirety of God’s plan, from creation to fall to redemption to consummation. Dickinson is also involved in Intervarsity Christian Fellowship on the campus of Western Michigan University, mentoring artists to integrate their faith and art. Dickinson said there is a growing movement of the church partnering with artists.
“In our post-modern world, the value of art is going up,” she said.
But the ICCE is interested in more than just art. Bonzo says the ICCE will attempt to host two or three Christian leaders from around the world to listen to what issues they see the church facing within their particular contexts.
The ICCE also wants to give direction to the academic studies, including research and published work, of students and faculty members. One way this has been attempted already is the adoption of a campus question, which professors are encouraged to reference in their class work and assignments.
During the fall semester, it was about food. Long-term, encouraging scholarship will include getting student and faculty articles published, Bonzo says, particularly about cultural engagement. Other future projects include a series of dinner panels focusing on issues like sex trafficking, racial discrimination in the church and poverty.
“Many people involved in the Institute from students to faculty have been trying to deal with different aspects of culture, including aesthetics, politics, religion, science and much more,” Dettloff says. “We’re hoping that this will trickle down into campus life a bit more tangibly. ICCE does not exist to simply come up with new things Christians can do to become more marketable or appealing to people outside of Christianity or CU.”
Effectively engaging with culture can be more difficult for people within the Christian college environment, Card says.
“I was recently at a Christian school, which I’ll leave unnamed, with 900 students. Only 90 of them were black,” Card says. “It’s hard to talk about racial reconciliation in that setting. “But just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it’s bad,” he says. Christian colleges just have to be more intentional about cultural engagement, he says. “Part of it is exposing students to cultural realities,” Stowell says.
He says there are many cultures out there, from urban culture to business culture, even to Grand Rapids’ Dutch culture.
“So how do we get students to engage? They have to learn to engage the culture they’re in,” Stowell says.
That starts with students learning the fundamental principles of cultural engagement, he says. Card says the best way for anyone to engage with the culture around them is to “incarnate” their beliefs.
“I don’t think people get things until they see them lived out,” he says. “It’s not just engaging the culture, it’s influencing it with the values of Christ so that it flourishes because our students are there,” Stowell says.
Another school Card visited this year was situated in the middle of a ghetto. He says he expected the school to have all sorts of engagement programs, but no one ever engaged with the people in the ghetto – they hadn’t even thought of it.
“(Christian colleges) should be taking leadership,” Card says, but instead many of them choose to cut themselves off.
“CU desperately needs students who are working toward something beyond degrees and grades, and the world even more desperately needs graduates from Christian institutions that form their students to embody God’s Kingdom on earth,” Dettloff says. “This can only happen if students are willing to join in.”