The Inside Story of Russia’s First Christian Liberal Arts University for The Review of Faith and International Affairs. After reading the book, I came to the conclusion that John Bernbaum should be celebrated as one of the great Christian creators. The book documents two decades of John’s work building the first Christian liberal arts college in post-communist Russia from scratch. When I worked for John for a year in Russia I had the privilege of seeing the fruits of his labor first hand—it was truly spectacular.
What does it take to build a liberal arts college from scratch? Nothing in Russia happens quickly or easily, especially if you do not give bribes and want to do things honestly. Building something requires relationships, the likes of which Bernbaum invested significant time and energy to build. From the start, he involved Russians and sought to give them leadership and ownership. Russian American Christian University (RACU) started with a board composed of four Russians and three Americans, and a majority of Russian faculty. Bernbaum also sought out supporters among the Russian federal and local governments as well as among leaders of other universities, such as Boris Yeltsin’s Minister of Education, Vladimir Kinelev.
Oddly and sadly, American support proved inconsistent. Christian educational organizations in particular provided lackluster support for Bernbaum’s efforts during key moments. Bernbaum is gracious, but I found myself frustrated throughout the book that both national groups and individual institutional leaders simply did not have a vision for helping our brothers and sisters around the globe. Why do American Christians, especially outside of business, often seem to neglect supporting and celebrating the creators?
In fact, I sometimes suspect that secular libertarians are better at celebrating creators than Christians. I can remember when I first started reading through Ayn Rand a decade ago. Although I thought she had an overly optimistic and simplistic view of men and women in power, what struck me most forcefully was her celebration and exaltation of those with big dreams, creativity, imaginations, and the passion to see a dream come to fruition. It felt like something lacking to all the Christian talks I heard throughout my life. I could understand why students were attracted to her writings; clearly she tapped into something deep within us all.
My earlier thoughts came back to me when I recently perused economist Tyler Cowan’s Big Business: A Love-Letter to an American Anti-Hero. Once again, here was a secular libertarian celebrating the creators that often serve as evil foils in movies: the big drug company, the big bank, the big oil company. Perhaps Christians also think, like Hollywood, the road to grand creative success must be filled with moral compromises and its owners inherently corrupt (with the notable exceptions of Chick-Fil-A and Chip and Joanna Gaines of Fixer Upper of course—author admission, my son works for Chick-fil-A and I live and work in the Waco area).
The celebration of creators among secular authors made me think about my own experience. I cannot recall ever hearing a talk in church celebrating the creators in the community as fulfilling the imago Dei: the business owners, the medical professionals who created practices, the artists, the engineers, the software designers and others. Occasionally, I might hear someone extol the usual Christian literary heroes such as C.S. Lewis, Madeline L’Engle, J.R.R. Tolkien, etc. Yet, I wish I would have heard within church that the inventor of basketball, James Naismith, invented the game as part of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) or that William G. Morgan, a friend of Naismith’s also invented volleyball as part of the YMCA as well. We never celebrated creators in all the various fields of life.
Yet, we know that God our creator and creator of universes and galaxies loves to create. Plus, since we are created in God’s image (Gen. 1:26-28), we too are made to create and not just create children. Where in the liturgies of the church do we celebrate the builders, the designers, the artists, and more? I have visited some churches where an artist sits on the side of the auditorium painting a picture during the sermon. That’s a start. But what about the person building a life insurance business?
Christian scholars could add to this initiative (for one example recently reviewed in CSR see here). Paul Johnson’s book, Creators, is one of the other books I have read that undertakes this celebratory work, but I still find Johnson’s list too narrow (focusing more on what are traditionally known as the creative arts). If anything, Christian scholars, and especially administrators, seem too concerned with the rules for creators. Of course, since Christians believe in human sinfulness, we know the creators need rules and boundaries, but quite often we overdo it.
One of the tragedies during my time in Russia was observing how Russia shackled the creators with bureaucracy and regulations to inhibit their work. In Bernbaum’s case, when he tried to purchase land for the Christian university, the government required the approval of thirty agencies in Moscow. A building permit process that usually took 18 months, took five years.
Unfortunately, Russia is particularly unkind to creators, whether scholarly or institutional. In the end, Bernbaum recounts the sad story of how RACU’s fortunes both rose and fell with the status of Russian-American relations and the Russian anti-creators. Although RACU was felled by the unrelenting pressure of those who sought to undermine this beacon of light, its story provides an inspiring lesson in Christian creativity, perseverance, and integrity in the midst of struggles. For those wanting to learn about Christian culture making and innovation in action, John Bernbaum’s story provides a fantastic example.
For CSR’s review of John Bernbaum’s book see: https://christianscholars.com/opening-the-red-door-the-inside-story-of-russias-first-christian-liberal-arts-university/