Goshen College president opens school year with call for Christ-centeredness

Goshen College President James E. Brenneman speaking Wednesday, Sept. 1 at the first all-campus convocation of the 2010-2011 academic year spoke on “Christ, the Core.”

Goshen College President James E. Brenneman opened the new school year by calling on members of the campus community to become a Christ-centered college defined by faithfulness, openness, reconciliation and unity.”If Christ-centeredness is first a modest and open conversation about Jesus Christ, to be Christ-centered must also be a threshold for reconciliation, not a wall of separation,” Brenneman said. “If the Apostle Paul is correct … that Christ is the great reconciler who breaks down walls of separation, then one of the most important criteria for assessing the authenticity of Christ-centered claims, is whether or not Christ has, indeed, broken down the walls of separation, the walls of segregation, walls between people who differ from each other, whether because of gender, social, racial, denominational or cultural factors of one kind or another.”

The degree to which one can claim to be “transformed by Christ,” Brenneman said, can easily be measured by assessing whether there are fewer barriers today between people who are different from each other in the community, in churches or at Goshen College.

“Can such a generous, contagious, inclusive ‘Christ-centeredness’ prevail on this campus? Can Christ really break down the walls that separate Mennonite from non-Mennonite students, staff and faculty?” Brenneman said.

“Can Christ break down the walls that separate us by racial, ethnic and cultural prejudices? Can Christ break down walls of separation between people from different social classes, philosophical and religious persuasions as well? I believe so. I have seen it happen here and elsewhere.”

Brenneman, speaking Wednesday, Sept. 1 at the first all-campus convocation of the 2010-2011 academic year, offered an inspiring and hopeful message during his address titled “Christ, the Core.” His 25-minute message, which contained a mixture of theology, scholarship and humor, was delivered to more than 800 people in the Church-Chapel.

Brenneman, a 1977 graduate of Goshen College who is starting his fifth year as president, opened by recounting his summer adventures and offering a warm welcome. He led the audience in cheering for new and returning students as well as faculty and staff members. He also expressed gratitude for the campus community and discussed the college’s five core values: Christ-centeredness, passionate learning, servant leadership, global citizenship and compassionate peacemaking.

The president’s main message focused on what it means to be a Christ-centered college. After offering introductory remarks, Brenneman paused while Associate Professor of Music Beverly Lapp played on the piano a medley of hymns about Jesus Christ accompanied by a slide show that featured a wide range of artistic depictions of Jesus — from the sacred to the silly.

Brenneman explained that there are as many different artistic representations of Jesus as there are people with imaginations, but it’s important not to turn Christ into a “ventriloquist’s dummy sitting on our laps, saying and doing Jesus-y things according to our whims and wishes.” The Bible can help provide some guidance as to the true nature of Jesus Christ, but even sacred texts have their limitations because of the differing accounts in the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John.

“From these same four Gospels and other biblical texts, other historians and readers have declared that Jesus was a Galilean peasant, or a middle-class artisan or an apocalyptic prophet, a radical political revolutionary, the ultimate pacifist, the end-time judge and warrior, the wise-sage, the son of God, the son of man, Immanuel, Redeemer, Good Shepherd, Lord, Savior, the new Adam, the King of the Jews, Prince of Peace, God in the flesh, and Christ the divine,Ó Brenneman said. ÒFor over 300 years, the church argued over the various Scriptural claims about Jesus with a relative consensus now articulated in several ancient creeds — though even then, differences remain.”

Given the variety of descriptions of Jesus Christ in Scripture alone, Brenneman said that the meaning of the phrase “Christ-centered,” needs to be generous, expansive, inclusive and diverse.

“To be Christ-centered is an open invitation to a conversation about Jesus Christ. If God allowed such diverse points of view in Holy Scripture as to who the real Jesus Christ was, apparently unity of perspective on this question was not the highest priority for God,” he said. “I, for one, find this Scriptural norm, to be absolutely delightful. Scripture models for us a diversity of opinion about who Christ was. Scripture models for us a truly intercultural, intertextual, dialogical, conversation about what it means to be ‘Christ-centered.'”

Brenneman said it’s important not to “tribalize Jesus” to conform to cultural values or to read Scripture selectively in accordance with one’s cultural heritage. Doing so can lead to “the Mennonite Jesus, the Catholic Jesus, the Ethiopic Jesus, the Eastern Orthodox Jesus, the Baptist Jesus, the Pentecostal Jesus, the Episcopal, Presbyterian or Lutheran Jesus, or the ‘evangelical’ Jesus or the charismatic or nondenominational Jesus.”

Still, Goshen College students do learn what it means to attend a Christ-centered college — influenced by other core values — in the context of a liberal arts education and exposure to people of other creeds, denominations, races, cultures and opinions, Brenneman said.

“Whatever particularities we claim to have that separate us from each other, it seems to me, that being transformed by Christ will play itself out in a quite generous orthodoxy that lowers the walls of separation to thresholds of reconciliation to step across,” he said.

To test that commitment, Brenneman invited Goshen’s students who come from non-Christian faith traditions to share their perspectives on Jesus Christ — and his followers.

“I wonder, for example, whether you see those of us who claim to be Christ-followers truly living the Christ-like life, as you perceive it to be?” he said. “I’m convinced that those of us who claim to be Christian, if we simply listened, really listened to those of you here from other than Christian faith or non-Christian faith traditions and made a list of your perspectives on what a ‘Christ-centered’ person or college might look like, we might be quite surprised. And then, if we tried to live the Christ-like life described on that list, I am willing to bet that we would be so transformed — so very close to the Christ portrayed in Holy Scripture — that a spiritual awakening, a transformation, might, indeed, spread across this campus and the whole Christian church. Will you help hold us accountable to our claims?”

Brenneman concluded by challenging audience members to become “transformed by Christ” – the Campus Ministries theme for the school year – and be open to reinventing their lives.

“Transformation reshapes caterpillars into butterflies. It converts hell into heaven, changes what is meant for evil into good, turns sinners into saints, and breaks down ancient tribal, cultural, racial, social, and religious walls of separation to mere thresholds of distinction. Transformation requires a rewrite of our stories into a whole new story, little by little, peace by peace,” he said. “I invite you to join me and countless other Goshen College sisters and brothers across time and space to write an exciting new chapter in the transforming story of Goshen College.”

After Brenneman’s remarks, Scott Hochstetler, Assistant Professor of Music, led the audience in singing the Alma Mater. After a tentative start, first-year students joined other students, faculty and staff in filling the Church-Chapel with song.

Afterward, and in what has become a nine-year tradition, the Goshen College “Tunnel of Welcome” or “Applause Avenue” formed outside the church, in two lines that eventually converged. Faculty, staff and students walked past their peers to sustained applause, and then joined and extended the lines for seniors, juniors, sophomores and first-year students to pass by. The applause of welcome continued until the Church-Chapel emptied and the line stretched into Schrock Plaza.

–Written by Richard R. Aguirre

Editors: For more information about this release, to arrange an interview or request a photo, contact Goshen College News Bureau Director Jodi H. Beyeler at (574) 535-7572 or jodihb@goshen.edu.


Goshen College, established in 1894, is a residential Christian liberal arts college rooted in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition. The college’s Christ-centered core values – passionate learning, global citizenship, compassionate peacemaking and servant-leadership – prepare students as leaders for the church and world. Recognized for its unique Study-Service Term program, Goshen has earned citations of excellence in Barron’s Best Buys in Education, “Colleges of Distinction,” “Making a Difference College Guide” and U.S. News & World Report’s “America’s Best Colleges” edition, which named Goshen a “least debt college.” Visit www.goshen.edu.