Weaving through the narrow streets of lower Manhattan, day traders rush to Wall Street for the New York Stock Exchange, tourists snap photos at the One World Trade Center, and passersby gaze in awe of the historic Trinity Church, but this is New York City — no one stands in place for long. A glance at the soaring Manhattan skyline only serves as a reminder you’ve arrived. As you pass through a sea of people, you’re in the most innovative timeline, the city fashioning the spirit of the age.
But standing out among the masses, as if cut from the casting of Where’s Waldo, is a bespectacled and bowtied college president who represents even by his impeccable fashion the spirit and ideas of a different age. In a metropolis on the brink of tomorrow, Greg Thornbury is a countercultural time lord, beckoning you to look beyond the fluidity of the present and explore the wisdom of the past.
“I want to be so formal as to be a little bit jarring to people,” Thornbury said in an interview with Southern Seminary Magazine. “You almost need to be in costume to remind people that perhaps there’s something else to life — it gets them out of that daily routine.”
“You almost need to be in costume to remind people that perhaps there’s something else to life — it gets them out of that daily routine.”
His three-piece suits and endless combinations of bow ties are not the random permutations of the eccentric president of The King’s College in the financial district of Manhattan. If his outward appearance is striking to his fellow subway passengers — who sometimes praise his attire and compare him to his childhood hero Doctor Who — his evangelical convictions are “far out.”
“Your average New Yorker is at worst bemused and at best intrigued by what this looks like,” Thornbury said, referring to his beliefs. “But challenges are the same things as opportunities.”
It’s an opportunity Thornbury first seized in 2013, when he assumed the presidency of New York City’s lone Christian liberal arts college after the controversial tenure of conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza. It was a sort of cultural homecoming for the 45-year-old scholar, who grew up in Pennsylvania before moving to Louisville, Kentucky, in 1993 and spending most of the next two decades in the American South.
The King’s College, founded in 1938, aims to “prepare students for careers in which they will help to shape and eventually to lead strategic private and public institutions,” according to its website. While Christian higher education faces a host of challenges — from the threat of federal overreach on LGBT issues to concerns about mounting student debt — King’s is a beacon of truth in Babylon, paving the future by influencing the heart of American culture.
In The Shadow of Genius
The “rocker theologian,” as his wife, Kimberly, calls him, knows a thing or two about being the new front man in a broken system. A year after he arrived at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Thornbury served as the first research assistant to R. Albert Mohler Jr. in the tumultuous early years of his presidency.
The student vigils and sit-ins at Southern Seminary following the resignation in 1994 of Molly Marshall and the School of Social Work controversy a year later offered Thornbury a front-row seat to academic leadership under pressure. Thornbury recalls Mohler’s “clarity and kindness” when student protesters would follow him around singing “We Shall Overcome” — even after he ordered pizzas for the sit-in outside his office — and on the day known now as “Black Wednesday” when the faculty gave Mohler a vote of no confidence because of his complementarian conviction for new hires.
“The thing that I learned from the ‘Dr. Mohler Leadership School’ was if you have something to confess it tells you how to lead,” said Thornbury, who served as the research assistant until 1998 and completed his Ph.D. under Mohler. “The leadership is entailed in the doctrine itself.”
He wasn’t the only one who prepared for academic leadership while at Southern Seminary. His wife, Kimberly, the daughter of a college president herself, secured a job in student development at the seminary in 1994 as she was beginning her master’s at the University of Louisville. By the time she was working on her Ph.D. in Higher Education, Kimberly was the director of Student Life.
“The thing that I learned from the ‘Dr. Mohler Leadership School’ was if you have something to confess it tells you how to lead.”
The Thornburys followed David Dockery to Union University in Jackson, Tennessee, three years after Southern’s former School of Theology dean was elected president of the college. Greg began teaching philosophy in 1998 and was appointed founding dean of Union’s School of Theology in 2006. Kimberly served for 15 years as senior vice president for Student Services and dean of Student Life. At Union, they served under Dockery as he reversed some of the same theological drifts at Southern and engineered a dramatic increase in Union’s enrollment.
“Dr. Mohler and Dr. Dockery are geniuses of higher education and transformational leaders,” said Kimberly, who now serves as King’s vice president. “You can’t take for granted what a blessing it is to watch their leadership every day. It was modeled well for me how to do organizational change.”
But maybe the most important aspect of Mohler’s leadership Greg Thornbury seeks to emulate is the gregarious learning necessary for broad cultural engagement. As he leads a school committed to training students for influence in the sectors of finance, politics, and the arts, Thornbury recognizes the importance of drawing from a wide array of disciplines.
“I would say I learned that from Al Mohler. He knew as much about the wisdom of the Babylonians as he did about systematic theology,” Thornbury said, alluding to Daniel 1:4.
The Rocker Theologian
He’s as animated in an interview as he is in the lecture hall, where his teaching is coupled with the fervent passion of true love. His contagious affection for learning incites a listening ear whether his audience is a classroom of philosophy students or an auditorium at a Doctor Who fan convention, his connections between faith and science fiction making him an intriguing voice even for skeptics of the Christian faith.
His commanding stage presence began early in life as he explored his musical talents with his sister. Having already established his reputation as a guitarist and vocalist in rock bands and worship groups, Thornbury now immerses himself in studying the arts and is writing a book on the late CCM rocker Larry Norman.
“I would say front men in bands are leaders,” Thornbury said, reflecting on his various stints in rock bands. “Mick Jagger runs a business. The business is called the Rolling Stones. There’s something about standing up in front of people with a guitar and a mic in front of you and having to perform and not look ridiculous that prepares you for leadership.”
Thornbury isn’t merely what The American Spectator called the nation’s “first hipster college president,” but he is pioneering solutions for potential student loan and debt crises, the decreasing value of college education, and threats from accrediting bodies on gender and sexuality conformity. As Christian colleges prepare for challenges to their tax exempt status and federal student financial aid eligibility, Thornbury says he is working closely with public interest law firms like Alliance Defending Freedom and the Beckett Fund to find future alternatives.
More importantly, Thornbury is changing the landscape of Christian higher education as he shapes students to be culture-makers in spheres of influence. Imbuing students with a Christian worldview and mobilizing them to make serious contributions in politics, business, and entertainment is the “secret sauce” of King’s, Thornbury says.
“Living a life worthy of one’s calling from God is something that you can actually teach,” Thornbury said. “When you look at young alumni of King’s, there’s a stamp of the institution on them, there’s a certain — not only professionalism and a snap, crackle, and pop about the way they present themselves — but I think that there’s a different character to them.”
Breaking the conventions of Christian universities, King’s does not employ a chaplain or hold chapel services. Not only does Thornbury say it’s because his faculty serve as spiritual advisers but ultimately because the very aim of the school is for students not to compartmentalize their faith and vocation.
King’s instills this in students with its house system, an intellectual alternative to Greek life where student groups bear names like Reagan, Churchill, Bonhoeffer, or Thatcher as they build friendships and engage in extracurricular activities. Thornbury notes a recent excursion of the House of Reagan to counteract nearby Occupy Wall Street protesters. Carrying a cardboard cutout of their namesake, King’s students attempted a dialogue with the 99-percenters, who instead of rebutting their arguments chased the students away and ripped the 40th president’s replica apart. That’s because the political left wants silence, Thornbury says, and it proves the increasing relevance of a school like King’s in today’s divisive society.
“Living a life worthy of one’s calling from God is something that you can actually teach.”
Students at King’s also submit to a dress code, wearing business casual 8:30 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. and for all class sessions. That’s not, as one may assume, Thornbury’s invention but a school tradition dating back to its founding.
“We’re trying to teach students at King’s to be very excellent at what they do — show up on time, do your best work, understand how to have good ideas and say them winsomely,” Kimberly Thornbury said.
The Wisdom of the Babylonians
“It’s very hard to be cultural leaders when you’re not in Babylon,” Greg Thornbury said about the importance of living in Manhattan. Although his own daily routines vary, Thornbury nearly always finds himself among culture-makers, whether it’s a social gathering with prominent comedians or a forum with tech moguls.
His students at The King’s College say Thornbury’s model for cultural engagement has “enriched” their own “personal and intellectual development” and inspired them as they pursue positions of influence in New York City.
“With President Thornbury you see a firm command of the truths of Christianity,” said King’s junior Patrick Thomas. A Politics, Philosophy, and Economics major, Thomas described Thornbury as “an individual who can make a persuasive argument for the importance of the institutions of Western society, why we need to be sending men and women of virtue and morality into these institutions to improve them and influence how they operate.”
Thomas, of Opelika, Alabama, serves as the president of the House of Reagan, the group of students who attempted to debate Occupy protesters in 2015. Before students practice cultural engagement, Thomas noted, King’s equips them with a framework of how to think. While students are developing persuasive writing and argumentation, the school connects them to internships throughout the city so they can implement lessons from the classroom.
Elle Rogers, a freshman from Indianapolis, said King’s allows her to pursue the “intersecting ideas” of political and economic policy and the arts. As an intern for The Eric Metaxas Show, Rogers says she learns from both Thornbury and cultural commentator Eric Metaxas the priority of the Christian mission for seeking the welfare of the city.
“Dr. Thornbury sees the school as an opportunity for him to serve the student body and to show us what it means to be a servant leader,” said Rogers, of the House of Margaret Thatcher. “And I think his vision is first and foremost making us members of the body of Christ to seek the welfare of the city, before any political ideology even comes into play, before any other affiliations, putting our mission first.”
Although Rogers said the transition from Indiana to New York City was “stressful” because it can “brutalize you sometimes,” she describes the mission of King’s and its location as inseparable. The challenges of the city are also reflected in the classroom, where she’s marveled at the privilege of reading Aristotle and Plato — an assignment rarely offered anywhere else.
“King’s teaches you to think about hard issues deeply and concretely, but then it teaches you to take the issues you are learning about and then make a case for them, make a case for what you believe, and explain that to others so that you can care about their good and about the betterment of their own souls,” Rogers said.
Thornbury draws a comparison between the influence his students and alumni are beginning to have in America’s cultural capital and the biblical example of the prophet Daniel and his friends, who were “skilled in the wisdom of the Babylonians.”
“You have people on the ground in the institutions that shape culture and over time, if they are well-prepared, they will rise in position, stature, and leadership,” Thornbury said.
S. Craig Sanders is the managing editor of Southern Seminary Magazine.