Tuesday, February 18, 2014

A Fundamentalist at Bob Jones University - Part 1

The memories of first semester my freshman year at Bob Jones University are somewhat muddled. I’m not really sure why, because the rest of my time as a BJU dorm student remains clear in my mind. There are a few moments from that first semester, however, that remain distinct in my memory – joining Chi DeltaTheta, the roommate that lasted less than a month, and Friday night clean-up in the Campus Store. The memory that overshadows all others, however, is when I broke up with my girlfriend.

One distinct memory is the relief that I felt after first meeting someone else on my hall. The only reason I stopped to talk to the dude was because I was impressed at his audacity to be openly taping the cd sleeve from Smash by The Offspring onto his BJU dorm room door. He was surprised and impressed that I had heard of The Offspring, much less a fan. With his assurance that very few guys would pay attention to what was on his door, that even fewer who did pay attention would know what they were looking at, and that those who did wouldn’t care, I taped my Aerosmith “Livin’ On the Edge” poster beside the photos of my girlfriend.

That feeling of solidarity with another BJU student proved to be a rarity.

I began the semester as a Pre-law major. During my senior year of high school, someone decided that it was about time we seniors receive some guidance in regards to future careers. We were assigned a research project about what we wanted to be when we grew up. My best friend’s dad was a lawyer, and his family had a big screen TV, a satellite dish[1], and a conversion van complete with a TV and a vcr. Plus, the year before at my school, I had won a mock trial as the defense attorney which resulted in a minor brouhaha in my school[2]. So, I decided to become a lawyer when I grew up.

My major stayed Pre-law for as long as it took me to meet with my advisor before registration. The pre-law advisor, who was a German professor, suggested that a degree in history would possibly be more attractive to law schools. His reasoning, which sounds good to me, but I have no way of knowing if it is or not, was that law schools would see “Pre-law,” and be worried that they would have to re-teach me. For the first time of what ended up being many times, I changed my major.

I had a plan. I would spend four years at BJU, get married to my girlfriend, and go to law school. Within this plan was built the assumption that in four short years I would be able to escape from fundamentalism/Christianity; but the plan had a hitch that I had never really considered in the fog of teenage hormones – my girlfriend had a different perspective on fundamentalism/Christianity than I did[3]. How my eventual, desired freedom would be affected by someone who would only go so far as to listen to Country music and for whom the drinking of alcohol was anathema was not a concern at eighteen years of age. But, being away from her caused my hormones to calm down long enough for me to consider how she was actually a major impediment to my freedom. So, less than a month into my career as a Bob Jones University dorm student, I broke up with my girlfriend.

She had called me, and this was well before the ubiquitousness of cell phones, meaning that this phone call was costing someone lots of money, to tell me that she was going to be able to come visit me in a few weeks. I replied that I thought we should break up. I hadn’t really planned it; I wanted to break up with her, I thought, and it just came out during the phone conversation. My sister was really angry at me for breaking up with her on the phone. My now ex-girlfriend had called my sister immediately after tearfully hanging up with me; a move that I believed was unnecessarily petty. I mean, it was either break up with her on the phone or in a letter. Regardless of the romantic ethics of the how’s/why’s, I ripped the Band-Aid off, and then cried all through prayer group that evening[4]. But I had begun to gain my longed for freedom.

What I do remember about that first semester is that after that phone call, Bob Jones University got really hard for me. Not “hard” in the sense of school work; although, at that point, I started skipping classes and stopped studying or doing my homework. Not “hard” in regards to the rules either. I had spent eighteen years disregarding rules and mastering the ability to circumvent any rules that I didn’t want to obey; plus, at BJU I was given a nice little check book of demerits that I could use to purchase rule-breaking moments. One of the “hard things” about BJU was the constant need to keep my new friends in the dark about what I actually thought and about the things that I did.

While in high school, my friends and I rarely discussed anything that transcended the level of our immediate hormone driven desires. We all pretty much engaged in the same activities – we listened to the same music behind our parent’s backs, we went to the same movies behind our parent’s backs, and we all attempted to coerce and coax our girlfriends behind their father’s backs[5]. And, let’s be honest, in regards to our entertainment choices, our parent’s fears and our youth pastor’s and teacher’s polemicizing about the dangers of pop culture were often spot on. Much of what we listened to and watched was attempts to feed and satisfy our lusts. But, then again, we even managed to squeeze sex out of Patch the Pirate, it just took a little more imagination and work then did the obligatory boob shot in the Jean Claude Van Damme’s movies that we loved to watch. In other words, my friends and I were mostly[6] debauched little pagans that earned our parent’s and other authority figure’s mistrust. Not so many of my new friends at Bob Jones University.

For the first time in my life, I was surrounded by peers who didn’t just claim to be Christians in the abstract, but were actively attempting to work out their faith because they loved Jesus. Or, to be more accurate, it was the first time that they outnumbered “me,” and so the first time that I had to pay attention to them. Don’t misunderstand, there were still plenty of people on campus who were either self-proclaimed rebels or self-proclaimed righteous. The Holy Spirit, in what I now recognize as His kindness in beginning to bring me to the end of myself, caused me to have the majority of my social interactions with those who were genuinely, at least as far as I could tell, attempting to work out their faith in fear and trembling as an outworking of their thankfulness to King Jesus.

My closest friend that first semester was another freshman working in the Campus Store. Every Friday night, we were part of the store clean-up crew. A group of Campus Store workers, mostly freshman, would clean the store from top to bottom after the store closed for the evening. Greg and I, being the only guys on the clean-up crew, were usually relegated to what was considered the worst job – cleaning the front windows. It actually wasn’t that bad of job, just a lot of windows (the entire store-front was glass). While cleaning we would talk. I would want to talk about girls and/or sports. Greg did, too; but, his discussions about girls and/or sports would somehow end up transitioning into discussions about theology. It wasn’t just Friday nights, either; he would often come by my dorm room, sit under that Aerosmith poster, and ask me questions or tell me things that he was working through - like dating, he ended up embracing "courtship" the next semester. That semester, I had serious discussions about things like alcohol, music, and God for the first time in my life. I didn’t want to, but I didn’t know how not to.

I knew the lingo; I had, after all, spent years winning Bible Trivia Contests and Sword Drills. The problem was that my new friends talked about Jesus as if He actually existed and actually mattered. They wanted to talk about what they were learning about Him, and what it meant to be an actual follower of Jesus. They weren’t plagued with the certitude and platitudes that I had learned to dismiss and ignore. Even taking into account the fact that I had mastered the language of Christianese early in my life, it was tiring.

Knowing what to say or even pretending to care weren’t the most tiring aspects, though. Not knowing their endgame, or, more accurately, not understanding their endgame weighed on me more than having to constantly pretend that I too was struggling with reconciling my desire to listen to rock music with my desire to obey my God appointed authority. Conversations about God or Christianity had always been a game up to this point. Something I engaged in to keep the adults in my life looking at the wrong cup as I moved my hands. Here were peers who were honestly concerned about what it meant to be a Christian, and I didn’t understand why. What was worse was the growing realization that even in their questions and struggles, they had some sort of existential access to happiness that I seemed to be lacking. Actors need to be good observers of humanity, and I think that this was the beginning of my training in observation. I would sit and watch the students around me; I would watch and listen to how they would interact with each other and wonder what their secret was. Why did they seem happy? I would wonder what they had that I didn’t.

The other “hard thing” that semester was coming to terms with the fact that I even though I was in college, I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. By “no idea,” I mean “nada;” my entire future appeared to be a vacuum. This translated into having no idea what I was supposed to be doing at the moment. This made all the posturing and acting seem pointless, or so I thought. Wanted to think. The most convenient thing to blame my woes on was the breakup with my girlfriend. I was simultaneously able to castigate myself for my bad decision, and place the blame for my misery on something external to myself. By the time the semester ended, I was on academic and spiritual probation. I didn’t tell Greg. I wasn’t planning on it. I wasn’t planning on coming back for second semester.

The post that should follow this one has already been written, and can be found here.

[1] Not the little DirecTV satellites either, but the really large, ominously-cool satellite dishes. The kind that looks like it was purchased at NASA’s garage sale.
[2] The elementary principle, who was also our home-room teacher/class sponsor, yelled at me during lunch in front of the entire high school and junior high. To be sure, the yelling only upped my cred, but I still didn’t think that I deserved to get yelled at for doing what I had been told to do. 
[3] She had declared that our relationship verse was Romans 8:28. This was predicated on her belief that our separation would be worked out for our good. If by “good” she meant “sex” I was on board.
[4] As I write these posts, I’m realizing that I cry a lot.
[5] Actually, there were a couple of guys who didn’t have to do things behind their parent’s backs. Looking back, I now realize that those guys were probably never really our friends. They lived in a different world than us that we didn’t understand. I’m not sure what they were to us, but I don’t think friends.
[6] This is my attempt to be generous under the assumption that maybe there were one or two among us who were concerned about King Jesus and the fact that he lived, died, and rose from the dead so that we can be free from sin.

1 comment:

  1. I find this interesting, entertaining and more than a bit therapeutic. It's not just college age people who go through these transitions. And I really want to hear the whole mock trial story.