Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A Fundamentalist at Bob Jones University: Part 2

Part 1 can be found here.

Second semester my freshman year at Bob Jones University began with me at my calculatingly disingenuous best, or worst. It also marked the beginning of what may be for some people the most confusing part of my history. It was the beginning of my Bob Jones University Preacher Boy period. My BJUPBP, for short.

This embarrassing episode from Christmas break over, I now had to decide how soon was too soon before I got “saved.” Too soon, and I believed that my ex-girlfriend would see through me. Too long, and I believed that the “magic” from Psalm 37:4 wouldn’t be as affective. But before that happened, I knew that I could act with almost utter impunity knowing that I had a get-out-of-free jail card in the form of my impending salvation. I could have fun. I decided to play it by ear; and by “play it by ear” I meant wait until I was close to crossing into getting into real trouble before I slapped that get-out-of-jail-free card down on Dean of Men’ desk. I didn’t even need to worry about getting socialed since my ex-girlfriend and soon to be current girlfriend wasn’t a BJU student. So, I began second semester in a much better mood than the end of first semester knowing that I had several weeks of fun ahead of me before I won back my one true love.

Except it didn’t play out like that. (Since I’ve already written about it, I won’t rehash it. I’ve already linked to the post, Getting Saved …. Again, above.)

After I received my “Dear, John” letter, I was stuck. I had given my testimony to my entire dorm[1], and people were making a big deal out of me. The dramatic way in which I destroyed my rock music probably aided in the myth. So, I couldn’t very well say, “Um, guys, just kidding. Ha!Ha!” I had to play it out. The hotty who worked in The Campus Store with me, and who stated that she would only date Missions majors[2], helped me with my motivation. I changed my major to Missions.

Having skated right up to that magical seventy-five demerit line during the first several weeks of the semester, I was on thin ice in regards to getting socialed the rest of the way. Contrary to popular opinion, it’s really not that hard to stay out of trouble at BJU. One rule of thumb is “don’t be a douchebag.” Another rule of thumb is “don’t break the rules.” Obey those two rules and you’ll be fine. Kinda’ like what the majority of adults do so as not to get fired from their jobs. Of course, in my case, it helped that I had cast myself in the role of the good preacher boy. Obeying the rules became part of my character’s given circumstances.

My missions-minded girlfriend and I made quite the spiritual couple. We let our fingers graze against each other’s as we turned the pages of our shared Bible. Our faces and, hence, lips were oh so close as we bowed our heads and prayed for wisdom and guidance about where we should go as missionaries. We even wore matching t-shirts to her dating outing[3]. The only hiccups in my progression as a BJUPB came whenever I would hear the devil’s music playing over the loudspeakers in stores and restaurants; especially if “Better Man” from Pearl Jam’s latest album Vitalogy was playing. During those moments, I would get a twinge of buyer’s remorse.

Despite the occasional temptation to give it up, I made it to the end of the semester still a Missions major. Although, I think that my girlfriend was beginning to question my sincerity. At the end of the semester, she told me that she wanted to take the summer to pray about and evaluate our relationship. She didn’t, she told me, necessarily want to break up or not have contact with me over the summer, but she wanted to make sure that I was part of God’s will for her life. “You’re a new Christian,” she said, “Let’s not rush into anything.”  Her hesitation annoyed me, but not too much. After all, I was headed to work as a counselor at the Bill Rice Ranch for the summer.


During the middle of that semester, the Bill Rice Ranch had come to BJU to recruit for their summer staff positions. Not only had I gone to the BRR as a camper, but I had spent two summers in high school working as a Ranch Hand. Two glorious summers filled with girls, basketball, and girls. I had really good friends who still worked at the BRR, and I had nothing but good memories of the place, so I signed up for the coming summer. The Ranch was happy to have me. I, of course, left out the story of my recent “conversion” when discussing the upcoming summer with the BRR representative. As far as the Ranch was concerned, I was a typical preacher boy from Bob Jones University. I was given my own cabin, and put in charge of a different group of campers every week.    

My first and last full summer as a counselor at the Bill Rice Ranch was the last time I felt like the John Ellis who was the master of sword drills. It was also the one time that I gave an honest effort to this whole being a Christian thing until California ten years later. It was hard not to.

If you’ve never worked at a camp, you probably don’t understand the camaraderie that is fostered in that environment. A community forged in the fires of homesickness that never really takes root, lack of sleep, and the constant high energy required to corral and control hundreds of homesick kids who are also kicking the tires of freedom from their parents. Add to that mix religion, and that community moves into family region - in a good way.

As a BJU preacher boy, I was asked to lead the staff devotionals one morning during the training week. I have no clue what I spoke on, but I do remember being very proud of myself. I also remember being less and less enthusiastic each subsequent time I was asked to lead a devotional. Exegesis takes time. Since every week brought a different set of campers into my cabin, I learned, after the first week, to recycle my room devotionals. It wasn’t that I was opposed to preparing devotionals; it was just that I had other things to do. Besides, I was committed to evangelizing strangers in the laundry mat; that made up for my lack of dedication to prepping devotionals. Right?

Whatever the answer, my soul-winning efforts gained me the admiration and praise of the other counselors. On Saturday afternoons, after all the previous week’s campers were gone, I would go with a group of other counselors to do laundry in town. The camp provided a laundry service for us, but it was staffed by fellow counselors – all girls. Those girls always had a look of mild disdain when around the summer staff who took advantage of the laundry service. Whether the disdain was a product of the fact that they resented their job or that they saw the state of the clothes, specifically underwear, I didn’t know and didn’t care. I wasn’t going to run the risk of having a group of girls look unfavorably on me, no matter the reason. I had been doing my own laundry since sixth grade, so it wasn't really a hardship to wash my clothes at Murfreesboro area laundry mats.

On the way to the laundry mat we would crank up D.C. Talk’s “Jesus Freak,” and get ourselves psyched up to do battle with Satan for the souls of the unsuspecting people washing their comforters; never mind that by listening to CCM we were deliberating disobeying the rules that we had covenanted to obey. It was always a little awkward after the evening service dedicated to rock music in all its forms, CCM included, when the campers would ask us honest questions about the service and music. We were torn between being a hypocrite and being fired. Pragmatism often ruled the day, but I digress. So, back to my evangelistic efforts - at the end of the semester, I had bought a pocket sized Bible; the whole Bible, not just the New Testament with Psalms and Proverbs. Armed with that Bible stuffed full of tracts written by the evangelist Jerry Sivnskty, the Romans Road down pat in my head, and D.C. Talk generated adrenaline I would sit beside a fellow patron and ask, “If you died tonight, do you know where you would spend eternity?” Looking back on it, I now realize that the looks of shock were because a wild-eyed kid possibly just threatened to murder them. Surprisingly, after the initial look of shock and some “um’s” and “uh’s,” I don’t remember a single individual not responding politely, a courtesy that several years later I didn’t afford those who attempted to proselytize me. As I’ve already written, my fellow counselors were impressed with my soul-winning zeal. Truth be told, though, I never approached anyone who wasn’t a lonely-looking old man. The twenty-something, long-haired and tattooed dude sitting sullenly in the corner had way more time to be confronted with his imminent death than all the old people. Even at my most “sold-out,” I was still worried about looking cool.

Two quick things before I get back to BJU – that summer at the Bill Rice Ranch, I learned that the cool Christian college kids wore Tommy Hilfiger. I spent more money than I could afford on Tommy Hilfiger clothes. What made it even more of a waste was the fact that my “preppy phase” was relatively short-lived, especially considering the amount of money I spent on that phase. The second quick anecdote involves a girl. Of course. About two weeks into the summer, I began dating a fellow counselor who was a Pensacola Christian College student. By the end of the summer, I had decided to transfer to PCC. I didn’t, obviously. Why I didn’t, I only vaguely remember. The summer staff “nurse” talked me out of it. She actually gave me wise council, and surprisingly I listened. Something about completely changing my life for a girl I had met only two and a half months earlier.

I began first semester of my sophomore year as a full-fledged BJU preacher boy, with preacher boy classes and everything - including a summer as a camp counselor at a Christian camp, and an extension ministry every Sunday to a church just north of Charlotte. That first semester my sophomore year was probably my most profitable as defined by Bob Jones University; I was fresh from a fun-filled summer that charged my fake spiritual batteries, and I was ready to plunge head-first into being a preacher boy. But, a cool preacher boy, the kind that listened to Audio Adrenaline and went to the movie theatre (at home, of course). I mean, I was old enough and wise enough to pick and choose which rules Jesus wanted me to obey. That semester, I did get the fewest demerits of my BJU dorm student career, and I went to class more than normal. More than MY normal, that is. Having completely cut ties with my future-missionary girlfriend, my reason for being a missions major was gone. I was back to not really knowing what I wanted to be when I grew up. I don’t remember if I changed my major to Youth Ministries or if I only thought about it. The idea of being a youth pastor seemed cool, but most of my preacher boy capital was spent securing dates and not on focusing on my future ministry – whatever that might be. I at least passed all of my classes that semester.

My roommates made things easy, too. They were neither good nor bad, in BJU terms. They did what they had to do to survive unscathed, yet managed to have fun. We got in trouble as a room for silly, mostly harmless things that guys without fully developed pre-frontal cortexes do. Like throwing a bowling ball onto the sidewalk below our third floor window. We wanted to see if bowling balls bounce. I wouldn’t describe it as “bouncing,” but it did something. Or, and I see a theme here, stealing the blankets, sheets, and pillow from the guy across the hall and throwing it all out the window right before lights out. The biggest rule breaking in the room consisted of us listening to the Braves games on the radio after the lights went out. Remember, this was in ’95 when the Braves won the World Series. There were moments when I would try and paint myself as the super-spiritual one of the room, but my roommates saw through me and never took me seriously.

I still didn’t have a social group that I could call home. I had plenty of friends, but everyone seemed, within the context of college, way too relaxed to be struggling with the questions that I still couldn’t get away from. I’m sure that there were kids around me struggling with similar things, but I was too wrapped up in my own game, played at my own expense, to notice. No matter how much certainty I forced myself to have as I railed against things like alcohol, I couldn’t get the thought that God might not exist out of my brain. I had discovered a level of coolness that came along with my preacher boy talk and my Tommy Hilfiger clothes; the nagging questions in my brain were inconveniences that I could beat down with more and more faith. Or so I thought.

During second semester my sophomore year, I read, for the first time, Ralph Waldo Emerson. I also read Mark Twain’s “Letters From the Earth,” and “The Diaries of Adam and Eve.” All for the same class. For the first time in my life, intellectual feet were beginning to evolve for my questions. I resisted. Hard. The thing is, I didn’t resist because I loved King Jesus; I resisted because I loved what pretending to love King Jesus got me – friends, girlfriends, and respect. I began to run hot and cold. My prayer group’s prayer captain (three rooms make up a prayer group) noticed the change, and asked me point blank what was wrong. I dismissed his concerns with some b.s. about stressing over tests, papers, ect. In April, toward the end of the semester, my prayer group went to an arcade/mini-golf place. There is now a large, evangelical church where the arcade once stood. Anyway, the guys in my prayer group were all good guys, and we generally had fun hanging out. This time was no different. I was enjoying myself, and definitely not “running cold.” But, when, while shooting pool, Ozzie Osbourne’s “Perry Mason” began playing over the jukebox, I gave up. “Perry Mason” has some incredible guitar riffs; “crunching” is the adjective often used to describe the guitar riffs in the song. As I stood by the pool table, listening to Ozzie, I realized that my freedom and my identity lay on the opposite side from the guys in my prayer group. I looked around at the non-BJU students in the arcade – the guys with ripped jeans, un-tucked and un-ironed flannel shirts, and hair not cropped tightly above the ears – and, operating under the assumption that they weren’t Christians, decided that those were my people. That’s who I was. I began to embrace whole-heartedly an active and willful move as far away from Christianity as I could get. Dropping the pretense of being a preacher boy seemed immediate to me, and it kind of was. Two and a half months later, and there was little question, although quite a bit of confusion, in people’s minds about who and what I was.      

[1] You know, I must be a really good actor, because every time I’ve gotten “saved” as an adult (2X) I’ve immediately been set up in front of people as an example. The 2X ended up having worse consequences, but that’s roughly 5 “memoir” posts away.
[2] For my readers who are uninitiated in fundy lingo (which is more and more readers), a “missions major” is someone who is getting a degree to be a missionary. 
[3] I have a picture, but I’m not sure about the ethics of posting a picture of someone without their permission. Maybe if you share this post, I’ll let you see the picture.


  1. Which post is your first "A Fundamentalist"...? I think you actually start in high school?

    1. That's a good question, and one that is made necessary by my lack of foresight in naming the posts. In the next week or so, I'm going to post a list placing the "memoir" posts in order. This post is the first post in the series, though - http://conservativesdrinkgoodbeertoo.blogspot.com/2013/12/a-fundamentalists-rebellion-and-kenny.html

    2. Rebecca, I've added a post that has links to the memoir posts in order. It's titled "The Story in Order (sort of)"