Life in a Bubble
Goffman theorized that total institutions such as military academies and prisons—and Bible colleges? I wondered—gradually enculturate their members so that after a time the insiders think that culture normal. For a sociology project I gave a printed survey form to every freshman and every senior, asking such loaded questions as, "Which rule at this school bothers you most?" Sure enough, the seniors defended rules that freshmen thought ridiculous. My project landed me once more on the faculty's suspect list when someone gave the dean a copy of my mimeographed survey. "This is an insurrection!" said one member of the administration. "He can't survey freshmen. They don't know us!"
As I admit, I was in a most unhealthy state while a student, especially the first two years. I used chapel as a time to catch up on magazine reading, much to the disgust of more pious students who kept reporting me to the dean. In a sort of reverse-silent-witness, I would sit outdoors and read books like Harvey Cox's The Secular City and Bertrand Russell's Why I Am Not a Christian. In short, I was the antitype of the ideal Bible college student, and got treated as such. Some called me stiff-necked, some avoided me, some prayed for me. A few, especially the woman who became my wife, loved me.
Through the grace of God, and also the grace of the college administration, I managed to survive through graduation. I now reflect on my time at Bible college with some shame but much gratitude: for the biblical knowledge I acquired there, for the personal disciplines that I resented at the time but learned to appreciate, and for the essential part that school played in grounding my faith. Ever since, we have had an ambivalent relationship, the school and I. They gave me a Distinguished Alumnus award—and nearly asked for it back after I wrote about the school in What's So Amazing About Grace?
I have returned to campus as a speaker three times. The first time I delivered a series of talks that became the basic outline for my book on grace. To me, that word grace seemed the missing ingredient in acquiring a faith that matters in the world outside the school. The second time, a decade later, the school invited me to deliver a commencement address, at very short notice (prompting me to wonder who had cancelled on them). When I drove on campus and got out of the car, a student came up and asked, "Aren't you Philip Yancey?" I nodded, and he said, "We were told you'd never be invited back here after what you said about grace!"
On that visit, administrators and faculty assured me that the school had changed radically in the years since I attended, and from all appearances I had to agree. A few students said to me privately, "Actually, not much has changed. The spirit of mind-control is just the same." When I was invited back once again, in 2007, I agreed, under the condition that I speak on the topic "What I Wish I'd Known as a Student Here."
Philip Yancey is the author of What's So Amazing About Grace? (Zondervan) and many other books. This essay is adapted from his forthcoming book What Good Is God? In Search of a Faith That Matters, published by FaithWords. Copyright 2010 by Philip Yancey and SCCT. Used by permission of the Hachette Book Group.
Copyright © 2010 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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