Life in a Bubble
Looking back forty years from the vantage of our belly-baring, pants-drooping, tattooed and lip-ringed society, I find it hard to resurrect the ethos of the late 1960s at a southern Bible college where gentlemen students wore jackets and ties to dinner each evening and all men stood when a female student approached the table.
Female students had a rigid, though annually alterable, dress code. My freshman year, coeds' skirts had to extend below the knee. Over the next three years—the miniskirt era outside the fortress—the acceptable line crept up to mid-knee and then to the top of the knee. Deans' assistants scouted for scofflaws, sometimes requiring them to kneel for a more accurate check with a ruler. The rules forbade slacks, except on some activity such as a hayride, when they were permitted if worn under a skirt. If a female student wore slacks in her room (allowed), she had to wear a bathrobe over them just to walk down the hall to the toilet or shower. A friend of mine caught robeless in the hall in the middle of the night challenged this rule; "You never know when you might run into a maintenance worker," the dean of women responded.
The Sixties' sexual revolution did not penetrate the Bible college's hermetically sealed environment. "Students must absolutely avoid holding hands, embracing, kissing, and other physical contacts," read the 66-page rule book, which students had to sign each year. To limit temptation, underclassmen were allotted just two dates a week (though not both with the same person)—double-dates, of course, and on Sunday evenings only to church. Freshman women had to apply to the dean of women in advance for each date. Apart from those dates, even students engaged to be married could only "socialize" one hour a day, during the evening meal with the entire student body. Telephone contact was forbidden.
Standing too close to your date in the cafeteria line could subject you to a dean's inquisition. Have you ever held hands? Did you kiss? Why are you flirting with temptation? Eyes were always watching and spies reported infractions of the rules. The bus driver on a school outing confronted a friend of mine: "It's my obligation to talk to you as a Christian. In the rear view mirror I saw you and that girl touching noses. Don't you know the Bible verse, 'It is good for a man not to touch a woman'?"
One revered professor, a bald senior citizen, insisted that in his own car his wife must sit over by the door handle lest someone who didn't know they were married draw the wrong conclusion if they sat too close. He sold his stock in the local Belk Gallant department store because it sold swimsuits, which went against his beliefs on "mixed bathing." "When you wear lipstick," he would balefully warn the virginal girls in his classroom, "you are saying to the world, 'Kiss me! Kiss me!' "
The school's list of forbidden activities included dancing, playing cards, billiards, skating at public rinks, movies, boxing, wrestling, and "the presentation of opera and musical programs which include ballet, dancing, and suggestive songs." In the privacy of their dorm rooms students could play only music "consistent with a Christian testimony," a phrase open to much individual interpretation in the 1960s. Periodically, guilt-ridden students would smash their questionable record albums.
Because I didn't relish most of the off-limits activities anyway, I found their prohibition no great loss. The capriciousness and inconsistency of the rules grated on me, though. Whereas women had their skirts measured, men had their hair measured: it could not cover the ears and definitely could not grow on the face as a beard or moustache. This seemed strange since our church history textbooks depicted Jesus, the apostles, and most male saints of history with flowing hair and beards. The school banned speaking in tongues, a practice that was plainly biblical. And even though the Bible refers positively to wine scores of times, on that campus alcohol ranked just beneath the unpardonable sin.
In chapel services the deans tried valiantly to anchor each of the college rules to a solid biblical principle, a task made difficult by slight adjustments in the rule book each year. The world outside was changing too fast for the rule-makers to keep up. Billy Graham steered some of his "Jesus people" converts to the school, only to have them met by deans censoring their record albums and steering them to a barber.
Sometimes on a weekend I would catch a ride downtown and wander around a large state university campus. Dormitory lounges—coed dorms, no less—had television sets! Hippie-looking students were making out on the couches in public view. Spray-painted graffiti marred the walls, and psychedelic posters announcing demonstrations and protest marches covered the bulletin boards. Elevators reeked of urine. It seemed like an alternate universe out there, and as I retreated to the bubble environment of the Bible college I appreciated the clean walls, spotless bathrooms, and neat dorm rooms (inspectors checked for made beds and room cleanliness each day). The school had managed to turn frat house values upside down, for on that campus we competed for responsibility, politeness, cleanliness, orderliness, self-control. It all worked.
Still, a part of me rebelled. The philosopher William James wrote after a visit to the Chautauqua camp meetings in 1896, "I stayed for a week, held spell-bound by the charm and ease of everything, by the middle-class paradise, without a victim, without a blot, without a tear. And yet what was my own astonishment, on emerging into the dark and wicked world again, to catch myself … saying 'Ouf, what a relief! Now for something primordial and savage … to set the balance straight.'"
Whenever I write about my experience at Bible college, I get one of two reactions from readers. Some scold me for criticizing a godly institution and for distorting reality: "Did you and I attend the same school?!" former students have asked, indignant. Others from a wide variety of backgrounds—Catholic, Pentecostal, Worldwide Church of God, Seventh-day Adventist—recount their own stories of institutions that either shaped or shattered their faith. "Thank you for giving me permission to stop blaming myself for everything," they say.
I write not to demean the sincere people who ran the college (for this reason I avoid using the school's name) but rather to sort through the mixed messages I got there. I had a lively discussion with the man who served as president of the college during my last two years as an undergraduate, someone I greatly respect. "I know all sorts of juicy stories about people in Christian ministry," he said. "But I would never write about them because of the pain it would cause. I go by the Golden Rule: Do unto others as I would have them do to me."
As I thought over his comment, I realized that is precisely why I do write honestly about my past, even though it may cause others pain. I want readers to call me on my own inconsistencies and exaggerations and theological errors (and generally they are happy to oblige). I know of no more honest book than the Bible, which tells the ugly truth about its main protagonists (think of Moses, David, Peter, Paul) as well as the church established to carry on the tradition (think of James, Galatians, and 1 Corinthians, as well as the letters to the seven churches in Revelation). In contrast, the Pharisees and their kin exhibit one persistent flaw: an inability to take criticism. People and institutions naturally want to present themselves in the best light, and thus we rationalize or cover up mistakes. When we do so we move away from authenticity toward the very dangers Jesus warned against, in the process sealing off grace.
I met God at the school I am writing about, a life-changing experience worth twenty years in prison, let alone four years in a Bible college. Yet some people, including some whom I love, turned away from God at the same school. I look back on college days with whimsy; they remember mainly the pain of judgment and rejection, a sense of not fitting in. By listening to their stories I better understand Jesus' anger with the Pharisees, a surprising target since they were the most righteous and Bible-believing people of his day.
The Pharisees, accused Jesus, tithed their kitchen spices while neglecting weightier issues like justice. At other colleges students were protesting the Vietnam War and joining the Freedom Riders in Alabama and Mississippi. At our school we were debating such issues as the universal flood, hyper-Calvinism, and infant baptism. Yes, we studied the Bible, but selectively. In the words of Marilynne Robinson, "People who insist that the sacredness of Scripture depends on belief in creation in a literal six days seem never to insist on a literal reading of 'to him who asks, give,' or 'sell what you have and give the money to the poor.'"
One year a student shot himself in the face with a pistol. That it was an accident, no one questioned: he was examining the gun when it went off, blasting a bullet through his jawbone. The owner of the gun had to write five hundred times, "I will not have a loaded gun in my room." This being the South, no one raised the larger issue of handgun possession. Another year a student drowned in a nearby river when a dam upstream unexpectedly raised the water level. His companion, distraught over his best friend's death, had to do a work penalty for swimming on Sunday.
The school's emphasis on the "victorious Christian life" led to another danger Jesus warned the Pharisees about: a two-tiered spirituality. Adolescents who barely perceived themselves as independent moral beings, who had barely lived, competed to "lay it all on the altar," to experience "a deeper walk in the Spirit." If someone lacked the proper zeal—a parent or sibling back home, for instance, or a suspect fellow-student like me—the anxious question arose, "Do they really know the Lord?" The writings of C. S. Lewis, a lifeline of faith for me, were frowned upon because Lewis smoked a pipe and drank beer.
The school held a mandatory chapel service daily, required a personal quiet time of Bible study and prayer each morning—a loudly clanging bell woke us at 6 AM—and scheduled quarterly prayer days. Students learned that praying and giving testimonies in public presented the best opportunity to rise in status by displaying one's spiritual intensity. Thus my roommate confessed wild sins I knew he had not committed. One female student lived a double life for seven months, convincing many that she had terminal cancer. The artificial and the authentic became indistinguishable—Jesus' point about the Pharisees, exactly.
A friend of mine got called into the dean's office for wearing a coat hemmed higher than her regulation-length skirt. "Joyce, what are we going to do with you!" she was reprimanded, as if she had broken one of the Ten Commandments. Another time she wore a robe down the hall of the women's dorm with the bottom button undone. The dean shook her head: "Joyce, how can we trust you? If you fail in a thing like this, how can God use you?" Later, that same student was working in the dean of women's office as Valentine's Day approached. She witnessed the bizarre scene of her boss in white gloves censoring one by one the tiny heart-shaped candies to be used as decorations for a party. You're mine, Friends forever, Be my Valentine passed muster; Cutie pie, Hot lips, Love ya went right into the trash can.
Readers who write protesting my unfair caricatures emphasize the wholesome sense of community that such an institution fosters. I agree. What state university imparts such positive values to its students and provides such a supportive community? On holidays we would step outside the bubble and find a world cavorting nude onstage, burning bras and draft cards, bombing campus buildings, tripping on LSD. Assassins killed King, then Kennedy. Ghetto-dwellers rioted. Soldiers shot students at Kent State. Then we returned to a safe, orderly world, a control-based community that measured skirts and hair and debated hyper-Calvinism.
Once I tried to explain the rationale for rules at Christian colleges to Frederick Buechner, who was encountering a much milder version of them for the first time as a visiting professor at Wheaton College. I began with the moral argument, and had to agree with his response that, unlike Wheaton, the Bible did not specifically forbid drinking, smoking, and social dancing. I mentioned the doctrine of in loco parentis, in which schools take over responsibility from parents. Bob Jones Sr. used to promote his school as a place where "parents can send their children and go to sleep at night knowing their children are safe physically, mentally, and spiritually."
Buechner contemplated this line of reasoning. "Yes, but these kids are twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two," he said at last. "Legally, they're adults." The only rationale that made sense to Buechner was the slippery-slope argument. Had not Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Oberlin begun with the same commitment as Wheaton? "Everyone shall consider the main end of his life and studies to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life," proclaimed the original rule book at Harvard. "Cursed be all learning that is contrary to the cross of Christ," wrote the first president of Princeton. Question the universal flood or the crossing of the Red Sea and before long Jesus' miracles and the Resurrection are under assault. Permit hand-holding and one day they'll demand open dorms.
Shockingly, during my junior year the college hired a sociologist who had been educated at Harvard, and his classes helped me to step outside the bubble and view the Bible college as a subculture. Following the model of "total institutions" described by Erving Goffman, I saw that the school was using tried-and-true control mechanisms to impart to us spiritual values. The dean of men admitted that he favored retaining some irrational rules in order to teach the students to obey. To me, that sounded like the technique Marine sergeants use. Making a bed so tight that coins bounce off it and polishing shoes so bright that they reflect the sergeant's face do not further a recruit's ability to conduct war. They do, however, reinforce an important military principle: "I am boss and you are not, so you must do what I say."
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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