Philip Yancey

Life in a Bubble

A southern Bible college in the 1960s.

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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."

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