This is Dan Yowell’s second piece here after his deconversion account. Thanks, Dan – this is a really compelling read:
Bob Jones University and the death of ideas
My first impression of Bob Jones University was a glowing one. Every year, hundreds of high school students are bussed onto the campus from conservative churches and schools (half-jokingly referred to as “feeder schools” by students and faculty at BJU) to visit for a week. This year, I was one of those lucky kids. Getting my first glimpse at real college life was a moment I’d long anticipated, and for the week I was there it was everything I wanted.
Sure they had a lot of rules, and sure I’d heard bizarre stories about the campus whispered in the corners of my childhood church’s auditorium during particularly long sermons. But this was a college. And I was 17. And that was cool as shit.
That first impression was a relatively great one. They showed us around their facilities, bragged about their gym and societies (BJU-speak for fraternities). They even put on a bluegrass concert, which was as close to sinful rock music as many in the audience were allowed to listen to back at home. Everyone was smiling, everything was perfect, and everything seemed normal.
A year later, when I arrived as a student, it didn’t take long for that facade to fade. Dogmatic enforcement of seemingly-arbitrary rules and restrictions quickly overwhelmed me as I had to learn how to manage both a new class load and a thick rule book. Clean-pressed dress shirts with ties and freshly-cut, cleanly brushed hair became a new normal as I fell into the rank-and-file of my fellow soldiers for Christ. It wasn’t until halfway through my first semester that I began to run into problems with authority on campus.
During the daily chapel service, dorm RA’s (Residence Advisors, students in charge of keeping an eye on things in the dorms) would conduct inspections of students’ dorm rooms. If anything violated the rules, demerits would be issued. If a student earned enough demerits (150), they would be expelled from the school. Students were more than aware that, as an unaccredited institution, expulsion meant not only leaving Bob Jones, but also leaving all of your academic progress behind.
During one of these room checks, an RA issued me 10 demerits for failing to close my closet door. What irritated me most was that the door was indeed closed, but the magnetic latch had failed to catch. So while my closet’s contents were in fact hidden behind the door, the latch wasn’t technically sealed, so I was marched a small step in the direction of expulsion. When I approached the RA about the issue, pleading to have the marks removed from my name, I was informed that the rules were the rules and it was my biblical duty to follow them exactly. This was the beginning of a series of events that would result in my inevitable expulsion.
Bob Jones, and other institutions like it, do not fail because of what they believe. They fail because of what they suppress. When I approached the RA about the closet door, I was told that the authority’s ruling was biblically enforced and unimpeachable. This was to become a pattern for similar conversations to follow. There was no room for questions or new ideas. Only punishment.
An RA noticed my hair was beginning to touch my ears – 10 demerits.
A room-mate reported hearing me swear –15 demerits.
I was late to lights-out (the strictly enforced bed time) – 15 demerits.
I nodded off during a chapel service – 10 demerits.
In every instance, I approached a person of authority and inquired about the rule, its origins, its biblical basis, and how enforcing such a rule could be tenable on a campus of thousands of students. In every instance, my questions were met with the same answer as the first: God put the authority over me, and it was my duty to follow. Questioning the rule, the rule’s logic, or this particular application of that rule were seen as directly questioning God and his nature.
I wasn’t the only student who was slowly becoming embittered with the academic death march the faculty seemed to want us on. I began running in circles with other disenfranchised students. We swapped stories about ridiculous rules and unwarranted demerits. Our common bond was that our sincere questions were met with challenges to what we held closest: our faith. In some circumstances, students who continually asked about the rules were deemed to have “rebellious hearts” and were required to attend counseling, be restricted from leaving campus, and forbidden from talking with members of the opposite sex (as it was considered “a distraction”).
Not being allowed to listen to music that included drums, or watch movies over the rating of G, or socialize with members of the opposite sex without proper supervision was, surprisingly, manageable. Between classes and church services, most of my free time was spent studying or sleeping, so the parts of life at Bob Jones that typically make outsiders’ jaws drop were some of the easiest aspects of college life to cope with.
The greatest harm BJU imposes on its students is the suppression of ideas. In fact, that suppression is one of selling points of the university: Fundamentalist parents can send their kids to college knowing the school will not allow them to begin to think for themselves. Mainstream universities are seen as harboring doubt and “hating” God, so the best way to safeguard their children is to continue cutting them off from the world around them. Many of the baffling rules on campus are designed to reinforce this mission: Freshmen are not permitted to leave campus without an adult faculty member or senior student in good spiritual standing, church attendance is restricted to either on-campus services or a short list of BJU-approved churches in town, internet use is tightly monitored and censored to prevent students from viewing content not officially sanctioned by campus authorities (this includes blocking websites dedicated to criticizing BJU, criticizing the Bible, and even Christian sites who’s interpretation of the Bible differs from the campus’).
This was the part of campus life with which I found impossible to cope. To me, it seemed that stifling the exchange (and evolution) of ideas created an infected, stagnant pool; an old boys club of intellectual pursuit that bred confirmation bias and shunned improvement. It fostered swaths of students who congratulated each other on believing what was correct in their eyes, and shunning what was different. It reinforced ideas so outdated to the rest of the world it’s nearly unbelievable: That the races were never intended to mix. That women are subservient to men. That women are responsible for maintaining the purity of the men’s thought life. That victims of rape are to share blame for their plight, and that they need to ask their rapist for forgiveness for the anger they feel towards them. That rock music is a tool of the devil for the destruction of modern Christianity’s moral foundations. That the surveillance of one’s peers is the best way to guarantee the purity of their actions. That humanity is so morally deprived, a person left to their own devices will always commit the morally evil option. That making mistakes is not a path to learning, but a symptom of spiritual bankruptcy.
Ultimately, Bob Jones and other fundamentalist organizations’ highest goals are exposed as futile when reviewed by the rest of the world. Teaching a perfect standard can be noble, but enforcing it on a population as not only attainable, but expected, is dangerous. Especially when that population consists of 18 to 25 year olds (as is the case in this instance). It breeds fear and guilt, dissolves honest introspection, and twists even the strongest of relationships into a kind of competition of righteousness where there are no winners. It convinces the congregation that they are sick, and dangles the cure just out of their reach.
A few weeks before the end of my second semester at Bob Jones, I was expelled. Leading up to that moment, I had earned myself a reputation as a rebel, but hadn’t earned anywhere near the required number of demerits to merit the officiant exit. My carnal sin: Leaving campus, without faculty supervision, during a church service, with a girl. This charge (or rather, combination of charges) lead to my earning enough demerits to be expelled three times over. My phone was confiscated and I was made to sleep in my RA’s room that night while my belongings were collected into bags. I later learned that the RA used my phone to text the girl I was with, posing as me, to coax more details of the nature of our foray from her. I was escorted by preacher boys (students training to be pastors who were considered to be in high spiritual standing) to the art facilities where I was instructed to collect all of my work.
When I finally was seated in the Jim Berg’s (the now-infamous Dean of Students) office, I was presented with a folder that not only contained a detailed collection of conversations I’d had with faculty in my short time there, but included notes taken in secret on conversations I had with other students. As it turned out, my reputation as a question-asker led campus leadership to have my interactions closely monitored and recorded. Every time I questioned a rule, every time I expressed frustration to a friend, every time I complained during a prayer meeting, they wrote it down. In light of this evidence and the recent infraction I’d committed, I was barred from campus (I also had a restraining order placed against me. They feared that because I was an arts student, I would exact revenge on campus using spray paint. Not because I had ever done that, but because they assumed I would.)
For the following week I squatted with an acquaintance in a house neither of us owned or rented on a side of town I didn’t know existed. For fear of sounding cliche, yes, there were bullet holes in the door and exterior of the house, and most of the walls were crumbling from maltreatment. It was only then that I was able to get a ride from my brother (who also attended BJU) back home to Pennsylvania.
In the end, my reputation at both college and at home had taken an irreparable blow. I disappointed my parents, my friends, and my church. While people acted civilly to me, I was told by many peers that their parents no longer wanted them to affiliate with me. My social circles dissolved and depression began to settle in.
Looking back, however, I now see my experiences at Bob Jones as being essential to who I am. My expulsion was my liberation, and in it I found an appreciation for intellectual freedom that has continued to grow. I don’t blame the college for enforcing the rules I agreed to obey. I’m thankful that I experienced some of the worst that Christianity has to offer our world. If sacrificing our mental faculties to the literally-interpreted and easily-refuted ideas of an ancient book is the price fundamentalist Christian organizations expect people to pay, I find solace in the fact that some people will, eventually, stop cooperating.
A question that is refused an answer is a question that’s worth repeating. Even if it means facing consequences. Especially if it means changing your mind.