Lessons learned at the Fortress of Faith: An Introduction.

Lessons learned at the Fortress of Faith: An Introduction.

This is the intro­duc­tion of a 10-post series. As I update, I’ll post the links here!

Les­son 1 | Les­son 2 | Les­son 3 | Les­son 4 | Les­son 5 | Les­son 6 | Les­son 7 | Les­son 8 | Les­son 9 | Les­son 10

It was ear­ly August 2008, hot and sticky. I was a 21-year-old fun­da­men­tal­ist Chris­t­ian, intern­ing at a local graph­ic design stu­dio, spend­ing my spare time with my high school and com­mu­ni­ty col­lege friends, strug­gling with con­stant self-hatred and doubts about the nature and exis­tence of God…and start­ing to pack my belong­ings for my move south for the fall semes­ter at Bob Jones Uni­ver­si­ty.

You know, the col­lege that banned inter­ra­cial dat­ing until 2000 and has been in the news this year for their mis­han­dling of an inves­ti­ga­tion into their treat­ment of sex­u­al abuse vic­tims on their cam­pus. That BJU. And yes, I know. That acronym is…quite unfor­tu­nate.

I was com­plete­ly unaware that with­in six short months, I’d be expelled for hav­ing con­sen­su­al sex with my boyfriend and hav­ing the audac­i­ty to think it was a pri­vate mat­ter.

I was com­plete­ly unaware that in just over a year, I’d be mar­ried and liv­ing on my own.

I was com­plete­ly unaware that five years lat­er, I’d have reject­ed belief in God entire­ly and would be hap­pi­er and health­i­er for it.

But here I am, in anoth­er hot and sticky ear­ly August,  start­ing my third year as a graph­ic design­er at that very same local graph­ic design stu­dio, still spend­ing my spare time with my high school and col­lege friends. And, as has hap­pened every year this time since 2008, I’m find­ing myself half-con­vinced that I’m 21 again and ought to be pack­ing to go to BJU in a month. It’s amaz­ing what a lit­tle bit of trau­ma can do to the brain.

I’ve been think­ing a lot about how my short time at BJU changed me, for good and for ill. In many ways, I began my path to self-dis­cov­ery at BJU. I learned a lot in my semes­ter-and-a-bit, and what I learned has shaped me into the per­son that I am today. And so, in many ways, I owe a bit of thanks to the World’s Most Unusu­al Uni­ver­si­ty.

Bob Jones Uni­ver­si­ty, you taught me so much. Allow me to innu­mer­ate just a few of the many valu­able lessons I learned behind your barbed-wired walls.

Some background on my introduction to BJU before we begin.

I thought that the hard­est thing about being at BJU was going to be just learn­ing how to fol­low an amaz­ing­ly ridicu­lous set of rules — and frankly, I thought I had that cov­ered. I grew up in a con­ser­v­a­tive Chris­t­ian school where BJU groups vis­it­ed for recruit­ment pur­pos­es. I was usu­al­ly one of the good kids, so I thought BJU was going to be a col­lege-ver­sion of my high school. No big deal.

Boy, was I wrong.

The amount of peo­ple milling around at any giv­en moment sim­ply bog­gled my mind. My com­mu­ni­ty col­lege was small, and I was used to hav­ing soli­tude when I need­ed it. But among the lit­er­al­ly thou­sands of peo­ple always on cam­pus, I had no pri­va­cy what­so­ev­er.

The sec­ond or third day I was there, my dorm had a meet­ing for all fresh­men and trans­fers with our dorm super­vi­sor and res­i­dent assis­tants. This was the first time I got a clear­er under­stand­ing of the cul­ture at BJU. There was a lot of talk about how scary it was to be in a new school away from our par­ents sur­round­ed by peo­ple we didn’t know who might be dif­fer­ent from us (and I do mean a lot of focus on this), fol­lowed by assur­ances that if we ever need­ed to talk about any­thing, we should come to one of them. It was as if they were first cre­at­ing a sense of pan­ic then set­ting them­selves up as the solu­tion so we’d be bet­ter con­di­tioned to con­form. I dis­tinct­ly remem­ber sit­ting cross-legged in the floor in that study lounge, say­ing to myself, “Lis­ten, but don’t become one of them.” My next thought was, “They’ve real­ly got this whole manip­u­la­tion thing down,” — par­tic­u­lar­ly as they remind­ed us not to hes­i­tate to let them know if some­one was break­ing the rules, or we’d be pun­ished just as severe­ly as the per­son “in sin.”

That was anoth­er thing I noticed dur­ing my time there: every­thing was spir­i­tu­al­ized. Neg­a­tive emo­tions were a lack of trust in God. Get­ting bad grades was poor stew­ard­ship of the abil­i­ties God gave us. For­get­ting to make our beds was dis­or­der­li­ness (and God is a god of order, of course), not to men­tion dis­obe­di­ence. It was us fun­da­men­tal­ist Chris­tians against the world, and we had to be per­fect as our father in heav­en was per­fect.

The atmos­phere was very much one of sur­face-lev­el sweet­ness and safe­ty. Fol­low the rules, look and act in such a way that falls in line with the rest of the crowd, and every­one is so nice and accept­ing. But the moment some­thing about you is dif­fer­ent — you men­tion some­thing “uncheck­able,” you break a rule as small as keep­ing your bed made at all times, you act some­way oth­er than joy­ful and com­pli­ant — there’s a notice­able shift, as if the nice­ness and accep­tance is a mask that has slipped for a frac­tion of a sec­ond. You won­der if some­one is going to turn you in. You won­der if they’re right, that maybe every prob­lem you have real­ly is a spir­i­tu­al prob­lem that must be erad­i­cat­ed through more prayer and deep­er study of the Bible. Every­thing and every­one is scru­ti­nized, and sud­den­ly you real­ize that secre­cy is a way of life at this place and mis­trust is boil­ing under the sur­face at all times.

I learned how to be alone in a crowd, since that was the only sol­i­dar­i­ty I could find. I did have junior priv­i­leges, mean­ing I could take my car off cam­pus alone dur­ing the day — but while I was still try­ing to get used to the cam­pus, I want­ed to stay put. It was so hard to wrap my mind around how care­ful I had to be when­ev­er I would try to talk to friends or fam­i­ly who want­ed to know what it was real­ly like.

That’s when the para­noia start­ed sink­ing in.

With every email I wrote, every phone call I made, every chat con­ver­sa­tion I had, I was wary lest some­one hear or see some­thing that could be report­ed and get me in trou­ble. I had nowhere I could go to have a pri­vate con­ver­sa­tion. I knew that with my com­put­er as part of their net­work, they had access to my brows­ing his­to­ry and par­tic­u­lar­ly my stu­dent email account. I knew that we weren’t allowed to use per­son­al email accounts, but I dis­cov­ered that my Hot­mail and Gmail accounts weren’t blocked — so I emailed peo­ple from there, still being care­ful what I wrote lest some­one some­how have access to that as well. Every­where I walked while talk­ing, there were peo­ple. I would walk all over cam­pus, or pace neu­rot­i­cal­ly behind the dorms where I could wear my beloved jeans. But I always had an eye out for peo­ple who looked like they might be lis­ten­ing, because there was nev­er a time when some­one didn’t have their eye on me.

And it was in this atmos­phere that I spent the 2008 fall semes­ter and the begin­ning of the 2009 spring semes­ter. Just over five months that changed my life.

Stay tuned for Les­son 1, com­ing lat­er this week.

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