In a Fortress

Nearly eight years ago I graduated from Moody Bible Institute with a degree in Biblical Studies and an emphasis on Biblical Greek. Before transferring to that well known Chicago school, I had spent two years at Bethany Bible College, a Christian place of higher education located in a tiny New Brunswick town, and boasting a student body of around 1,600 students.

It seemed like the middle of nowhere then.

When the days are tallied up, I spent five years of my life in an invisible fortress; inside are Christians, outside is the world. The walls of this fortress are made of ideas. The Bible college student enters this type of environment because he or she wants to be sealed off from the world, in both knowledge and practice. It is a place to gain information not commonly dispensed in state schools or community colleges. It was a place for me at age 18. Hermeneutics, apologetics, textual criticism, Christian education, eschatology; these are the things you learn in the confines of a Bible college. But it was not a world I could abide by for very long. It was too sealed off. When you pursue knowledge as alienating and complex as this, it’s easy to find yourself talking yourself into box with a lot of crazy mirrors inside of it. Prisons are designed like fortresses and fortresses are designed like prisons.

Hermeneutics = Context

Unpacking the Biblical text, while arguably the most important task that any Christian will ever undertake, leads you to the end of knowledge. I reached a point where I realized, perhaps too late (and maybe too early), that nothing I ever studied would really matter, because I could prove it neither to myself or to anyone else. And what is the point of pondering the mysteries of the “controversial gifts” or premillennialism if God is holding out on the answers? Better to just let myself be lost in the abyss than to try to find any way out.

So I graduated from Moody with my emphasis in Biblical Greek. Though it hasn’t exactly helped me land any sweet jobs, I don’t regret a single day of living in the fortress. I learned too much to begrudge it. I learned about myself, I discovered what I actually believe, and I found friends that I value more than many sweet jobs. When it was all over, I went out into the world and lived the life of any other Gen Y dude, holding my low paying jobs and writing screenplays for no one to read but myself. I have enough friends from those years on Facebook that I will never forget it, but I have moved on.

And then, suddenly, while reading Randall Blamer’s Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey Through the Evangelical Subculture in America, I was thrown into that world from so long ago.

Here's a fuzzy picture of the book I've been reading. You can get an updated edition.

The book, with its unyielding title, was intended as a companion piece to a PBS miniseries. It chronicles a variety of Evangelical expressions found in any and every corner of the American map. He visits Jesus People leftovers on California Beaches, he goes on set with A Thief in the Night director Donald W. Thompson, and he goes on the pro-life campaign trail in Iowa. He digs into many hidden corners of Evangelical culture and often comes away with solid, even generous observations. But he missed the mark when he visited Multnomah School of the Bible.

Today Multnomah has succumbed to the eventual fate of many Bible schools and colleges. In an effort to gain accreditation, higher enrollment, and more respectability, they have transformed into Multnomah University. When Randal Balmer paid his visit, Multnomah was a small Bible school, with half of its required course load focused on one aspect of Biblical teaching or another. (I’ll say it one more time, just so you’re not confused: unpacking the Biblical text is the most important thing that a Christian can do. But when you throw that many credit hours at the Bible, especially at the undergraduate level, you are passing into esoteric realms.) Though I can’t speak for Multnomah 2011, the Mulnomah that Balmer describes c. 1989 sounds like a closed circuit.

After giving us a lucid history of the Bible school/college/university phenomenon, Balmer relates some of his experiences with the students around campus. “The students I spoke with seemed entirely innocent of the cultural forces buffeting Multnomah…”

I won a Trivial Pursuit tournament with my fiancee while attending Bible College.

Yes, this happens in a world where you are prohibited from going to the movies on the weekend (Harry Potter what?), watching TV in any other place besides the student lounge, or, uh, dancing. If you can’t go to the bar, you’ll probably end up playing a rousing game of Cranium in the Student Center or taking a drive up to that cool bluff on the north side of town. It all sounds decidedly unexciting when you put it next to the prospect of getting hammered, having sex with someone you don’t know, and waking up to a pile of vomit next to your bed; but when you’re in Bible college, you gotta do what you gotta do.

Yeah.

As his chapter on Bible schools reaches its final pages, Balmer decides to step out to see what these students do for fun on the weekend. He shows up late to an interscholastic women’s volleyball game and finds no one there. Good job, Randall. Then he checks out the Solid Rock Cafe coffee shop on campus, which is nearly vacant. The workers there report that many students go home on the weekend. Yes! I recall this very distinctly. Neither of the schools I attended were even remotely close to Port Huron, MI, so I was one of those stragglers left to wander amongst the empty dorm buildings. But Randall doesn’t press the baristas for more information. He concludes that, “for reasons I could not discern, the conversation had ended.” Could it be that Balmer himself isn’t actually interested in finding out?

He finally falls upon two students carving pumpkins in a “meeting room”. The students tell him about the rook games in the cafe, the visits to the mall and the park, and about how one of the professors opens his home up to students on Friday nights to “discuss life and how it relates to the Bible”. Some students even dress up like punks and patrol the Portland streets for witnessing opportunities and still others play a musical instrument.

Balmer leaves, never having found an ounce of what he considers to be fun. He heads back to his hotel room, concluding that the Multnomah environment is depressing, lacking in both levity and excitement.

Without any alcohol to distract me, I became a master of this!

When I finished the “Bible School” chapter, I felt the weight of my early 20s. I recalled playing pool endlessly in the student center. I went over my vivid memories of playing my peers at NHL ’99 and Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball. Once my roommate and I snuck out after curfew to get some donuts at Tim Horton’s. There was a time when my girlfriend and I went up to the bluff on the north side of town and wandered home through the woods in the dark because we had lost track of time. I remember my first kiss. It was in a cemetery. At Moody I would sneak out to the movies and watch Waking Life, The Royal Tenenbaums, and The Man Who Wasn’t There. Once I even drank some hard cider while watching a movie on my laptop in my room. And no matter how vanilla all of that sounds to you, it was somehow thrilling to me. The reality is that many Bible students have extremely vivid imaginations. They invent their own games. They debate the relative merits of linguistic relativity well into the night. Some would say that the Bible student is bound to the book that they study. This is true. But I found that that book opened up weirder possibilities than most could ever imagine.

Though I have split with many of my fellow alumni in my theological leanings, I couldn’t help but feel that Randal Balmer hadn’t given those poor kids a chance. He wanted them to be bored and he wanted to think of the Bible college movement, having sprung from the poisoned ground of fundamentalism, as a dying breed. I sensed that he wasn’t willing to look more closely at their joy and creativity. At one point Balmer hints at the weird and wonderful world of the Bible college student. “Until the practice was recently forbidden by school officials, students would take a block of ice in the winter and ride it down a steep hill.” Yes, these kids spent their salad days sledding.

Because the Bible won't teach itself.

Balmer’s unwillingness to engage these kids on their own level, to even hang out with them for a card game, points to an attitude that many adopt towards Evangelicals: it’s so much easier to stereotype than it is to actually involve yourself in the lives of people you do not understand. Because no matter how ridiculous, inane, and downright offensive some Evangelical thought can be, they are at least being true to something bigger than themselves. In the fortress of Biblical study I found my mind opening in ways that I still can’t conceive of.

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One thought on “In a Fortress

  1. Though the fortress you speak of is far different, I’m not sure the result is as different as it may seem from at least some secular collegiate experiences. I don’t mean that as a knock on what you’re saying, just that I see a lot of parallels to some of what you say in my own college experience. Is the debate of “the relative merits of linguistic relativity” that you speak of much different than a bunch of kids talking Wittgenstein in a dorm room, beyond the lack of beer? Or is that where Balmer is totally missing the point (having not read the book or seen the PBS series)?

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