A Godless Fundamentalist: Chapter 6

abandoned church

by John Ellis

Bob Jones University used to bill itself as the world’s most unusual university. I don’t know if that tag was ever true, but within the fundamentalist bubble of my youth BJU was definitely not unusual. The university was the standard by which many other fundamentalist organizations (including IFB churches) were judged. When I was a kid, Bob Jones University was the epicenter of my world.

The adults in my life talked about the college in reverent tones. Some of the highlights every year at church were the services featuring BJU’s musical ministry teams, drama teams, and the screenings of films produced by Unusual Films (BJU’s film production company). Many of my Thanksgivings growing up were spent on BJU’s campus. In fact, my family spent a few of our summer vacations at Sword of the Lord Conferences as well as the World Congress of Fundamentalism that were held on the campus of Bob Jones University.

Sitting in the back of my family’s station wagon as we rolled down Church Street towards Wade Hampton Blvd, even the town of Greenville, SC, appeared to be held together by the gravitational pull of BJU. Passing through the diminutive downtown, the first sign of the “World’s Most Unusual University” were the tall, thin smokestacks on BJU’s campus that peeked over the trees. I always thrilled at that sight.

Pulling up to the campus’ Welcome Center was always an exciting moment. Granted, being a kid that had been stuck in a car for eight hours helped create the feeling of excitement. But it’s undeniable that the energy of the campus was infectious, starting with the friendly, uber-helpful, and well-groomed college students working behind the polished welcome desk. If nothing else, BJU knew how to put its best face forward: the immaculately manicured lawns, the spotless buildings decorated with important artifacts, and the always polite, always smiling people offering assistance every step up the way went a long way to convincing the visiting fundamentalists that they were as close to the Promised Land as they were ever going to get on this side of eternity. The additional bonuses of the large swimming pool, gym, Campus Store, new friends, and a variety of fun activities that BJU has always excelled at producing for events meant that as an elementary aged child, time spent on BJU’s campus was always thrilling.

As weird as this may sound considering my future history with the university, being on the campus of BJU produced some of the most settling moments of my childhood.

On campus as a young kid, the world of BJU seemed to never end; it was an entire cosmos unto itself. Owing to the insularity of the university, my embarrassment at my family’s differences from the world around us shrank. During those times, our “neighbors” looked like us. The people in the “restaurant” looked like us, and my mom didn’t need to ask the college students serving us food to turn the music down. There were no sections off limits at the Campus Store. And there was an aura of coolness around the “famous” preachers that knew my dad by name.

Of course, the glow that comes from being so close to the epicenter of my young and small world rarely lasted much farther than the I-185 exit onto I-85 south as our car pointed homeward. By then, the people in the cars whizzing around us reminded me that my family was different, and intentionally different for reasons that I didn’t agree with.

From my earliest memories, I knew that I would be going to BJU for college. Most of the time growing up, that fact didn’t bother me; it was what I was used to. As I got older, though, I began to harbor the faint wish that I could go to FSU where my beloved Seminoles played or, really, any college that didn’t make me wear a tie to class and that allowed me to have more freedom than I enjoyed in middle school. By high school, when neighbors or the assortment of people that my dad knew around town would ask me where I was planning to go to college, I would mumble my answer and then change the subject.

Much of the time, though, even in high school, the thought of attending BJU didn’t really bother me. I mean, it was the world that I had grown up in. I figured that if I could survive my dad’s church, my home life, and my Christian school, surviving BJU would not be a problem. I’d put in my four years and then go to law school, leaving fundamentalism behind me for good. Except, by the time I arrived on campus in late summer of 1994, my perspective had changed, upsetting the equilibrium I had found that allowed me to exist in a strange land without anyone realizing I was a stranger. While still seeming to be the epicenter of my world, by 1994, BJU was most decidedly a problem for me.

I didn’t want the school to be the epicenter of my world because, frankly, I knew that it wasn’t really my world. And instead of patiently accepting the role I needed to play for survival, I now resented feeling like a prisoner in my parent’s world.

My parents, of course, were excited about my freshman year. My mom didn’t make the drive to Greenville to drop me off, but before I left, she encouraged me to take advantage of the many opportunities to grow spiritually.

Even though she was unaware of some of the reasons why, my mom’s experience with BJU had begun as the exact opposite from my experience as a freshman. My mom and her family had never set foot on the campus of BJU prior to her first day as a student. In fact, they had been mostly unaware of the school prior to my mom’s enrollment.

As a student at a state college in Michigan, my mom quickly grew wary of how animosity towards Christianity demonstrated by her professors and classmates (and that was in the early 60s) was negatively affecting her own faith. She decided that for the sake of her faith, she needed to go to a Christian college. After discovering BJU, although they found the rules weird, her parents agreed to let her transfer.

For my mom, BJU was an oasis where her faith blossomed and where she learned the importance of pursuing holiness. In her mind, BJU was going to be a similar spiritual oasis for her eldest son who, from her perspective, appeared to be lukewarm to spiritual things and simply needed his spiritual batteries, so to speak, recharged. From her perspective and mirroring the perspective of the majority of my authority figures, Bob Jones University was the best possible spiritual engine to charge and send out godly young men and women.

Except, unlike her, there were no surprises for me at BJU. And I didn’t view it as an oasis; it was simply jumping out of the fundamentalist frying pan right into the fundamentalist fire. To top it off, unlike my mom, I didn’t want my faith rejuvenated. In fact, and again unlike my mom, I didn’t have any faith to rejuvenate. I wasn’t lukewarm; I was dead in my sins.

So, as I unpacked my suitcases in my first dorm room, I was angry.

I was angry that it had just become exponentially more difficult for me to do what I wanted. I was angry that I had left my girlfriend behind. I was angry that four years of forced Christianity lay before me. And I was angry because I felt like I had zero say in my life.

When were people going to start asking me what I wanted for my life, much less care what I wanted for my life? I hadn’t asked to be born a preacher’s kid. I hadn’t asked to be a Christian school kid. I hadn’t asked to have Christianity be the overwhelming center of my life. And I hadn’t asked to go to Bob Jones University where I knew that everything I didn’t like about my life was about to be dialed way up. And for the first time in my life, I became angry enough to begin openly pushing back against my authority figures.

It took another year and a half, though, for that anger to begin to reach the boiling point. As a freshman, I wanted to stake a claim to my rights over my own life, but in a way that wouldn’t destroy my life as I defined “destroy.” In other words, I was scared of getting kicked out. I was willing to push, but only so hard.

Even as a freshman, I knew the system well enough to have a pretty good idea of what lines to skate, what lines to cross, and what lines to avoid altogether, at least openly. My oldest sister, who had already graduated from BJU, had clued me in to a few idiosyncrasies of campus life. My goal became to make sure that everyone around me, including the faculty and staff, knew that I was different, that I belonged to a different tribe. And an upperclassman across the hall from my room helped further my rule-breaking and identity-making education within BJU’s context.

Required training for the Campus Store meant that I had been on campus for almost a week before the other students began trickling in. That first Friday evening, after the other students began popping up on campus, I made a startling discovery: taped to the door of the room across the hallway was the inside artwork of the cover for The Offspring’s latest album Smash.

In the late summer of 1994, The Offspring had yet to reach their soon to arrive level of fame, but the skate-punk band’s first single off the album, “Come Out and Play,” had been in heavy rotation on local radio stations by the time I reached BJU. In fact, the entire album had been played on a fairly regular basis in the warehouse where I had worked that summer. Seeing the inside cover for one my favorite band’s album on the door of a BJU dorm room piqued my interest but also set off alarm bells in my mind.

The next morning, I lurked in my room until I heard the door across the hallway open. Leaving my room, I greeted the guy and then casually asked, “Hey, did you put that picture on your door?”

He responded in the affirmative, to which I hissed back, “Are you crazy?! Do you want the hall leader to pay attention to this end of the hallway?”

He chuckled and calmly said, “You don’t need to worry about it, man.”

My face must have portrayed my puzzlement because he continued. “Look, those who know what it is aren’t going to care. Those who do care aren’t going to know what it is.”

I expressed my skepticism, so he explained to me that as long as I didn’t flaunt my love of the most popular products of pop culture, the things that fundamentalists were aware of and, hence, preached about, it was mostly safe. Plus, it provided a kind of secret code to let other BJU students know where you stood.

One of the great ironies of my life is that it was my time at BJU that really helped get me into the indie music scene. You couldn’t get in trouble talking about a band if none of the authority figures knew anything about the band. At the time, though, my knowledge of indie music was fairly limited. So, I did the best I could.

At the mall, I found a “Livin’ On the Edge” poster. For those who don’t know, “Livin’ On the Edge” was one of Aerosmith’s big hits from the previous year. Combining cowardice with rebellious bravery, I defaced the band’s well-known symbol and then hung the poster on the wall beside my bed.

One thing that my new friend failed to mention was that the “cool kid” clique at BJU was constantly at risk of someone becoming convicted and then turning everyone else in. During those opening weeks, I learned that lesson from listening to the tales of woe from other “cool kids” and adjusted my tactics accordingly.

While I wanted to push back and stake my claim as not belonging, I didn’t want to get kicked out. I figured that “lone-wolfing” it was probably the best option. At the time, I had no idea how far that decision was going to go in creating an aura of mystery around me. While being openly rebellious during most of my time at BJU, I was never really one of the cool, rebel kids. Within a very structured environment that played a lot by the social rules of a high school, that contradiction confused people to my advantage.

One quick anecdote to explain how I had fun with my image can be found in how I would mess with hair check from time to time.

During the first semester of my junior year and my final semester the following Fall I would run interference during hair check for a few select guys (I skipped doing this most of second semester my junior year because I was growing my hair long – more on that in a subsequent chapter). The way it worked is I would enter the FMA (the large auditorium where we had chapel), find a specific hall leader who will remain nameless, and then start an argument with him. Already antagonistic towards me, he would become incensed, enabling me to get him to turn his back to the aisle. As the two of us argued, the other guys would quietly slip by. After the guys were safely past, I would shrug, say something like “whatever,” and then walk away leaving the hall leader yelling at me to come back.

I never went back; there was no need.

But that was still two years in the future. In the Fall of 1994, I was still trying to figure out how to listen to my music, go to the movies, and occasionally sneak alcohol, all while signaling to others that I didn’t belong at BJU but without getting shipped back home. Messing with hall leaders for the mere amusement of it was not yet on my radar.

My new fellow Offspring fan friend, whom I never saw again after that semester, introduced me to a way forward in my new life as a dorm student at BJU. It paired well with what I had already learned while growing up in fundamentalism, and so I began my freshman year intent on staking my claim out on my own life and exercising control however I could. Related, the impediment to me doing what I wanted presented by the rules and overall BJU environment quickly proved easily overcome. My anger over those two things turned into a challenge that I quickly learned to enjoy engaging.

My anger at being separated from my girlfriend quickly dissipated, too.

My avowed love for her began to wane as soon I started noticing the many pretty girls around me. In other words, on the first day of my Campus Store training. A week later, as the floodgates of students, specifically female students, began pouring through my check-out line as they bought their textbooks and other supplies, my current relationship’s fate was sealed.

About three weeks into the semester, my girlfriend called to inform me that she was planning on visiting me in the next few weeks. I rewarded that news by breaking up with her. And that was that, or so I thought.

Moving ahead, my life appeared to be looking up. I was going on dates, enjoying establishing my reputation as a rebel, but not like those other rebels, and overall doing whatever I wanted whenever I wanted. For example, I quickly realized that if I boldly walked out of the side gate during the day and went to the movie theatre located about a half a mile down Wade Hampton Blvd, no one ever said a word. Turns out, I thought, BJU wasn’t as bad as I had imagined.

However, in God’s kindness, an obstacle to smooth sailing during my time at BJU quickly arose that I had no way of foreseeing. As my original anger at not being away from my girlfriend, not being able to do what I wanted, and seeming to not have any say over my own life dissipated, it was replaced with an even more dangerous anger – anger at Christianity.

And my peers quickly became the first goads that I had to kick against.

During my time in a Christian day school, most of my peers were fairly similar to me. Almost none of us showed any actual interest in the things of the Spirit. When we did, it was usually for the benefit of the adults watching and for our self-preservation. Alone, we rarely talked about the things we were hearing at church, in chapel, and in classes at school, unless, of course, we were mocking the rules. Not so at Bob Jones University.

For the first time in my life, I was surrounded by peers that openly displayed what appeared to be a genuine concern for the things of the Spirit. Even many of the so-called rebels talked about God in ways that my buddies back home never did. Sitting in prayer group every evening, I heard guys talk about what they were learning from their Bible reading. At work events, my co-workers expressed their desire to grow in grace and the knowledge of Jesus Christ and, worse, from my perspective, they talked about the ways in which they were attempting to do so and encouraged each other to be faithful. Everywhere I went, everywhere I turned, I was surrounded by people my own age who took their faith seriously.

My peer’s commitment to a faith that I was increasingly discounting as valid also served to make me feel even more alienated than I had back home. Sitting in the dining common, I would sullenly eat my food, glaring at my happy classmates. What did they know that I didn’t?

As I increasingly began to search for contentment and fulfillment in doing what I wanted, I stopped doing my schoolwork. As my unhappiness grew, I began to blame Christianity.

At the time, freshmen were required to take a class titled something like “Introduction to Christian Growth.” It was taught by Dr. Mark Minnick. (I may have gotten the name of the class wrong, but that’s the name I remember – it may have been “Intro to Christian Living.” Anyone who was there during that time knows exactly what class I mean, though.) For most people, the class was a breeze. Dr. Minnick pairs a keen intellect with a down-home teaching style that most of the students loved. I, however, couldn’t stand the man nor his “stupid” class.

Out of sheer stubbornness and a belief that I was making a statement about my rejection of Christianity, I refused to participate in the class, including boycotting all assignments. Needless to say, I flunked the class and had to take it again second semester.

And that, kids, is a great example of what people mean when they use the colloquialism, “cutting your nose off to spite your face.”

My “statement” carried over into my other classes and, predictably, I failed more than just that Bible class.

By the time mid-terms arrived, my longsuffering academic advisor gently told me that he believed that my desire to go to law school was not a realistic goal. I was only slightly offended that he believed that I didn’t have the intellectual capability to go to law school. I mean, I knew he was wrong, but he didn’t really know me and my grades staring at him supported his contention. It wasn’t his fault that he believed that I wasn’t smart enough to be a lawyer. That was on me.

He suggested that I transfer to the School of Applied Studies, known as the SAS (BJU’s version of a trade school). That offended my pride. The smart thing would’ve been for me to have accepted the challenge that he didn’t realize he had given me and put my nose to the grind, salvage the semester, and then get A’s the following semesters. It was only the middle of my first semester of college, after all.

But, nope, setting a precedent for the years to come, I didn’t choose the “smart thing.”

Instead, I doubled down on my “principled” rebellion. In my mind, I believed that I was showing everyone up; that I was punishing BJU, my parents, and all of Christianity with my refusal to participate.

In my foolish, childish mind I envisioned myself as a lone rebel standing gallantly against the full weight of the evil forces intent on breaking me and conforming me into their image. Looking back on that semester, my actions were the epitome of stupidity. As an adult that ended up paying the price for my “brave refusal to bow even a little to the man,” I can’t help but think that a little down-the-road looking pragmatism would’ve been a helpful addition to my rebellion.

Thankfully, though, God in His sovereignty knew that bringing me to the utter end of myself was what I needed. And my purposeful torpedoing of my college career right out of the gate was a beginning step that God ultimately used to bring me to Himself for His glory.

By the time first semester ended, my tactics had begun to take a heavy toll on me. Swamping my earlier and surprising optimism, I was lonely, miserable, angry, and beginning to have an awakening realization of what I had done by refusing to participate in my classes. And I was scared.

I knew that I had started down a path that I had no idea where it would end, and the semester concluded with me feeling unsure of myself and my actions. Growing up in fundamentalism meant that my entire world was wrapped up in what I was beginning to jettison. As a college freshman, I wasn’t equipped, neither emotionally nor in terms of my knowledge base, to adequately process the journey I was on. I just knew, per my own wishes, that my life had begun to drastically change. I went home at Christmas break no longer confident in my tactics, or even my mostly unseen goals.

Acknowledging my sin guilt before God and submitting to Him through faith in Jesus was not the answer, I mistakenly believed. Refusing to acknowledge my rebellious stance towards God meant that something else need to be blamed for being at the center of my growing anger, loneliness, and fear. In my juvenile mind, I decided that my decision to break up with my girlfriend at the beginning of the semester was the cause of all my problems. I determined to get back together with her.

Regarding that objective, Christmas break appeared to progress smoothly. She and I hung out frequently. In fact, I ended up getting fired from the warehouse I had worked the summer before for skipping work to hang out with her.

Regarding my parents, though, Christmas break was filled with unspoken tension.

To my surprise, my parents said very little about my grades. In hindsight, they were probably reeling from confusion and hurt with a little bit of panic thrown in. My performance at school was unlike me. Minus one class in seventh grade, my grades were usually excellent[1]. I don’t think that they knew what to say to me. I can only imagine the level of concern that must be created by such a sudden and dramatic change in your child.

At the time, though, I lacked any empathy for my parents and was simply thankful to have apparently dodged a bullet, minus some unspoken tension. I was free to continue pursuing the restoration of my relationship with the love of my life.

My school’s annual Alumni Night presented a great opportunity to finalize what I believed she and I had been building towards during our times together over those three-plus weeks.

During the first home basketball game after Christmas break, my school scheduled an Alumni Night, usually the weekend before the college students had to return to school. After the school teams played, an alumni game was played. Even though she hadn’t attended my school, my ex-girlfriend came to watch me play in that alumni game. A good sign, I thought.

After the festivities at the school concluded, a group of us decided to go bowling. Driving my parent’s van filled with friends, we arrived at the bowling alley laughing and enjoying the night. For me, it seemed like nothing had changed. It was like the previous semester had been an aberration.

Walking across the parking lot to the bowling alley, I felt that now was as good of a time as any to make our renewed relationship official. I grabbed my ex’s hand and gently held her back as our friends made their laughing way to the front door. Everything seemed perfect.

I slowly turned her towards me, took her face in my hands, and confessed that I still loved her, had never stopped loving her, that breaking up with her, in fact, had been a terrible mistake and that I thought we should get back together.

As I prepared myself to lean in for the kiss on what was sure to be her breathless, “yes, I love you, too,” she looked me dead in the eyes and instead said, “I have a boyfriend.”

What!?

How could that be possible? We had hung out most of Christmas break. I was stunned.

My surprise quickly turned to despair, and I began to plead with her. The more she rebuffed me, the louder my wails grew. Everyone within earshot of that parking lot was made aware of my undying love for her.

I told her that without her, my life was over. That there was no reason to go back to college.

She insisted that I was making a mistake, that my life was not over and that I should most definitely return to college. As my embarrassing emotional display prompted by unrequited love picked up steam, she asked me to do something for her. I, of course, was in no emotional state to turn down any request from her, so I swore to her that I would do whatever she asked. After all, I insisted, “that’s how much I love you.”

I don’t remember what I was expecting her to ask of me, but I do remember not expecting what she did ask.

“Promise me that you will go home tonight and read your Bible,” she dropped with a shock into my life. “Because I believe that God is going to show you something special.”

What could I do? I agreed.

Surprisingly, I went home and did it.

Allowing my Bible to fall open to The Psalms, I placed my finger on a verse – Psalm 37:4.

“Delight thyself also in the Lord, and he shall give thee the desires of thine heart.”

And in that moment of lust-filled despair, I decided that I needed to get saved.

I mean, there was no question what my heart desired. The question was whether the first half of the verse would actually work in securing me the second half or not. I decided that it was worth the effort. Besides, my ex-girlfriend would be sure to be impressed by how my obedience to her wishes produced a change in me. It was a sure-fire plan, I believed.

The only potential hiccup, as far as I saw, was the timing of it. Too soon, and she might get suspicious. I couldn’t call her up the next day and say, “Hey, good news! I got saved last night!”

I knew that wouldn’t work. Better to wait awhile.

I planned on doing it sooner rather than later, but as soon as I arrived back on campus at BJU I realized what a valuable get-out-jail free card I was holding. Getting saved would be the ultimate reset button on my BJU career. What I did in the interim, as long as I didn’t go too crazy, would be forgiven. No need to rush. I had several weeks of fun in front of me before winning the love of my life back.

Second semester was off to a great start!


[1] In seventh grade, my Bible teacher was a man named Howard Woods. A man whom I have grown to appreciate the older (and more sanctified) I’ve become. Being at Christian school, Bible classes included lots of scripture memory. During one quarter that year, my class was required to memorize all of John 3. Hating memorization of any kind, I failed to adequately prepare for the test. The thing was, Mr. Woods took one point off for each missed word. If you are familiar with John 3, then you know that the chapter has several hundred words in it. I received a -300 and something on the test. Yes, a -300 and something. Try explaining that grade to your pastor father and teacher mother. Anyway, it’s impossible to come back from a -300 and something, especially when it’s the quarter system. Needless to say, that class that quarter was the only F I received my entire day school career.

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