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by John Ellis
I was perfectly happy minding my own business, enjoying my freedom, and looking for a job when I got the phone call.
“John, the BJU business office wants to talk to you,” my dad said quizzically while handing me the phone.
Putting the phone to my ear, I assumed that I was about to have that dreaded conversation about a repayment plan. Prepared to plead that I had yet to find a job and, hence, no means to pay anything, I warily said, “Hello, this is John.”
A couple of minutes later, stunned, I handed the phone back to my dad.
“Well?” he asked.
“Someone paid my school bill,” I replied in disbelief.
Later that evening, after the initial shock had worn off, I angrily drove to my sister’s fiancé’s house. Both he and his dad offered a sympathetic ear while I unleashed my displeasure with those who can’t mind their own business and let me be. Telling them that I had zero interest in returning to BJU but that I felt obligated now, I confessed, “I don’t know what to do.”
My sister’s soon-to-be father-in-law advised me that my longed-for-freedom would be waiting for me when I got home in the summer and that it wasn’t wise to kick a gift horse in the mouth. A gift horse, he reminded me, that many others were praying and hoping for.
During my time at BJU, I had heard the testimonies in chapel from fellow students about how God had financially provided via the benevolence of anonymous donors. Most of my roommates, co-workers, and friends talked wistfully about being on the receiving end of such a miracle. The irony wasn’t lost on me as I drove home after begrudgingly agreeing with the advice from my sister’s future father-in-law. In fact, the whole thing began to appear humorous to me. Out of all the BJU students agonizing over their school bill, my anonymous donor paid the bill for someone who didn’t even want to be at BJU. May as well have fun with it, I concluded. After all, I no longer had to wait until summer to hook up with Bronwynne.
My first night back was spent off campus with some friends who were town students. Their apartment that night was filled with alcohol and female students from BJU. As the morning dawned and we began to fall asleep, I thought to myself that maybe this semester wouldn’t be so bad after all.
Unlike the previous semester when my goal was to alienate everyone around me, I launched myself into second semester with the agenda to make the best of the situation. In other words, have as much fun as was possible while a BJU student. Since I didn’t really care about getting kicked out, the sky was the limit, so to speak. However, since girls were an important variable in having as much fun as possible, I knew that I needed to watch my demerit limit. If I was going to get kicked out, it was going to be for something big and not through a slow accumulation of demerits over small things.
Roughly three weeks later, Bronwynne and I were officially dating. During those interim three weeks, though, driven by sinful desires, I explored my options. Viewing females as objects existing to fulfill the lusts of my flesh, I had quickly narrowed my options down to three, including Bronwynne.
While the fundamentalism that I grew up in didn’t officially have a “purity culture,” it had a purity culture. Unlike my best friend who attended a Southern Baptist church and who once took it upon himself to get me a purity ring, my church kept it simple. Don’t have sex before marriage was the message. No purity rings. No purity pledges. Just a simple message touting how great sex will be with our spouse if we do the right thing and wait. Unwittingly wrapped up in that message was a perspective that painted females as our antagonists. Sex was the ultimate prize, the holy grail of sins; a prize with benefits that were maximized by waiting until marriage. Being lustful young men with an extremely limited, youthful perspective on time, my friends and I remained unconvinced that waiting would maximize the enjoyment of sex. Besides, for most of us, our real problem wasn’t our lust, it was our heart of stone’s refusal to submit to Jesus through repentance and faith. And, so, in our eyes, females held the key to attaining the prize. Trained to almost solely view females as potential stumbling blocks leading to lust, we exerted much effort attempting to maneuver around their defenses. Who they were as image bearers was irrelevant; what they could provide us was pretty much all that mattered. The atheist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir understood this warped view of women by men, writing, “[A woman] is nothing other than what man decides; she is thus called ‘the sex,’ meaning that the male sees her essentially as a sexed being; for him she is sex.” That perspective had not altered for me by the time I went to college. If anything, it had become more sophisticated and troubling.
By the winter of 1997, I had learned that attentive, empathetic listening went a long way with females towards getting what I wanted. Same with gifting girls with things like flowers and hand-written notes and opening doors and pulling out chairs for them. My polite manners and feigned sensitivity were a means to an end. Because I wasn’t a novice regarding the fairer sex, I knew that I could only juggle three girls for so long before losing all of them. To my great shame and discredit, I chose Bronwynne because we both lived in Pensacola, meaning that we could go home together on the occasional weekend, circumventing BJU’s strict dating rules. I devalued and manipulated three of God’s image bearers and hurt two of them in the process (ultimately hurting the third one, too, but that was still in the future). I didn’t care, though. All I cared about was myself, and I was having fun.
That semester began well and proceeded smoothly. Taking what I had learned during my previous semesters, I navigated my way around the rules like a pro. Taking advantage of having a hall leader for a roommate, I even managed to grow my hair long that semester. Granted, I looked like an idiot since I plastered it down with a pile of hair gel and hairspray to keep its true length hidden as much as possible. Aware of what I looked like, I concluded that it was a small price to pay to ensure that I had long hair for the coming summer.
Once a week, the male hall leaders would line the aisles of the FMA (the large auditorium where chapel was held) and check the hair of all the male students as they made their way to their seat. If your hair didn’t pass muster, the hall leader would confiscate your i.d. card, which was available to be retrieved in the Dean of Men’s office upon the conclusion of chapel. The schedule for hair check day was kept from gen pop for obvious reasons. In case that reason is less obvious than I assume, my actions validated the secrecy. I missed every single hair check that semester because I knew when they were happening. A big shoutout to my hall leader roommate for being an unwitting accomplice in helping me fulfill my goal of growing my hair long.
Knowing which days hair check was to take place was one thing; having a valid reason for missing chapel on those days was another. Working in the Campus Store aided my hair subterfuge. While almost everyone else on campus was sitting in chapel, a skeleton crew manned the Campus Store on the off chance that someone from town might wander in looking for the latest release from Majesty Music. So, the solution was simple – volunteer to work during chapel for whomever was scheduled that day. If they resisted, bribe them. On a somewhat unrelated note, working through so many chapels in the Campus Store allowed me to read the first two books of the Left Behind series. The display by the front register was promoting the second book, Tribulation Force, in the popular new series, and I didn’t have anything else to do. Anyway, by the end of the semester, my hair was well below my chin. Along with my tactic of cementing my slicked back hair to my scalp, being an Interpretive Speech major (BJU’s version of Theatre at the time) helped. Since guys who were in plays could grow their hair out, most people assumed that I was in a play, I guess. As we used to joke, long hair on guys apparently isn’t a sin if the guy also wears make-up while being in the spotlight.
My relationship with Bronwynne was also progressing nicely, from my perspective. We were able to go home to Pensacola a couple of times that semester; a fact that drove the Dean of Men’s and Women’s offices crazy. They knew we were dating, but, at the time, there was nothing in the rule book about couples who happened to live in the same hometown going home for the weekend at the same time. A couple of years later, I heard through the grapevine that the school had closed the loophole. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it was difficult hiding my smirk when the Dean of Women lamented, as she signed Bronwynne’s pass to go home, “This is a bad idea. Just because I can’t stop you two from going home together, don’t make the mistake of thinking that I approve.”
My new relationship wasn’t all fun and games, though. Dating Bronwynne brought with it an unforeseen problem, of sorts. Since she was part of the “cool” kids at BJU, by default I became a part of a group that I had mostly avoided up to that point. The people I usually hung out with were on the fringes of Bob Jones life, like my town student friends or those who were so far removed from the culture of BJU as to go mostly unnoticed. From my perspective, my new, inherited group of friends was more concerned with showing off their “coolness” to everyone than they were in actually doing anything (that I wanted to do).
I discovered that my perception was mostly correct.
Yes, they broke the rules. Yes, every year a group of “cool” kids got busted for things like going to the movie theatre, drinking (usually at Super Bowl parties), and making out in the Mack Library’s Jerusalem Chamber. But there was a hypocritical dualism present in their personalities that irked me and that I believed hindered their ability to have fun. And, hence, and more importantly, hindered my ability to have fun so long as I was forced to hang out with them.
Being in the “rebel society,” Chi Delt, I was already vaguely aware of this hypocrisy. I sat through society meeting after society meeting that mocked BJU, the rules, and fundamentalism as a whole. However, on Sunday mornings, during society Sunday school, the same guys would put on a completely different face – a face of piety and love for Jesus. Except I knew enough about Christianity to know that mocking and rebelling against your authority figures all week and then claiming holiness on one day of the week was a charade of the worst hypocrisy.
My society was one thing, though. I could ignore them. In fact, I had begun skipping most society meetings by escaping campus to get donuts at the Krispy Kreme down the street. In hindsight, and setting aside the breaking of the rules part, I’m sure that even my authority figures from the time would admit that getting donuts was a far more productive use of my time than attending Chi Delt’s society meetings. My girlfriend’s social sphere was a different story, though. I couldn’t really escape their hypocritical nonsense. And, this can’t be overstated, their hypocrisy irritated me.
During a lunch conversation when they were mocking BJU’s creed, I chimed in. Borrowing from Mark Twain’s Letter From the Earth, I asserted that it’s immoral for God to give us instincts and then punish us for acting on those instincts. “God’s the one who gave me the desire to have sex, right?” I asked. “Punishing me for acting on the desires He gave me makes Him unfair and unworthy of being trusted.”
My dinner companions were aghast and let me know that it was not okay to speak so sacrilegiously. Never mind that very few of them, if any, worried about obeying God’s sexual ethics, the scolding I received was eerily similar to the scolding I would’ve gotten from the most committed of Bible majors. At least the Bible major wouldn’t have had to pivot out of a conversation mocking the university’s statement of faith. I sat silently, stewing in the thought that they should either rebel or not rebel. “Pick a team,” I wanted to say.
Whether my perspective was justified or not, I viewed myself as possessing far more integrity than the so-called rebels of BJU. And that view of myself began to create tension between me and Bronwynne. My constant griping about her friends annoyed her. In turn, her defense of her friends annoyed me. A couple of weeks before the semester ended, and for no good reason other than a general irritation with her, I broke up with her.
Thinking it would soften the blow, I told her that I was still in love with my high school girlfriend (I wasn’t) and that it wasn’t fair to her (Bronwynne) for us to continue dating. She didn’t respond the way I imagined. Keep in mind, our quarrels about her friends aside, I had given her zero warning about what was coming. In fact, and those who attended BJU will understand the insensitivity of this, I broke up with her while we were sitting on a couch in the Dating Parlor.
The fact that she started crying angered me because I felt like she wasn’t really listening to my reason for breaking up with her. “Look,” I urged, “why in the world would you want to be with me since I’m in love with someone else?”
I didn’t know as much about females as I thought I did.
Later that summer, she had the chance to angrily (justifiably so) tell me what happened after I left her sitting on that couch. Understandably upset and embarrassed because everyone could see her crying, she had to make the long walk out of the dating parlor, down the curved stairs, and through the student center on her way back to her dorm, all while being forced to publicly display her hurt and humiliation. It’s no wonder that by the time I got back to my dorm, the guys on my hall had already heard the news.
No matter, though. I had ripped the Band-aid off and was free. The next day, I asked the freshman who sat next to me in my Lit class out on a date. At dinner, she naively said, “My roommates warned me not to go out with you. I’m glad I didn’t listen to them because they’re wrong. You’re really sweet.”
Leaving campus upon the conclusion of the semester, I promised that freshman that I’d write her that summer and that we’d reconnect the following semester. By July, the unanswered letters from her dried up. My sense of shame, or lack thereof, remained intact.
For the first time in a while, I left BJU with every intention of returning. While not perfect, that previous semester had been fun. May as well keep the party going for a while longer. Besides, I had finally figured out what I wanted to do with my life and I really enjoyed my theatre classes. Get some more acting training and then become a movie star, leaving Christianity far behind, I thought.
Before breaking up with Bronwynne, her mom had gotten me a summer job at the local library branch where she worked. On top of the normal first day on the job jitters, I was also anxious about how my ex’s mom would treat me when I stepped into the library. Turns out, she was nothing but kind and gracious. Also turns out that I really liked working in a library. My co-workers were diverse and interesting, ranging from conservative Christians to atheist lesbians. The work was easy and introduced me to scores of books and authors I had been unaware of. And, I landed my first paid acting gig through my job with the library system. I was hired to voice the narrator in the library system’s children story time. For the sake of consistency across all the Escambia County library branches, the main portion of the story was pre-recorded. It didn’t pay very much, nor did it require a lot of acting skill, but it was a paid acting gig!
The nearly daily visits Bronwynne paid her mom were another unexpected perk of the job. Seeing her away from campus, I began to wonder if I had made a mistake. Right away, her mom began smilingly including me in their conversations, and even asked me to join them for lunch, which I found a little surprising. Considering how poorly I had treated her daughter less than a month earlier, her apparent goal of getting us back together was odd. What I didn’t realize was that Bronwynne had painted me as a BJU preacher boy to her parents, even giving them a copy of the sermon cassette from when I had preached at my dad’s church. With a manipulated picture of me, her mom saw a future for her daughter that was completely mythical. Her efforts to get us to reconnect worked, though.
Our flirtations at the library quickly turned into phone calls. During one phone call about two weeks into the summer, Bronwynne told me that her parents were going to be out of town over the weekend. She then confessed that she wasn’t excited about being home alone overnight. I chivalrously offered to come stay with her. A proposal she readily accepted.
By the end of that weekend, we were officially back together again, to the delight of her parents who thanked me for watching out for their daughter while they were away. They had no idea what they were thanking me for, mirroring the naivety of many well-meaning conservative Christian parents, I’ve learned. They assumed that my watching out for their daughter stopped at dropping her safely off at the front door upon the conclusion of our evenings together.
The rest of the summer went great. I had a job that I enjoyed and a girlfriend. Owing to my anonymous benefactor, I also didn’t have any school debt, which took some of the pressure off me having to save every penny in order to return to BJU. So, with money to spend and freedom, Bronwynne and I partied that summer away. Minus the few weeks she was gone on a BJU mission trip, that is.
Returning to BJU for what should’ve been the first semester of my senior year was odd. As opposed to previous semesters, I didn’t really feel anything about returning. I didn’t care one way or the other; I was just there. Entering that semester, I didn’t care if I got kicked out and I didn’t care if I was considered a shining example of what a BJU student was to be. I was simply going to go do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted, and others could respond however they saw fit. Like the previous semester, but unlike the previous year, I didn’t begin the school year with the desire to create chaos and alienate myself from everyone around me. I had finally reached a point where I could drown out the noise of Christianity until I made my final exit, whenever that might be. In the meantime, I would focus on my theatre classes and Bronwynne.
God had other plans, though.
My new, better(?) attitude didn’t prevent me from once again being assigned to a hall leader’s room. Unlike my old hall leader roommate, though, my new hall leader roommate was openly antagonistic towards me from the get-go.
I don’t know what kind of information or advice was given to hall leaders about students that had the potential to cause problems, but my roommate appeared to have a predetermined idea of who I was and what I was going to do. To be fair, I guess, my history provided all the evidence needed, and looking back on it I can see how God used his zeal to force me out of my attitude of genuinely not caring; one step further down the road to me finally coming to the end of myself. Without the ability to peer into the future and discern God’s plan for my life, though, my roommate quickly became an irritating rock in my Dr. Marten boots.
Throughout my career as a BJU dorm student I rarely got in trouble for room violations. I always did my room job (my assigned area of cleaning) and I always honored the light bell (minus the contraband Walkman I would fall asleep listening to). I think that my willingness to adhere to those types of rules can be attributed to my time as a ranch hand at the Bill Rice Ranch. That, and the fact that I disliked a messy room and what was I supposed to do late at night stuck in a BJU dorm room, anyway? May as well go to sleep. Whatever the reason, I could be counted on to obey those rules, meaning that I was a pretty good roommate.
Ironically, during my final semester, I earned more demerits for room violations than anything else. And I honestly didn’t deserve the demerits. My hall leader roommate seemed to assume that since I was “bad” my rebellion would carry over into the room and he looked for reasons to lecture me; inventing reasons, if needed.
To my growing annoyance, I couldn’t do anything right that semester. Openly mocking my major and future career, he used his bully platform during the required nightly prayer groups to wax eloquent about the sinfulness of being an actor. He needled me about my poor academic performance, insisting that I would be better off transferring to the S.A.S. (BJU’s votech school). And he gave me constant grief about never going to church on Sunday evenings. Unlike my previous hall leader roommate who looked for opportunities to express his love and concern for me, my new hall leader roommate seemingly looked for opportunities to yell holier-than-thou platitudes at me. And let me tell you, love is a much harder prick to kick against than angry contempt.
Pushing my buttons even further, he once gave me demerits because he didn’t approve of how I had organized my books. To be clear, my books were not messy; he didn’t approve of my organization – as in, which books were next to each other. He insisted that my lack of approved bookshelf organization amounted to violating the part of my room job that required me to keep my stuff neat and tidy.
After challenging those demerits, the dorm supervisor, a man who is now a pastor in Colorado (and who plays into my story later), wisely overruled my roommate. My victory was pyrrhic, though. It only served to further motivate my roommate to make my life miserable.
By mid-terms, my roommate’s constant riding herd on me had pushed me out of my attitude of not caring and back to my attitude of “I hate this place and can’t wait to escape.”
To Bronwynne’s dismay, I began to once again openly display my contempt for BJU and Christianity. She pleaded with me to not get kicked out, adding that my actions could negatively affect her, and she wanted to graduate on time with as little hassle as possible. I tried to keep my rebellion somewhat under check for her sake, but the dam had finally burst and there was no going back.
One silly way that my rebellion manifest itself was through buttons that I pinned to my book bag. Peace symbols, the anarchist A (which I could probably type if I understood computers), a yin-yang button, and even a small button with a single marijuana leaf printed on it. The yin-yang and marijuana leaf buttons prompted the most noise.
Walking into chapel, class, the dining hall, or, really, anywhere on campus, I could hear the whispers of people behind me asking their companions, “Is that marijuana?”
Sometimes, it was incorrectly concluded that it was not a marijuana leaf. However, not once did any of those who knew what it was ever confront me. I’m not sure why not. Maybe my reputation preceded me, and they were wary about confronting me. Maybe they were so taken aback by my boldness that they were stunned into inactivity. Whatever the reason, I made it to the end of the semester with a marijuana leaf button on my book bag.
However, the yin-yang button prompted one of the dorm supervisors to stop me and inquire about it. He asked me if I knew what it meant. I informed him that I did and explained that it represented the male and female energies coming together to create nirvana. That, of course, was a deeper explanation than what I had always been told in fundamentalism. No doubt, that dorm supervisor was prepared to sternly caution me that the yin-yang is the blending of right and wrong exhibiting the belief that morality was subjective. My mostly correct yet still ill-informed explanation seemed to throw him off balance, and he asked me to visit him at his office later that week to discuss it further. I responded in the affirmative, and then walked away with zero intention of making that meeting.
The next week, he again stopped me on the sidewalk and told me that I had missed the meeting. I apologized, and then lied and told him that I had been unable to find his office. He kindly gave me directions and scheduled another meeting.
Rinse and repeat.
I don’t believe that he actually accepted my lies. It was my seventh semester as a BJU student. Obviously, I knew how to find his office. And while he may have been naïve about Eastern religions, he wasn’t an idiot, not by a long shot. Plus, he was used to discerning and dealing with the shenanigans of non-conforming students. I believe that his concern for my soul took precedence for him over my blatant disregard for his authority.
After about three weeks, he stopped pestering me to come to his office. However, I did receive an unannounced visit from my dorm counselor who fingered my books on Zen and Buddhism boldly staring out from the bookshelf above my desk. He then sat down.
That summer, while working in the library, I had read The Tao of Pooh and decided to give Taoism a try. My new religion quickly morphed into Buddhism because I was able to find more books on Buddhism than I could on Taoism. Besides, I didn’t know anyone who knew anything about Taoism. It’s hard to cause an effect when you have to explain yourself. A fundamentalist kid saying he’s a Buddhist in front of fundamentalists prompts an immediate reaction. Saying you’re a Taoist conjures up more blank stares than anything. My foray into Eastern religions lasted as long as my final semester as a BJU student. Once liberated, the ruse no longer shocked people.
That fall day of 1997, though, I lost some of my bravado when my dorm counselor looked me in the eyes and asked about my books. Waffling a little, I told him that I was interested in Buddhism and Taoism. Keeping his smiling gaze affixed on me, he asked if I considered myself a Buddhist.
Proving myself a coward, I mumbled, “I don’t know; I’m just trying to figure some stuff out.”
That proved to be the wrong answer because the dorm counselor then spent the next hour going through the Bible and showing me how Buddhism was a false religion. So, proving myself even more cowardly, I attempted to explain to him that he had misunderstood and that I didn’t want to become a Buddhist, I was just curious about the religion. I told him that I had the books purely as an academic endeavor, to learn.
Wisely, he ignored my protestations and continued to share the gospel with me while using the Bible to demonstrate the problems with Eastern religions. One thing that surprised me and hindered my ability to work up righteous anger at being “mistreated,” he never asked me to take the books of my shelf; he didn’t even ask me to take the yin-yang button off my bag.
When he left, he told me that he’d be praying for me and that his door was always open if I had any questions. I never took him up on his offer to talk, but I was never able to scrub my memory of his graciousness while he shared the gospel with me. Years later, during my darkest moments, that conservation haunted me.
Whatever else I had going on that semester was upended by the news that my beloved grandfather was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Some of the most comforting memories from my childhood were of crawling into my auto mechanic grandfather’s lap as he sat in his oversized recliner while he quietly read his worn Bible. The scratchiness of his five o’clock shadow, the smell of grease, oil, and Brut mixing together, and his strong arm around me were moments that made me feel utterly loved and safe.
He would pause his Bible reading and listen intently to whatever story I had to tell him. When I was finished, he would make his comments, and then quietly return to his Bible reading.
Repeating myself somewhat, during my darkest moments, my heart frequently went back to those times on my grandfather’s lap when I was a young boy.
By God’s grace, one of the things I’ve tried to carry into my life as a father is modeling reading my Bible quietly while my kids play around me and pausing that Bible reading to listen whenever they have something they want to tell me.
So, the news of my grandfather’s terminal cancer shook me.
As the semester concluded, it became obvious that my grandfather was swiftly nearing the end of his life. My family planned a trip to see him. We assumed, correctly, that it would be the last time all of us would be able to be together with him on this earth. The trip was scheduled for early December, which placed it outside of when BJU allowed for normal “cuts.”
The school did provide for emergency cuts, though, and my parents believed that the trip would qualify.
My brother applied for the emergency cuts before I did and was told that it did not qualify to be considered as an emergency. Fairly soon after his attempt to get emergency cuts, I ran into him, and he told me what the Dean of Men’s office had said. Even though our grandfather was dying, we would not be allowed to visit him with our family.
As my brother told me the Dean of Men’s office’s decision, my emotions about my grandfather mixed with all my doubts and questions about God as well as my desire to escape Christianity, specifically fundamentalism. In that moment, I decided that I was finished.
Angrily marching into the Dean of Men’s office, I didn’t even wait to be acknowledged before I began screaming at the shocked dorm supervisor behind the desk.
In a profanity laced tirade, I let everyone in the office (and everyone within earshot) know exactly what I thought about BJU and their rules. I informed the office that I didn’t care what they said, and that my brother and I would be visiting our dying grandfather. Upon my conclusion, not waiting to hear the response, I stormed out.
The reality is that the school would’ve allowed us to take emergency cuts. I don’t know if my brother didn’t explain the situation fully or if the person who told him that it didn’t qualify for emergency cuts was new at his job or was simply a zealous contrarian. The situation would’ve quickly resolved itself, and we would’ve been allowed to make the trip to see our grandfather. Regardless, I had reached the end of my career as a BJU dorm student.
My grandfather died a few weeks after my family’s visit. Shortly after the funeral, and like the previous January, my brother returned to BJU for the second semester while I stayed behind. Unlike the previous January, there was no chance that I would be returning.
No longer a godless fundamentalist, I was now just a godless man in full and open rebellion against my Creator and unaware of how very dark my life was going to become.
 Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (New York: Vintage Books, 2011), 6.