The Expat Worshipper, Part Three (Or: Bob Jones, the United States Supreme Court, and the Wizard of Oz)

I’ve already told you that I’m more likely to worship at a Starbucks than at a church.

The time I usually find myself most in need of a Starbucks is when going on a road trip. Before my kids can even say Are we there yet or I need to go to the bathroom, I will already have craned my neck this way and that to spot what is so ubiquitous in urban areas but woefully absent in the countryside. Which of course is what you’re driving through on your typical road trip.

I’m not even sure if it’s the caffeine I find myself so in need of, or the sheer diversion of the one interruption that doesn’t involve a toilet or a gas pump. Either way, it always works like a charm. Between the anticipation of soon getting to the Starbucks exit and the slow sipping of my grande non-fat extra foamy latte afterwards, I usually get a good two hours entertainment out of the whole spiel.

When we recently found ourselves about four hours into a nine-hour road trip to South Carolina, I felt myself growing tired. Noisette, in a move he has perfected over the years, had flown there directly due to a delayed flight returning from Germany the day before, leaving me on my own with a car full of kids and bags. This never fails to work for him when a road trip is looming. Though I had Zax and his newly-acquired drivers’ license to take turns with, I wasn’t much rested. Anyone who has acted as driving instructor to their teenage children will understand that rest is the very last thing you get while sitting in the passenger seat.

We were cruising across the bible belt and not a single Starbucks was forthcoming.

So consider the irony that what should come to the rescue in my hour of need was Christianity itself. Jesus is Lord, and you know it! was written on a gigantic billboard towering over everything else somewhere past Atlanta. You couldn’t possibly miss it. Zax and I were both staring at it for long seconds, and I couldn’t help remarking that you’d probably be hard pressed finding a sign proclaiming Mohammed is Lord in a similar fashion. No one in their right mind would voluntarily descend into that pit of vipers. Remember the controversy erupting in Dallas, or was it New York, over some advertising by an atheist group on city buses? And the more recent spat over the “assault” on Santa Claus? Somehow, this country’s lauded freedom of religion always seems to be skewed in one particular direction.

the expat worshipper
I didn’t have the presence of mind to take a picture of “Jesus is Lord and you know it”, so I went and found “Jesus is Real” by Quinn Dombrowski on Flickr.

Though I was annoyed by the billboard, it provided salvation. The matter of biased and self-righteous Christians somehow got me thinking of Bob Jones University, perhaps because we were headed for South Carolina, and I had barely mentioned that name when Zax Googled it on his iPhone and, over the course of the next two hours, regaled me with excerpts from the Bob Jones University Rule Book, each one more unbelievable than the last. No caffeine needed.

For instance, did you know that Bob Jones does not allow any physical contact between unmarried men and women on and off campus? That wherever you go as a student, you need a chaperone? That students are only allowed to go out in groups of uneven numbers, i.e. three girls and two boys, rather than two and two? To make sure there is always one unmatched single who – I’m sure this is the intention – can act as a snitch regarding the aforementioned physical contact? That only a few elect students, after earning advanced privileges, may access open/mixed media websites, whatever that means? That everyone has to attend chapel every day of the week, in addition to also patronising all religious services at an off-campus “fundamental” church?

I am very familiar with this last rule, having myself been subjected to it once. It must have been in the mid-90s, when Noisette and I were living in Raleigh, NC. My friend Anna* from Germany, who I had played basketball with, had married an American and was now studying at Bob Jones University with him. Greenville, SC, isn’t all that long a drive from Raleigh, and so one day I decided to visit her. I was aware that Anna was very religious, because her refusal to play any Sunday basketball games had always been a thorn in our coach’s side. As our point guard she was our most important player, which meant we usually lost on Sundays. It never seemed to faze her, and we made our peace with it.

Stepping onto the Bob Jones campus was like traveling back in time. Or into Amish country. All the girls, including Anna, were dressed in long flowing skirts (the safe choice, given that the Rule Book section spends pages on the exact measurements of skirts and slits in skirts and cleavage-avoiding necklines). There were neither beards no horse-drawn buggies, unfortunately. Those I could have dealt with. And I would have loved to see more of the campus, but all I recall from that visit was just a very long session in church. I more or less arrived and was dragged right to the Wednesday evening service. I admired Anna’s enthusiasm at the time, but now I realize it was her obedience to the Rule Book that prompted her to make me come along instead of spending a nice evening together with a glass of wine in the married student dorm. Oh wait, that would of course have been forbidden too. I think I stayed one night, but by next morning, faced with another schedule of more religious services during which once again I’d have had to endure being condemned as a terrible sinner, I decided to depart.

It wasn’t really attending chapel that bothered me. I love to hear a good sermon, much like I enjoy any good speaker, and I’ve come away incredibly inspired from some of them. But this guy was neither good nor inspiring. More draining, if I remember correctly, going on and on about the dangers of music and dancing and having a good time. Evils lurk in having a good time, was the message.

No, what really bothered me were some of the things Anna would mention sort of on the side, revealing how much brainwashing was going on. It was really a good thing to keep the races separate on campus, she informed me, keeping away all sorts of problems that interacting with black people might create. In fact, I think she might have used the word “darkies.” Not having the maturity in those days to engage in a heated debate that might endanger our friendship, I fled.

There really used to be a ban on interracial dating at Bob Jones University. Guess when it was lifted? In the year 2000. Thirteen measly years ago. And only because a campus visit by George Bush as a presidential candidate caused a media uproar the university found too tough to stand up against. But it had successfully stood up to the United States Supreme Court, which in 1983 ruled in an 8-1 decision that religious institutions such as Bob Jones could very well be stripped of their tax-exempt status as nonprofits if they engaged in racially discriminatory practices. They were ruled against, but that didn’t keep them from sticking to their guns. Screw the tax exemption, and screw the consequences. Incidentally, the lone dissenter in the ruling, meaning he sided with Bob Jones, was William Rehnquist the former chief justice, who was succeeded by John Roberts, the current chief justice.

If you’re thinking about attending Bob Jones University and enjoy the occasional relaxing moment with only the Playlist on your iPod to keep you company, think again. Chances are very very high that none of what you have on there is permissible as per the Rule Book. I’m afraid Rock, Pop, Country (Country, for crying out loud!), Jazz, Electronic/Techno, and Rap/Hip Hop are all verboten for their failure to glorify God sufficiently, even when they are set to Christian lyrics. Which is why for good measure headphones are verboten too, unless used in a study lounge for academic purposes. (I killed at least twenty good miles of road trip trying to think of a song I know that doesn’t fall into any of those categories; this being the Christmas season, I came up with Silent Night.)

And then, briefly: “In a related area, dancing is not permitted.” That’s it. Not even any further elaboration or staggered privileges for, say, upperclassmen or engaged couples. While we are at it, forget any magazines like Esquire or People. And any stray clothing from Abercrombie & Fitch. They are blacklisted, not just by genre but specifically by name. The funny thing is, Benetton makes no appearance on the no-no clothing list, by virtue of being European and therefore, perhaps, too far away from the would-be-censors’ imaginations. Ignorance is bliss, I suppose. I just hope they never Google “suggestive Benetton ads,” like I just did. Or maybe that is precisely a Bob Jones University Rule Book author’s favorite passtime, who knows?

By now you’re probably thinking, I get the Bob Jones part, and I get the United States Supreme Court part, but how the hell does she bring the Wizard of Oz into this? Well, it’s easy. Because what else do you think is banned in the Bob Jones Rule Book? You got it, movies. But, mind you, not all movies. While you’re not permitted to watch any movie on campus (except in class, where a faculty or staff member is present and objectionable elements – I’m thinking the dinosaurs in Ice Age, for example – can be discussed), you are indeed permitted to watch a movie in a private home. As long as it’s a G-rated movie. Even the girls, who’ve enjoyed their fair share of G-rated movies in their time and are better at self-censoring than either Noisette or I can ever aim for (let’s just say we have, ahem, suggested films like Hangover III and We are the Millers as a family movie in the past, prompting the girls to get up and leave, disgusted about 10 minutes in), well even the girls were incensed about the prospect of a life without PG-rated movies. And they are not anywhere close to college age yet.

Of all the rules Zax and I plowed through that day, we found what we called the Wizard-of-Oz-rule the most ridiculous of all. There is no way, in my mind, that even at this very moment not a good portion of Bob Jones students are breaking that precise rule. And not out of any un-Christian thoughts, but out of pure curiosity. It makes me think of one of my favorite books from a few decades ago, The Name of the Rose by Umberto Ecco (which also comes as a movie with Sean Connery, an R-rated one to be sure), a tale of love and murder and power and knowledge woven around a set of forbidden books.It takes place in the Middle Ages aka known as The Good Old Days according to Bob Jones, Sr.

If you are looking for any further reading on the topic, you can just search for Bob Jones University Press Christian textbooks. The reviewers there will save you the trouble of actually having to open one of those to find out if the Ku Klux Klan was really as evil as it’s made out to be in most mainstream history books, or if it wasn’t rather a much-needed and benevolent organization we should all be grateful for.

I crossed paths with Anna one more time before we finally drifted out of each other’s lives. That time she came to visit a friend in Raleigh and made a stop at our house on the way there, her now 4-year old son in tow, who was exactly the same age as Zax. I just so happened to have Zax’s birthday party going on that day and offered to let her son stay at our house while she visited the friend. She seemed glad to get away, but not before sharing her parenting philosophy with me: “We believe in corporal punishment,” she informed me. “We’re not afraid to beat our kids to show them the right way.” And it worked like a charm. The minute she was gone, this boy proceeded to beat up Zax and the other kids. It was probably the first day in his life that he was introduced to the concept of a timeout.

In the end, I’m not entirely sure why Bob Jones University even bothers with the Rule Book. “Because God inspired the Bible, it contains no errors and can be trusted to provide infallible guidance” is how the whole thing more or less begins. Why not just look up the chapter on interracial dating and R-rated movies right at the source? Are they afraid the bible might be just a bit contradictory were you to try and follow it word for word?

The ultimate authority on that, of course, is AJ Jacobs in The Year of Living Biblically. But I have a feeling he might also be blacklisted in the Bob Jones University Rule Book, because I remember laughing out loud more than once when reading his great work. Which probably means that he was using foul language.

* As for most people appearing on my blog, including stuffed animals, this name is an alias.

Okay, so I’ve pretty much just bashed Bob Jones University in this post and nothing much else. Not a very Christian thing to do. And also not a lot of differentiated thinking going on. But really, this just started out as a blog post about a road trip. I don’t have a beef with Christianity itself. Just with hypocrites. And I’m sure every religion has its fair share of those. Just like every religion has its share of saintly people. Speaking of saintly people and to end this article on a positive note, I just finished David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell and the chapter about the Huguenot pastor André Trocmé and how he put his life on the line in a French village during WWII to protect Jewish refugees brought tears to my eyes.

Expat Worshipper Series:

The Expat Worshipper
The Expat Worshipper, Part Two (Or: A Christian-Owned Business)
The Expat Worshipper, Part Three (Or: Bob Jones, the United States Supreme Court, and the Wizard of Oz)

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