I became the person I am now at Bible college. This doesn’t mean I agree with everything I was taught, or even enjoyed myself the majority of the time I was there. But I learned a lot. I learned that the church is in shambles, that Christians can be shockingly argumentative and vindictive, and that the Bible is the richest text I have ever read—so full of color and struggle and life that all the other stories of our culture seem pale and bland.
I came to Bible college on a not-so-direct route. After high school (I graduated a year early, homeschooled and all that) I spent a couple of months doing missions in India, gawking at my first encounter with abject poverty and developing a hearty case of tapeworm. I lived in Alaska for several months; I had a brief fling with a Pentecostal school in southern California (the details of which I will save for another column). That ended badly, so with a bitter taste in my mouth I moved to Portland and attended community college, doing the usual things like solving the conflict in the Balkans in a single paper and hanging out with depressed people who smoked cigarettes. And then my sister and I did the whole backpacking-around-Europe thing, and it was over there that I felt like God was telling me to go to Bible college. I acted annoyed and put out, but secretly I was pleased to be getting some direction again.
I applied and was accepted to a Bible college in the heart of broken-down Portland, blocks away from infamous prostitution joints and tiny Vietnamese sandwich shops. My school is famous for its architecture, but not in the good way. Randall Balmer, in his excellent book of essays on American Evangelicalism, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory, notes in no small detail the ugly and utilitarian brick buildings that make up my school. Since that damning article came out, there have been several newer and splashier buildings built on campus—some even have natural lighting and arched ceilings!—but for the most part, the campus stands as a pantheon to conservative Christian thinking in regards to architecture: useful, not wasteful.
The unease with frivolity is a common fundamentalist position. Wary of becoming like their forefathers, who built beautiful and expensive churches only to see them become the equivalent of religious museums, in recent years the church has poured their resources into educating the children, creating Christian schools and colleges as an alternative to secular, liberal institutions. The reasons for this shift away from mainstream American culture are wide and varied, but one of the main reasons is because the church saw science taking prominence over religion in the academic sphere. Due to several highly publicized trials and events such as the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925 (basically the church vs. evolution, with creationism getting a severe beating), the church eventually realized it wasn’t going to win this particular battle. Some tried to blend in: we call those mainline Protestant denominations (or, liberals). Others withdrew and regrouped and focused on shoring up their own beliefs in order to convert others. My particular school was famous for adhering to very conservative beliefs, having been established in the 1950s—the veritable heyday of fundamentalism. They emphasized the Bible (duh), the doctrine of Inerrancy (the Bible is without error), and Moral Piety (right living).
I didn’t know any of this when I arrived on that campus, walking with a spring in my step that only a direct message from God can bring. History is lost on the young, anyways. So I was more than a little blindsided when I found myself surrounded by endless theological arguments in the student lounge, by countless displays of academic posturing in the classroom, by students and professors both who could parse sentences in Greek but seemed oblivious to the war in Afghanistan.
While I sat in my chair and quivered to hear the voice of God, everyone else seemed intent on arguing their way to heaven, forcibly trying to convert those who were already saved. I went to the thrice-weekly required chapels and sat in a back pew by myself, crying out of loneliness and disappointment and feeling much too old for all of this. The student body was made up of youth group leaders and missionary kids and future pastors and more than a few very lost souls, people who couldn’t make it anywhere else. I could tell stories, many stories, of the socially challenged: the halitosis and the mom jeans and the utter indifference to reality TV. But those stories wouldn’t do justice to the real and lovely people I met, no matter what their grasp of pop culture may be (none, as was the case with many). And the longer I was there, the more I realized how out to sea we all were, adrift in a confusing culture and looking to a Bible college for navigation.
Slowly, slowly, I started to realize how theology can affect everything, from relationships to architecture. One of the most important aspects of fundamentalism is the emphasis on Biblical inerrancy. At my school this was highly stressed, and people prided themselves on being able to argue their way to a rational and logical interpretation of scripture. The only problem was, they were all about 50 years too late. While everyone inside the walls was “proving” Jesus or transubstantiation or predestination or any other fancy words, the rest of the world had moved on. A cultural fixation on being “right” had shifted to one of being “whatever feels right to you, man” which had then shifted to a great big collective “meh.” Maybe we all knew this, deep down inside. Maybe that’s why everyone argued all the more, tinged with the weight of the world in their voices.
In between arguing, we were required to read the Bible. A lot. And despite my growing unease with my own fractious tribe, I totally fell hard for the Bible. I ate it up, devouring whole chunks instead of the itty-bitty pieces I had been taught to memorize as a child. All those grand stories started to help me understand the world as a whole. While we were in our own fortress of right thinking, the rest of the world was going to pieces, an age-old story of power and struggle and greed and lust. Through the Bible, I began to see the devil all around, keeping the world spinning after a carrot on a string, an empty promise of wanting and grasping. And in the Bible I read about Jesus, the one who gave up everything in order to save others—the first person to stop chasing after anything but God. And my fellow students and I were trying to do the same thing. It was a lovely sort of solidarity, established in our common belief that there was something impossibly more than what was being advertised. As evidenced by our clothes, we were not a materialistic bunch.
Looking back, I think it was my friendship with Somali Bantu refugees that saved me from some of the other fates of the Bible College graduate. There are those who choose to stay insulated inside the walls of academia, or church positions, continuing to have the same conversations and arguments the rest of their lives. And then there are the disillusioned, the dropouts, the countless bearded baristas and tattooed waitresses cluttering up the service industry in Portland, hiding their theological degrees like an STD. I found a way out, a way to live with one foot in the enclave and the other in a completely opposite world—and it saved me. I took classes on how to make the gospel contextual to Muslims, where I listened to theories and strategies and took furious notes. And then I would rush out the door, to my very-Muslim refugee friends, and try out all my new material. And I bombed, over and over and over again, failing to present the gospel in any relevant way to the Somali Bantu. I received blank looks, condescending pats on the knee, annoyed brush-offs and more than a few intense confrontations. But each failure was just devastating enough that I would resolve to dust myself off, go read some more Bible, and try again the next day. It only made me more passionate, driven, and willing to try anything. Eventually, I learned to listen, which is without a doubt the most important missionary skill set.
Some people still need to learn that lesson.
Those three years of trudging up rain-soaked sidewalks, sitting in dingy orange chairs under flickering fluorescent lights, doubting and questioning and ultimately believing in it all at the end, are still a mystery to me. More than ever, I don’t want to work in a church. I have yet to usher a single soul into the kingdom of God. Even more alarming, I feel the gradual slip to believe in the American dream, that I am destined and deserving of making something of myself. Outside of Bible college, the realities of life are such that I start to want to build a fortress of my own, where I live by money and not by faith, where I find my value in places other than God.
And then I think about those horrible buildings, the utilitarian brick and mortar of my Christian education, and take a deep breath. There are things more important than stained glass, or 401(k)s, or having a backyard. There are stories to be listened to, a kingdom to be established, a life to be lived for the sake of others.