A Godless Fundamentalist: Chapter Eight – Pushing Buttons at Bob Jones University

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Andrew K's picture

Besides, I didn’t know anyone who knew anything about Taoism. 

Because it's really more of a natural philosophy + a plan for immortality via becoming a hermit, eating herbs, and engaging in bizarre and painful practices of which we will not here speak. Which tends to limit some of the appeal among the trendy youth. Smile If it actually allowed you to fly on clouds with enough self-cultivation, though, it would totally be worth it.

John E.'s picture

I didn't really know anything about Taoism at the time either. I was just .... searching for answers, and attempting to push people's buttons at the same time.

Bert Perry's picture

Ever more expirational.....count me as one who also does not understand Taoism except for C.S.Lewis' throwaway line in "Mere Christianity". 

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Bruce Rettig's picture


I continue to read your story with great interest. As I think about your experiences, and how hard you pushed back against God, I am struck by how great God is. Not because you were spectacularly rebellious, but because we are all rebel enemies of God who are only saved by God’s redemptive intervention into our lives of sin. His mercy and grace are truly amazing.


O taste and see that the Lord is good:

Blessed is the man that trusteth in him. 

Psalm 34:8

John E.'s picture

Yes, God's mercy and grace are truly amazing. No matter how our rebellion is manifest, God's mercy and grace is far more powerful and effective. One of the things that I want people to take away from this series is the desire to consistently preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to their children. No matter how much I tried, there was never a time when I was able to free myself from the faithful teaching and preaching of the many people that God, in His mercy, kindly inserted into my life. 

AndyE's picture

This series has been very hard for me to read, primarily because I have no shared context to relate to John’s personal story. I was a Christian growing up on the West coast, going to CE (at best) Christian schools.  I never got the sense that any one was faking anything. Very few of my peers seemed to be sold out for God and most lived marginal Christian lives. Hardly anyone sang in chapel; there was lots of CCM; I hated going to the restroom because of the terrible things I would hear people talk about in there.

Then I went to BJU for college. Honestly, to me it was like Heaven on earth.  I was surrounded by peers that seemed to love the Lord, who sang heartily during hall meetings and chapels, and on the bus to church.  I had roommates who challenged me to live for the Lord, who showed me blind spots that I had as a kid coming from the West coast. We had prayer meetings in the dorms that taught me how to pray. I remember many nights stopping on the Bridge of Nations and just spending time in prayer, all by myself. We had great guys in my society and those meetings were fun and encouraging. I maybe didn’t “like” all the rules but I was thankful for them.

Then I read this last installment by John and I can barely contain my emotions.  His Bob Jones experience is so foreign to mine I can hardly believe it. I guess there must have been the same sorts of things going on when I was there but that was not the crowd I ran with or had any interaction with, or maybe if I did they just hid it from me, or didn’t flaunt it, or maybe I blocked it out. I can’t believe all the people who just looked the other way. I hardly know what to think….

John E.'s picture

Thank you for your comment. It's helped reveal that maybe I didn't communicate what I wanted as well as I thought with this last chapter. 

Like you, while I was at BJU I was surrounded by peers who genuinely loved God and were pursuing holiness. But, there was a subset of students who were rebelling against God. I'm not sure what years you attended, but my society was known for their explicit rebellion against the school. When I joined Chi Delt, my sister, who was a junior at the time, was not happy about it and let me know. Naturally, because of my rebellion against God, I had more interaction with that subset than did the vast majority of the students. And there were things going on that very few people were aware of. Wherever groups of people are congregated, there will be sin. 

More importantly, though, and what I tried to communicate in this chapter, is that God placed several people in my life during that time that did not look the other way but who were more concerned about my soul than they were with my adherence to external rules. With this chapter of my story, I wanted to push back on the narrative that attempts to paint BJU as a cold, ungracious place filled with legalists.

Andy, you ended your comment saying that you hardly know what to think. I would like for you (and other readers) to come away from reading it praising God for those in my life that were willing to suffer my obnoxious rebellion for the sake of the gospel and who preached the gospel to me. Years after this chapter, I would get high in an attempt to silence my fears and questions. The "problem" was that while high, I would often replay conversations that I had with people at BJU and others throughout my life that graciously shared the gospel with me. I would get so angry in those moments. I didn't want to have anything to do with God, and in the moments in which I thought I was the farthest away from my fundamentalist upbringing, I would remember, for example, my first hall leader roommate telling me that he and his girlfriend were praying for me, even as I scoffed. It helped drive me out of my atheism and into an anger against God that eventually broke me. 

No matter how far I tried to run, the Holy Spirit  never let me escape my BJU roommates, dorm supervisors, dorm counselors, professors, parents, and other faithful Christians. And ultimately, because of their faithfulness, the Holy Spirit never let me escape the gospel.

AndyE's picture


I sort of get what you are trying to do, and I appreciate those parts that show how God used people in your life to ultimately bring you to a place of repentance.  This picture you paint of this subculture that somehow manged to exist (thrive?) within the BJU community is what I'm having a hard time with. I attended BJU about a decade before you -- mid 80's.

The big question I have with your series, though, is how your parents handled your situation.  I have a son who is a freshman at BJU now and two teenage girls.  I would say they are genuinely saved and show fruits of repentance in their lives.  But I read your series and I wonder if it could be possible for them to be deceiving me.  I don't think they are. I want to think I would see through them being fake, like it seems you were doing back in the day.  How did your parents not see what was going on with you? Or did they?  Is this a future chapter?

David R. Brumbelow's picture

Andy E.,

I would also echo some of your thoughts.  Though I never went to BJU, I’ve heard many good things about it through the years. 

I attended HBU, graduated from ETBU and SWBTS.  In all those schools I encountered wonderful, loving, committed Christians who I considered true believers. 

And, in every one of those schools there are those who live nothing like a follower of Christ.  Some of those were preacher’s kids.  When preacher’s kids and deacon’s kids get out on their own, you find out if their faith was simply their parents or really their own. 

When you get to a Christian school, you can follow either crowd you choose. 

John E.,

You are a very good writer, but I would encourage you to include more of your last comment here, in that future writing.  At times I’ve wondered if your point was just to trash and make fun of BJU, the Bill Rice Ranch, and Christian schools. 

David R. Brumbelow

John E.'s picture

David, thank you for your advice, I will take it to heart. My intention is not to trash or mock BJU, the BRR or Christian schools, in general. As I wrote in the very first post in the series, I'm also not planning on ignoring the flaws that I perceive in the system. Being honest about what happened, both good and bad within the system, and about my own responsibility can be a hard line to toe, but it's a line that I've chosen to walk and I need to endeavor to be just. I am eternally grateful for my childhood years. I encourage you to read the tribute that I wrote for my mom (if you haven't already). I'll provide the link below. I am eternally grateful for my years at the BRR and BJU. 

Lord willing, I'm planning on expanding this series into a book. I'm using these shorter posts to help me collect and organize my thoughts, as well as receive feedback like yours. As I read back over it, one flaw in my writing that I see is that I've been too sloppy with thematic through-lines-of-action. 

Andy, if your children are showing fruits of repentance, then I would praise God for that and continue preaching the gospel to them. By the time I was in late elementary, it's hard for me to believe that any authority figure in my life could've made the claim about me that you have about your kids. Remember, I was only faking it as far as I needed in order to not be hassled. I never pretended to be a "good" Christian (minus that one year and half that I was a BJU preacher boy). 

As far as my parents, my dad is a good old boy from the deep south and having a son who is all up in his feelings (me) makes us somewhat of a mystery to each other. That's not a criticism, that's just stating it the way it is. I'm not sure what he thought during my high school years. And I've never asked him. Frankly, and I can't really explain this, I don't know how. I wish I did, though.

By the time my rebellion was on full display in front of him (beginning with being fired from the BRR), I think that he was so shell shocked as to not know how to respond. I saw it in his eyes and in his response to me on the drive home after he picked me up. I've never seen my dad seemingly despair so much as I did on that long drive home. I mean, just a few months earlier, I had preached at his church. I am mortified and deeply sorry for my callousness towards him starting that summer and for the next decade. From that time on, I moved so quickly into a world that is so far outside of the scope of most parent's imagination of what their kids are capable of that I would imagine that he did the only thing he really could - pray and continue to let me know that he loved me. Brother, you wrote about being emotional while reading it. Imagine reliving it while writing it and realizing, again, how deeply I hurt people who loved me.

During my twenties, my mom would often say to me after I would try to argue with her about God, "John, I don't want to argue with you. I just want you to know that I love you; God loves you; and I'm praying for you." Right before she died, she told me that out of all her children, I was the one that she had always worried the most about. So, even as I was growing up, my mom was aware that something wasn't right. She was very faithful in teaching me God's Word. If I could pinpoint one earthly variable that God used to draw me to Himself, it was my mom. 


Larry Nelson's picture

David R. Brumbelow wrote:

John E.,

You are a very good writer, but I would encourage you to include more of your last comment here, in that future writing.  At times I’ve wondered if your point was just to trash and make fun of BJU, the Bill Rice Ranch, and Christian schools. 

I've simply taken his account, up until the present chapter, to be a reflection of his spiritual state/condition during those years, leading up to the present.....

Being the product of 12 years in a CDS myself, I can relate to much of what John E. writes, in that even then is was (or later became) apparent that many of the kids were, in fact, not Christians.  Some made little pretense; others were VERY good at playing the role because they were expected to, only to later renounce Christ/Christianity.  I know of some peers who went off to (and even graduated from) fundamental schools (Pillsbury, Maranatha, BJU) who today haven't walked through a church door in years....... 

This may surprise some on SI, but in contrast the students who I met at the University of Minnesota who were/are Christians were a breath of fresh air compared to many of the "Christian" students I knew at my CDS.  NONE of them (at the U of M) were role playing; without the expectation on campus that they "be" Christians, they identified as Christians because they were in fact genuinely so.

Bert Perry's picture

It's worth noting that one of the most dangerous things one can do when one gets a story that doesn't conform to our expectations is to assume that it's merely malicious.  We may eventually decide to interpret the data in another way, but a rule of thumb for those in customer service is that for everyone who actually complains to you, there are about a dozen people who complain to others.  

In this case, John represents a bunch of people--Larry knows some of them, and so do I--whose spiritual growth was a flat line in Bible college.  One hypothesis I'd work with is that if you're monitoring the externals, you are squandering the effort you could otherwise devote to learning about where they were in Christ.

Along those lines, my experience at Michigan State is that there were plenty of pew-sitters coming there and quickly joining the party scene, and that made their rebellion obvious, and since we also had a lot of new Christians there, we all also knew what the peace sign was, what a marijuana leaf looked like, what the symptoms of a hangover were, and so on.  Ironically there was far less ambiguity about where one stood with Christ there than at BJU, and people grew amazingly despite not having daily chapel and the like.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

kirkedoyle's picture

John, thank you for taking the time to write this.  I have been hoping that this was leading to a book, I'll be at the front of the line when it is published.  Because I have interacted with some of your previous writing I had a pretty good idea where you were coming from, but I will say that I've greatly appreciated the occasional glimpses into your current view of the past circumstances.  It's a momentary relief of tension and a reminder to the reader that you don't romanticize what you're describing, nor do you vilify the believers that surrounded you.  Rather, I feel that they come across like most of us.  Genuine, but flawed.  I say continue to shine the light on those flaws, because they are not just theirs.  They are many of ours. 


I've read several of your chapters with a mix of sorrow, joy, and fear at the thought of my own two teenage girls.  I plan to have them read this entire story when it is complete and use it as a jumping off point to discuss with our family.  Our oldest daughter will soon be a senior (public school, so a different - though maybe not that different - set of circumstances) and will more than likely attend one of the two Universities that you mention most often for her Nursing degree.  I think this will be helpful to prepare for that.  Thank you, again.

Bert Perry's picture

I must admit that some external factors do give a hint where a person is spiritually.  For example, I once met a guy who claimed Christ, but had a pile of Playboy magazines on his desk.  I asked him why on earth he'd want that, and invited him to church.  He didn't show up to my knowledge, and that was an indication to me that, at the time, he was just not interested--one can quibble over "backslidden" vs. "unregenerate", but not over the fact that he appeared to be not interested at the time.  

The place where these externals become really problematic is when they seem to be a substitute for real measures of spirituality, in my view, and especially when those externals really diverge from the testimony of Scripture.  For example, that jeans rule, or hair checks.  


Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

John E.'s picture

You're welcome. And thank you for your kind words. I've been receiving emails from people who have been reading, and the responses, like yours and others here on SI, are humbling and encouraging. While this series hasn't been easy to write at times, it's been good to rehearse God's grace in my life.  

G. N. Barkman's picture

John, I didn't think you were very critical of BJU or BBR.  Having never been to BBR myself, I have nothing there to relate to, except its similarity to other Fundamentalist ministries of which I was immersed in my earlier days.  As a twelve year veteran of BJA/BJU, I can relate to much of what you describe there.  However, we were several decades apart, and my experiences were clearly more positive than yours.  My society, for example, was a source of spiritual strength and blessing.  I am still in contact with several of my society brothers who are faithfully serving Christ.  I am left to wonder if BJU changed from my time to yours, or if I just didn't come in contact with the large number of cool kids you describe.  Maybe I just wasn't cool enough!  I saw some what you described with the hypocrite crowd, but there just weren't that many in my experience.  Over all, my experience was much more positive than negative.  

But back to your articles, I think you have done a wonderful job describing your unregenerate experiences, and painting BJU in a favorable, though realistic light.  I have long considered that BJU was much, much better than its critics believed, but not quite as good as its leaders believed.  After all, its a Christian institution consisting of redeemed, but not fully sanctified fallen sons and daughters of Adam.

G. N. Barkman

dcbii's picture


AndyE wrote:

I guess there must have been the same sorts of things going on when I was there but that was not the crowd I ran with or had any interaction with, or maybe if I did they just hid it from me, or didn’t flaunt it, or maybe I blocked it out. I can’t believe all the people who just looked the other way. I hardly know what to think….

Andy, it all depended on what you were looking for.  If you wanted a Christian environment where your faith could grow, BJU definitely provided that.  You were looking for that and found it.  I was also there in the early 80's, and heard plenty about the individuals and even groups of students who were campused, socialed, or expelled, so I knew that there was plenty going on.  I can't speak for you, but I also saw students that were clearly "biding their time," and were not there because they wanted to be, and I certainly heard plenty of sideways comments that gave me a clue as to where they stood.  I suspect that if I had been similarly inclined, the "underside" of BJU culture would have been revealed.  Except in a couple cases where I thought I could actually be of help, I went out of my way to avoid interacting in any personal way with those types of students.  I kind of saw it as being true to Psalm 1, even if at times I should have been more caring.  A proper balance there was beyond my wisdom at the time.  I also intentionally "looked the other way" rather than dig into some of the more subtle clues (like the buttons or clothing items John describes).  I had enough of my own troubles without asking for any.

Although I wanted a Christian environment, I wasn't thankful for all the rules at first, and I didn't see BJU as "heaven on earth."  I made my peace with the rules, since I had agreed to follow them, but it took until later in my college career before I really appreciated what BJU offered in terms of the Christian environment.  It was obvious to me even early on that most of the instructors and staff really cared about us and wanted to model the Christian life, and that was a big encouragement to me, especially when I got more frustrated with some of the rules I found stupid or in my opinion, even wrong, like the interracial dating rule.  Even more than the rules themselves, it was the way that even rules that were there for practicality were defended as spiritual necessity by some that really annoyed me.  But again, when God would point out in my heart that my attitude was even more of the issue, those side issues mostly went away.  BJU could truly be what I made of it.

Today, I certainly see BJU, even with its faults at the time, as way more of a positive than a negative.  I agree with Pastor Barkman -- BJU was way better than what the critics claimed, but not as perfect as its admirers with rose-colored glasses claimed.  My memories of what God did for me during those years (in spite of my hard-headedness, and even my hard heart) were good.  But any institution made by men, even godly men, can be improved.

As to knowing your children's hearts -- well, you don't.  "Man looketh on the outward appearance..."  We can only judge the heart imperfectly.  One of my own children gave every indication of being a believer down to spending time with God, discussing spiritual things, wanting to go on mission trips and do things for God (or so it appeared), and even writing some of her personal thoughts about knowing God's will and getting closer to God.  She met someone (at BJU no less) who turned her heart (though perhaps she was already wanting to go away from God), and now she does not consider herself a Christian.  I hope and pray that, like John, the godly influences that have been in her life will eventually be used by God to turn her to himself.  Pray constantly for your children, as only God knows their hearts.

Dave Barnhart

AndyE's picture

Dave -- I'm sorry to hear that story about your daughter.  I will be praying for her.  My daughters are teens now and my son is a freshman. They are growing quickly into adulthood -- way too quickly!  If nothing else, this series has led me to do exactly what you recommend - pray more fervently for my kids.

John E.'s picture

Dave, I too will be praying for your daughter. 

My eldest is only now entering her teenage years, and even after having feasted on God's mercy and grace, I must confess that I find my faith wavering at times as I think about the power of sin and my kids' future. All I can do is continue to preach the gospel to them, love them, and lean on your good word, Dave, "Pray constantly for your children, as only God knows their hearts."

Ken S's picture

Having been raised in a similar environment as John E, this series really resonates with me. On the topic of praying for our children, one thing that has really stood out to me throughout this series is that I can regulate conformity in my own home in much the same way as John described in the Christian school setting. In the last few years I have worked very hard to not parent my children in such a way that they obey and externally conform because of parentally instilled fear or parental expectations. While we do have discipline and structure in our home, I have wanted my kids to understand their faith must be their own and not mine, and that I am always ready to help them work through issues of faith they may have, no matter what they may be. It's a lot harder to parent this way, and it's also hard to stay away from the model of enforcing conformity. I've realized that growing up in a Christian home is not enough for me to expect that my kids will automatically turn out well, and that ultimately much of how they turn out is not dependent on me but on their response to God in their own hearts. As others have said, prayer is so important and there are times when I have felt lost as a parent and prayer was truly my only resource.