God’s Harvard: A Teacher Engages, part Three

I realize that I’ve probably spent too much time on this series already, but since higher education is where I spend my professional life and where I do most of my political thinking. (Church is the place I spend the next most mental energy. The federal government is relatively low on the list.) So this book, largely an exercise in looking at Christian colleges and at what (for lack of a better term) I’ll call the Religious Right from an outsider’s perspective, is just my thing. At any rate, this will likely be the penultimate installment in this series, and I think that I might do some more college-related pieces in the future, even if I don’t do these lengthy book engagements.

Written Law and Oral Law

Rosin’s fifth chapter dances away from the brewing faculty-administration conflict once more and takes a look at one student, Farahn Morgan, for the sake of examining the culture of a small evangelical college. Farahn, unlike some of her compatriots, did not intend at first to enroll at Patrick Henry, but when her roommate at Virginia Tech turned into a nightmare, she made moves quickly to transfer (126). The chapter starts when, because of a misunderstanding about a bra strap, Morgan must pay a visit to Dean Wilson’s office to contest the dress code violation. Wilson is the real focus of the first part of the chapter: Rosin’s archetype for the Promise Keepers-generation “new man,” his macho-covered sentimentality makes him a favorite in some circles and “a meathead unworthy of his high-minded surroundings” (132) in others.

Wilson’s job as Dean of Students is to enforce those “prudential” rules (134) that define life at PHC. As Rosin notes, the offenses with which he usually deals involve “a night of drinking, a broken curfew, an errant bra strap, an overheard curse” (ibid.). In other words, Wilson’s job is to enforce the unofficial vice code (smokin’, drinkin’, chewin’, and screwin’, as we used to say at Milligan) that the parents expect him to enforce. His meeting with Farahn is uneventful, but she still knows that her time at PHC is going to be a time living with her peers’ surveillance and her administrators’ disapproval.

If the guidance that the culture gives her fits too tightly, PHC students often find that divine guidance plays too fast and too loose. While the prevailing culture would hold that discerning the divine will is like “a sixth sense” (148), many students, Farahn included, find themselves running into more and more doubt about the divine sanction of PHC, its mission, and the folks who seem still to be in the system and of the system:

What put Farahn in a really bad mood was sitting next to one of the kids in morning chapel who smiled stupidly and loudly groaned, “Mmmmmmm” throughout the sermon, no matter how banal. “Nowhere in the scriptures does it say you have to plaster a fake smile on your face and be happy, happy all the time,” she said. (150)

Farahn, one of those PHC students “highly conscious that she was blooming in a very tight space” (150), stands in stark contrast to Derek Archer, the student whose story begins the book and whose campaign adventures occupy the sixth chapter.

The War Room

The minutiae of campaign trail strategy have been the subject matter for so many news reports lately that I won’t bother with most of the chapter, which deals with some of PHC’s students, Derek Archer among them, as they go door-to-door and canvass for Jerry Kilgore’s losing 2005 gubernatorial bid.

The interesting part of this chapter is the PHC students’ reactions when news comes in that Kilgore has in fact lost. The scene begins with Archer:

He had been swept away on one of those oceans of prayer that sometimes overtake Christians in hours of desperation, confusion, and need. [The PHC students and their high school aged helpers] stood close, in circles of twenty or more, eyes closed and bodies pressed against bodies, nobody worried or noticing. They held each other up as if they were in a mosh pit. There was no leader or obvious direction, but the words flowed smoothly, coming from here, now from over there, like waves of light:

“Dear Lord. Please help us to understand. We campaigned with all of our hearts for Kilgore. Please help us to get over this.”

“Lord, please help us to learn from this, to understand.”

“Lord, regardless of who wins, You are in control.”

“Yes, Lord, it’s not about Democrat or Republican. We are working for You. Whoever You put in office, that’s in Your control.”

“Lord, You have Your reasons. I just pray You help us accept that.”

Later, much later, when he had opened his eyes again, Derek began to work through it. “I don’t think I approached this race with quite the sincerity as I did last year. Last year I took it more seriously. I prayed a lot more.” (165-66)

That closing passage, I admit, disturbed me. I wrote not long ago that I’ve more or less stopped watching televised sports, and this is the reason. These kids put their hearts and their souls basically into cheerleading, and when their team lost, they took it personally. Whatever goods potentially might have come of a Kilgore victory, I do wonder whether these kids in particular and folks in general would be better off living out a local politics rather than the grand horse races. But enough of that editorial.

My only presidential election during college was Dole versus Clinton, and given that Dole was a pro-abortion Republican, I voted absentee for the competent pro-abortion Clinton over the not-sure-if-he’s-competent pro-abortion Dole. Some of my compatriots at Milligan were moderately scandalized, but usually, after a relatively brief conversation, we parted, understanding if not liking each others’ positions. When Bush and Gore were deciding whether Florida voters’ spoken wills or their butterfly ballots would decide the presidency, I was teaching my first year of college, also at Milligan. There, nobody canceled classes so that people could work for campaigns, and really only a few partisans (some Republican and a few Democrat) poured any really serious thought (much less money or time) into the campaigns. Most of us cast ballots, but that’s about the end of it.

On the other hand, I do think that Rosin comes down too hard on the culture of the Christian college. A stray bra strap is a bit nitpicky, but I haven’t spent a minute of the last nine years regretting that I lived and worked as an RA in an all-men’s dormitory at Milligan. I didn’t have a drop to drink while enrolled there, and I don’t think I lost out on that score either. (Right now, though I like the taste neither of beer nor liquor, I try to drink a small glass of wine in the evening per my physician’s suggestion.) As hypocritical as this might sound, I think it meant more to the drinkers and the smokers and the chewers and the screwers at Milligan that they were breaking the rules. There was something to savor there.

Before anyone jumps on that, think about the contrast: now I work at UGA, where a dry weekend is almost unintelligible to an undergrad, where students who don’t “hook up” are somewhat of an oddity, where there’s absolutely nothing “forbidden” about the “forbidden fruit” of underage drinking because nobody in Athens checks identification. (Anyone who does loses out on thousands of dollars a weekend in business.) Here in Athens, what was rebellious at Milligan and what would have been scandalous at PHC is simply another week’s chores. There’s just no sinning boldly when nobody even frowns at the sins.

So on that Lutheran note, I’m going to wrap this post up. Among the last five chapters of the book, one deals with evolution/ID and another with the recent surge in Christian moviemaking. Both of those are interesting topics, but instead I’m going to focus the last installment on the Nathan Poe affair, the event that brings the book to a close.

About Nathan Gilmour

Nathan P. Gilmour is a Christian, a husband, a father, and a college English teacher. He tries to do all of that and write something worthwhile on occasion.


2 thoughts on “God’s Harvard: A Teacher Engages, part Three

  1. >I should note that many of the students that Rosin follows come to very similar conclusions to yours, Jeff. I haven’t focused much on those parts of the book, and perhaps I should have.As I said in the end of my post, I do think there’s a place for such rules for that age group, if nothing else to make sure there’s some chips on the table when they decide to dig into what they dig into. I got my room and board paid for to play the cop in that system my last two years of college (I was a men’s dorm RA), and if one can get situate the cat-and-mouse in a coming-of-age narrative, it actually adds something to such experiences. When I run into the lads whose infractions I was paid to catch in those days, we all remember with a good laugh our efforts on both sides. I just can’t imagine anything like that happening at a place like UGA.

    Posted by Nathan P. Gilmour | January 20, 2008, 10:58 pm
  2. >Thanks for doing this. There’s just not enough time to read all the books we would like to read. These posts have been helpful. On a side note, I continue to lose hope that “evangelical” can be recovered as a meaningful descriptor. Thinking about the sub-culture you’ve been describing has reminded me how incredibly diverse evangelicalism is. I was brought up in a denominational environment with many moral and cultural similarities to the environment you describe at PHC. I have moved on from many elements of the subculture long ago. Either I am fooling myself about the diversity of evangelicalism and its subculture(s) or I have left the evangelical subculture but still consider myself evangelical for purely theological reasons.

    Posted by Jeff Wright | January 20, 2008, 3:51 pm

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