"I guess it's hard for me to understand why people look at this as a fringe sort of thing, a way out, weirdo sort of thing," says Dr. Bob Jones III. He is a tall man, lean and fierce looking, and the angles of his face are sharp, as if honed by his righteousness. His eyes are the eyes of the singleminded man, hawklike, vigilant. "They're looking at us as if we're some sort of strange, perhaps dangerous, cult."
Dr. Bob, as nearly every one here calls him, although the "Dr." is honorary and the Bob seems to outsiders a little too folksy for his air of wrathful dignity, gets particularly annoyed at the comparisons he has heard between himself and another sort of Jones, Jim Jones as a matter of fact, and the image he left behind of brainwashed automatons marching toward steamy perdition.
Fifty years ago, he says from behind his massive desk with a bust of Seneca brooding over the proceedings, "there were a lot of people who felt the way we did. We were in the mainstream. Then liberalism came in and everyone turned away and those who didn't looked like little islands in the stream."
It was just over 50 years ago that the university was founded by Bob Jones Sr., one of the greatest revival preachers of his time, greater even than Billy Sunday, some folks said: In one night alone he led 6,000 sinners to the Lord. Bob Jones Sr. traveled the South, working the tent revivals, preaching the gospels and warning the sinners of the hell fire that awaited them, his certainty and his condemnation echoing in the dark heart of a younger America, rural and religious and agreed about the good in life, and how to get it, if not in this world, well then, in the next.
But Bob Jones got tired of saving so many souls for the Lord, particularly all the young souls, only to have them go off to college or out into the world and have them sicken with the influences of modernism and liberalism, to have them wander off into that vast spiritual wilderness, that sea of change.
And so he built Bob Jones College 54 years ago, just outside of Panama City, Fla. When the Crash came, the school moved to Tennessee, for a time, until, in 1946, the City of Greenville offered the University 185 free acres, and here the university has remained ever since.
The Founder was followed by Bob Jones Jr., whose love of art, opera and Shakespeare is manifested in the university's theatrical productions and art museum, distinguishing it from the singleminded emphasis on the Gospel that predominates at most Bible colleges. Jones Jr. fancied himself one of the greatest Shakespearean actors of the 20th century and is so described in one of the university's promotional films; a large oil portrait of himself as Shylock in "The Merchant of Venice" dominates the lobby of the school's administration building.
Now Bob Jones Jr. is chancellor of the university and spends much of his time traveling, preaching and collecting art, taking to the pulpit now and them to launch a particularly vitriolic piece of invective. The latest object of Jones' wrath was Secretary of State Alexander Haig, whom he called "a monster in human flesh and a demon possesed instrument to destroy America," after the State Department denied a visa to militant Northern Irish Protestant leader the Rev. Ian Paisley, a member of the university's board of trustees. "I hope you'll pray that the Lord will smite him, hip and thigh, bone and marrow, heart and lungs and all there is to him, that he shall destroy him quickly and utterly," he told the congregation.
His son is now the president of the university. At 42, Bob Jones III has been involved one way or the other with its administration for the last 15 years. And Dr. Bob knows that the Lord's enemies are legion, what with liberalism and humanism and the National Council of Churches to contend with, not to mention the Trilateral Commission and the Council on Foreign Relations. In fact, if Dr. Bob needed any further proof of the spiritual decline of the country, it came like lightning in the tax exemption case that propelled the university into the headlines. "It hurts, it hurts," he says of Reagan's retreat from his position that the IRS should not deny tax-exempt status to racially discriminatory schools. "I'm dismayed and hurt over what the president did. We had so hoped this man would do right against all costs. I regret what appears to be weakness and capitulation on the part of a man who looked like a great hero and an enemy of liberals."
Jones "denies totally" the charge that Bob Jones University is in any way a racist institution, despite the fact that blacks are not permitted to date whites on campus.
"There is no racial discrimination at Bob Jones University," he says. "The dating policy is not an attack on any race. It applies to Caucasians as well, so I guess if it's an attack, it's an attack on my race too. It is a biblically based injunction, coming from the word of God. The dating rule was in effect before blacks were admitted, it's not something we dreamed up before they came here. This is a sincere belief and not camouflaged racism."
While the pamphlets put out by the school extolling its virtues carry the warm assurance that the university "has adopted a nondiscriminatory admissions policy made mandatory by recent court rulings," there were no blacks admitted to Bob Jones University until 1971 and then only married blacks could be admitted. No single black students were admitted until 1976, and the number of blacks currently enrolled at Bob Jones University is probably less than two dozen, though university officials will not reveal the precise figure.
Why were single black students admitted so much later than married black students? "We didn't have single black students before 1976 because black leaders were saying that the civil rights issue would be resolved in the bedroom, not in the courtroom," says Dr. Bob. "And we said, 'Why buy problems for ourselves?' We saw where it was going, and it was asking for trouble and we weren't going to buy it."
Black and White
Annette Edgecombe sits rigidly on the edge of her seat, tensed, ready, a plain black girl in pale blue, starched and ruffled, voice taut. She has been selected by Harrison as the representative black student; it is a responsibility she bears with understandable nervousness. She came to Bob Jones on the recommendation of a friend of the family, after applying "to several universities that the Lord had closed the door on; there were hard trials that summer." She is 19, a sophomore from Chicago; her father is a mechanic, her mother a nurse.
"I think it's hard for the world to understand, because they're not here. It's hard for the world to understand because of the way the world is now, it's difficult for them to understand that there is a Bob Jones University that trains students in a Christian way." she says. She speaks slowly, carefully, as if the words might leap out unpredictably and somersault around the room, upsetting the guests. "I have never felt discriminated against," she says. "You can tell the difference between someone who is not sincere and someone who is. It's like being home here. I don't feel like a black student among white students but a Christian among other Christians."
Still black Christians cannot date white Christians at Bob Jones University, but that, says Edgecombe, is the Lord's decision, not the school's. "It's not so much a commandment as a principle that the Lord has stated." Recently, she said, she and several other students sat down to discuss the issue. "If you take the rule away, all of us students would abide by it anyway. The Lord has made different races, and he intended that they remain different. You wouldn't mix a cat and a dog together, would you?" She looks down modestly when it is suggested that the small number of blacks on campus must severely limit her social life. "I suppose I'm different from other black girls, but I really don't have that much time for dating," she says.
At Bob Jones University, you can major in missionary aviation or home economics and you take courses that teach evolution as a theory and creationism as a fact. But you can also attend one of the major film schools in the country and though its graduates would not think of using their talents in the fleshpots of Hollywood, the films they have produced at Bob Jones have won awards from the Screen Producers Guild of that benighted city, not to mention the International Film Festival at Cannes.
The university, however, is not accredited or affiliated with any educational associations--"It is our sincere conviction," says Dr. Bob in an introduction to the course catalogue, "that the type of institution which we operate can accomplish more for the cause of the Lord Jesus Christ by not holding organic membership in any educational association." This may be a case of not wanting to join a club that wouldn't have them as a member in the first place, but, of course, this is not an opinion that is very popular on the Bob Jones University campus.
Most of the 160 teachers on campus who have graduate degrees, have them from Bob Jones; there is no hierarchical system of professor, assistant professor or associate professor, there is no tenure. At the beginning of each year, faculty members must sign a testament to their doctrinal fidelity. Faculty wives are considered to be under contract along with their husbands, and subject to many of the same rules as apply to the students, including the injunction against griping.
"It's not lucrative, it's not a place of secular prestige," says Janie McCauley, an English teacher. "My secular colleagues would turn their noses up at me for teaching here." For McCauley, teaching at Bob Jones is a matter of a "personal decision. I made a commitment as a teen-ager to some sort of Christian service." McCauley has taught in other Christian schools, and it is different here. "Other Christian schools don't pay attention to the arts. This school is known for the arts. You can perform Shakespeare here."
And while there are books that McCauley and her colleagues will not teach, finding their point of view amoral beyond hope of salvation, and although it can be difficult, as McCauley has found, to find an anthology of modern plays that doesn't include some that are totally objectionable, the teachers do not censor the works they do teach, she says. "It's not like other Christian schools where teachers are up half the night retyping novels."
Still it is a delicate balance that must be struck when it comes to the teaching of "Romeo and Juliet" on a soft spring morning that is its own redemption. The students sit in their hard plastic chairs facing a saying from the Founder--"The way to keep from 'don'ting' is to 'do' so fast that you don't have time to don't"--and say a prayer to open the class. McCauley talks about tragedy, about protagonists and some of the other aspects of the drama, and then she tackles the "large number of sexual jokes" in the play. "I will explain them to you, there's no need for you to be naive about this. You may be teaching, or directing, or cutting this play some day."
And she goes on to tell them that it is the lower stations of life that tell such jokes and that Shakespeare means it as a negative comment on them. The students perk up a little when she quotes Romeo talking of how long the sad hours are when he is not with his love and McCauley says, "I see some you smiling," and smiles herself.
And then she tells them about the carpe diem theme, about how it means "seize the day" and that it "suggests that young people should sow their wild oats while they are young, because when they're old they can't do it anyway," and how Shakespeare christianized it.
From there it is a short leap to the sonnets: Despite the best efforts of those who "want to sensationalize Shakespeare by saying he was in love with the Earl of Southhampton in order to justify their own vices," she tells them, the sonnets are not talking about homosexuality but about the importance of marriage and of fathering children. But McCauley is a teacher who obviously loves her subject, and so, while the play and its desperate passion is filtered through a careful didacticism, the beauty of the language is oddly triumphant.
Chapter and Verse
In the Bible Doctrines class, the way is not so complicated. The Bible Doctrines class is required of every student, and there they are discussing the Sources of Faith. Jack Tillman, pale and pudgy and glazed with certitude, gives his lecture in outline form, repeating everything important twice, Faith from the Divine Side, Faith from the Human Side, chapter and verse, salting the lecture with homely anecdotes designed to prove how simple it is if only the faith is there.
Pretty soon the class is beginning to take on the roll and pitch of a sermon, which is not surprising; on Sundays, Tillman travels 150 miles to the Congregational Bible Church in Concord, N.C., to bring the word of the Lord to the 20 souls that comprise the congregation there. The students take down the outline as he gives it to them and when he asks for questions, these are the questions that are asked:
"Do you think God steps in only when we have to totally depend on him?"
"How do you feel about fasting, should it be completely secret?"
"Is it wrong to fast for something material? My little sister is fasting for a horse."
Tillman dispatches the answers quickly; religion for him is like arithmetic, there being only one right response to every question.
The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved. --Jeremiah, 8:20
Buried in the red clay soil near one of the walkways is a stone tablet, marking the place of a time capsule. "Memories of the golden anniversary Class of 1977," reads the inscription engraved in the stone. "To be opened, if Our Lord tarries, by the diamond anniversary Class of 2002."
There is a shudder in that sentence, in the idea that the end of the world is to be longed for, awaited with equanimity. Armed with the Bob Jones University credo, there is little dread of nuclear holocaust, no need to grab the gusto, no anxiety over lost options or the thefts of time, the way looks can fade, the way dreams are deferred. The students here have already placed their bets.
"There's so much darkness here," said the Founder in a sermon once. "There's always the shadow of the grave, and there's always the shadow of weeping eyes, pain, and fatigue. The memory of my mother is the memory of a tired face. The only time she ever looked rested was when they put her in the coffin."
Perhaps by those lights, the end of the world is worth waiting for, the pain of the present drowned in the promise of the future. But times have changed; life is more comfortable than it was in the hard times that spawned this old time religion, and now there is the question of what it is that keeps these students here, rapt in rules, ceding responsibility for their lives to an authoritarian and somewhat cranky God.
Maybe the answer lies in the very nature of that God; life is not so ambiguous or chaotic, not such a dice game, if a personal God is there taking an interest, offended by a haircut, placated by a prayer. Maybe it's the vision of what their lives would be like if it weren't for this comforting cosmology; it is not after all dancing at the Rainbow Room that is surrendered in the rejection of wrongdoing, or the more luxurious forms of temptation, but the kind of sins that are sung to the tune of country and western songs, a dry rattle of desperation that breaks the boredom.
Instead they have decided to live life as if it were a test drive for the paradise to come. There is a danger here, of course--there is only a thin white line down the middle of that road, between the fervor of their faith and a fierce intolerance of those who refuse it, between saints and sinners, the saved and damned.
Still, the students at Bob Jones have made their choice. "He promises never to leave us or forsake us," says Ronda Blackburn. "And that's more than you can say for anything out there in the world."