I’m flipping through the Moody Bible Institute Student Life Guide with one hand and the Bible with the other, trying to determine exactly where it is in the Bible that the Lord tells us going to movies and playing cards is a sin.
Maybe it’s Philippians 4:8. “Whatever is pure, whatever is right, whatever is noble, whatever is true, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.” Or it could be 1 Thessalonians 5:22. “Avoid every kind of evil.”
These are the scripture passages the Student Life Guide cites to show that “believers desiring to obey and please God must critically evaluate all forms of entertainment so as to avoid evil.” Two paragraphs down it says, “Students are required to refrain from social dancing, gambling, the use of traditional face cards on campus, the reading of obscene or pornographic literature, and patronizing pubs, bars, nightclubs and similar establishments.”
They also can’t go to movies or secular rock concerts or grow beards. While attending classes, males must wear dress shirts or sport shirts and dress pants. Shirts must be “tucked in and buttoned appropriately.” Females can wear skirts with hemlines that reach the top of the kneecap, and if the skirt is slit the slit can’t go more than two inches above the knee. Shorts can be worn in the library only on Saturdays and after 4:30 PM on weekdays. Tank tops, cutoffs, and rubber beach thongs can never be worn in the library.
It doesn’t seem like things have changed much since superevangelist Dwight Moody founded the college in 1886. The mission is to “educate and train individuals to proclaim the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, to promote evangelism and to serve the evangelical Christian church,” according to the undergraduate catalog. Students are selected on the basis of their “spirituality, evangelistic zeal and scholastic ability.” They must have accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior no less than one year prior to admission, they must belong to an evangelical Protestant church, and they must have refrained from the use of alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drugs for at least a year. In return they can get a three-year diploma, a four-year bachelor of arts degree, a five-year bachelor of music, or a four-year bachelor of science in “missionary aviation technology.”
Frank was sitting on his bed in a tiny dorm room in Culbertson Hall, pointing at his subversive tennis shoes. “These are out of code,” he said. He wasn’t sure why. He thought maybe it was because the soles were white. He’d been told they were out of code by the man who stands sentry at the doorway of the dorm cafeteria. The one punching meal tickets the night I talked to Frank was immaculately dressed like a maitre d’. The one on duty the night Frank wore the shoes to dinner made him go back to his room and change.
Frank is one of a minute pack of Moody students–the total population is around 1,500–he calls the fringe. They give lots of reasons why they’re here–their parents insisted, the tuition was affordable, their grades weren’t good enough to get into too many other places, or coming here actually seemed like a good idea at one time. “I don’t go dancing anyway,” Frank said. “So I didn’t think it would matter.” But the longer they stay the harder it is to leave, because whatever you major in you must take at least 20 credit hours of Bible-study courses, which most schools don’t count if you want to transfer.
The fringe just don’t fit. They band together for sanity. They talk a lot about the day they bust out of here. They call it “going over the wall,” according to Chris, my guide on my tour of the campus fringe. Sitting in Frank’s dim, cramped room I felt like I was interviewing Soviet dissidents at the height of the cold war. These aren’t their real names. If this were television they’d be black silhouettes with scrambled helium voices.
Yet these fringe guys aren’t iconoclasts with rainbow Mohawks and safety pins through their noses. Chris and Frank wouldn’t stand out on the street. They’re just white guys who are about 20. Nothing intense about them. Chris is a heavy-metal head, but he’s fairly conservative politically. He doesn’t think Newt’s all bad. He doesn’t believe in sex without deep commitment. He and Frank say they’re Christians. “But not that kind of Christian,” Frank said.
Chris’s parents sent him to Bible school all his life. You can tell he’s fallen from grace by the way he recites the Bible pledge and the Christian flag pledge. “I pledge allegiance to the Bible, God’s holy word. Something, something, something. Its word will I hide in my heart–and then it’s something else.”
“There’s things you do to help you get by,” said Frank. “Like maybe you go way up north if you want to go to a movie.” They’ve never known anyone who got kicked out for going to a movie. But they have known students who were kicked out for drinking off campus or having sex.
Frank’s roommate, Steve, was taking a nap in the next bed in his underwear. He’s a white guy in his 20s too. When he heard us talking he sat up straight, like he couldn’t wait to speak his mind. “It’s sort of like a police state,” he said. “There’s so much you can’t do.” He slid a CD case out from under his bed and wondered if most of the CDs would be contraband. There’s Jane’s Addiction and Red Red Meat. Regarding music, the Student Life Guide says, “Apart from style, the philosophical and moral content of lyrics should be carefully screened by the discerning believer. This necessitates the constant evaluation of all styles of music for indecent, degrading or satanic lyrics which stimulate lustful, sensual, or violent feelings….The Institute reserves the right to rule on the suitability of any music played or performed on campus.”
“Fortunately a lot of people here aren’t cool enough to recognize heavy metal,” said Steve. “There’s a lot of cheesy Christian bands, so they think it’s a cheesy Christian band.” He said what really gets him are the students who think it’s evil to go to rock concerts and movies but not sporting events. “They say movies don’t glorify God. I say, ‘So what? Neither does Michael Jordan.'”
The second floor of Culbertson Hall is a recreation area where males and females are allowed to mingle. There’s a television room and a pool table. (Cards are evil, but pool isn’t, apparently.) A student resident assistant is always on chaperon duty. One of the things he does, Chris said, is turn off questionable television programs like Saturday Night Live.
But chaperons aren’t always necessary. The Student Life Guide says good students rat on each other. “Students are encouraged and expected to confront their peers when they witness guidelines and expectations being violated…. Students who are not actively participating in a violation but are associated with students who are will also receive discipline.”
“You’ve got to watch your back,” Chris said. Frank, Chris, and Steve agreed that there are only about a dozen students they really trust.
Later, down in the underground tunnels that connect the campus buildings, it was obvious whom Chris trusted. He stopped and said hi to about a dozen people, but it was superficial, cordial small talk for all but one or two.
Chris lives off campus, and his girlfriend recently moved in. On the topic of sex, the Student Life Guide says, “Public displays of affection are to be limited to hand holding or taking an escort’s arm. (This guideline also applies to Married Students.) Private displays of affection should follow the Biblical principles of chastity and purity which do not allow for activities known as ‘petting.'” Students aren’t allowed to be alone in the residence of a single person of the opposite sex without a chaperon on or off campus, so Chris was sure he’d be kicked out if the wrong guy found out about his living arrangement. At one point he stopped in his tracks as if a terrible thought had occurred to him. “I did something stupid. I put both our names on the answering machine.”
Students must attend chapel services Tuesday through Friday at 10 AM. You’re allowed 10 absences. The 11th gets you probation, the 12th means you have to withdraw from school for at least a year at the end of the semester, and the 13th means you have to withdraw immediately.
“You can get out of it if you have a job,” said Frank. “So I try to get my job to schedule me during chapel.” But he still has to submit an official chapel-absence-excuse form.
Chris took me to the chapel and showed me how they keep attendance with clipboards on the wall that list the students alphabetically. You cross your name off when you come in. You can try to cut chapel by having someone cross yours off for you, Chris said, but that’s dangerous because you never know who might see you crossing off two. “That’s not my method of choice,” he said. He preferred the old slash and dash–get there early, cross off your name, then sit down for a while before you slip out the back. If anybody stops you, say you’re going to the bathroom.
Chris used this method a lot when he lived in the dorm. He’d go back to his room and take a nap, and no one would notice because everyone was at chapel. But one time he was called into the dean’s office, and the dean asked if he’d been cutting chapel. When things get that hot, Chris said, there’s only one thing you can do. “I lied. I told him, ‘No, sir. I never cut chapel.'”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/J.B. Spector.