Contrary to what some may think, it wasn’t the rules at PCC that started my path away from fundamentalism. Required chapel attendance, lights-out at 11:00, and even white glove may have been cause for some grumbling but in reality they caused no great disquiet in my soul. My whole life I had lived with rules and standards that were often stricter than the ones the college required. I was such a rule follower in those early years my roommates were often amused and annoyed by turns with how conscientious I was. Regarding the righteousness that was in the law I was blameless.
In the end it wasn’t the student handbook that got me, it was the hypocrisy.
Within a few weeks of being a student at PCC there’s a look you learn to spot, a smile of the kind that doesn’t come with teeth. The person in authority with their eyebrows raised painfully high and jaw set in a ferocious caricature of a smile will say the words “Excuse me. Can I get your name and ID number?” This is the PCC equivalent of the Soviet “papers please!?” It’s not a request you can deny.
That smile shows up everywhere. It’s on the faces of most ensemble members who go into the high schools and hedges and invite children as young as six to “come to the school with the water park!.” It’s on display at the front desk of each building where the attendant may just come reprimand you for talking to a girl due to the vagaries of the “chaperoned and unchaperoned” regulations. You’ll also see it on the face of your floor leader as he explains the Tolkien books on your bookshelf (although they’re found in the campus library) don’t “pass check” and will have to be confiscated until the semester ends. I suspect that those who wear that smile too long eventually forget how to really be happy.
The place where the absurdity of this fake cheeriness finally became obvious for me was during the three years that I sang in the Rejoice Choir, the only choir on campus that combined both staff and students to perform on Sunday mornings during the televised service of the Campus Church. It wasn’t the choir itself that was the issue. I actually rather enjoyed Gettys Allen, the choir director and practicing music for two hours on Sunday morning was far preferable to sitting through sophomore Sunday School with some senior preacher boy giving an alliterated lesson on fleeing youthful lusts. That choir would have been a great memory if not for one thing: the ironically named “Rejoice In the Lord” broadcast production team who seemed to think that screaming people into a joyful terror is the best way to make a choir look its best.
The embodiment of this need for manic levels of happiness was an elderly spinster who I’ll refer to only as “Miss W.” would stalk up and down glaring at the choir members as if they personally had stolen away the best years of her life.
“YOU’RE NOT SMILING!!!” she would bellow, completely ignoring that the current verse we were singing was about the crucifixion and probably not an appropriate time to look as if we were having a fit of the giggles.
“YOU’RE ALL TOO PALE!” she would scream (almost always directed at some much younger and prettier female). It wasn’t uncommon to see girls painfully pinching their own cheeks to color them when they spotted her approaching with a rouge brush in hand to “fix” the faces of those deemed unfit for public viewing.
Then, after having been harassed, harangued, and generally howled at, we would tromp out under the bright lights of the Dale Horton Auditorium and sing about how joyful we were to have a God so gracious and loving — although by that point almost none of us were sure that this could be true. If God were anything like Miss W. it was a pretty sure bet that He didn’t even like us unless we smiled and raised our eyebrows until facial cramps set in.
Can you serve a Christ who says “I am the Truth” by perpetuating a fiction of happiness in a place where so many have to fake a joy they cannot honestly claim? I could not seem to find an answer for this or for other even more disturbing questions would soon find me…