“Testimonies”

In one of my earlier posts I wrote a little about fundamentalist colleges, and I mentioned that reading the student handbooks almost rekindled my PTSD. I talked a little about the rules, but I want to write about the idea of a “testimony” today. For a start, I’ll quote from the Bob Jones University Student Handbook:

Male and female students should guard their testimonies; they are not to be alone together in a classroom, rehearsal studio or other room.

And now from the Pensacola Christian College Handbook:

PCC provides a great atmosphere for meeting new people and developing long-lasting godly relationships. We encourage students to foster these relationships with Christ at the center. These guidelines are designed to guard purity and maintain a spotless Christian testimony on and off campus.

So, to “help” students keep their “testimonies” “guarded” and “spotless”, a great number of rules are developed and enforced. It reminds me a little of the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day (and today) who also developed rules and regulations in order to make sure people did not break the law of God. To illustrate, “Keep the Sabbath Holy… do no work” was a law of God, but what was “work”? Was it lighting a fire? Is it flipping a light switch? Turning on a car engine? So, just in case those things were in fact “work”, they banned them all. It was a hedge keeping people from breaking the law. And Jesus hated it!

Yet we see the same thing in the colleges mentioned above. And not only the colleges, but in many different Christian institutions. I’ve heard many sermons about keeping away from the appearance of evil, and not associating with poor company, and every time I hear these kinds of sermons, I think about Jesus. Who did he associate with? Whores, drunkards, tax collectors, law breakers, the poor, children! Moreover, he attended parties and drank (horrors!) alcohol. Why didn’t he worry about his testimony? Maybe because he didn’t care, and it wasn’t important to him. I don’t think he cared what people thought of him, actually.

I think the idea of “testimony” is just a way to judge others. I’ve had run-ins with these kind of judgers, and they’re not pleasant. Once, I was preparing to serve overseas as a full-time missionary, and one of the “bigwigs” of the mission visited our base. After he’d gone, a friend and I were both told how this man felt we were both too overweight, and that this wasn’t a good testimony. I wish I’d let that be a warning about attitudes instead of simply accepting that he was right. Interestingly, the purveyors (Mr. and Mrs. X) of that news had once taken us to a church to speak, and in the parking lot we saw a man smoking. Mr. X said “Well, he’s obviously not a Christian” I was dumbfounded, turned to him and asked “How do you know that? He might be the most caring man in the world but fighting a smoking addiction”. I received no answer. (My views have changed a little since then. Maybe the guy wasn’t even fighting the addiction. Maybe it was the least of his problems. Maybe it wasn’t a problem for him at all).

Later, several years later, when returning from my first (and only) term abroad, burnt-out and depressed (diagnosed a few weeks later as clinical depression), another missionary from the same organization but different country, took me to a friend’s house for a weekend (it was supposed to be a weekend of relaxing), and once there, told me that my attitude was a very poor testimony. I remember bursting into tears and telling her I was going back home. She didn’t want to take me back, but I told her I’d take a taxi if I had to, but I was leaving, and that was that. I was so distraught, I sobbed all the way home… and most of the night. Why do people do these things to others? How does anyone know what is really going on inside another? Oh, and this woman was a nurse!

That incident put the seal on my return to the missionary life. I was already feeling like an abject failure, and now, courtesy of this woman, decided I should just cut loose from it all. Looking back, she did me a favor. I realized I needed help and got it. And I changed my life plan.

I don’t believe that the Jesus of the New Testament wants us to go around following a multitude of laws and regulations. Heck, Jesus himself would be kicked out of the two colleges mentioned above! I think that human beings are still so insecure that they need rules and regulations so that they can say they are good Christians. To me, that’s exactly what Jesus was fighting against.

I believe a true “testimony” is who you are, NOT what you do. Period.

“Christian Dress”modes

I’m rather behind on some of the news, so it was only a few days ago that I caught up with the whole Josh Duggar thing. I admit, I was surprised, but not for the reasons you might think. Several years ago, I was zooming around the internet and came across some sites where people were openly talking about Josh touching girls (including his sisters), so I have to wonder why it took so long for it to become news. And now, what news it has become! Here’s a guy who used to be a director of Family Research Council (if you don’t know what this group is, it’s been listed in the U.S. as a hate group), and spoke out about what he perceived to be “family” matters. For some reason, one that I cannot understand in spite of trying, this group believes that granting homosexuals the right to marry, and allowing transsexuals the right to identify with the “other” gender (i.e. the gender for which they may not have all the relevant “parts”) will somehow threaten heterosexual couples and women. I can’t quite get my head around that. Does FRC think that if gay marriage is allowed, heterosexual couples will suddenly all divorce? I mean, no-one is talking about banning, or curtailing the rights of heterosexual couples – are they?

Anyway, in the midst of this scandal, and as a result of reading about this family (who, for the record, I believe should be taken off the airwaves), I took a side path into the world of fundamentalist colleges and began reading some of the student handbooks. Some of what I read began to trigger my post-Bible-college PTSD because there were many similarities between them and the Bible College I attended many years ago. Take the dress code, for example (and I should say two things here. First, I have only looked at Pensacola Christian College and Bob Jones University, and second, my college was not in the US); it always seems so much stricter for girls than for boys – and far more expensive. PCC, which is in Florida, demands that girls wear, of all things, pantyhose almost every day. This rule could only have been made by men! I’d like them to try wearing pantyhose day in day out in a hot climate. Funny, in my time at bible college, I never once read a verse that indicated women should wear such things! Pantyhose are uncomfortable and unhealthy in hot climates, particularly hot humid weather. Further, they ladder and get caught on things so need to be replaced regularly. That is costly!

The thought of having to wear pantyhose was not, of course, the only thing that made my blood start to heat up. Oh no, there was more: Girls’ clothing cannot show even a hint of cleavage, and must not be “tight” (read: must not indicate that there is a woman’s body beneath). Girls may not have male hairstyles (whatever those are), or wear clothes that are masculine (oh yes, that includes pants). Skirts (which, as we know, are the only godly apparel) must be no higher than the top of the knee – standing OR sitting. Tops must have sleeves because shoulders are incredibly sexy and will cause (yes, I said cause) men to have lustful thoughts leading to rape. Poor men! Completely captive to whatever women wear! One glimpse of a shoulder and they lose their freewill. Rape is inevitable, and of course, you harlot with the bare shoulder, it will be YOUR fault.

Now, before you say “Well, would you rather women ran around naked?”, I’d like to point out that this is not a true/false, yes/no, black/white dichotomy. There are an infinite number of choices we can make regarding our clothing. We aren’t forced to choose between a burka and nakedness! Further, I think that forcing women to wear certain types of clothing because men can’t control themselves is patronizing to both sexes. Why do “Christian” schools focus so much on these kinds of rules and regulations? Are they competing with the Pharisees?

Legalism isn’t dead. I’m pretty sure Jesus would be pretty upset at today’s Christian Pharisees as they “strain at gnats” and ignore the camels.

Rules and Bible School

Is the Bible a guidebook for life, or is it a recipe? The former implies that the reader needs to discern what is being said, how it is said, and what those words meant for the people who first received them. The latter, on the other hand, implies it needs to be followed exactly (that is, literally) in order to gain the hoped-for result. Which is it? Looking around at the hundreds and thousands of expressions of Christianity around the world, there is clearly no one understanding of how to read (and by implication, follow) the Bible.

My own past includes a conservative, evangelical Bible School where I studied subjects such as exegesis, hermeneutics, apologetics, and old and new testament history (among many other subjects). It was the first time I’d ever had to actually LIVE on a campus that was run on conservative values, and it was not an altogether pleasant experience. I’m a questioner. Two and three year olds go through a phase where they ask “why?” all the time; I never grew out of it. So, I would ask “why” about some of the rules that were in place for college life, and I soon learned that questioning was not a good idea. Firstly, many of the answers didn’t make sense, and secondly, if you continued to question, you were labelled “rebellious” – and we all know what the Bible says about rebelliousness, right? It is akin to witchcraft. So, the ultimate answer is “Be quiet”.

For all her faults, my mother always encouraged questions, so simply being quiet in the face of rules that did not make sense was extremely hard for me. However, the harder I tried to do so, the more the internal damage began to build. I would castigate myself for not accepting what I considered “stupid” rules, and wonder what was wrong with me. Others didn’t seem to have the problems I did. At least, most did not voice any problems. One example was clothing. There were many rules surrounding what we could wear. To lectures, women had to wear skirts or dresses, although dress pants were also acceptable (so I guess the Bible College wasn’t ultra conservative). But, were corduroy pants “dress pants”? Big debate. Not among the students so much as the faculty. The answer, for one semester, was yes. However, this changed the next semester to a “No”. Flip-flops were not allowed to be worn to lectures, but did that include expensive dress shoes that had a bar between the big and second toe? Answer: “Yes”. To me, it seemed so petty, arbitrary, and in my book had nothing to do with the Bible.

I remember that it was at about this time I started thinking about people from other cultures. If women were not supposed to wear anything other than dresses or skirts, what of the Inuit people? Were their women supposed to wear dresses and skirts if they wanted to be Christian? And where, exactly, in the Bible was there an edict that women had to dress so? And then there was the ever-present “modesty” issue. When working around the college at practical tasks, women were allowed to wear shorts, provided they weren’t “immodest”. One of my friends was asked to change out of her shorts because a “brother” had complained her legs were causing him to stumble. Her shorts came half-way down her leg! Surely if our “brother” had a problem, he should be doing something about it himself, not complaining to the faculty about her. I believe we are in charge of ourselves and our reactions, and we should not demand that others change for us. That incident, even today as I remember it, smells badly of the excuse rapists used to make (and still do), namely, that “she asked for it”. It makes me wonder if the judges would accept a woman saying “Well, he took off his shirt while he mowed the lawn, and the sight of his lovely body turned me into a woman possessed. I just had to rape him, your honor. It wasn’t my fault; he was asking for it!”

Anyway, it was living in that kind of environment that initiated an awful lot of questions in my mind. Was this how the God of the Bible really wanted people to live? Were the small, and multitudinous, rules so, so important to life? Is that what Christianity was all about, or were many Christians becoming like the Pharisees that we so loudly condemned?