Browsing Tag

Jerry Falwell


flight: on leaving the fundamentalist nest

I eventually chose Liberty University for grad school– mostly because of Kevin Roose’s book The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University. I picked it up in Barnes and Noble while I was still at my fundamentalist college, mostly for kicks and giggles. The subtitle about “America’s Holiest University” amused me, mostly because it exposed how little anyone really knows of places like Bob Jones, or Pensacola Christian, or Hyles-Anderson– all of which make Liberty University look tame. BJU and PCC like to think of themselves as big stuff– and they are, in fundamentalist homeschooling circles, but… well, PCC’s student population hovers right around 4,000 students. That’s miniscule compared to Liberty’s 12,000, and that’s nothing compared to Michigan’s 45,000.

But, the book made it seem that Liberty was a place I could potentially fit in– and grow. It is still a conservative evangelical university, and the administration is famous for various stunts including disbanding the Democratic student organization. It is also still very much Jerry Falwell’s school, a man who came onto my radar for the first time when he claimed on national television that hurricane Katrina was punishment for America’s toleration of homosexuality. Needless to say, I knew what I was getting myself into.

However, I was also terrified of secular colleges. I had been told, my entire life, that if you went to a secular college, you were going to be mocked, persecuted. You’d fail classes because your liberal professors would single you out for your Christian beliefs. You’d either have to compromise your faith to survive, especially in graduate school, or you would be stifled and silenced. One of my English professors told my senior-level literature class nightmare stories about the trauma she endured while in graduate school– all those horrific, ugly, nasty, perverted books like The Awakening by Kate Chopin or anything written by Virginia Woolf. Basically, if a woman wrote it post-1850, it was suspect as a work of literature. She told us all about how literary theory classes were nothing more than liberal indoctrination, and how being a Christian made it impossible for her to have an equal part in any class discussions, because she was always dismissed by her fellow students.

Plus, Oregon and Brigham Young wouldn’t accept my non-accredited degree. Liberty had a long history of accepting students from my college, and I didn’t want to have to start over.

But, I had to get over some hurdles first.

I took the GRE after studying for it for three weeks. That is not enough time to study for the GRE, by the way. Not if you know next to nothing about math, which I did not. Also, the reading comprehension bits are not usually narrative. They’re non-fiction, and can get incredibly technical. Blech.

I had to go off-campus, again, to submit my application and print out the graduate assistant application so I could mail that in. My family does not have an over-abundance of wealth, and there was no way I was going to exist under a mountain of student loans when Liberty was willing to pay for my education. I had all of that submitted by November, about a month before my graduation. I’d applied for Liberty’s spring semester, although I knew that was a long shot.

I did get accepted, but for the following Fall.

I started celebrating, and that was when I started encountering opposition.

My Sunday school teacher from my youth was incredulous that I would even consider going to such a “party school.” She told me that Liberty had co-ed dorms and no restrictions- that the entire school existed to accept the students who couldn’t hack it at “real” Christian colleges. She told me that if I went there, I’d be in constant danger of spiritual and physical corruption.

When I was discussing post-graduation plans with my co-workers and announced that I’d be going to Liberty in September, she reached over, took my hand, and told me that she would “be praying for me,” that I would “see the light,” and “come to my senses”– that I would realize that my “true place” was in the “center of God’s protection,” and that I’d stop “rebelling against what I knew to be true,” and that I needed to stay at my undergrad institution– if I wanted to pursue a graduate degree at all, which she didn’t “feel was wise for a woman to do.”

Both of those were fairly easy to laugh off as ridiculous– because they were. Utterly and completely. Even back then I knew that they were crazy.

A more difficult conversation was with my parents. I told my mother I’d applied and been accepted to Liberty, and her response was that I’d “have to discuss it with my father.”

Those words were ominous, and filled me with dread. What if my father said I couldn’t go? What would I do? I was realizing every day how fervently I wanted–needed— this step forward.

When I did, eventually, talk to my father, the conversation did not go well. He told me that he did not think going all the way to Virginia for grad school was a good idea, that a daughter shouldn’t be so far away from home. That, if I went, I’d be “outside the umbrella of his protection,” and had I considered going to grad school online, or a Christian school closer to home?

It was difficult to explain that online master’s degrees in English were not really worth the time or money, and that the schools near home were too conservative for me– if they offered grad programs at all, which few did– and none in English. “Well, why did it have to be English?” he asked, and then I had to explain about my dream of becoming an editor. My father’s concern, at that point, shot through the roof. Become an editor? Move to New York? That was insane– impossible. I could not do that, was incapable of ever doing that. I had no idea of what the real world is like, he told me, and trying to make it on my own, outside of the protective shield of my parents, would destroy me. I should give up on that immediately and find a more realistic option. I could go to work at the same company my father worked at, be a communications or marketing assistant if I really wanted to get into editing. That way, I could stay at home and skip all of my ridiculous notions of making it as an editor, on my own.

When Liberty told me that even though I had been accepted into their graduate school, there was no room in the GA program, it felt like a crushing defeat. It felt like God had slammed the door in my face just to prove my father right. I couldn’t do it. I should just go home.

So I did.

I went home.

I got a soul-sucking job as a teller, and every day I came home with another example of how I couldn’t make it in the real world. I wasn’t cut out for it. Wasn’t designed for it.

That lasted for eight months– until I got an email from the director of the GA program asking if I was still interested in the program.

Was I still interested? Was he kidding me?!

Nervous, borderline nauseated, I called my father at work and asked him what I should do.

One of the things I have always appreciated about my father is that he is never hasty. He has the patience of an oak, and can wait out nearly any storm. He also takes questions like this one seriously, and he’s never rushed just so he could give me an answer. Usually, when I ask him for advice, his response is that he would pray about it– and he would tell me what he thought a few days, maybe a few weeks later.

So his response shocked me.

“You should go.”

His answer was immediate, without hesitation. Firm. Sure.

“Really? I’d have to be there in two weeks.”

“Yes. Go into work tomorrow and tell them you quit.”

So I did.

Two weeks later I was in Lynchburg, Virginia.

Photo by Diana Robinson

realizing that I had a dream, and that I could chase it

Researching possible graduate schools turned out be a challenge.

The college I attended for undergrad had a China-level proxy server that blocked most of the internet. No Google, no, no e-mail servers. At one point the only way to access any website whatsoever was to send the url to the web administrator and they might add it to the List on the school’s home page. By the time I was looking into grad school they’d become a little more lenient and allowed us to get to a majority of websites unless they had “trigger content.”

Hilariously, this “trigger content” provision excluded any online Bible concordance, because the word concordance has the word dance in it.


However, even with their new-found leniency, the school was still blocking any other university’s website, and taking a laptop off campus was the against the rules. They even sent RAs (we called them floorleaders, but most people know what an RA is, so I use that) out to all of the places that offered free wifi looking for students breaking this rule. We also were not allowed to go the public library. Yes, they sent moles there, too.

The only solution available? I had to take an RA with me to Kinko’s. I could search the internet there as much as I wanted, but only if I had someone literally standing over my shoulder. I knuckled down and just did it. I had to take multiple trips off-campus, and it was a huge pain in the ass, but I found a few schools I was interested in.

One was Oregon State, one was Brigham Young, and the other was Liberty University. All offered English or writing programs, and each had a compelling reason. Oregon’s is just a fantastically famous writing program, Brigham Young features Brandon Sanderson, my favorite author, as a writing instructor there, and the last one was . . . well, it was an evangelical Christian university. Jerry Falwell’s school, “champions for Christ,” the whole bit. (I actually hadn’t really heard of Jerry Falwell, except when he was lumped with other “flaming liberals” like Billy Graham.)

When I decided to pursue English in graduate school instead of music, it was for a variety of reasons. The biggest two being: 1) I hated, no, loathed, performances of any kind after the hell I had endured in undergrad, and 2) I knew I wasn’t good enough to get into a decent music program. And, for me, it was “decent program or bust.” I was a hell of a lot better in English than I was in music, and y’know what?

I’d found a dream.

It was a dream I always had, as it turns out.

I saw Star Wars for the first time when I was eight. I was enthralled, entranced. I wondered at the marvel of the world an imagination had created. I gasped in horror when Darth Vader announced “Luke, I am your father” and then grabbed the front of my father’s shirt and sobbed and sobbed because no, that horrible man just couldn’t be Luke’s father, he couldn’t be, and then I cringed away from the hideousness of the Emperor and gloried in Darth Vader’s ultimate redemption.

So, when Star Wars: The Phantom Menace came out, my father took my family to go see it–in theaters. To an IFB, theaters are, quite literally, the gateway to hell. Hollywood was referred to as “hell-y-wood,” and the television was the “boob tube.” So, dad didn’t tell us where we were going, and when he parked outside the theater, he told us that we were going to see Star Wars, but we weren’t allowed to tell anyone at church. For good reason– they would have crucified us. Star Wars is . . . well, that “new age tripe” isn’t tolerated very well.

I was again entranced by George Lucas’ fantastic world, and that was when I discovered, you guessed it, Fan Fiction.

I also discovered that while I enjoyed writing– I couldn’t really stop writing and frequently stayed up until three or four in the morning– I enjoyed editing more. I liked doing what is called in the fanfiction world “beta reading.” I helped other fanfiction authors create their stories. And I freaking loved it. Editing was the most fun thing on the planet. I continued being a beta reader through college– and I started helping real-life friends with their manuscripts.

Sadly, it didn’t hit me that Editing is an actual career field. There’s a whole industry based on it, in fact. It also had never occurred to me that I could get paid for it, or get recognition for it. Some of the stories I worked on are published, now– some have done fantastically well, but the community of beta readers don’t get recognized, unfortunately. I also didn’t consider it because it involves getting a real education and then hightailing it off to some big city like New York or Chicago or San Francisco. That just wasn’t… wasn’t considered. A young woman, living, by herself, in New York City? Certainly not.

The conservative Christian world refers to a young person traipsing off to some big city as becoming a “Prodigal Son,” almost always, in my experience. We have tons and tons of Christian books with this theme. Some young person hates their rural town, they leave, become worldly and enjoy their life of debauchery, then something forces them back to their small town and they rediscover their faith and feel horribly guilty about how far they’ve fallen. This is basically the plot of most Christian books.

So, yeah. Becoming an editor? Yeah, right.

But I decided that every single voice in my head that was telling me I couldn’t do this could go screw themselves.

Photo by Moyan Brenn