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Social Issues

thoughts on conservative Christian colleges from a Liberty graduate

There’s a bit of a hubbub happening this week over a certain announcement made during Liberty University’s convocation on Monday. If you don’t travel in the circles who are all abuzz about it, here’s the gist: Ted Cruz is the first Republican to formally announce his candidacy for the 2016 election, and he did it at Liberty, in front of an audience of thousands of college students. That’s not the newsworthy part, though– what has caught everyone’s attention is that this audience was a literally captive one. Liberty students who live in the on-campus dormitories are required to attend convocation (Liberty’s word for “chapel”), or they are fined. And some were not happy about being forced to attend a political rally.

I’ve never hidden the fact that I attended Liberty University for graduate school. In fact, on the whole, I believe my experience was a positive one, although I feel that way with certain caveats. I attended graduate school there, and therefore my experience was vastly different from anyone earning a bachelor’s. The English graduate department is, I believe, filled with highly competent professors and the academic environment is open to discussing anything (although I can only speak for the English department). While, if I had the opportunity to retcon my life I would never attend Pensacola Christian College or Liberty University, I do very much feel that Liberty was an excellent stepping stone in my life. It was good for me for where I was at the time– I was in an environment where my fundamentalist-indoctrinated brain/heart felt safe, but I was encouraged by my professors at every turn to get outside of that box.

However, there are some aspects about being a Liberty graduate that are … difficult. I’ve encountered HR professionals who claim that any resumé with “Liberty University” on it will go straight into the garbage– I’ve been personally turned down for things because of the colleges I have to list on mine. I’ve seriously considered paying for another graduate degree from a more respectable university and just removing PCC or LU from anything professional.

Because that’s the problem. Liberty University just isn’t respectable in most places, and they’re not doing graduates like me any favors when they invite people like Ted Cruz to speak during a mandatory event. It’s still very much Jerry Falwell’s school. I have been yelled at– actually yelled at– for daring to criticize some of Jerry’s more bigoted and hateful statements (like blaming the LGBTQ community for 9/11). I didn’t even say the words “bigoted” and “hateful”– I said they were “ridiculous” and got yelled at. By a professor. Not a professor I ever studied under, but still.

However, this whole situation is not entirely Liberty’s fault. Liberty is a conservative Christian college. It just is, and I don’t have a problem with the existence of conservative Christian higher education. They fill a certain niche desire, and I’m not going to fault conservative Christian parents or students for wanting to find a place that fits their ideology– after all, many people from all walks of life at least partly evaluate colleges and whether or not they want to attend based on questions like “does this institution align with my values?” The prioritization may change depending on the individual, but I know I look at places like the University of Michigan and think I want to go to there because of their reputation for student activism and an anti-military/industrial stance.

What does anger me are people who say things like “if I see a Liberty university graduate’s resumé, I won’t even consider them.” I went to Liberty University, and guess what? I’m a liberal, pro-choice feminist with socialist-considering-Marxism political tendencies. I think the Democratic party isn’t liberal enough. I’m almost of the opinion that capitalism (at least in its current cis-hetero-white-supremacist-patriarchal incarnation) is evil. Most conservative Christians would point at pretty much any thing I think about God, the Bible, and Jesus and start screaming “heretic!” and “burn her!”

I went to Liberty because of the circumstances of my life at the time. I enjoyed my experience there, and I, personally, learned a lot. It’s where I became a feminist, it’s where I started questioning biblical literalism. It’s where I took a class in dystopian literature and realized that books written by non-white dudes are spectacularly awesome. It’s where my Romantic literature professor asked me to read Frankenstein through a post-modern lens. It’s where another professor got so happy he cried when I was the first student he’d ever had to truly get the effect that Derrida had on Christian theology (we can thank fundamentalism for that one. I read Derrida like an Enlightenment-educated person would have in the 60s).

So for every person who mocks and dismisses and belittles anyone who graduates from a conservative Christian college, you can take your ignorance and condescension and shove it.

 Photo by Taber Bain

invasions of space: pro-life advocates and the buffer zone

benchby Farzi

One morning, during my second year in graduate school at Liberty University, the sun was bright, my hopes for the day optimistic and buoyant as I rounded the corner to the university’s main campus– and what I saw shook me. Even as I stood in line at Starbucks, then settled myself in the writing center, I couldn’t shake what I’d witnessed. My mind would flash back to that scorching-hot moment, and my breath would catch mid-sentence with the pain. People spent all day asking me what was wrong when I’d suddenly cut off, close my eyes, and try to cringe my way back into the moment.

The next morning, they were still there.


Holding signs.

With graphically violent, gut-wrenching, disturbing, horrifying, and vomit-inducing pictures.

Pictures of “abortion.”
(trigger warning)

I had to drive past them every day for a week. Every day they would scream at me in my car as I’d do my best to ignore them, to not look them in the eye. I would have to fight with myself for every single second of the rest of that day not to break– not to start weeping in front of a student, or in my office.

The first day they arrived, they tried to hold their demonstration on Liberty’s campus, but the university refused and then issued a very public statement that their presence was not approved by the college, and that the university disagreed with what they were doing. Instead, they stood just outside the private property– on a road that almost every single university student had to use in order to go to class and their jobs. I had to pass them every single day.

And, as the week wore on, as I had a panic attack every day from try to hold back the memories, as I thought what it would have been like to have needed to get to a clinic. What would it have been like to drive through a wall of people waving those signs and screaming at me, running in front of my car? What would it be like to try to get out of my car, with people taking pictures of me and shouting that they’ll find out who I am? What if they tracked me down and started calling me at my house? What if they made death threats? Threats that were serious– because some of them had actually carried it out?

The next week, when the pro-life group I was a part of asked me to drive them to the Richmond clinic, I said no. Even if I knew that this group didn’t do any of that, that all they did was sit in the car outside the clinic and pray and occasionally hold a sign saying “God loves you,” I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t be a part of a culture that even in its mildest forms is there to guilt and shame women.


The Supreme Court is hearing a case from Massachusetts regarding buffer zones around women’s health clinics (I use that term instead of the more inflammatory “abortion clinic” because these clinics usually offer a host of free or cheap care for women who couldn’t otherwise afford it, things like breast exams). Since this process started, I’ve watched pro-choice and pro-life advocates on twitter and in comment sections rage at each other, and I can feel the same rage simmering inside of me.

I’ve seen what the people who want to eliminate any sort of buffer zone do, first-hand. I’ve heard, over the past few years, what seems like countless stories from escort volunteers and women visiting the clinic. They face a barrage of hate and vitriol, sometimes daily. Clinic workers and volunteers sometimes fear for their lives.

And it both breaks my heart and infuriates me because as well-intentioned as most of these picketers and protesters probably are, what they’re doing– it’s wrong. They lie and manipulate, they threaten and demean. Their tactics are not intended to demonstrate love, or compassion, but to intimidate and frighten, to guilt and shame. And while there are most likely many pro-life advocates who are just as repulsed as I am (after all, I was repulsed by it when I was still pro-life), there are whole organizations like Army for God and Operation Rescue who use bullhorns, loudspeakers, scaffolding, semi-trucks . . . and spend hours screaming at people that they are “worthy of nothing but disdain,” who upon the murder of a physician say things like  they are “mass muderders,” that their hands are “covered in blood,” and “We must continue to expose them in our communities . . . at their offices and homes, and yes, even their churches”– this, when Tiller was slaughtered the day before inside his own church.

This is not something that any Christian should be a part of. This should be a method, a culture of violence and rage and hate, that Christians loudly condemn. This should be universally decried, not something that many of us support.

EDIT: please read my comment policy before you comment. Personal attacks will mean you will be blocked.

Social Issues

an average homeschooler: graduate school


I’ve talked a bit before about some of my experiences at Liberty. Overall, because I was in the MA English program, my experience there was a good step forward for me. I wasn’t living on campus so I didn’t have to do things like shell out ten bucks for falling asleep in chapel and I could ignore controversies like “what do you mean we can break the rules on just Valentine’s Day?!” (something about being able to hug people for longer than 3 seconds? Kiss? I don’t really remember).

I was also encouraged to do things like practice deconstructionism on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and I did a post-structuralist analysis of Edgar Allan Poe’s Eureka. Academically, the program was rigorous and challenging. I can’t speak for anything else about Liberty, but the MA English program was good for me. Actually being able to take a class called “Advanced Literary Criticism” when my only exposure to literary theory was that it was entirely philosophically bankrupt was amazing. Sitting in on an undergrad grammar class where the professor talked about grammar in a global context and saw English as one language among many instead of it being presented as subtly better (it’s the language of Shakespeare! Milton! The Bible!) was incredible.

Being at Liberty forced me to grow in a lot of ways.

One of the more dramatic ways was actually existing in a semi-pluralistic environment for the first time in my life. I was in class discussions with Catholics, Protestants of all stripes, an agnostic theist, an intense Neo-Reformer, socialists, feminists, conservatives … of course, we were still at a Christian university so it wasn’t as diverse as it could have been, but it was still way more diverse than anything I’d heretofore experienced.

And it was hard.

I can’t really explain how hard it was. During my first semester, many of the encounters I had with my new peers were downright humiliating. Thinking about those incidents still makes me physically ill. Some of the things I did earned me a huge amount of animosity from a lot of the people I had to work with. I created problems for myself with some of these relationships that lasted for the entire time I was there. Even my boss noticed and commented on it– although she phrased it “I’ve noticed you’ve had problems making friends.” That was also during the conversation where I came within an inch of getting fired because of the difficulties I had adapting to a place that assumed being a gigantic ass isn’t ok.

I was still at a pretty conservative Christian college, but all of a sudden I was drowning after being thrown into the deep end of the pool, and it was time to sink or swim. My first year in graduate school was probably one of the hardest times in my life– and that includes that whole time I was in an abusive relationship. I’m not exaggerating: adjusting to being at Liberty University, one of the most conservative places in America, was so difficult for me– emotionally, psychologically– that I can only really describe it in terms of trauma. I have the same trigger-type reactions to thinking about some of my experiences during my first year there that I do when I run into something that reminds me of my abuser.

Part of that is undoubtedly my experience growing up in a fundamentalist cult. I have no problems placing most the blame for these problems on growing up holding a mentality where I was right and everyone who doesn’t exactly agree with everything I believe is going to hell. Thinking things like that are going to cause problems for you when you actually meet someone who disagrees with you.

However, many of the problems that I had at Liberty can be directly attributed to the fact that I was a conservative homeschooler. Three of my professors pointed this out to me, actually– usually in conversations centered on what it means to be a college student and what is appropriate and expected. I was so oblivious to many of the problems I was giving my professors that they had to pull a 23-year-old adult into their office for a chat.

Many of the skills that seem to come naturally to many (not all) of my publicly-educated peers were so far outside of my grasp I didn’t even understand these skills existed.Things like work/life balance, how to prioritize work, how to do an appropriate amount of work … I also had to have conversations with several professors where they taught me some of these things– some had to be quite blunt and warn me that I was going to kill myself if I kept going how I had been.

I spent hours upon hours in my professor’s offices over those two years because I had to play catch-up all the time. My literary theory professor was incredibly gracious and met with me as much as I needed because he lovingly understood where I was coming from and that I needed that time and attention. My education professor responded to a ridiculous number of e-mails asking him for help for two years because I didn’t understand what it was like to be a student. My post-modernism professor was extraordinarily patient with me because it took me months to wrap my head around what post-modernism was (thank you, A Beka and Bob Jones, for nothing). People who weren’t ever my professors gave me permission to attend their classes because I didn’t have any concept of basic things like grammar.

Eventually I did figure some things out. I consider my grad school experience a success- mostly. I still cringe at the lot of stupid and idiotic things I did and said while I was there. I still flinch at some of the memories. I still hurt because of some of the things that happened. I wish I didn’t have to struggle so mightily in every class, that I wasn’t handicapped by my borderline pathetic education (although, by grad school that was just as much my college experience as it was homeschooling).

Talking about these experiences is complicated, because not everything, obviously, can be chalked up to “welp, I was homeschooled”– and that hasn’t been the argument I’ve been trying to make. However, being homeschooled the way I was (and the way that many children still are) gave me certain weaknesses that I’ve tried to expose here, by telling my story. Like all stories, mine is messy, and nuanced, and there isn’t any one thing to point fingers at. However, homeschooling was a part of my experience. It is one of the reasons why adulthood is still a struggle for me.

My conservative religious homeschooling experience was not entirely awful, and hopefully that’s been apparent all through this series. But, if homeschooling hadn’t been a part of my fundamentalist experience, I can’t imagine how different my life would have been. If I’d had friends who were different than me. If I’d read great books written by women. If I’d had teachers who could have encouraged and developed my passion for science. If I’d heard of ideas from the people that believed in them instead of just the straw man versions.

I can’t help thinking it would have been better.

Social Issues

learning the words: education


Today’s guest post is from Georgia, a reader who grew up in the Independent Fundamental Baptist movement, left that behind, pursued an education, and eventually became a lawyer. “Learning the Words” is a series on the words many of us didn’t have in fundamentalism or overly conservative evangelicalism– and how we got them back. If you would like to be a part of this series, you can find my contact information at the top.

When my mother and father met, my mother talked to my father about the new movement she had heard of called homeschooling.  It was 1983 or so, and the only people who were homeschooling were, frankly, a bit weird. The homeschooling movement appealed to my father because he was concerned that the public schools were intentionally dumbing down students.  My mother was not a strong student, although she is bright; she found it too easy to tune out and stare out the window, and she wanted more direct control over her children’s education.  I think morality played a role in their decision, for sure.  But the idea that they were homeschooling in order to pursue a superior education was paramount.

My mother was really dedicated to legitimacy.  She bought the Mennonite curriculum, Rod & Staff, because instead of pictures or bright colors it had long pages of math problems.  She recorded every day’s activities in a set of record books, in case the government audited her and asked what she was doing. At this time, my mother said things like “Repetition is the key to learning!” and “Math will make you or break you in college!”  Both of these sayings are inaccurate, but demonstrate that she cared about sending us to college.  Sending me to college, even though I am female.

I don’t know what would have happened if we had stayed on this path.  I think it is not impossible that I would have been encouraged to go to a real college; with a different set of circumstances maybe I would have been one of those early homeschoolers who gets into Harvard and claims homeschooling created great success.

Instead, my parents moved from California to Georgia when I was nine.  My parents tried to find a non-denominational church they liked, but struggled.  One day, my mother was researching private schools (which she did every once in a while, although nothing ever came of it).  She found a church school in an unusual denomination called “independent fundamental Baptist.”  We tried it out.  My parents loved it.  The pastor was very charismatic and very committed to long sermons which were heavy on Biblical study.  Essentially, my parents viewed him as educated.

Interestingly, the pastor was a bit of an anomaly in his own denomination.  Guest pastors said things like “I don’t need man’s learning to tell me how to interpret God’s word.”  Our pastor was an intelligent man — he had studied to be an engineer before feeling God’s call.  But he overlaid the anti-educational ideas of his theology over his own commitment to scholarship.  Thus, the pastor prioritized finding the unaccredited Bible school of the moment which best aligned with every detail of his theology. The people who didn’t go to those schools were made to feel a bit second rate, a bit theologically suspect.

My family’s view of the role of women changed fairly radically with every year that they stayed with the IFB church.  My mother really fought against the church’s restrictions at first. But, as the years went on, she became more convicted that this was the correct way.  My family began to speak of my sister’s and my education as primarily a way to meet a husband at college and become a good mother, with a back-up career plan in case my husband died.  I convinced them to let me go to college at 16 because I had a boyfriend and my mother thought I probably would want to marry him soon, so I should speed up my education.

It was not in question whether I would go to an accredited school. How would I meet a husband who shared my values at a school outside my specific denomination? How would I gain the Biblical values necessary to true education at a secular institution?  I went to Pensacola Christian College for the 2002-03 school year.  Even this was a concession to education, because my the women in my youth group were going to Crown College for an early childhood education degree with a minor in music (so that they could marry preachers, play piano in church, and be able to conduct at least a Sunday school and maybe a church-sponsored preschool).

Truth be told, I didn’t actually understand what accreditation was.  I didn’t know that an unaccredited degree severely restricts educational options available, or that it essentially serves as a pipeline back into the church, the only place that will hire the graduates.  Until I was at PCC for a year, I had never heard about seniors graduating, going home, and working at Wal-Mart because they could do little else and they didn’t have a church school to fall back on.

I was disappointed and disillusioned by PCC.  I did not have to work at all to succeed in my classes.  I took twenty credit hours my spring semester, worked the maximum hours allowed at the bookstore, and still had significant time to spend with my friends.  I got a 4.0 that semester.  More importantly, I was in a crisis of faith, because the restrictions were absurd, and the students cruelly urged to turn against each other by the administration.  I heard about Liberty University in hushed tones from a fellow bookstore worker, who also kindly explained the importance of accreditation.  Without access to internet, and only able to call the phone number she gave me, I worked out a transfer.  I didn’t lose my credit hours because Liberty University was one of the very few accredited schools to accept credit hours from unaccredited institutions.

Many of the same problems still plagued me at Liberty. Although Liberty did not prioritize legalistic adherence to certain ideas like PCC, the school theology instead prioritized emotional response over argument and learning.  I continued to struggle to believe in God, or in the ideals my parents taught me. But I did begin to discover true education.  Some of my classes encouraged us to read texts which differed markedly from what we collectively were said to believe.  The purpose for exposing us to these texts was something like “analyze through a Christian lens” but I can’t really say I did that.  Instead, I read with interest and excitement.  I joined the debate team, which radically shifted my thinking at a basic level.  Through advocating positions I did not believe, I began to see statements and claims as a series of argumentative propositions — some better, some worse — and to apply a critical eye to things I had accepted as givens.

It’s not that I consider myself educated now because I ditched religiousness.  I think education is a commitment to process rather than a commitment to outcome.  The process of becoming educated involves informed consent — exposure to fair interpretations and original texts of other schools of thought, and a recognition that human beings have an imperfect grasp on Truth and must grope toward truth-little-t by exposing all ideas to rigorous argument and counter-argument.  For me, many of the principles I grew up with did not pass the tests of rigorous argument.  I have seen people who did satisfy themselves, or who have the capacity to bracket religiousness as something beyond the realm of logic and argument. But, it is hard for me to live with the not-knowing, and I envy without condescension those who have achieved some kind of balance between knowledge and faith.

Ultimately, I graduated with an accredited college degree. I took the LSAT on a whim and, because I test well, schools overlooked my questionable educational history.  When I mentioned to my parents that I had applied to Berkeley’s law school, my mother completely melted down.  She wrote me a letter which became infamous as the “Column A and Column B letter” among my friends.  Column A included items like “Have a strong marriage and be a submissive wife” “Homeschool children” “Write for the John Birch Society” “Defend persecuted Christians.”  Column B included items like “Prosecute companies for even small amounts of toxic waste” “Feminist marriage probably leading to divorce” “Children rebellious.”  When I chose to attend Vanderbilt law, my parents did kindly help me move into my new Nashville apartment.  We went to the corner store to pick up tape and the sweet Southern lady asked if we were moving in because I was going to Vanderbilt.  I said yes, and she said to my mother “You must be so proud.”  My mother made a face and said, “Kind of.”

I think she secretly became proud, though, over time, because I have heard from various sources that she likes to namedrop “my daughter the lawyer.”  And once, when I was having an emotional conversation with her about why I feared getting married because I wanted an easy escape if my husband engaged in physical abuse like she had suffered, she said, “What happened to me would never happen to you.  You are an educated woman.”

Social Issues

centered on love– and learning to show it


Two weeks after I quit my soul-sucking bank job, I drove across the country and over the mountains–by myself. It was a harrying adventure, especially when I got to West Virginia and I didn’t have money for the toll. I ended up driving through the “country roads” John Denver loves to sing about until about one o’clock in the morning.

I will never, ever, do that again.

But, I managed to make it to Lynchburg, Virginia in one piece, got everything taken care of, moved into the house I’d be sharing with two other girls, and showed up on campus Monday morning bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. I had arrived about a month before classes were to officially start, as being a GA meant I had to take a short course of teaching college writing. I was excited, and figured I had a handle on it. I’d been a secondary education major at a university that was pretty famous in Christian circles for its education program, so how hard could it be?

I had no idea what I was getting in to.

Here’s what I was “taught” about education (and by “taught” I mean “bludgeoned into thinking is true”):

  • Repetition is the key to learning.
  • The purpose of Christian education is to evangelize. Actual education is secondary. (There was a three-sentence statement that basically said this that I had to regurgitate onto every quiz and test I took in any of my education classes. Thankfully, I have forgotten it.)
  • One-room schoolhouses were the BEST.
  • You should rue the day corporal punishment was no longer allowed.
  • The NEA is the worst thing that has ever happened. EVER.
  • Progressive education is a dirty word. John Dewey, and I quote: “introduced socialistic, anti-Christian philosophy in the schools. The Bible was separated from academic studies.” That was his only contribution. Oh, and he wrote and signed the Humanist Manifesto, which “enunciated secular humanism as a religion.”
  • Sight-say is of the devil.
  • New Math teaches that if a student thinks 2 + 2 = 5, it doesn’t matter.  (This is patently false.)
  • You should never want to be a public school teacher. Ever. Also, ignore our book that tells school founders to pay you $15k a year salaried, and yet force you to work 80 hours a week, minimum. If you go to a public school because they’ll pay you twice that, well, then, you’re a sell-out and God will punish you. (Also, this book was updated in 2009, I think, and they modified the $15k number from $10k to reflect minimum wage.)
  • If you hear the words “student-centered learning,” you should run away screaming.
  • Everything in the Chronicle of Higher Education is complete rubbish.
  • Never, ever smile at your students before Thanksgiving.
  • Have a plan (i.e., a pre-determined discipline progression), or your students will dominate you.
  • Psychology is a pseudo-science.
  • You are not your student’s friend, or their buddy. You should not care what they think.

I could go on, but I think you get my drift.

I walked into my very first classroom at Liberty, and I met a wonderful man. He was my professor, and I have never met a kindler, gentler, humbler, more loving person anywhere else. The first time he explained how being a teacher means adapting to the needs of your students, I was . . . mystified. When one of my fellow classmates gave a presentation on working with ESL students should require extra effort on the teacher’s part, I internally tut-tutted her. If they can’t make it to my standard, then that’s their problem, not mine. They’ll just need to take the course again.

I loved my professor, but I honestly thought of him as, well, terribly misguided. He just didn’t understand that “traditional education” was the better way. That being “progressive” or “student centered” would only lead to being an ineffective teacher that would have to lower her standards.

And then I started teaching fifty freshman writing students.

Heilige scheisse.

Everything I thought I knew about teaching failed. Failed spectacularly. At the end of my first semester, my boss– a magnificent, if terrifying woman, and one of the best supervisor’s I’ve ever had– pulled me into her office and told me that I was a breath away from getting sacked, and if I didn’t get my act together in the next semester, I was a goner.

I panicked. I didn’t know what to do. There were procedural things I could fix, and I did, but I couldn’t just magically transform myself into a better teacher. I read through all of my evaluations, repeatedly. I contemplated all the things that had turned into a disaster that semester, and I tried to figure out what had gone wrong. Eventually, I did see it.

The problem was me.


That hurt.

But, once I saw what I had done, it broke my heart. I had punished my students, constantly, for “failing.” I had guilted them, and handed them diatribes and discipline. And something my mother had taped to the front of our refrigerator came back to me:

No one has ever arisen out of a mountain of criticisms to please their accuser. 

Sure, I had followed the “sandwich method.” I think, in my heart, I really did care about my students. Their success mattered to me– their personal lives mattered to me… but my indoctrination absolutely forbade me from showing any of that.

The next semester, and the next year, I vowed things were going to be different. And they were.

I spent two hours a week with my ESL student, Hyun*, teaching him about articles and verb tense– outside of my scheduled office hours. Hyun continued coming to see me after that semester, just to chat.

I knew– knew— that Trevor* was a wonderful writer, but he needed some tough love to get there. He did, fighting with me the entire time, but by the end of the semester he came to my office to tell me that my refusal to accept his “good enough” had changed his life.

Instead of resorting to rebuke when Brandon* kept falling asleep in my class every day, I asked him if anything was going on. He started crying– Brandon, my camo-wearing, Browning-backpack-toting, combat-boot-stomping student– and told me that his father had leukemia and he was driving home three hours every day to see him in the hospital. I hugged him, and cried with him, and told him that I loved him, and we prayed for his father– who is now in remission, and wrote me a letter thanking him for taking the time with his son.

I recognized that James*, who was painfully shy, was brilliant and just needed a tiny push out of the nest. He’s now a published writer, part of Sigma Tau Delta, and is presenting at a conference in a few weeks.

I wanted to grow frustrated with Mark*, who was constantly absent, but I stopped. You don’t know what’s going on in his life, Samantha. Ask him. See if he needs help. Turns out he had contracted a rare virus while he had been deployed in Afghanistan and it had caused spinal degradation so bad it required major surgery. He came to me the day he had to officially withdraw from college and told me that my willingness to cry with him and pray with him was a reason he was going to come back to college, even if it was in a wheelchair.

Jessica* made me want to tear my hair out, she caused so many disruptions and distractions in class. But, I asked her to come to my office, and then I just asked her if she was ok. She broke down and told me she’d been raped, and she didn’t know what to do. It was the first time I had used my experience for good– to tell her that she was not alone, and that I would help her however she needed me. She is now in the honors program as an English major, and wants to be a teacher– and she’s organized several rape awareness campaigns on campus. The very first ones, at least that I’m aware of.

I’m not sharing any of these stories to brag about me, or anything I did in those situations. The only thing I did was throw away the evil idea that students should be less than human to teachers. That teachers are only there to deposit information in little brain-ATMs. The only thing I managed to do was reject a system of living that tried to cut me off from people– that wanted me to treat their existence like it didn’t matter to mine.

I’ve never found love and grace in a fundamentalist mindset– and that is the most frightening thing imaginable, because love is the only thing that has the power to change the world, or to make a difference.


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