I have a baby on the way, and apparently this creates a tidal wave of nostalgia. You know what they say: everything’s going to change. So, before the due (or dooms?) day, I’ve been lately looking back at life, generally a comforting activity. Memory often makes herself our ally, which is to say, this is likely not an accurate representation of history.
Ten years ago this spring, I graduated from Bethel University (then, and henceforth, Bethel College). That anniversary, plus baby induced reminiscence, has prompted me to start feeling old, and to think about the years I spent in the Bethel Community, and how formative those years have been on my life. Bethel the Institution put great efforts into creating Bethel The Community–and its hazardous by-product, Bethel The Bubble. My time in that community is at least partially responsible for creating the person I am today, and for that I offer thanks with gratitude.
Perhaps worth mentioning is the person I have grown into: at best an agnostic who finds direction largely from science and art and culture and not Christianity. At worst, well, that’s water under the bridge, I guess.
Nonetheless, I look back to Bethel College with great fondness for many reasons, but mostly, because Bethel is where I met my wife. We did not uphold that tradition of ‘Ring by Spring.’ And I thank god for that; our road was rocky and slow, and as a result our home is now built on firm ground.
So, nostalgic as I clearly am for a school whose politics and evangelical Christian roots hold almost no appeal today, I’m writing my ode to Bethel College, ten years later. Call it catharsis, call it indulgence. All I know is I’ve gone from kid to adult with Bethel Graduate as a central identifying trait, and I’d like to spend a while thinking through that fact.
It’s a struggle to identify Bethel College, which is a credit to the school. For example: Bethel is Conservative. Politically, religiously, student body-wise. This is built into the Bethel identity. When I say evangelical, or conservative Christian, know that I am using the language that makes sense in my mind as reference to the school ten years ago.
These are words in my common vernacular, and I’ve used them elsewhere. I’ve written often of evangelical Christianity in America, about the harm I think it’s done to our politics and our society, and the damage its leaders create when blurring already too blurry lines. But that’s a movement and culture, and thus by necessity these terms are generalizations. They apply not to any individual person, but fit well the institutions that harbor them. To quote one philosophy professor circa 1999, the problem with generalizations is they apply to everyone in general but no one specifically. Actually that might have been the problem with statistics. I can’t remember. Conservative, liberal, evangelical, republican, agnostic, the words are the lexicon we have to operate with, despite their caricaturing nature, and I employ them freely to meet my needs.
Still, these words fail. They apply to many of the parts but can’t combine to form the whole. For example, I and my liberal friends all attended as members of the same cohort, and were only one part of the actively non-conservative evangelical Bethel Community. We played the role of “we are so not a part of this lame Community”–a proud tradition in any group of young people. While some of us (me) smoked cigarettes on our balconies after getting drunk at the Artist’s Quarter, others occupied the Green Party table during that infamous electoral season. We held strong to our identities, we defended our liberalism against instigators–real or imagined. We knew as little about being liberal students as I assume most conservative students knew about being conservative. But it seemed to be a position in the community we fit and enjoyed. A position which is every bit as much a part of the Bethel Community–whether intentionally or not–as the conservative evangelical element. This is how I remember it, ten years later. To paraphrase Whitman: Bethel contains multitudes.
I’m working hard, if you can’t tell, to tread lightly and without condescension. I don’t care to tell anyone what Bethel is. I am only keen to explore my personal Bethel Experience. Which to me seems complex, but to you perhaps is boring. After all, Bethel is just a place that houses humans, and as such is made of the same blocks that build all other human communities, of which the most important is probably sex.
The Bethel Community, when I was there, was obsessed with sex, though we wouldn’t have admitted it. I assume this remains the case as Bethel remains a college and colleges continue to be occupied by college students. Thinking back to the student body, I remember distinctly an almost laser-like focus on overtly covert sexual tension. It was right there, all the time, in all the actions of myself and those around me. At least, that’s how I recall it. If college is all about finding a community to fit into, which it is, it is also always equally about sex. ‘Ring by Spring’ (do they still say that?) isn’t just a nice lilt, its a directly sexual ambition. Sex here being used broadly, not limited to the narrow definition of, you know, intercourse. I mean by sex an hyper-sensitivity to dating and relationships, to the culture of boys dating girls as God intended, and to boys dating boys as God forbade, to falling in love, to equally yoked, to heavy breathing over-the-clothes contact that crosses no biblical borders thank you very much. By sex I mean the rocks thrown in my direction, and the warning to the woman who would be my wife to “steer clear of Chris Finke.” Sex as the active culture of youthful heterosexuality and homosexuality. Repression as expression.
This shouldn’t be perceived as criticism. In a way this overt if repressed sexuality makes Bethel Bethel. Because no matter how hard any culture or environment might try, you just can’t take the sex out of being a person. If you think this isn’t so, just look at these Clarion headlines (from mid-Feb). Tell me sex isn’t on the mind. But seriously, don’t worry about this. Sex is awesome. Sex is the drive that makes us what we are, literally. And, in my opinion, sex in America could use some of the caution–though not the repression–that Bethel tends to inspire. That sex is far more complicated than perhaps the Bethel Community of ten years ago accepted, well, the devil’s always in the details.
As a quick aside, the devil in those details also makes his face known at the Clarion, and for that I am very encouraged. I read the debate that unfolded in the Clarion regarding last November’s ballot initiative to define marriage in the MN Constitution as between “one man and one woman.” Thankfully, that measure failed. As encouraging, (and, to be clear, not surprising) was the excellent argument posited against this measure in the Clarion by Profs Sara Shady and Carrie Peffley. I wish I could have had a class from them; they seem intellectually rigorous. Another fondly remembered detail of the Bethel experience.
In my Literary Theory class (which for those of my era was not the infamous Marquis de Sade section, unfortunately), my instructor and I engaged in a passionate if brief argument about the merits of the Paul Thomas Anderson film Magnolia, which ended with me pounding my fist on my desk and declaring with ample volume: I AM AN INFORMED VIEWER! On Magnolia, as well any number of political or religious or artistic opinions, this professor and I did not see eye-to-eye. Still, that Professor was a favorite of mine and together we read Gulliver’s Travels countless times. He was among the most influential individuals I’ve ever met when it comes to my intellectual life. I’m better equipped, and more thoughtful, and less willing to be hyperbolic and indulgent (this current piece notwithstanding) because of my time in the classroom of that politically conservative Professor, with whom I shared almost nothing but an appetite for learning. That’s how I choose to remember it, anyway.
While we are embracing romantic literary memories, I also openly acknowledge that without that Freshman Lit class, I would likely not be the person I am. It did what you hope college can do: knock down a door you didn’t even know was there. In it I met friends who remain among my closest loves; that young (then, at least) and expressive professor became a role-model and then a friend and even now challenges me to produce quality work. In all likelihood this has less to do with Bethel and more to do with curiosity and being 18. But what does that matter? These experiences were afforded me by Bethel.
I have no undergraduate experience except at Bethel, and am thus incapable of comparison. But when I recall the time I had in the classrooms of Bethel College, I’ve little to complain about. Looking back I wish there was more diversity in instructors, though that might have been just as much my doing as anyone else’s. But the men in front of those classrooms did not back from the challenge they were presented with, and for that I am glad. We may not have read everything, but what we read was excellent, and if it wasn’t we were willing and happy to fight over it. There was always a space to do so. Those college fights in some forgotten classroom over some forgotten passage in some book, those were the days. I hope that’s still there.
A dear friend of mine at Bethel was a bit of a political instigator. Protest songs, a column in the Clarion railing against the Bush Administration and its pointless wars, this was part of his college identity. He was a raker of the muck, and he was a good at it. The political argument of 2002-2003 was critical, and shaped the next decade of American Politics and Foreign Policy (for the worse!). But at the same time, being in college in those years offered a safe space to maintain the minority opinion loudly and without any real fear of retribution. And that was great fun.
Don’t mistake this for insincerity. We protested on campus and elsewhere because we fervently believed we were right. Christ called for peace, never war, never invasion, never false testimony before the UN to justify a war of choice. But to deny that we enjoyed shoving it in everyone’s faces–we thought that’s what we were doing anyway–would be to bear false witness. Sometimes this got ugly. During one protest outside a morning chapel in Benson, some son of a bitch spit on the woman that would be my wife. Cowardly, yes, but the fervency of belief that led him to take such a disgusting action cannot be denied.
There was actual, live hostility on campus at those times. Why wouldn’t there be? As the spirit of connectedness resulting from That Day began to wane, and the ensuing national effort moved towards war, hostility increased all around the country. But there was also graciousness at Bethel, and a desire to debate, and argue, and understand. Our small group of like-minded students joined with a few others and put together forums on the war, on politics and terrorism and how the world was changed. Faculty of different but elegant minds debated the issues, and students interacted and no one anywhere was spit on. It was a strange and lively time, made better in hindsight by recognizing what was happening: different opinions sitting across the CIFA lecture hall, talking. Seems like a decent lesson on how to decide the most important of life’s issues.
Now, ten years have passed since I was at Bethel. Here’s what interests me most about this walk down memory lane: when I think back to that time almost nothing about the chief identifying characteristic of the school comes to mind. The slate has been wiped on the subject, or nearly. Funny how one’s current situation reshapes the past to meet your present needs. Because, man, there was a lot of God in those days. Of course, at 17, when I chose a college, that’s exactly what I was paying for. I found Bethel as a kid and have no reason to complain about its values now. And I won’t; I shared those values with every fiber of my being, then. When the tide began receding from those values, it was difficult, and still at times I’m jealous of those who maintain them. I worked hard for years at the tortuous task of fitting the square peg of reality into the round hole of desire. But, eventually, it became impossible to find a fit, and rather than insult believers by erroneously counting myself among them, I changed my name. Such is life.
The time I spent at Bethel College, all that effort put in to shaping my life-long relationship with Christ, and the time that has passed since, has made me proud to be the man that I am now: a secular agnostic Midwestern married-man, an environmentalist and writer and runner, who loves ideas and books and science, who is devoted equally to the causes climate change and film criticism. And one who is happy to have discovered this picture of the universe, built around vague understandings of the cosmos and space-time and human evolution, with little concern for God, god, or gods.