Tuesday, August 26, 2014
Our Courtship Story: Breaking Up With Fundamentalism
Continued from Instant Messenger and Little Women
Summer 2000, Grand Forks, ND
I left fundamentalism behind that summer.
We'd grown apart, fundamentalism and I, but I made the decisive break almost as soon as I set foot on the University of North Dakota campus. It's ironic to remember now, because that summer turned out, unexpectedly, to be my first secular college experience. I had not realized we would actually be, for the summer term, students of the university, taking real courses for real credit. I was completely bewildered as the SIL staff helped me sign up for classes, as I stood in line at the registrar's office, as I got my official student ID card that gave me access to the amazing cafeteria as well as the Olympic-sized indoor pool.
My peers were a zany, brainy assortment of mostly evangelicals (missionary kids, missionaries-in-training, grad students, undergrads from Christian colleges), a few fundamentalists, and one middle-aged agnostic anthropologist. And unlike an IBLP training center, the males were not afraid of the females! Right from the start I made new friends easily. Paul* was one of the first people I met. He was short, dark, handsome, and smart, with soulful eyes and a gift for music. He was emotionally intelligent and easy to talk to. We took the same classes and sometimes studied together in our small group. I enjoyed his company, but took pains to make sure nothing we did could be construed as the evil Dating.
I hadn't been long in North Dakota when I found the computer lab. I went in to print off an assignment, but could not resist logging in to AOL's Instant Messenger website. And lo, and behold, Chris was online and we talked. I was still adjusting to being away from home, and it felt so cozy to talk to a familiar old friend. Knowing that he was paying for my coming trip to the Philippines made me feel special, too. I began checking online regularly when my homework was done, telling Chris about the things I was doing and the people I was meeting. I didn't contact my family nearly as often as I talked to Chris.
Linguistics delighted me. Syntax and morphology made me giddy with pleasure. The instructors impressed me. Also to my surprise, I had a dorm room to myself, so I had plenty of time alone to think, pray, and read. After the last months at home, I needed that time. This summer on my own was a rare opportunity, and I was not going to squander it.
I threw myself into the social world of SIL. The daily chapel service. Volleyball. The choral ensemble. The sacred classical harmonies we sang together were sheer delight. When tornadoes threatened, I joined the rest sitting in the basement hallway in our pj's--a new experience. And when I swam at the university center, the locker room was a new experience, too!
Oh, that silent married guy in the aisle seat on my flight from Minneapolis? He turned out to be a classmate, too, but he was an exception to the rest. Though we saw each other every day, he never said a word to me (and after our wordless flight together, I was too shy to say hello now!) until...one morning when he came up to me and thanked me for always dressing "modestly". Apparently I was special among the group because my jumpers, long skirts, and loose blouses did not cause him to stumble. I felt sorry for him and at the same time a little guilty. I didn't deserve his "praise". What could I say, knowing I was already planning to expand my wardrobe at the earliest opportunity?
Though I still looked the part of the ingénue, I was losing my innocence and naivete at an alarming pace. A book I borrowed from the little SIL library in the corner of our student lounge opened my eyes to horrors I'd never heard of, like female genital mutilation. I was horrified. At the same time, the story fed my budding feminism--condemning patriarchy in its most hideous excesses and celebrating a young woman bucking the system by making choices for herself instead of staying under the "protection" of her father or husband.
Daily I learned more about our needy and messed-up world and wondered, did God intend me to help fix it? Or, was I meant to be a mommy? Could I, should I, be both? Would I be a contented single missionary linguist, like the elderly translator who regaled us with snacks and Winnie-the-Pooh readings on Friday nights? Or was one of these fine young men destined to be my partner in God's work? I puzzled over the question while I pondered how I wanted to live.
A friend was going to the mall for a haircut and I went along. I got my hair bobbed and found, on a clearance rack, a marked-down pair of loose-legged, pleated denim trousers that almost passed for jeans, in a size bigger than I wear today. I rolled up the cuffs and cinched the waist with a belt and self-consciously walked to breakfast on Monday, certain that all eyes were now on my ass. That was what Jim and Fay Sammons had warned us about in the Financial Freedom Seminar, after all! Later, at a thrift store, I found an outmoded pair of long light-wash Cherokee denim shorts. I even bought an SIL t-shirt, with words on the front! Move over jumpers, there's a new look in town!
I still wore dresses on Sundays, and sometimes a hat, when I visited churches of different flavors. Now instead of rejecting the enthusiastic beat of the music, I let it resonate inside me. I found a friendly charismatic fellowship where I danced and sang, and hugged strangers and prayed in tongues. I could feel my heart healing from the wound it had received at IBLP Headquarters.
Jed*, a fellow student, was a brilliant guy, but sadly lacking in social skills. He apparently thought I was cute, jeans or jumpers, a concept I didn't grasp at first because no one had ever been so forward before. I began to feel like he was following me around campus, to class, to chapel, to lunch, back from lunch, even to church! And he seemed to always turn up in the computer lab when I was in there. I kept chatting with Chris, waiting for Jed to leave first, but Jed would patiently play solitaire--for hours.
Being the nerd that he was and is, Chris set up a webcam at home. When I opened a webpage, I could see whether he was at his desk or not, and while we chatted, I could watch his facial expressions. As time went by and I kept finding Jed at the computer next to me, I kept the webcam window open as a way of putting Jed on notice. Surely if I made it clear that I was locked in typed conversation with another guy for hours, Jed would take the hint and disappear? It didn't seem to make any difference, though, unless to encourage his interest. I talked to Chris about Jed. I felt as naive as a middle-schooler and needed a guy's perspective on the situation. What should I do?
And then there was Paul. I told Chris all about Paul. "Oh, he likes you," Chris told me.
"What should I do?" I asked. "How should I treat him?"
It was the blind leading the blind. Chris had never been on a date. I'd sworn off dating ten years past, before I was old enough to try it. But we chatted about relationships till the wee hours of the morning.
On a day we had no classes, one of the missionary women announced she would be watching the entire "Pride & Prejudice" miniseries from A&E in the TV lounge. A group of us girls, plus my stalker, joined her. That was my first introduction to Jane Austen. I ignored Jed, but wondered if he was there to watch me or all the actresses in low-cut gowns.
Another day I was invited to play a game called Mao, which proved hopelessly impossible because I didn't know spades from clubs, who trumped whom, or the names of the Beatles! Other introductions that summer included, in no particular order: Star Wars (I don't even remember which episode, but I knew Chris loved the series). Mr. Bean. Star Trek. Veggie Tales (I laughed so hard!). Thai food. Indian food. My first sips of wine (at a Lutheran communion service on campus) and beer (from a friend's bottle at a Chinese restaurant). Laser tag.
When a group of friends invited me to the cinema to see a movie, I didn't even care what was playing. I had not been in a theater since I was six years old, and who knew if I'd ever have the chance again! I could have chosen a gentler introduction than Erin Brockovich, but had to admire the title character. In the dorm bathroom the next morning, my friends were concerned, and curious. I was 24, and they'd just helped me lose my R-rated film "virginity". How did I feel about the experience?
I laughed them off. "I didn't learn any new words," I said.
I didn't mention that I'd looked away during all the scenes when I suspected the undressed bodies tangled in blankets on the enormous screen might be acting out something like...Sex?? The noises were strange, as I studied the haircut of the teenage missionary kid sitting in the row in front of me and wondered how such a nice boy could be watching such shameless goings-on. Would his parents be disappointed if they knew?
Later, the same boy was swimming laps at the pool the day I decided to ditch the sleeveless button-down shirt I wore over my swimsuit. It was fading from the chlorine anyway. I kept the loose cotton shorts on, though. And when I lost my eyeglasses afterward, I felt divinely chastened. Not for watching the movie, but for venturing too close to indecency at the pool. During our mirth-filled skit night, I sat squinting on the front row, but thanked God that he would not let me stray too far from the path of righteousness. And when my glasses turned up again, I felt that God had forgiven my independent spirit. The next time I swam, I wore the shirt over the modest swimsuit.
Continued at Uncertainty and a Breakthrough
*Names are pseudonyms.