I went to a private university which means that my classes were mostly made up of rich, white kids, and—in my case—tongue-speaking, bible wielding kids. A few of them could sing okay.
I learned in my first week there, a transferred junior from the godless north, that Chattanooga was one of the belt buckles of the Bible belt. I still haven't figured out why a belt is the chosen metaphor for the churched area. To keep followers in line, perhaps, by the threat of twenty lashes? Or perhaps to squeeze them all back where they belonged on the ever fattening waistline of American Evangelicalism?
It was my first experience into Pentecostalism and probably my first in any sort of Baptist environment. We snobby northerners tend to group believers into sheep and goats: non-denominational or God's Frozen Few. There are no in-betweens. This is how we convince ourselves that every stranger will be converted through the power of apologetic or signs on street-corners—our methods aren't always the best.
The belt-buckle is no different, though, the jargon is nauseating and the songs tired. By my last semester in this town (curiously populated not only by churches, but also drug stores and banks—did no one else notice the abundance of all three and perhaps a telling correlation?), I was weary of pentecostal theology in word and in deed.
Jesus was not kidding when he said that some would prophesy in His name but never know Him. Aside from my small group of close friends and a few others in our English department, I wondered sometimes if anyone knew who Jesus was at all. Jesus, the man, not the concept.
Every graduate of our university had to take a capstone class in their field and I looked forward to mine from the day I began to study there. If our diploma was our ticket to the real world, the capstone class was our dues. In it we would study great works by Christians writers—we would dissect O'Connor for a final time, we would read Wilbur with confidence in his allusions, and we would wrestle through memoir by Beuchner and others.
Our capstone was taught by everyone's favorite professor of literature and joined by the famed staple of the department, who, after 50 years, was retiring after our class. This promised to be the capstone of the capstones.
It also helped that both professors whispered to us that we were one of their favorite classes ever. You can't keep a good man down and so we were a class of laughter, tears, camaraderie, and challenge—floating effortlessly by on the belief that we were believed in. And so we were.
I do not remember the content of what I learned in that class. Nothing.
This is what I do remember: we were a class of skeptics and thinkers, trained to analyze and criticize and characterize and generalize—and there are few better social constructs in which for this to happen but a private pentecostal university. By the end of four (or five) years of schooling ourselves with these methods, the church could not escape our microscopic minds.
We were a classroom full and brimming over with faltering faith.