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Who would have thought that Bob Jones III, chancellor and former president of Bob Jones University, could be such a great actor, sensitive to the work of Shakespeare and quite clearly a lover of beauty?…

Screen Shot 2017-03-30 at 3.32.04 PMAs a resident of Greenville, South Carolina, I have learned to live alongside an overbearing Protestant neighbor whose looming presence overshadows the life of the city. This is Bob Jones University, the bastion of old-style, uncompromising, kneejerk Calvinism and, until recently, a recalcitrant remnant of old-style southern racism (the latter of which it publically recanted several years ago). I would even say that I have not only learned to live alongside my somewhat belligerent neighbor, I have learned to respect it and to love it. I am glad that it is there as a part of the fabric of the city which I call home, and I have formed a fondness for its quirkily quixotic Christian presence in the culture.When I first moved to the area, a little more than ten years ago, I made a point of reaching out to the English Faculty at BJU in the hope of forming a collaborative friendship with its members. I was received cordially enough by the chairman of the department and two of his colleagues as I sought to explain that, in spite of our theological differences, we were kindred spirits and allies in the war against postmodernism, deconstructionism, Marxist theory, queer theory, feminist criticism, and the other manifestations of radical relativism in the academy. I explained my work as editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions and gave them gifts of several of the editions, inviting them to consider contributing critical essays to future titles in the series. I caught the look of wry amusement in their eyes as they looked at each other. “No,” the chairman of the department responded, “I don’t think we could consider writing for a Jesuit publisher.” Although I knew of BJU’s doctrinal anti-Catholicism I had believed, evidently naively, that we could set aside our differences in a noble struggle against a common enemy.

In spite of this rebuttal, I remain fascinated by BJU, which seems to embody what might be called the incarnation of a paradox. On the one hand, there is the somewhat dour puritanism, and yet, on the other, there is a very catholic (small c!) embrace of all that is beautiful in the arts. The art museum on campus contains one of the finest collections of Renaissance art in all of North America, most of which is Catholic (big C!) in inspiration. There is something delightful, almost Chestertonian, in finding a splendid painting of the Assumption on the campus of a militantly anti-Catholic university.

In addition to its justly celebrated art museum, BJU’s dramatic and musical performances are always of the highest quality. I took my daughter to a performance of Gioachino Rossini’s La Cenerentola several months ago and last night (as I write) I went with my good friend and fellow “imaginative conservative,” Fr. Dwight Longenecker, to a performance of The Merchant of Venice. Father Longenecker graduated from Bob Jones University before catching “anglophilia” (which is always dangerous!) under the influence of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. He then studied at Oxford, becoming an Anglican clergyman, before eventually becoming a Catholic and subsequently a priest. There was something delightfully naughty about being on the Bob Jones campus with a BJU alumnus who had become a Catholic priest!

Usually I avoid watching (post)modern productions of Shakespeare, in the knowledge that I am likely to be offended by the Bard-abuse perpetrated by producers and directors intent on making the plays “relevant” to the politically-correct zeitgeist. This is particularly true of The Merchant of Venice. Many contemporary productions of the play turn all the Christian characters into fascists and villains and Shylock into the victim and the hero. I once saw a performance in England in which all the Christian characters were characterized as skinheads who punctuated their vituperatively delivered and spleen-venting lines with acts of violence against the innocent and hapless Shylock. Such abuse of Shakespeare’s purpose inverts and perverts the play, turning a comedy, whose happy ending celebrates the self-sacrificial imperative of true love and the timeless lessons it teaches, into a tragedy in which the subplot (a condemnation of the spirit of merciless vengeance) subverts and subjugates the entire dynamic of the play.

Another heinous perversion of The Merchant of Venice is the poisoning of the character of Portia so that she is transformed from the wise and virtuous virgin whom Shakespeare paints (one of his greatest and strongest characters) into a feisty feminist who cheats in the test of the caskets as she will no doubt cheat on Bassanio when she tires of him.

I was consoled in the knowledge that there would be no anti-Christian dimension to a production of the play at Bob Jones University and knew that there would be no attempt to turn the heroine into a whore. Instead, the only tampering with the text was the removal of the coercion placed on Shylock at the end of the trial scene to force his conversion to Christianity. Although any lover of Shakespeare will wince at the decision to edit his plays, albeit in a minor way, it must be conceded that these particular lines are enough in themselves to make anyone wince. Indeed, they seem so crassly incongruous and so at odds with the spirit of Shakespeare that one is tempted to speculate that they were not his own lines but were added by a third party. Since, however, there is no evidence for such a speculation, we must place such wishful thinking aside.

The justification for the omission of the offensively coercive lines was given in the program notes by Layton Talbert, a theologian in the BJU Seminary and Graduate School of Religion:

In keeping with this progression from religious caricature to religious ideal, this production dispenses with Shylock’s forced conversion to Christianity. Whatever it may have communicated in Shakespeare’s day, such compulsion is incongruous, not merely with modern norms of tolerance, but with the glimpse of true Christianity the audience finally sees in the courtroom.

The fact that I sympathize with Dr. Talbert’s reasoning is evident from the manner in which I discuss these same lines in my book, Through Shakespeare’s Eyes:

There is… one remaining aspect of the trial scene that continues to elicit sympathy for Shylock and that seems to suggest a reprehensible crassness on the part of his enemies. The ultimatum given by the Duke that he will ‘recant’ his pardon if Shylock refuses to become a Christian is an action that no reader of the play can sanction without grievous misgivings. For Catholic Christians the very notion of a forced conversion is anathema, and is explicitly forbidden. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, man ‘must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience. Nor must he be prevented from acting according to his conscience, especially in religious matters.’ Contrary to such teaching, and even though there is no indication that he would have done so in conscience, Shylock is forced to become a Christian, on pain of death. The quality of such mercy is indeed dubious and there seems little doubt that the Duke’s ultimatum effectively nullifies his earlier show of mercy in sparing Shylock’s life.

I am also in complete agreement with Dr. Talbert in his theological understanding of the moral lesson that Shakespeare teaches in the courtroom scene:

Seen through the lens of a biblical worldview, the courtroom becomes a parable of the clash between Law (justice) and Gospel (mercy). The one who demands pure justice will find justice to be his undoing. Yet mercy without justice holds no one accountable for evil. God alone is able to dispense complete mercy alongside perfect justice through Christ’s sacrifice. His mercy is humankind’s only hope—a shorthand for the Gospel.

Amen, brother! Amen!

And yet, calling Dr. Talbert my brother, I am bothered by the possibility that he and his colleagues at BJU might not consider me to be theirs. I am, after all, a Catholic and one recalls the words of Bob Jones III that Catholicism is “the religion of the anti-Christ and a Satanic system” and his description of Catholics and Mormons as “cults which call themselves Christian.” Does Dr. Talbert see me as a brother in Christ, or am I a member of a satanic cult, destined for hell? I am, in any event, willing to put such differences aside, not least because Bob Jones III has won my heart completely, in spite of his earlier offensive words. He has won my heart for his simply masterful performance as Shylock in last night’s performance. Who would have thought that Bob Jones III, chancellor and former president of BJU, could be such a great actor, sensitive to the work of Shakespeare and quite clearly a lover of beauty? Like his father, Bob Jones, Jr., the art connoisseur who assembled the fine collection of Renaissance art on the BJU campus, he is able to see beauty as a path to the divine. Any such man, regardless of what he thinks of me and those who share my Catholic faith, is my brother in Christ.

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11 replies to this post
  1. Enjoyed your excellent article, Mr. Pearce. And I was also impressed with Bob Jones III’s performance. I had always thought his father was by far the better actor, but now I am not so sure. Anyway, as a former Roman Catholic who chose to go to Bob Jones University (I’m going in the opposite direction of Father Longenecker, I guess) I can say that I – at least – don’t consider all Catholics to be lost and bound for hell. Salvation is not really a question of denominations. If you have put your faith in the Lord Jesus to forgive your sins, you will go to heaven. But when I talk to Roman Catholic people (including my beloved family members) and I ask them if they are going to heaven when they die they invariably say, “I hope so.” Then they reveal that they think admittance into heaven hinges on their performance – that they hope they have done enough good to merit salvation. So is their trust in Jesus Christ or in their own efforts to be “good”? Regardless of what technical Catholic doctrine says, most Catholics think they need to earn salvation. I was once in that state until I learned – from a Catholic bible – that salvation is entirely wrapped up in Jesus. So whether or not a person is a “brother” depends on that – have you truly surrendered yourself to Christ? At Bob Jones University we love Catholics – we always have. But we do think that Roman Catholic teaching is disastrously wrong. No need to re-enact the reformation here and now, but that’s what it boils down to.

    Again, I enjoyed the article – you and Father Longenecker are the two writers that I always read at The Imaginative Conservative. God bless you both.

  2. Re music and Bob Jones University, note that Dan Forrest, Jr. — one of the foremost choral composers and arrangers in America — not only earned his undergrad degree and M.Mus. at Bob Jones, but taught there several years. Head to Youtube, type in Dan Forrest, and check out his “Good Night, Dear Heart,” “Abide,” “Requiem for the Living,” among others.

  3. Jim, Catholics agree with John Calvin who wrote, “You cannot get into heaven by good works, but you also cannot get into heaven without good works.” I’d be happy to converse further by email if you wish. Thanks for the kind words!

  4. In response to Mack’s comment about not drifting into Tashlan-ism: I’m not sure I get it. In C.S. Lewis’s last Narnia book, Lewis either implies or mentions explicitly the notion that as long as a person is “sincere” they will be saved even though they have been sincerely serving the wrong god all their lives. I have always regarded this idea as incorrect – the bible clearly says that there is no other name that that of Jesus’ through which we can be saved. Maybe I have misunderstood your comment – or maybe I need to go back and look at The Last Battle and refresh my memory as to what Tashlan-ism would be – but what I am saying is that being a member of any particular church doesn’t guarantee one’s salvation (and conversely, not being a member of any particular earthly church does not consign one to hell). Salvation is found through faith and trust in Jesus and everyone has access to Him. I am certainly not saying that a sincere Muslim or Buddhist is safe from condemnation. But perhaps this is not the place to discuss this theological question, Mack, and if you’d like to pursue it with me elsewhere, just let me know.

  5. Jim: There is a difference between Tashlanism and the salvation of the Caldorman soldier. Tashlanism merely asserted that Tash and Aslan were one and the same, and that to worship one was to worship the same, even though their characters were far different. The Caldorman soldier, as far as I remember, was saved because he worshiped and served the good, true, and beautiful — which meant that he worshiped Aslan, even if the only name he had for what he worshiped was “Tash”. Compare that to the Stoics attempting to conform themselves to God’s will. They referred to God as Zeus, but the Order they sought to emulate in their own lives was that of actual God’s, not that of a randy old man in the sky.

  6. Stephen: thank you very much for the clarification – I am on the road and unable to consult my copy of The Last Battle. So help me now – Stephen or Mack – what’s the gist of cautioning me not to drift into Tashlanism? Does my contention that man-made organizations (by which I mean church denominations) are not the means of salvation make it appear as though I am saying that Christ and Allah are one and the same? Because I certainly don’t mean that. Or are you coming from the Roman Catholic angle that the One True Church is the Roman Catholic church and that my saying that a person does not have to be a member of the Roman Catholic church is tantamount to Tashlanism? Not trying to be contentious by any means – readers of The Imaginative Conservative are intelligent, well-meaning people and when one of them cautions me about something I want to understand it and take it seriously.

  7. I doubt BJU would appreciate hearing their theological stance described as “knee-jerk Calvinism”. Dr. Bob Jones Sr., the evangelist who founded the school, was an ordained Methodist minister. While there have been some Calvinist Methodists, the denomination has for the most part identified with the Arminianism of its founders, the Wesleys. The University, being non-denominational fundamentalist, took no official stance on Calvinism-Arminianism, but references to Calvinism in the sermons and writings of the founder’s successors, his son and grandson, are virtually all negative. “Calvinism” to them meant the kind of strict Calvinism that adheres rigidly to the five canons of the Synod of Dort and they certainly thought very poorly of that kind of theology. The Joneses came out of the tent/camp revival meeting movement in North America a movement which traditionally looked upon Calvinist theology, with its heavy emphasis on election and predestination, as at best counterproductive and at worst outright hostile, to its evangelistic efforts. Within Protestantism, Calvinism is one of several theological positions (although it and its rival Arminianism tend to think of themselves as the only two options available) and one which is not generally thought well of by any other than its own adherents.

    On another note you write: “Father Longenecker graduated from Bob Jones University before catching “anglophilia” (which is always dangerous!) under the influence of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.” Interestingly, Bob Jones Jr. himself was an admirer of C. S. Lewis, and describes a meeting with the don in his memoirs “Cornbread and Caviar” in which, asked by Lewis which of his books he liked the most, he earned his approval by naming the Space trilogy.

  8. I have an (unaccredited, of course) MA in Church History from BJU. The school has indeed abandoned the racism it was founded…in the midst of?..but I suspect that there was a strong bit of pragmatism attached to that. They’ve tried to bury the founder’s Easter 1960 chapel message, “Is Segregation Scriptural?”, but it can still be found online. They also renamed one of the men’s dorms because the person whom it was named after, a governor of Alabama and a member of the first board, was also a leading Klansman. The faculty are some of the most wonderful people around. The administration will say whatever serves their purpose. There are a lot of other things that could be said, but I, for one, can no longer support them until they truly repent and change on a number of issues. I pray that happens, but it’s hard to imagine what would precipitate that.

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