This week I took my daughter to visit Purdue. We were treated to a two-hour tour on a blustery morning. Our guide, a junior named Mary, pointed out one rather strange characteristic at the heart of campus. It was the Mathematical Sciences Building. The first floor was 12 feet in the air. The building was held up by concrete pillars, and the students walked underneath:
We then came to a grassy area dominated by a wide, six story building on the north side called Beering Hall.
To the west Mary pointed out on of the oldest buildings: University Hall
Mary went on to explain a quirk of these buildings. When John Purdue provided a great deal of the land and funding to make the university possible in 1863, he had four stipulations:
- He was to be buried on campus
- All buildings were to be constructed of red brick
- The university would never have a music major
- University Hall would always be the tallest building on campus.
Since University Hall is only four stories high, it was this last stipulation that would prove most troublesome as the small regional college transformed into an international university of some 40,000 students. So the administration resorted to what could charitably be called creativity, and what could more accurately be called a dodge.
First, the math building is not really a building. It is technically called a “Land Bridge”. Really. After all, good ol’ John never stipulated that land bridges couldn’t be taller than University Hall.
When it came time to build Beering Hall, the administrators apparently felt putting up one massive building on stilts and calling it a bridge is fine, but to do it twice would just be ridiculous. After all, how many land bridges does one campus need? So they had another trick up their sleeves. The top two floors would be given a different area code than the rest of the campus. Thus, it could be argued, they were not actually part of the campus. Surely only a hide-bound literalist would insist otherwise.
We had a good chuckle at these shenanigans. But I was immediately reminded of how often we do the same thing in religion, especially if our religion is primarily rule-based.
I went to school at a rather rule-obsessed Christian college. The student handbook was roughly the size of a Chicago phone book. Church attendance, dress codes, prohibitions against movies; these all had a place in the book of rules. Yes, it was that kind of school. To register for class, each student was required to fill out and sign a form stating they would follow all the rules. By my sophomore year I took the dodge of printing my name instead of signing it. The registrars never noticed, and I somehow eased my conscience a little; after all, I never signed that I would follow all the rules.
After spending a week with a Jewish guide in Israel, I learned that dodges like this are not limited to Bible colleges or fundamental Baptist churches. From Shabbat elevators (that stopped on every floor in turn, so that you did not have to work on the Sabbath by pressing a button) to toilet paper in separate sheets (no tearing things on the Sabbath), anytime there is a rule there is a way around it. Perhaps my favorite example is the Shabbat Amigo Scooter. If you have time, read how it works.
My point is not to mock. My point is to remind us that rules by themselves can never change the heart. Morality can never spring from compulsion. If anything, rules only make the prohibited seem more inviting.
The gospel is always by grace. I think it was Luther who summed up the formula in this way: Love God and do what you want. In that order.