We now return to the Bob Jones saga

textPeter Carlson of The Washington Post has great fun with the legacy of the three Bob Joneses who served as consecutive presidents of Bob Jones University, and with the tradition-breaking appointment of Stephen Jones as the school’s new president.

He mentions some of the details that made Bob Jones II a three-dimensional character:

As a child traveling on his father’s evangelistic crusades, Bob Jones Jr. would hang bedsheets up like theater curtains in hotel rooms and perform plays of his own creation. As a student at his father’s college, he founded a campus Shakespeare company and played Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice,” a role he reprised throughout his life.

In the ’30s he traveled to Stratford-upon-Avon to study acting. For more than a decade, he barnstormed America with “Curtain Calls,” a one-man show of Shakespearean monologues. In 1937, Warner Bros. offered him a screen test.

He declined: The Lord was calling him to run Bob Jones University. He became vice president in 1932 and president in 1947.

He built up the drama department and the film department, which produced feature-length movies, including one based on his novel about the Inquisition, “Wine of Morning.” After World War II, Bob Jr. traveled Europe, buying paintings by Botticelli, Tintoretto, Rubens, Rembrandt, and building up BJU’s art museum.

He mines the humor in an unbroken Bob Jones education:

It’s possible to go from preschool to a PhD and never attend a school that isn’t named after Bob Jones. In fact, BJU’s next president, Stephen Jones, did exactly that.

Then, many paragraphs later, he returns to it:

He was born in the clinic at BJU and he never really left. He went to Bob Jones preschool, Bob Jones Elementary, Bob Jones Junior High, Bob Jones Academy. He has a bachelor’s degree in public speaking from BJU, a master of divinity from BJU, and on Saturday — the day he becomes president of BJU — he’ll receive his PhD in liberal arts studies from BJU. He met his wife at BJU and has worked as a teaching assistant, residence hall supervisor and vice president for administration at BJU.

Carlson’s story is hindered, though, by a gratuitous use of sneer quotes — the kind that not only wrench a two-word phrase from a full sentence, but also telegraph editorial disapproval.

First there’s the dreaded one-sentence summary of a complex history:

For eight decades, BJU has been led by three generations of Bob Joneses — preachers who pioneered a combative and highly political form of fundamentalism that gave rise to the “Christian Right.”

(Does this mean the Christian Right would never have existed without the Bob Jones dynasty? Please.)

Then there’s the refusal simply to quote people on their own terms:

The context [of campus rules] is BJU’s mission, which is to give students a “Christlike character.” That includes smoking, drinking, dancing, gambling, TVs in dorm rooms, uncensored Internet access and most modern music, including rock, rap, country, jazz — even Christian music if it has a “sensual” beat.

. . . The difference between Bob Jones and secular schools, Pait says, is that at BJU every teacher is a fundamentalist Christian and every subject is taught from a “Christian worldview.”

. . . A month later, Dr. Bob shocked the BJU community by ending the ban, declaring it merely a symbolic protest against “one-world government.”

Lest we miss the point, Carlson also gives us these atmospheric details in the office of Bob Jones III (pictured, center, in an otherwordly moment when Ian Paisley visited the campus for a building dedication):

He’s sitting in the dusky gloom of his office. The walls are dark wood, decorated with mementos of beasts he shot — a deer head, an elk head, moose antlers.

At 65, Dr. Bob is a thin man with a warm smile and a friendly manner — except when he’s denouncing the sins of his godless nation.

Yes, the man hunts animals! (No word on whether he actually eats them, too.) And for the sake of comparison, his office doesn’t look terribly dark in the photo accompanying this feature in The Greenville News.

Considering the three Bob Joneses’ far more provocative remarks — about racial segregation, Jerry Falwell, George H.W. Bush, Alexander Haig and the pope (any pope) — it’s not as though Carlson lacked volatile material.

With a bit of restraint, Carlson would have delivered a wry, detached profile of the Jones patriarchs. Instead, he’ll leave some conservative Christians baffled at why The Washington Post has such trouble mentioning the basic concept of a Christian worldview without a typographical qualifier.

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  • Tom Breen

    This is a good point. Reporters and editors shoot themselves in the foot with the kind of snide summaries and sneer quotes you point out. Especially when there’s plenty of rope to hang the Jones men with – like the long and friendly association with Ian Paisley, which you point out – without resorting to transparent condescension.

  • ceemac

    You regularly critique folks for using what you call “sneer quotes.”

    I am missing something here. What’s the problem? It’s been more than 40 years but I seem to remember instructions from basic writing to use quotes for the sort of terms you call sneer quotes.

    I’d use quotes for things like:

    “Christian Right”
    “Jim Wallis Liberal”
    “Christian Worldview”
    “Liberal Worldview”
    “Southern Fried”
    “Damn Yankee”
    “Prestige Media”
    “Eastern Elite”
    “Free Bird Republican”
    “Willie Nelson Democrat”
    “Sneer Quote”

    So what am I missing that bugs you. Maybe a defintion of “sneer quote” would help?

  • http://www.getreligion.org/archives/2004/02/about_douglas_l.html Douglas LeBlanc

    Dear ceemac,

    I would love to know what rationale your teachers gave for frequent uses of quotation marks. In the examples you list, it appears you’re using them to indicate a phrase that may be unfamiliar to some culturally isolated readers, or as a visual clue that a phrase is slang.

    Sneer quote is a common phrase in media criticism, and it draws 149,000 Google hits. I see, though, that scare quote is far more popular, at 890,000 Google hits, so I may use that phrase in future posts.

    Answers.com defines scare quote at this link:


    To give more context to my hobbyhorse, I’ll cite four sources.

    1. “Quote Unquote,” The Right Word in the Right Place at the Right Time (2004), William Safire, p. 288:

    The meaning of the spoken or written quote-unquote . . . is “so-called,” casting aspersion on the word or phrase that follows. In American English, however, so-called is falling into disuse; it has the flavor of usage by speakers whose English is a second language. Quote-unquote — as a complete phrase, not separated by the words quoted — is now our primary deragator. A sneer is built in.

    2. “Distinctive Treatment of Words,” The Chicago Manual of Style, 14th Edition, 6.63:

    Other devices, notably the use of italics and question marks to achieve special effects, are not outmoded but are used less and less as time goes on, especially by mature writers who prefer to obtain their effects structurally . . .

    [An example follows]

    But writers who find themselves underlining frequently for emphasis might consider whether many of the italics are not superfluous, the emphasis being apparent from the context, or whether, if the emphasis is not apparent, it cannot be achieved more gracefully by recasting the sentence. The same reservations apply to frequent use of quotation marks to suggest irony or special usage.

    3. Index to English, Seventh Edition, Wilma R. and David R. Ebbitt, p. 224:

    But putting a word in quotation marks to signal sarcasm or ridicule (The “cute” Great Dane had eaten my sweater) is on a par with putting a question mark in parentheses to get a laugh.

    4. The Associated Press Stylebook 2004, pp. 207-08:

    FULL vs. PARTIAL QUOTES: In general, avoid fragmentary quotes. If a speaker’s words are clear and concise, favor the full quote. If cumbersome language can be paraphrased fairly, use an indirect construction, reserving quotation marks for sensitive or controversial passages that must be identified specifically as coming from the speaker.

  • ceemac


    Your response was helpful. Thank you.

    And a few more comments.

    You wrote:

    you’re using them to indicate a phrase that may be unfamiliar to some culturally isolated readers, or as a visual clue that a phrase is slang.

    My reponse:
    I think you are correct. In the depths of my mind I remember being taught never to use slang in writing….but if for some reason you must then use quotes. Of course we use much more slang in polite conversation that Miss Gardner ever dreamed we’d use back in 1967.

    You wrote:
    Sneer quote is a common phrase in media criticism

    My response:
    So it is really a technical term used in your field.

    A realization:
    I probably think and speak in snear quotes a lot. So that means that they are less likely to bug me.

    Off the top of my head I can think of two sources:
    1. 1st era Saturday Night Live style humor
    2. Because of the competive environment verbal variants of the snear quote were a part of my everyday prep school conversation back in the early 70′s. But we called it verbal tennis.