There are a lot of myths about Seattle Pacific University (whose motto, President Phil Eaton repeats a good seven or eight times a day, is "Engaging the culture, changing the world"). The No Dancing Rule? Dancing was never outlawed--there were just no university-sponsored dances. This policy was repealed after years of protest from students, and in a delicious twist of irony, the first SPU-sponsored dance was canceled due to low ticket sales. The Enforced Chapel Rule? Thanks to the Honor System (or, if you will, the Feel-Free-to-Lie-and-Say-You-Went-to-Chapel-10-Times-This-Quarter-When-You-Only-Went-Twice System), this, too, is a thing of the past. The myth that the social scene at SPU is a glorified church youth group? Ah.
There's some truth to that. Wherever two or more SPU students are gathered (for any reason), it is basically a foregone conclusion that one of them will produce an acoustic guitar and start singing a praise-and-worship song. And SPU has its own version of youth group, a soiree on Wednesday nights cleverly called GROUP. Because, you know, it's not youth group. I called up the SPU Office of Campus Ministries once to ask why GROUP was so named and why it was always ominously written in capital letters, but no one there seemed to know. Maybe whoever started it just wanted to stress how important GROUP is, as in, "You ARE going to GROUP tonight, aren't you?" Kind of like how the Bible sometimes refers to the LORD.
So yes, SPU is not short on well-scrubbed, Jars of Clay-liking, GROUP-going students. And strict rules on sex are in place, banning carnal relations of the premarital, extramarital, and (surprise) homosexual variety. Drinking and smoking are also anathema, even for those of legal age, although this has been challenged lately. Still, indulging in booze and cigarettes, or any other vice, is easy enough for the SPUer: Just don't do it in the dorm or buy it at the Queen Anne Safeway and you're probably in the clear.
I know a secret about SPU, though, and it goes a long way in offsetting the school's suffocating "lifestyle expectations":
SPU is an indie rock paradise.
And really, it makes sense. Here's a close-knit community of liberal arts students who already possess basic songwriting skills after having learned to play guitar at Bible camp. Add to that professors who are into Nick Cave (there are at least two--probably more), a topnotch music department, and access to an expensive sound system for anyone with legitimate ties to an SPU organization. Take into account that Sonic Boom Records is within walking distance and consider SPU clubs' penchant for T-shirts, which can later be worn ironically. And don't forget the mildly subversive, arts-friendly organizations like KSPU College Radio (kind of like a baby KEXP) and Second Essence (the annual music and arts journal and the only place an SPU student can use the F-word with impunity), and you've got the building blocks of a rock-and-roll hotbed.
Many of the local bands you read about in The Stranger consist partly (or even entirely--I know!) of SPU students or graduates. This "decidedly academic" and "distinctly Christian" Free Methodist institution is churning out the rock bands like no place else: Acceptance, Friends for Heroes, the Catch, Lo-Fi Fiction, and United State of Electronica (to name a few) all boast a school connection.
The insular nature of SPU creates the phenomenon of the SPU band. The SPU band is the group that, at any given time, all the students have heard and most support by buying their records and putting their stickers on Nalgene bottles. Previous the SPU bands have included the late, great Wes Dando, the Lincolns (now known as Wonderful), and Trueb (which became the brilliant Portland pop band the Carolines).
So when you get to SPU this fall and don't know what to do with yourself--since you can't enjoy a beer or the company of the opposite gender after 11:00 p.m. --start a band. You may not become an instant rock star, but at least when you're paying your dues at the Ballard Firehouse you'll be engaging the culture. And that's how Phil would want it.
Joel Hartse graduated from SPU in June 2003.