Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Unlikely Disciple

The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University
Kevin Roose (2009, Grand Central Publishing)

Kevin Roose is a young man of unusual enterprise and resourcefulness, qualities which make him, while still an undergraduate at Brown, a successful writer. First, he talked himself into an internship with A. J. Jacobs; at the time, Jacobs was writing The Year of Living Biblically*, and had an opening for a slave to try out some of the commandments on. In the course of that project, Roose and Jacobs paid a visit to the Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia, where Roose met some students from Liberty University, another part of Jerry Falwell’s Lynchburg fiefdom. Curious about college life in a religious environment, he decided to find out first-hand, by spending a semester at Liberty.

It was (so to speak) an inspired choice. In many ways, Lynchburg is a more foreign environment that the capitals of Europe would have been, yet it was a place where he could walk unnoticed among the native population, and study it from the inside. It would have been next to impossible to pass as a Mormon, or a Muslim, without really being one, but Evangelical Christianity lacks a unitary set of visible signs for telling who is and who isn’t in the tribe. Roose could speak the language, with a little coaching, and he would surely amass material for a book.

It’s classic immersion journalism: he really has to undergo the experience, and do the work. He has to conceal a few basic things, like his plan to write a book, and most of his liberal political and social views; he has to convince his parents that he (probably) won’t come back brainwashed. He has to live under restrictive social rules--no drinking, no cursing, no physical contact with girls beyond a quick hug; and he has to adopt strange new habits of praying, Bible-reading, and church-going.

The curriculum is a bit of a shock, as you’d expect, especially since Roose opts for the core curriculum of Biblical and religious thought. He finds the Bible and Theology classes the most interesting, though he has lots of catching up to do. The debate between Calvinism and Arminianism, while alive and well in Liberty’s facebook culture, is something Roose studies “out of academic interest, not because I think either one describes my personal journey to salvation.”

Other classes are more frankly about indoctrination: ‘Evangelism 101’ and ‘History of Life’ require compartmentalization of a fairly extreme sort. The earth is six thousand years old, and the theory of evolution is wrong. “I can feel myself carving a second, smaller self out of the first, sort of a religious version of W.E.B. DoBois’s double consciousness. And the Christian slice of my brain is more apt to give these things a fair shake.”

Even without drinking and sex, student life is fun for Roose. He enjoys his fellow students, who are some of the nicest and happiest people he’s ever met, and he admires their sincerity; but he finds a healthy streak of rebellion among them, whether sneaking kisses or watching R-rated movies on their laptops at night. “The trick to being a rebel at Liberty, I’ve learned, is knowing which parts of the Liberty social code are non-negotiable. For example, Joey and his friends listen to vulgarity-filled secular hip-hop, but you’ll never catch them defending homosexuality.”

The anti-gay party line at Liberty is as fundamental and prominent as creationism and opposition to abortion, and it’s just as hard for Roose to accept, though he chooses to keep quiet about that, too, as a matter of staying in character. “At first, I couldn’t believe Liberty actually had a course that teaches students how to condemn homosexuals and combat feminism. GNED II is the class a liberal secularist would invent if he were trying to satirize a Liberty education.”

Roose keeps coming back to the giant cognitive dissonance of education at Liberty--in what sense is this a liberal arts college? “It’s a place where academic rigor is sacrificed on the altar of uninterrupted piety, where the skills of exploration, deconstruction, and doubt--all of which should be present at an institution that bills itself as a liberal arts college--are systematically silenced in favor of presenting a clear, unambiguous political and spiritual agenda.” He's only losing the time, since he is leaving after one semester (and no, Brown will not give him credit for ‘Evangelism 101’,) but he feels bad for the people whose only college education this is.

Roose does not become a Christian, in the end. The bundle of right-wing ideas that Liberty ties up with its evangelism is much too unappealing to him, but he still respects and admires the way faith works in the lives of his friends. Those friends, in their sincere, friendly way, continue to hold his eternal soul in hope and prayer, but they also like him the way he is; I do too. I have hopes that he’ll stay in touch with those friends, and perhaps give us a sequel on how their lives work out after Liberty. Will they stay in the cocoon of like-minded Christianity, or if not, how will their encounters with the secular world affect them?

Roose is modest about the effect one person can have, reaching across the God Divide, but he is optimistic: “...judging from my post-Liberty experience, this particular religious conflict isn’t built around a hundred-foot brick wall. If anything, it’s built around a flimsy piece of cardboard, held in place on both sides by paranoia and lack of exposure. It’s there, no doubt, but it’s hardly forbidding. And more important, it’s hardly soundproof.”

From his mouth to God’s ears.

March 1, 2010

Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer

Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer: a journey into the heart of fan mania
Warren St. John (2004, Crown Publishers)

And when did you begin to suspect you had a problem, Mr. St. John? a perhaps unhealthy fixation, let us say, on college football? "I'd gone to Columbia to study humanism and the great books--to become a rational being. Crying one's self to sleep over the failure of a group of people you've never met to defeat another group of people against whom you have no legitimate quarrel--in a game you don't play, no less--is not rational." Columbia, it should be said, was at that time engaged in breaking a record for the longest losing streak in college football, but that's not why Warren St. John was curled up in a ball on his dorm room floor. No, it was his beloved Alabama Crimson Tide, who had suffered their first loss of the season at the hands of the Auburn Tigers, the game every year Alabama most hates to lose.

"One of the most comforting experiences for anyone who considers himself weird in some way is to find other people in the world who are, in the same way, weirder." Well, Mr. St. John has found them, in spades. The scores of people who drive motor homes, (some of them "the sleek aluminum ones that resemble a 737 with the wings lopped off") every autumn weekend, to wherever Alabama is playing football, represent a summit of weirdness that cried out for further study. Good-natured weirdness, to be sure, especially when the good guys win, but how do these people do it? and why?

Well, sometimes writers have the best job in the world. He took a season-long leave from the New York Times, and went on the road with them. The first week he went with a couple of fans from South Carolina; the next couple of games he was a sort of wannabe, in a mere car; and after that he drove the cheapest RV he could find that would actually proceed down the road, guzzling gas at four miles to the gallon.

There's football in this book, but only in the same proportion that it enters into the tailgating weekend--which may begin on Wednesday or Thursday afternoon, for the self-employed, or those who have called in sick. Parking arrangements vary from campus to campus, but the RVs always wind up clustered together, their occupants sharing beer, food and stories while they wait for Saturday's game.

St. John has an ear for those stories, and an eagle eye for the characters he meets. He tracks down the couple he first saw on television, whose daughter was foolish enough to schedule her wedding for the day of the Tennessee game. (They made it to the reception.) He's friendly with a ticket broker in Tuscaloosa, who makes a nice living keeping track of how badly people want to see the next game, buying and selling accordingly.

He also makes some intelligent digressions into the psychology of fandom--the brain's chemical rush of victory, especially when there has been suspense, and the pleasure of belonging to an identifiable Crowd, no matter how broadly dispersed. Especially if your team is Alabama, and has been since you could first pronounce the word, there's nothing rational about it, and that's the way it should be.

Roll Tide.

An e-mail only edition,
October 2004