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

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