With appreciation for his superb writing skills, I’ve been gliding my way through Kevin Roose’s “The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University.” It is both insightful and entertaining, the two marks of a good read.
As a Brown University sophomore raised by liberal parents, Roose decides to immerse himself in the evangelical subculture by transferring to Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University for one semester. Though protecting his plan to write about his experience and fudging a bit on his testimony, he is honorable in his overall intent.
Roose seems genuinely interested in understanding this foreign context — and takes no cheap shots at fundamentalist Christians. He doesn’t look for the worst examples of conservative Christians and generalize their beliefs and behaviors to all. He is very fair.
With some obvious guilt over not being totally honest with his new peers, Roose pretends to share the beliefs and values of his classmates and professors just enough to get an insider’s view. And he doesn’t live on the fringes of this experience.
Roose establishes friendships with his dorm mates, joins the choir at Falwell’s massive Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., and even spends spring break as part of a university evangelism team in Daytona Beach.
Insights are gleaned from Roose’s recounting of his experiences at the Liberty. The first is just how much of a distinct subculture has been created by evangelicals.
For example, Roose — though a bright Ivy League student — struggles to catch up in some classes because his background is so different from others. While he works to memorize the names and sequence of the 27 books of the New Testament, his peers pull the familiar jingle from their childhood church and Christian school experiences.
Second, all evangelicals cannot be painted with the same brush. Roose points to the diversity he saw in many areas. For example, campus worship was upbeat, hip and casual while the services at adjacent TRBC were traditional and featured Falwell’s pulpit-pounding, culture-warrior sermons.
Students varied in their opinions of and respect for the strict rules — known as “the Liberty way” — that guided their behavior. The most rebellious, Roose noted, would be model students at most colleges.
With insight, he writes: “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. And although they might harass the naive pastor’s kids on the hall by stealing their towels from the shower stalls — leaving them naked, wet and stranded — they’d be the first people to tell you why Mormonism is a false religion. In other words, Liberty’s true social code … has everything to do with being a social and religious conservative and not a whole lot to do with acting in any traditionally virtuous way.”
Roose opens a window to many areas of campus life such as the not-so-subtle push for early marriages and multiple children, the young-earth creationism that permeates the science curriculum, and the strong anti-gay sentiment. Yet Roose warns against stereotyping Liberty students.
“It’s hard to keep harping on Liberty’s intolerance, though, because just as my [lesbian] aunts are nothing like the demonized stereotypes of gay people tossed around at Liberty…, the majority of my friends at Liberty aren’t the intolerant demagogues Tina and Teresa picture when they think of Liberty students.”
Roose tells of a campus pastor who meets regularly with students who confess to same-sex attractions in hopes of changing their orientation. In fact, the topic of sex seems to show up everywhere on a campus where holding hands is considered “third base.”
One of Roose’s many good lines: “…Liberty is the only school in America where the engineering majors and the football players have exactly the same amount of sex.”
Roose affirms Liberty students as “more optimistic, more emotionally fulfilled” than his peers at a secular university. He finds affirmation in their prayer support and concern for him — even though he can’t buy into their political and religious beliefs.
“All college students should do a semester at Liberty for the health benefits alone,” said Roose, who credits curfews and the no-alcohol policy for his weight loss and spry mornings.
Liberty’s approach to education, Roose explains, is primarily dogmatic. “Here, knowledge is passed down from professor to pupil, variations in worldview are systematically stripped away, and faith is explained and reinforced, never questioned.”
However, Roose seems impressed by the boldness of his classmates. About his evangelism experience on Florida beaches during spring break, he jokes: “Why not go somewhere where Jesus would be an easier sell? Like Islamabad? Or a Christopher Hitchens dinner party?”
Roose’s outside look into evangelicalism is most revealing. It shows that consistency is not the defining mark of conservative Christianity. That morality gets narrowed down to a very small list of pet issues. And that a little humility could go a long way toward opening dialogue about spiritual truth with those who come from very different environments and do not speak the exclusive language of evangelicalism.