Kevin Roose, a student at Brown University, did something that I would never, ever do. He attended a Christian college for a semester. In this case, Roose transferred to Liberty University for a semester when he was 19, to try and better understand evangelical Christians. Roose is, nominally, a Quaker, from a liberal family. I would never be able to let go of my cynicism and social convictions enough to make it through more than one class or one prayer meeting. So I have to tip my hat to Roose for showing just how open minded a liberal can be. The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner at America’s Holiest University is Roose’s chronicle of his time at Liberty.
Liberty University was founded by Jerry Falwell in 1971 as a place for his brand of evangelical Christians to get an education while practicing the Liberty Way, a collection of rules that govern everything from what students where to how much couples can touch each other to the words that they’re allowed to say, i.e. no swearing. Somehow, this school has managed to get accredited and, unlike some other religious schools, degrees from Liberty count. Even though its founder has died, Liberty is apparently still going strong.
The Unlikely Sinner follows, roughly in chronological order, Roose’s semester from orientation through final exams. (If you’re curious, Roose got two As and four Bs.) At first, Roose reports feeling a lot of guilt and trepidation about what he’s going to do. To blend in as much as possible and to try to get as authentic an experience as possible, he participates in the Bible studies and prayer meetings and goes to church every Sunday–even going so far as to sing in the choir. But the guilt comes from the fact that he’s planning on writing this all down and publishing it later on. He frequently compares himself to an anthropologist, but wishes that he could remain as detached as a fully fledged anthropologist or sociologist could be. He worries when he feels caught up during the sermons and the prayers and wonders if he’s inching closer to being converted.
The most entertaining and worrying parts of the book are, in my mind the classes. Not only are Liberty students taught literature and history and math, but they’re also taught how to argue with atheists and evolutionists and the rest of the secular world. Unlike most other liberals arts colleges, where students are taught to see more shades of gray than ever before, students and Liberty are taught to think and believe the way Falwell and the administration want them to. Alternate interpretations and questioning are frowned on–though the rules apparently loosened up after Falwell died. At the beginning of the book, Roose quotes the History of Life (the anti-evolution class) syllabus:
This course is designed to aid the student in the development of a biblical worldview. This will involve an introduction to critical thinking, and evaluation of contemporary moral philosophies, and an affirmation of absolute truth. (32*)
The cognitive dissonance in those sentences almost gave me a headache when I read them. Doesn’t teaching someone how to think critically meant that they won’t be able to accept an absolute truth? I suppose, if you believe there really is an absolute truth, there’s no problem with the statement.
As I read the descriptions of the History of Life lectures, I kept thinking of all my old questions about why some varieties of Christians are so opposed to the idea. I remember once, in my high school advanced biology class, a friend turning to me after a discussion of evolution and saying that she just couldn’t accept the idea that we came from monkeys. It’s not impossible to think that, if there is a God, that he/she/it might have used evolution and physics, etc. to develop the world as we know it. Personally, the older I get, the more wondrous I find it that it all developed without a god or an intelligent designer.
Partially, the resistance to the idea of evolution stems from the evangelical and fundamentalist Christian belief that the Bible is infallible and that it’s meant to be interpreted literally. In History of Life, Roose and the other students are taught young earth creationism and the seven days described in Genesis (the first chapter, not the creation in the second chapter) were seven, 24-hour days. Roose comments that further along in the class, they’re taught a lot of mind bending and complicated refutations of evolution. Back to the earlier point though, Roose’s descriptions reminded me of another one of my old questions. Why is it so important that the Bible be taken literally? To my way of thinking, the Bible is the work of men. Fallible men. That doesn’t mean that there’s nothing of worth in the Bible. It just means that it was written by people who couldn’t conceive of something like the Big Bang or evolution. They had a history that was filtered through their consciousness and experiences. I’m not saying they were stupid either. The Old and New Testaments are beautifully written, rhetorically sophisticated. But they were written a long time ago and a long way away. Interpreting them literally doesn’t make sense and I don’t see anything wrong with picking and choosing. Christians already do this by eating bacon and cheeseburgers and wearing clothes with mixed fibers.
Another thing that bothered me about the Liberty experience was the amount and kind of praying that was going on. Liberty student pray for everything, no matter how frivolous it might seem–like praying for God to help out with grades or parking tickets. If there is a God, he/she/it has more important things to worry about. Prayer is a lot of Liberty students answer to situations. Some of the students Roose encounters pray and wait for situations to resolve themselves instead of thinking and talking with each other and working out the problem.
Roose did a clever thing in this book by treading carefully around the political issues like homosexuality, abortion, gender rights, etc. If he talked about them too much, I know I would have lost any sympathy I felt for the Liberty students. He and some of the students mention the fact that Jesus hung out with tax collectors and prostitutes and other ne’er-do-wells. Jesus–in my reading of the New Testament–didn’t judge. But there’s an awful lot of judgment going on at Liberty. Roose, in order to get the full experience, went on a proselytizing trip to Daytona Beach, Florida, during spring break. I hadn’t realized it before, but evangelicals stake out places like Daytona to try and save souls. Roose learns that on these trips, students are taught to start asking if people are saved or not when they meet them.
That said, Roose is also careful to show pockets of subversiveness, students who don’t swallow the party line, hook and sinker. Like I said, Roose was more open minded than I would have been able to be. I would have blown my cover–assuming I would have gone in at all–by asking those questions that used to make people uncomfortable in Sunday school and Confirmation class. I would have poked and prodded at people’s beliefs, but Roose was admirably able to blend in and let people talk to him about what they believed and thought. This is a good book. Not just because it was enjoyable to read, but because it has good intentions, to get people to see that no matter how monolithic they might appear, Liberty students are all different.
Now what we need is a Liberty student (or someone like one) to go the other way, so that The Unlikely Disciple can have a companion. While it’s important to see the humanity in Liberty students, evangelical Christians need to learn that just because we aren’t saved, it doesn’t mean that we’re hellbound sinners who are out to destroy their way of life. This is the problem with like minded people gathering together. They forget that there are other perfectly valid ways to think and believe and live. I would have really liked to see Roose spread the seeds of doubt, but that’s not what he was there for. I wanted to see a real dialog.
Still, I enjoyed reading this a lot. I laughed and I thought. What more can you ask from a book.
* This quote is from the 2009 Grand Central Publishing hardcover edition.