March 29, 2009

Evangelical Like Me--The Unlikely Disciple

A few weeks ago, I came across an interesting proposal: blog about my book, and I'll send you a free copy. Kevin Roose, a student at Brown University, decided that he would leave one of America's most liberal Ivy League schools and spend a semester at Liberty University, one of America's most conservative and evangelical schools. Intrigued by his marketing strategy and the experiment he lived through, I took him up on his offer.

I'm glad I did.

The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University is an undercover look at the daily life of a student at Liberty University. The book is a dual perspective on the complexities of Liberty students and the effect that being in this conservative Christian atmosphere has on Roose himself. In order to get the full experience, Roose throws himself into activities like singing in Thomas Road Baptist Church's choir, a science course that teaches young-earth creationism, Evangelism 101, a self-help group for guys who struggle with masturbation, a spring break trip to Daytona Beach for the purpose of evangelism, and counseling sessions with the school's pastor who helps students struggling with homosexual tendencies. On top of this, Roose was able to interview the school's chancellor and Thomas Road Baptist Church pastor, Jerry Falwell, for an article in the school's paper. This turned out to be the final print interview that Falwell gave before dying two weeks later.

Two things about this book stood out to me. The first was the development of Roose's views towards conservative evangelicals. He arrived at Liberty expecting a like-minded conservative army-in-training, but quickly found that the school has it's cynics and detractors. Of course there are instances of homophobia and anti-intellectualism that come from students and professors, but more often Roose is seen befriending others who are sincere in their faith and struggling to figure out how their worldview fits in 21st century America. The book takes on a "they-may-be-nutjobs-but-they're-sincere-nutjobs" quality in this aspect.

Secondly, I was moved by how Roose chronicles his own transformation and the way that the sincerity of the Liberty and Thomas Road people draw him in. He is transparent about the conflict he feels in being true to himself and his family, while clearly feeling a kinship and fondness for the people he gets to know in his short time in Lynchburg. At the book's conclusion he is open and honest about the lasting effects his time at Liberty had on his life.

I grew up in a church culture that was heavily influenced by Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority, and it was fascinating to see how things that have been so common to me sound to the ears of an "outsider". Reading this book can give great insight into how non-evangelicals view insider Christian culture. It also shows the humanity of the Left and the Right and how hard it becomes to demonize those we build relationships with. At times, Liberty students come off as hypocritical and judgmental, but at other times they are inspiring and courageous in their beliefs.

I would recommend this book to anyone like me who was heavily influenced by 1980's evangelicalism, or to anyone who wants an inside view of Jerry Falwell's greatest legacy. Roose is quite fair in his portrayal of the University and his writing is seemingly free of any agenda other than telling his story. Those who are familiar with evangelical teachings will either applaud or cringe as Liberty professors hold to a hardline theology that is often combative with biblical scholarship while students proclaim a belief, yet struggle to live it out.

The Unlikely Disciple is sure to draw criticism from the Right, but hopefully the critics will learn how the other side views them. The book will also draw praise from the Christian Left who want to co-opt Roose as an example of one who can express their Christianity outside of evangelicalism. Hopefully, they will measure their enthusiasm with Roose's own confession of where this experience has left him.

Read this book. Learn from it. And, if you fancy yourself a pray-er, then pray for Liberty University and Kevin Roose that God will draw them to Himself and use them for His purposes.

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