Friday, September 25, 2009

Going Undercover at Liberty University

Kevin Roose was a typical, secular student at Brown University from a liberal Quaker family when he decided to transfer to Liberty University for a year to experience first hand what a conservative Evangelical enclave like Liberty was really like. His family was pretty worried that he might get burned at the stake or converted into a mindless zombie, but he told them to think of it as a year abroad program. In truth, he did visit a different culture.

His intention all along was to write a book about his experience and the result is The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University (Grand Central Publishing, 2009). This book, begun when the author was only 19, is one of the most encouraging and hopeful contributions to the culture wars I have ever read. Roose does not get saved and he does not change his liberal convictions, but he finds that the people he meets are sincere, real and a long way from being the stereotypical conservative zealots of the liberal imagination. He takes classes in Old Testament, New Testament, Theology, Evangelism, and Creation Science and participates fully in campus life, even to the point of singing in the 300 voice choir at the Thomas Road Baptist Church and going on a mission trip to Florida on Spring Break to do personal evanglism.

He discovers that a university with rules isn't such a bad thing and has no problem fitting in - to the point that he worries if he being converted. He even dates a nice Christian girl and has to call if off lest it become too serious. He worries about deceiving everybody and wonders how they will react when they find out he was there to write a book. But when he tells his friends, he finds them understanding and forgiving, although they insist on praying for him when they discover he isn't saved.

In a strange twist of fate, he ends up conducting the last interview given to the print media by Jerry Falwell before Falwell's untimely death just days before the end of Roose's semester at Liberty. His story about Falwell for the student newspaper, ironically, is a puff piece that focuses on humanizing Falwell, rather than engaging him on theological and social issues. One of the most interesting quotes is what he said in answer to his father's question as to how he found Falwell. Knowing that his father is looking for him to say that Falwell is really just like his caricature, Roose answers that Falwell is "a complicated man."

That quote summarizes the book for me. For Roose, Evangelicals and conservatives are not one-dimensional, cartoon characters who play their assigned roles in a long-running liberal morality play in which they represent the forces of darkness, superstition and evil. Rather, they are complicated people with feelings, sincerely held beliefs and many good points, along with many flaws and wrong-headed opinions, as well as good ideals they sometimes live up to and sometimes don't. In short, they are human.

Roose, too, is a complicated man. I mean that as a sincere compliment because he sounds like the kind of person who really is open to communication and who wants to understand conservatives. One can only wish that all of us were as open to understanding the other side as he is. May his tribe increase.

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