Saturday, September 14, 2013

Beth’s Books: The Unlikely Disciple

Beth's BooksI can’t remember where I first heard about this, but it’s been on my wish list for a while. What an intriguing premise: a kid raised in a Quaker home and attending the “liberal elite” Brown University, spends a semester attending the über-religious Liberty University. You know...the one started by Jerry Falwell. So when I saw a good price on Amazon, I grabbed it.

The student/author, Kevin Roose, didn’t go into this with a mean-spirited motive. This was no scathing exposé of abuses at Liberty, or an effort to write a book about how everyone going there is a foaming-at-the-mouth fundamentalist. He approached it as a genuine learning experience and decided to make the most of his time there by seeing how religious conservatives live and act. He also learned quite a bit about biblical history while he was at it.

He found out quickly that his hallmates were pretty much like any other student at a secular college, except they didn’t act out on their urges as much as those kids. They didn’t really have much opportunity to, but they also didn’t really want to (for the most part), and some of them even appreciated the strict rules, because it took temptation out of their way. Although he often felt bad about his duplicity (he was posing as a born-again Christian, remember), he came to genuinely like many of the guys in his hall. He found them bright, fun, and overall pretty decent guys. (Except for one virulent homophobe, who happened to be one of his roommates.)

A few things were genuinely jarring and upsetting for him, though. The casual use of using the words “faggot” and “queer” as insults were hard for him to reconcile. Falwell supposedly mellowed in his hateful rhetoric in his later years, but the culture of homophobia remains strong at the college, at least from Roose’s experience. His hope was that when some of these guys get out into the real world and begin to interact with openly gay people, they will realize that they’re not scary, awful people who are going to burn in hell. I hope that for them, too.

What was hardest for him to reconcile was some of the things that were taught. In a couple of mandatory classes for freshmen, young earth creationism was taught, with the professor flat-out saying that evolution was wrong and the Bible was right. It all happened in six days, six thousand years ago. The professor wore a white lab coat and frequently reminded the students that he was a “real scientist.” Perhaps a little too much reminding?

As the end of the semester approached, many of his fellow students expressed concern about the “summer slide.” Away from the strict rules of Liberty, they feared that they would give into temptation and do things forbidden on campus, like drinking and even having sex. Many of these students seemed genuinely fearful of the prospect. So much fear! When the death of Falwell happens a few days before commencement, it sounds like there was almost mass hysteria on campus. It struck me as a bit of false idolatry, the way Falwell was almost worshiped on campus, although many of the students realized that he definitely had his faults. Roose was able to interview him about a week before Falwell’s death, and he found him to be a kind man who seemed to be sincere in his faith and desire to save others from eternal damnation. I’m sure that this was a foreign concept to Roose (raised a Quaker, as I mentioned), but as someone who grew up in an evangelical family, I can testify to the fact that people genuinely want to ensure your salvation. Roose still had a problem justifying Falwell’s extreme homophobic stance, and simply couldn’t do it. That is nothing unusual about evangelicals, though. It’s the “love the sinner, hate the sin” thing.

What really chilled me was his quote from one of the campus pastors to the students towards the end of classes: “My biggest worry about that you’ll become educated beyond your obedience.” In other words, don’t get too educated, because it might make you question your religion. After writing that he’s impressed at the intelligence of many of his classmates as well as their intellectual engagement, Roose put it this way:
[Liberty is] 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.
Roose found that sad, and so do I. The purpose of an education—especially by the time you get to college—is to get you to question and think in a critical manner. If you want to reconcile your beliefs with scientific fact and with what you are taught, you can work around that in whatever way you can. But discouraging kids from questioning because it might shake their faith is just reprehensible in a college atmosphere, in my opinion. That’s not a university...that’s a seminary.

It’s not all sadness, though. When Roose wrote about the anti-masturbation support group one of his advisors asked him to go to, he had me laughing out loud. The name of the group was Every Man’s Battle, and if that isn’t funny enough, they had to talk about their successes and failures of the past week, as well as strategies to keep them from straying. Roose was highly uncomfortable, and when it was his turn to speak, he said something like, “Well, it’s getting warm outside, so girls are wearing less clothing…” and all of the guys groan and agree that they hate this time of year, and one says, “Spring is my Achilles heel.” I just wanted to hug each one of them and say, “Guys, it’s okay. You’re young men, and you aren’t going to hell because you crank one out once in a while...or even a lot. You’re healthy and it’s okay.” But then I guess giving them hugs would have been counterproductive to the purpose of the group, eh? Poor guys.

I liked this book so much that I gave it five stars on Shelfari and found the author’s website and sent him an email to tell him how much I enjoyed it. He went into this project with a kind heart and a willingness to learn about something that was very alien to him, and I think that is admirable. He was able to get by the initial strangeness of the situation and enjoy himself in many ways, and ended up making some very good friends. He kept in touch with many of them, and about a year after he went back to Brown, he confessed to them what he had been up to...that it was an experiment that he was going to write a book about. To his surprise, no one reacted with anger, and they still wanted his friendship. I got the impression that he felt he learned a lot about tolerance and trying to understand others’ viewpoints and beliefs. Even if you don’t agree with them, it’s not really fair to vilify them, unless they are harming others by what they say and do.

Unfortunately, I feel that Jerry Falwell did just that. Because he became so politically active, his beliefs were pervasive in Republican politics, and they continue to this day among a significant faction of the party. I respect your beliefs up until you are doing everything you can to suppress the rights of others based on your version of religion and on your holy book. THEN we’ve got a problem. We don’t base our laws on any religious book, contrary to what some misguided individuals believe; we base them on our Constitution.

I recommend this book very highly. It was a fascinating read.


  1. Sounds like something I will check out of the library... but I would not be surprised if it isn't in the Main Library here... not that they would be closed-minded to it but you don't know...

  2. Based upon your review I think this is a book I would enjoy. I'll have to put this on my list. As usual, your review is excellent.

  3. as always, i love reading your take on a book and love how you read so many different type of books. Some times i get stuck on one type. XO

  4. Does sound like a very interesting book! Christianity should be able to stand up under expanding knowledge of any kind.


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