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Despite being an atheist, I find Christian culture interesting. I’m perhaps not terribly well-versed in the Bible, though I’m not exactly a Jack Chick unsaved character who has never heard of this Jesus Christ guy. While I did go to a Christian college — not a case of being put in there to get me on the right path; my parents are much like I am, but rather because before enrolling, they sold it to me as just a name — Kevin Roose has nothing on me. My college was, while more politically conservative than most, one that taught evolution and didn’t go into right-wing tirades on abortion and homosexuality. Roose went to Liberty University — the Lynchburg, Virginia school founded by Jerry Falwell. So, yeah — I basically went to Den Of Satan University comparatively.
My school was a dry campus — no alcohol allowed in dorms at all. So’s Liberty, of course… but they also don’t allow dancing, cursing, kissing, hugs longer than 3 seconds, R-rated movies and, well, a whole host of other things that were readily available at my school. So, honestly I don’t have much to compare with. While not necessarily 100% out as an atheist — i.e. I didn’t wear shirts reading “There is no god” or anything — I was open about it too, and if folks asked, I’d tell them. That… probably wouldn’t fly so well at Liberty. While I doubt I’d be shunned, I get the impression that I’d become a “project”. But that’s fine — as, after all, and as Roose makes clear — Liberty students wouldn’t likely see me as a project for soul-accounting purposes, but out of what they saw as my best interests.
Roose, an occasionally-practicing Quaker, leaves Brown for a semester and goes undercover as a recently born-again Christian at Liberty. The recent part allows him some leeway so he wouldn’t have to try to pass (and inevitably fail) as someone who grew up in the Evangelical culture. He tries his best to cram the full Liberty experience into a semester, taking six courses in subjects like “HIstory of Life” (a class all about Young-Earth Creationism and the literalness of the Bible) and “Contemporary Issues” (about debunking “harmful worldviews” in popular culture), as well as joining the Thomas Road Baptist Church choir. And, of course, I barely need to mention the seemingly constant Bible study and prayer groups he joins.
The best thing about Roose’s book is that, like the documentary Hell House, while it’s made by someone not of that culture — and even critical of it — it doesn’t take a mocking tone. Though he doesn’t agree with everything they say, most of the students he writes about are his friends, and people he enjoys being with (and keeps up friendships with after his semester at Liberty). He makes clear that Liberty students, despite believing some crazy things (and, to be clear as well — not every Liberty student believes the exact Liberty University doctrine and many even have various issues with the school), are in fact people and not caricatures. People who mean well and want the best for the world, even as they disagree with other people who want the same. And, in fact, the one student who comes up often that isn’t his friend — “Henry” (all names are changed in the book), his 29-year-old roommate — isn’t liked by anyone else. Though Henry is as hardcore right-wing and Evangelical as they come, he’s abrasive and is seen as having gone too far. For example, though homophobia is rampant at Liberty, most people are content to just call each other “faggot” and use “gay” as an insult and be weirded out by gay people (though having never met any) — Henry states that if he ever saw a gay person, and in particular if said gay person were to make a pass at him, he’d beat him to death with a baseball bat. Pretty much everyone is shocked by that — thankfully — although, said shock puts everyone down on the homosexually-obsessed Henry’s “Probable Secret Queer List”. Henry’s got problems, but Roose is pleased to see that he’s not the only one who recognizes that AND that Henry’s far in the minority.
One thing that I really like Roose’s book for is that he explains something about Christianity that I’ve never quite got — prayer. Even though even most Christians understand that prayer doesn’t necessarily provoke a divine consequence, it’s still, in their eyes, worth doing. And as an outsider, I typically saw prayer as a form of letter to Santa Claus of stuff that folks wanted to happen — and when the stuff didn’t necessarily happen, it seemed to be odd that people’d keep at it. After all, in science, if something doesn’t consistently produce the desired effect you try something else. But Roose struggled with that as well — but finally figured it out; something I never did. Prayer ISN’T a wish list — it’s a way of focusing yourself to look at other people’s problems and try to help. And it’s in THIS way that prayer works — not some white-bearded guy on a cloud reaching down to give you a new car. It’s like the “Godfellas” episode of Futurama — the quote of “When you’ve done things right, people won’t be able to tell if you’ve done anything at all”.
Roose’s book is very fair and evenhanded — I was pleasantly surprised. It’s never, pardon the pun, preachy, nor does it make fun of folks. He’s not out to prove how much smarter he is than Liberty students, but he doesn’t shy away from how dangerous some of their believes have the potential of being. It’s a great book, and I recommend it highly. It’s always refreshing to see a take on a different group — particularly one you don’t belong to and may even frequently mock yourself — that neither canonizes them nor ridicules them. The only thing I don’t like about the book is the subtitle “A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University”. It seems like marketing-speak, and rather meaningless and unrepresentative marketing-speak at that. After all, part of the Christian belief is that we’re ALL sinners; any Liberty student could use that as a subtitle. And, well, as sinners go? Roose is far from the worst — he’s not there to party and tempt folks, he’s there to learn, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s always one of the noblest of goals.