By Eric Tucker
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Last updated Friday, April 24, 2009 2:34 PM CDT in Religion
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Kevin Roose managed to blend in during his single semester at Liberty University, attending lectures on the myth of evolution and the sin of homosexuality, and joining fellow students on a mission trip to evangelize partyers on spring break.
Roose had transferred to the Virginia campus from Brown University in Providence, a famously liberal member of the Ivy League. His Liberty classmates knew about the switch, but he kept something more important hidden: He planned to write a book about his experience at the school founded by fundamentalist preacher Jerry Falwell.
Each conversation about salvation or hand-wringing debate about premarital sex was unwitting fodder for Roose's recently published book: "The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University."
"As a responsible American citizen, I couldn't just ignore the fact that there are a lot of Christian college students out there," said Roose, 21, now a Brown senior. "If I wanted my education to be well-rounded, I had to branch out and include these people that I just really had no exposure to."
Formed in 1971, Liberty now enrolls more than 11,000 residential students, along with thousands more who study through Liberty's distance-learning programs. The university teaches creationism and that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, while pledging "a strong commitment to political conservatism" on campus and a "total rejection of socialism."
Roose's parents, liberal Quakers who once worked for Ralph Nader, were nervous about their son being exposed to Falwell's views. Still, Roose transferred to Liberty for the spring 2007 semester.
He was determined to not mock the school, thinking it would be too easy — and unfair. He aimed to immerse himself in the culture, examine what conservative Christians believe and see if he could find some common ground. He had less weighty questions too: How did they spend Friday nights? Did they use Facebook? Did they go on dates? Did they watch "Gossip Girl?"
It wasn't an easy transition. Premarital sex is an obvious no-no at Liberty. So are smoking and drinking. Cursing is also banned, so he prepared by reading the Christian self-help book, "30 Days to Taming Your Tongue."
He lined up a publisher — Grand Central Publishing — and arrived at the Lynchburg campus prepared for "hostile ideologues who spent all their time plotting abortion clinic protests and sewing Hillary Clinton voodoo dolls."
Instead, he found that "not only are they not that, but they're rigorously normal."
He met students who use Bible class to score dates, apply to top law schools and fret about their futures, and who enjoy gossip, hip-hop and R-rated movies — albeit in a locked dorm room.
A roommate he depicts as aggressively anti-gay — all names are changed in the book — is an outcast on the hall, not a role model.
Yet, some students also grilled him about his relationship with Jesus and condemned non-believers to hell.
After a gunman at Virginia Tech killed 32 people in April 2007, a Liberty student said the deaths paled next to the millions of abortions worldwide — a comment Roose says infuriated him.
Roose researched the school by joining as many activites as possible. He accompanied classmates on a spring break missionary trip to Daytona Beach. He visited a campus support group for chronic masturbators, where students were taught to curb impure thoughts. And he joined the choir at Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist Church.
Roose scored an interview with the preacher for the school newspaper, right before Falwell died in May of that year. Roose decided against confronting him over his views on liberals, gays and other hot-button topics, and instead learned about the man himself, discovering among other things that the pastor loved diet peach Snapple and the TV show "24."
Roose would duck away to the bathroom to scribble down anecdotes or record them during lectures. He never blew his cover, even ending a blossoming romantic relationship rather than come clean. He revealed the truth on a return trip to campus. He grappled with guilt during the entire project, but said he ultimately found forgiveness from students for his deception.
"If he told me he was writing an expose or maybe if the book turned out to be what I considered unfair, then I might have been more troubled," said Brian Colas, a former Liberty student body president who befriended Roose.
The university administration has been less receptive. Chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr. said in a statement that Roose had a "distorted view" of Liberty before he arrived and gave an incomplete portrait of the school.
"We appreciate Kevin's generally positive tone toward LU but he admittedly comes from a culture that has very little tolerance for conservative Christianity and even less understanding of it," Falwell said.
Roose said his Liberty experience transformed him in surprising ways.
When he first returned to Brown, he'd be shocked by the sight of a gay couple holding hands — then be shocked at his own reaction. He remains stridently opposed to Falwell's worldview, but he also came to understand Falwell's appeal.
Once ambivalent about faith, Roose now prays to God regularly — for his own well-being and on behalf of others. He said he owns several translations of the Bible and has recently been rereading meditations from the Gospel of John on using love and compassion to solve cultural conflicts.
He's even considering joining a church.
Surprises from Liberty University: What I Learned as an Undercover Evangelical
By Kevin Roose
The Huffington Post
Posted May 5, 2009 03:18 PM (EST)
When I stepped on to the campus of Liberty University for my first day as a new transfer student, I thought I knew what I was getting myself into.
I knew that Liberty was a Christian college in Lynchburg, Virginia, founded in 1971 by the late Reverend Jerry Falwell to train "Champions for Christ." I knew it had required courses in Creationist Biology and Evangelism 101, a student body whose political views ranged from conservative to arch-conservative, and a 46-page code of conduct - called "The Liberty Way" - that outlawed drinking, smoking, cursing, dancing, R-rated movies, and hugs that last for longer than three seconds.
I knew all those things, which is why I decided to transfer to Liberty from Brown University, one of the nation's most liberal colleges, and write a book (The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University) about my experience. Before Liberty, I'd never been exposed to conservative Christian culture - my parents are secular Quakers who once worked for Ralph Nader - but during my sophomore year at Brown, I decided to break out of my left-wing enclave and learn about my Christian peers by experiencing their world firsthand. For an entire semester, I took Bible classes, lived in Liberty's single-sex dorms, and sang in Rev. Falwell's church choir, trying to expand my horizons while studying "abroad" in a subculture more foreign to me than Barcelona or Tokyo. A slew of adjectives could describe my Liberty semester - "enlightening," "difficult," and "weird," to name a few - but perhaps the most apt one is "surprising."
Some of the surprises I saw at Liberty were off-putting and worrisome. I remember opening my first Creationist Biology exam to find the question: "True or False: Noah's Ark was large enough to accommodate various species of dinosaurs." (According to my professor, the answer was "True" - since dinosaurs and humans cohabited the earth after the Flood, they would have had to find a way to squeeze onto the Ark. He suggested that they could have been teenage dinosaurs, so as to take up less space.) Also troubling was Liberty's extreme social and political conservatism, which made for classroom lessons like "The Consequences of Immoral Sex" and textbook chapters like "Myths Behind the Homosexual Agenda."
A few surprises were strange but harmless. I'm thinking of my spring break mission trip to Daytona Beach, Florida, where a group of Liberty students and I tried (and mostly failed) to convert drunken coeds to Christianity. Or when I paid a visit to "Every Man's Battle," Liberty's on-campus support group for chronic masturbators. (Insert your own "hands-on research" joke here.)
But many - maybe even most - of the surprises I encountered at Liberty were much more pleasant. For starters, I learned that my stereotypes about evangelical college students - that they were all knuckle-dragging ideologues who spent their free time writing angry letters to the ACLU - were almost entirely wrong. Far from crazy, the friends I made at Liberty were some of the warmest, funniest, most intellectually curious college students I've ever met. After a few weeks of frantic acclimation to life in the dorms (aided by a Christian self-help book, 30 Days to Taming Your Tongue, that helped me kick my cursing habit), I began to fit in on my hall, and I found that Liberty students had a lot of the same day-to-day anxieties as my friends back at Brown. They gossiped about girls, complained about their homework, and worried about their post-graduation plans. Many even doubted their faith.
I was also surprised to learn that Liberty's strict religious discipline can actually be a good thing. I've always assumed that college students and freewheeling social climates went hand-in-hand, but most of the students I met were thankful for Liberty's rules. (Although I did find a few subversive Facebook groups, like one called "I Hug For Three Seconds, Sometimes Four.")
A sociologist named Margarita Mooney has shown that college students who attend regular religious services report being happier, more diligent, and more satisfied with their college experience than students who practice no religion. I still don't consider myself an evangelical Christian, but I can understand now what millions of Christian college students see in faith-based education, and why Liberty's enrollment has grown at a rate that few colleges, secular or religious, have ever matched.
Since the book came out, I've taken some heat from people who have argued that, by going to Liberty with an open mind, I was turning a blind eye to intolerance - or worse, that I'd been brainwashed by my time under Rev. Falwell's tutelage. But no community is all bad, and to dismiss Liberty as a place of wall-to-wall insanity is to reduce it, and the evangelical movement that birthed it, to a lazy caricature.
I still disagree with a lot of the values Liberty stands for, but seeing the human faces on the other side of the American culture wars made me question my own assumptions and realize that, in some ways, I had just as much to learn about tolerance as the most hard-line fundamentalist.
We can all be surprised by our ideological opponents. We just have to give them a chance.
Surprised by Love
An outsider's view of Liberty University and the faith it embodies.
Reviewed by Karen Swallow Prior
Books and Culture
The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University isn't the book its author, Kevin Roose, thought it would be. It's certainly not the book he pitched to his publisher as a left hook in the ongoing fisticuffs between secularists and believers. And it's not the book I anticipated when I first heard rumors among students at Liberty University, where I teach, that a young man from Brown University had come here and spent a semester undercover in order to write an exposé on command central for one side in America's culture wars.
It's not the book it was supposed to be because, as it turns out, Liberty University wasn't what it was supposed to be.
This isn't to say that some of the worst stereotypes of evangelicalism, fundamentalism, the Bible Belt, and Christian higher education aren't reinforced by Roose's experience. They are.
Nevertheless, Roose largely gets beyond the stereotypes and humanizes even those whose views he finds "reprehensible." And in the process, Roose gets a good dose of humanizing himself.
In both conception and execution, Roose's narrative parallels that of his mentor, A. J. Jacobs, in The Year of Living Biblically. Inspired by his experience as Jacobs' slave (aka unpaid intern) during the writing of that book, Roose—once he gains the reluctant approval of Brown University administrators and his parents—sets out on a domestic version of the semester abroad.
The concerns and, at times, outright opposition of Roose's family and friends about his project add significant tension to his narrative. This conflict—between his old life and his new one, as well as the internal conflicts that grow throughout his stay—is one of several elements that make the book a compelling read.
The most important element, however, is simply that Roose is a talented writer (astonishingly so when one considers that he was only 19 when writing the book). My favorite sentence offers a good example of Roose's synthesizing wit, keen insight, and sharp style: "Even in its weather patterns, Lynchburg, Virginia, is a fundamentalist city." He continues, "Unlike the fickle New England winters I came from, where snow, sun, fog, and rain operate on a twenty-minute loop, Lynchburg in February has good days and bad days, and nothing in between."
This passage rings true to my own introduction to Lynchburg. Having—like Roose—arrived from the North, I experienced some of the same culture shock Roose relates. But having also come—unlike Roose—from an evangelical background, I understood that many of the differences we both encountered are more rooted in the North-South divide than in the secular-Christian one. In fact, a good number of Roose's experiences at Liberty that he attributes to the school's brand of conservative theology, I would argue, stem less from doctrine than from Bible Belt culture.
Roose's failure to distinguish between Christian mores and cultural ones reflects a conflation that is ours in the first place. Nevertheless, it's a conflation that proves a stumbling block to his willingness "to believe in Jesus as Lord."
A sometimes startling view of contemporary evangelicalism through an outsider's eyes is reason enough to read this book. But there's also Roose's humor, often at his own expense, to keep readers turning the pages. Knowing that the success of his project depends upon being able to blend in as a regular Liberty student, Roose nevertheless has some Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur's Court moments. In a misguided attempt to find palatable substitutes for his customary curse words, he utters phrases like "Glory!" and "Good Heavens!"; the clothes he's brought conform to Liberty's dress code—from 10 years ago, that is; and when he leaves a baseball game early for choir practice at Thomas Road Baptist Church, he can't quite blame his dorm mates, in light of such missteps, for suspecting he might be gay.
Despite the false starts, Roose finds the students at Liberty to be "the friendliest students I've ever met." "In fact," he writes, "that's the thing that strikes me hardest: this is not a group of angry zealots." He is surprised to realize that the "students have no ulterior motive. They simply can't contain their love for God." Clearly, Roose adheres to his resolution to conduct his experiment "with as little prejudgment as possible and "with an open mind."
Any lingering doubts about Roose's commitment to objectivity are exploded by his portrayal of a few exultant responses by some family and friends from back home to Rev. Jerry Falwell's sudden death near the end of the book. These reactions aren't pretty—but, then again, neither are all the things Roose witnesses among the Christians at Liberty University.
While the disturbing homophobia Roose encounters is, arguably, more reflective of the state of hormone-laden, sexually frustrated young men living in a male dorm than of principled Christianity, other aspects of Roose's experiences at Liberty read like cautionary tales straight from Mark Noll's The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Roose is an English major, and like any English major worth his salt, he reads everything like a text. He pays attention to both form and content and to any disunity between the two. Much of what he has trouble reconciling about his experience is related to what he sees as discrepancies between the content of religious belief and the forms it takes at Liberty University. First, there is the masturbation ministry. Then there's the Spring Break missions trip to Daytona Beach for a week of "cold turkey evangelism." Finally, he is understandably confused by what he sees as a compartmentalized approach to education, one which, on one hand, presents itself as grounded in eternal truth claims but, on the other, seems (at least in some of the classes he takes) to eschew the higher levels of inquiry and critical thinking that should flow naturally from such a firm foundation.
Of course, Roose's academic experience at Liberty is distorted. In seeking a kind of extreme version of Christian education, he enrolls only in required freshman-level Religion and General Education classes, not in classes in other academic disciplines, or even his own major. If it's a slice of Liberty life Roose hopes to offer, it ends up more like a spoonful of batter.
Consequently, despite finding plenty of "smart people" at Liberty, Roose describes it as "a place where academic rigor is sacrificed on the altar of uninterrupted piety." He says he's learned from others that "education and piety are not mutually exclusive, and the sooner the school's higher ups take this to heart, the sooner Liberty students can go about the business of loving God with their minds." Despite his breezy style, clearly Roose has done his research, and one suspects he's been reading folks like George Marsden and Gene Edward Veith, along with Mark Noll. Even so, at five weeks into the semester, Roose finds he's had to "work twice as hard at Liberty as [he] did at Brown."
He learns also to "appreciate the rigid behavioral structure" of the school. He studies hard, exercises more, abstains from alcohol, loses weight, and in dating, feels liberated from the secular hook-up culture.
Not surprisingly, Roose interprets much of the good he finds in his experience through the lens of pragmatism. He quotes William James' The Varieties of Religious Experience throughout the book as he tries to reconcile his increasing admiration for certain aspects of evangelicalism with his opposing political and social views. But even pragmatism can't explain the most profound part of his experience.
I didn't meet Roose until two years after his semester here, when he sat in my office for a friendly, hour-long chat on one of those "good days" of February in Lynchburg, just a few weeks before his book's release. He still comes back to visit the friends he made here—and, on this trip, to talk about the book. Of all the unexpected events at Liberty, the one that most moves him, one included in the book but conveyed even more poignantly face-to-face, is the love his Liberty friends showed him when he finally revealed the truth about who he is and why he enrolled here. One of his roommates, he says, expressed their reaction best: "How could I not forgive you when I've been forgiven so much?" Roose shakes his head in disbelief, sitting in the chair next to mine. "I never expected the people here to apply the principles of their belief to their lives in such a real way."
It is this sense of love, ultimately, that Roose can't shake, even two years later. He found at Liberty a kind of community, he acknowledges, that has no parallel in the secular world. "I never thought," Roose writes to the school in the book's acknowledgements, "that the world's largest evangelical university would feel like home … . But by experiencing your warmth, your vigorous generosity of spirit, and your deep complexity, I was ultimately convinced—not that you were right, necessarily, but that I was wrong."
Roose's life was changed for the better through his semester at Liberty. And hopefully, Liberty University will be changed for the better, too, through having seen itself through the eyes of a stranger—an angel of sorts, perhaps (as Roose intimates in the book's epigraph), that we entertained unaware.
Karen Swallow Prior is Chair, Department of English and Modern Languages, and associate professor of English at Liberty University.