A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University
2009. Grand Central. Hardcover. 324 pages.
From: the public library
It was actually during the job interview process for my current position that this book was first recommended to me, because the person noticed I had gone to a Christian college.
In a nutshell:
In early 2007, Brown University student Kevin Roose spent a semester ‘undercover’ at Liberty University, the Christian institution founded by ultra-conservative preacher and political commentator, Jerry Falwell. Observing the polarized nature of current American society, Roose wanted to cross a cultural divide and see what conservative Christians were really like, up close and personal. Drawing from the notes he took during that semester, this non-fiction account unfolds more or less from the perspective of Kevin as he was living the experience.
When Roose jumps into Liberty University life, he goes all in. It’s really quite impressive. On top of the regular Bible & theology required courses, he attends the Falwell-founded Thomas Road Baptist Church, goes on a spring break mission trip, and even scores an interview with Jerry Falwell himself.
As a former pastor’s kid and Christian college alumna, I loved seeing Christian culture through the eyes of someone from the outside. For instance, it was funny when Roose thought he needed to use “Golly” and other twee substitutes for swearing, and all the students looked at him like he was nuts. All the praise songs Roose copied out, the little mnenomic devices for memorizing books of the Bible – it was exciting and fresh-feeling to see it through the eyes of someone for whom these things are foreign.
This is especially true because Roose comes into the experience with an open mind. He has preconceptions about Christians, sure, but he’s willing to have his mind changed.
The book is a page-turner, mostly because of the built-in tension of Roose being undercover. There are several times where he almost gets caught out by other students. Other tensions arise: Roose develops a crush on a Christian girl; he comes into conflict with his homophobic, aggressive roommate; his family, including his lesbian aunts are concerned he will be brainwashed. Roose writes also about his struggle to humanize everyone without making excuses for the championing of narrow-minded viewpoints.
One thing Roose comes back to a number of times is how surprisingly ‘normal’ the students are, and how they struggle to connect faith to real life.
One of Roose’s observations really hit home for me:
The trick to being a rebel at Liberty, I’ve learned, is knowing which parts of the Liberty social code are non-negotiable. For example, Joey and his friends listen to vulgarity-filled secular hip-hop, but you’ll never catch them defending homosexuality . . . And although they might harass the naive pastors’ kids on the hall by stealing their towels from the shower stalls – leaving them naked, wet, and stranded – they’d be the first people to tell you why Mormonism is a false religion. In other words, Liberty’s true social code, the one they don’t put in a forty-six-page manual, has everything to do with being a social and religious conservative and not a whole lot to do with acting in any traditionally virtuous way.
In context, this passage was not written judgmentally at all. But I felt that it touched on a core problem I have with Christianity as its usually practiced by conservatives in the faith. Christian culture has emphasized the defense of one’s faith so much that learning how to live faith in a thoughtful and considered manner can sometimes take a backseat.
And this priority is shaped in large part by teaching philosophies such as those used at Liberty:
So far, I’ve gleaned a few dominant themes from my classes – a few things Liberty really, really wants us to know:
– Evolution didn’t happen.
– Abortion is murder.
– Absolute truth exists. At Liberty, unlike many secular schools, professors teach with the view that there is one right answer to every question, that those right answers are found plainly in the Bible, and that their job is to transfer those right answers from their lecture notes to our minds.
Let me just go on a personal tangent here: I am in such gratitude that my alma mater did not take this teaching approach at all. The majority of professors encouraged us to question the assumptions in our worldviews, voice doubts, and consider different interpretations. My college’s main themes in chapels and campus-wide events tended toward subjects like social justice and celebrating diversity, environmental stewardship and service-learning. I’m not saying there weren’t and aren’t things to criticize about my alma mater, but by and large I am happy with the education I received there. Indeed, it is the church pulpit, and not my Christian college, where I have frequently encountered teaching philosophies and priorities similar to that described by Roose in this book.
The Unlikely Disciple is certainly one of my favorite reads of the year so far. It is a lovely picture of someone trying to find common ground and understanding with the ‘other side.’ It’s also an intriguing look at a culture whose members are frequently dismissed out of hand.
I was reading The Unlikely Disciple while on a trip to Vermont back in May. My uncle, whose son (my cousin) went to Liberty, picked it up while I was busy doing something else and we had a bit of steal-the-book-back game going on.
So yeah, if this subject interests you, I highly recommend you pick it up.
The Captive Reader – “It is a brilliant combination of immersion journalism and spiritual quest, forming one absorbing memoir that seeks to educate, inform, and broaden the reader’s views rather than to condemn or criticize an already much-maligned group.”
Jenny’s Books – “I could not put this book down. I must read thousands of books that are exactly like this book. ”
My Friend Amy (a blogger with similar background to myself) – “… it has turned out to be one of the best books I’ve read this year, I didn’t want to put it down, and I’ve managed to find a way to bring it into most conversations this week.”