Studying French in Paris or working on housing projects in Latin America are what come to the minds of most college students looking for a semester of cross-cultural experience. But for Kevin Roose, foreign culture was as close as Lynchburg, Virginia. The irreligious Brown University student found exactly the otherness he was seeking at a bastion of conservative evangelicalism, Liberty University.
Although Roose could barely name the four gospels, he set out to explore the other side of what he calls the "God divide" after meeting some Liberty students while traveling for a summer job. He chronicles his semester in The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University. Here, he shares some observations about leaving Brown's lax social world to study at a school where kissing carries a $10 fine.
How does a self-professed "liberal" from Brown end up at Liberty?
I was fascinated by the idea of a school where every student has to follow this 46-page code of conduct called the Liberty Way, with no smoking, no drinking, no R-rated movies, no cursing. For me, this was more foreign than any European capital. And it struck me as sort of sad when I met the Liberty students. They looked like me, they talked like me, they acted like me, but they led totally different lives from me and I didn't know what that entailed. I wanted to see if I could build a bridge there and find any common ground between my experience at Brown as a blue-state liberal, and the experience of a Liberty student.
What most fascinated you about evangelicals and evangelical culture?
My social circle was pretty much empty when it came to evangelical Christians, so my impression was that these students were just interesting and smart and personable. They were not at all like the caricatures I had adopted in the secular world: the placard-waving, backwoods evangelical. They were just nothing like that, so I was heartened by that. But it also made me intensely curious; they seemed like people I would get along with. What would actually happen if I tried? So I think it was their humanity that came through to me.
To prepare for your semester at Liberty, you asked your only evangelical friend, Laura, to coach you. What did you have to learn?
She would drill me on who was the first martyr and what was created on the third day. Evangelicals speak English, but it's a slightly tweaked version. I had to stop cursing, so I bought this book, 30 Days to Taming Your Tongue. At the beginning of the semester, my conversations would have sounded very minimalist. I had to be a very quick study about the Bible, because I was going to school with kids who had gone to Sunday school their whole lives.
What did you dislike about Liberty's campus culture?
There were fewer things than I expected. I expected to go in and have a lot of qualms, especially about the social-political views, because Liberty is not a middle-of-the-road Christian college. Homosexuality there, it being Jerry Falwell's college, was over-emphasized. I heard more about gay people at Liberty than anyplace I'd been where gay people actually existed in the open. So that got a little old. I think it was a little annoying having a curfew. I got reprimands, which are these demerit type things, and I got four of them for sleeping in convocation.
What did you like?
I loved the people I met there. I think they were some of the nicest, most genuine college students in America. They still to this day call me, text me, Facebook message me, and we're good friends. The book is full of things I liked about Liberty: their emphasis on community, the sense that this is the body of Christ and they're all in this together. In the secular world and secular colleges we try to build up a spirit of individuality, and that's great, but there's something about the group experience. Emile Durkheim, who is a French philosopher, called it "collective effervescence"—a feeling you can only get when you're surrounded by other people and you're collectively striving toward the same goal.
You had the last print interview with Jerry Falwell just before he passed away in May 2007. If you could interview him again, what would you say?
I've puzzled over that a lot. I think I would thank him first of all, because indirectly he was responsible for the semester I had. And I would tell him some of my qualms about the way he preached and the way he led the school, but I don't think I'd spend too much time on that. I'd probably be asking him more questions.
You largely blame "paranoia and lack of exposure" for the culture war between evangelicals and non-evangelicals. Do you think it's possible to bridge the gap between the two sides?
A lot of my friends at Brown, I love them to death, but a lot of them are paranoid of evangelical culture. A lot of them would send me e-mails during my semester saying, 'Are you getting tortured down there? Are they burning you at the stake?,' and then the same thing on the other side. My Liberty friends would talk about secular culture as one big orgy, and it's not. My fantasy is to have other people do versions of what I did. How cool would it be to have an exchange program between secular colleges and evangelical colleges and have [students] switch places for a semester? I think we could do a lot to break down that wall.
You mention the possibility of conversion several times. So why didn't you?
I didn't end up converting to evangelicalism because I felt it would be dishonest of me. I wasn't convinced that the Bible is inerrant and that Jesus is the only way to heaven. But I did find myself really pulled to evangelicals' faith, and I did start reading the Bible on my own without it being mandatory for a class. I still read the Bible and I still pray. I go to church once in a while—it's not a regular part of my life, but when I do it, I really enjoy myself. So I'm not scared of faith in the way I used to be; it doesn't bother me. And I'm still, to some extent, trying to piece together my own worldview.
Looking back, are you glad you spent the semester at Liberty? How did it change you?
Absolutely, I would do it again in a second. I'm so glad I went. I think there's real value in opening up these lines of communication, and now I have this integrated world where I have a social life at Brown and I'm still in contact with my friends at Liberty. I think I'm the only person on Facebook who has friends at both Brown and Liberty. I feel very fortunate to have been able to go to this school and have these people take me into their lives.
Copyright © 2009 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Karen Swallow Prior reviewed The Unlikely Disciple for Books & Culture, Christianity Today's sister publication.
See our similar interview with A. J. Jacobs (author of The Year of Living Biblically), and our reviews of Benyamin Cohen's My Jesus Year and Mark Pinsky's A Jew Among the Evangelicals. Roose, by the way, was Jacob's "slave" (unpaid intern) in The Year of Living Biblically.
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