Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Experiencing Liberty

What happens when a liberal non-Christian from the North goes undercover at what one of the nation's leading bastions of conservative evangelicalism? Well, you can find out in a new book called The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University by Kevin Roose. Roose, an Ivy League student, took a semester off from his studies at Brown University to go inside at Liberty University, the Lynchburg, Virginia institution founded by the late Jerry Falwell.

I haven't read this book yet, but I am planning on it now that I've read this review by Karen Swallow Prior. Prior, a professor at Liberty, whets the appetite with some interesting insights on Roose's experiences. She says:
"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 book is based on an interesting concept. How does an individual that immerses themself in a setting of Christian higher learning respond to this new world? Although most Christians live each day in a secular world, it is rare that a non-seeking, non-Christian finds themself in a throughly Christian setting. And not only is it a Christian environment, but it is Liberty, the college started by Falwell, the poster boy for American conservative fundamentalism.

If truth be told, I was not a fan of Rev. Falwell. I felt his mixture of politics and faith was a dangerous mix and stifled honest spiritual dialogue among Christians and non-Christians from varying political persuasions. But after his death a couple of years ago, there were some things about him that came to light not known by the general public. For instance his personal generosity towards those in need is one example. Another would be his friendships with Sen. Ted Kennedy and Rev. Al Sharpton, individuals that he disagreed with fiercely but was able to maintain a friendly relationship with over the years.

As Roose learned during his time at Liberty:
"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."
I suppose Liberty and Jerry Falwell are similar to most Christians. We may appear to be one thing to others based on our differing convictions, but once you get to know us you may learn something different. And I suppose the same is true for those of other faiths or no faith at all. We can easily stereotype one another or clump one another into unfair groupings based on our assumptions. But if we attempt to get to know one another on a personal level, we may just learn a lot about each other and something about ourselves as well.

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