In the final stanza of his memorable poem “To a Mouse,” Robert Burns wrote:
O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us
It wad frae monie a blunder free us
An’ foolish notion
What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us
An’ ev’n Devotion
Kevin Roose, nineteen-year-old journalist and author of The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University, has given conservative evangelical Christians a rare gift. Through his eyes–his raised-Quaker, somewhat left-of-center, normal American eyes–we have the opportunity to see ourselves as we appear to people who have never known a real, live evangelical Christian.
Roose was assisting his boss, author A. J. Jacobs, on a research trip to Thomas Road Baptist Church when he first encountered a group of Liberty University students. The interaction quickly took a turn for the strange…but I’ll let him tell you:
When A. J. left to take notes on another part of the church, I chatted up a group of Thomas Roaders I found in the lobby, two girls and a guy who looked to be around my age. I introduced myself, told them why I was visiting, and asked how long they’d been coming to Thomas Road.
“We come here every week,” they said. “We go to Liberty.”
I wasn’t sure whether “go to Liberty” was some sort of coded religious language, like “walk the path” or “seek the kingdom,” so I asked. I had to chuckle when they told me that “Liberty” meant Liberty University, a Christian liberal arts college founded and presided over by Rev. Falwell. I mean, come on. A liberal arts college run by Jerry Falwell? How about an etiquette workshop run by Courtenay Love?
But I wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt, so I asked them to tell me more about their school.
“Oh, I love Liberty!” said one of the girls, an effusive blonde in a green sundress. She spent five minutes making an enthusiastic pitch, which included statistics about Liberty’s recently opened law school, its top-ranked debate team, and its Division I athletic program. She told me that Liberty has grown at a rate–from 154 students in 1971 to nearly 25,000 in 2007 (including more than 15,000 taking courses via the Internet)–that few colleges, secular or religious, have ever achieved.
It was impressive stuff, but it wasn’t quite what I wanted to know.
“So, what do you guys do for fun?” I asked.
They looked at each other quizzically, then back at me. The blonde stammered, “I mean, we do different…things. I don’t really know what you’re asking.”
This wasn’t getting off on the right foot. Maybe I needed to break the ice.
“Any good parties around here?”
But I got no chuckles, only blank stares. The guy, a long, lean boy-band type with jutting platinum hair, squinted and peered down his nose.
“Do you know Christ?”
I was new to evangelical argot, so I didn’t know that if a Liberty student has to ask this question, he probably knows the answer already. The way I saw it, I could (a) tell him I did know Christ, which might not go so well if he decided to follow up, (b) try to deflect with sarcasm again, something like, “Yeah, he’s a friend of a friend. We really don’t hang out much,” or (c) admit that I was a foreigner.
Too scared for (a) or (b), I chose (c). I told him I didn’t know Christ, and after he spent five minutes explaining why I should consider meeting him, I said, as gently as I could, that I wasn’t interested in converting.
“Please don’t be offended,” I said. “It’s just not my thing.”
They glanced at each other, all three a little mystified. Not my thing? How could it not be my thing? They didn’t browbeat me, but I had definitely made them uneasy. We made a little more small talk, and then, since church was starting, we parted ways with nods and hesitant half-waves.
The weirdness of the encounter stayed with him, and at a time when his fellow students at Brown were weighing the merits of cross-cultural study abroad in Munich or Barcelona, Kevin Roose found himself contemplating a semester at Liberty University. The idea grew on him, much to the dismay of his nominally Quaker parents, gay-activist aunts, and generally left-leaning family. While he did ultimately win their assent, the ongoing tension between Roose’s arch-conservative Liberty surroundings and his liberal family remains one of the central conflicts of the book.
Recalling the awkwardness of the Thomas Road conversation after he admitted to being an outsider, Roose decided to try to pass for an evangelical Christian, and after a weekend crash course administered by a sympathetic ex-evangelical friend, he packs his car and sets off to school. This decision sparks the second major conflict of the book, the ever-present ethical dilemmas of an undercover participant-observer. If his struggling seems at times a bit sophomoric, we would do well to remember that he was, in fact, a sophomore, and that these are the dilemmas of a fundamentally decent guy who can’t do his job without lying, and doesn’t like lying to his friends.
And he does make friends. From the rebellious Jersey Joey to newly-converted football player Paul to future youth pastor Zipper, Roose introduces us to the kaleidoscopic array of students that he comes to know and love, and we with him. Most of them are denizens of Dorm 22, the men’s dorm where he lives, but we also meet Aimee, a bubbly socialite, (and clearly not Roose’s type), and Anna, the smart, sassy girl he dates for a while and then avoids, afraid that she’ll uncover the truth about him. Rounding out the cast are professors, pastoral staff members, and of course, Jerry Falwell himself–“a complicated guy,” as Roose finally puts it to his dad.
We’re with him every step of the way for four months: learning to pray, perfectly chaste dates, men’s dorm hijinks, creation science classes, a missions trip to Daytona Beach at the height of spring break, prayer meetings, discipleship sessions where a concerned pastor helps him stop masturbating, singing in the choir at Thomas Road, his interview with Jerry Falwell for the campus newspaper…Roose chronicles it all. Along with a deftly written record of what happened, we get a running commentary on how it all looked and felt to an outsider.
Roose is sensitive and clear-headed throughout, and not at all demeaning. I highly recommend this book, particularly to folks who live in the “Christian cocoon.” It’s easy to forget what you look like to an outsider, and if it hurts sometimes, well…”The kisses of an enemy are deceitful, but faithful are the wounds of a friend.” Roose is not a believer, and politically not an ally–but he is a friend, and we ought to listen.
I’ll let you discover the many joys and lessons of the book for yourself, but there’s one I want to point out here. Roose finds himself regularly put off by the raging homophobia that he encounters in his environment. He is responding, in part, to the simple and eminently biblical idea that homosexuality is a sin, and this is not something that we can avoid or apologize for. But he is also responding to his roommate’s bone-deep, violent hatred of gay people, the use of “fag” or “gay” as all-purpose insults, and the blind fear of cloistered Christian kids who’ve never taken the time to get to know a real, live homosexual. As a result, the whole thing comes off to him as simple bigotry and intolerance, and his effort to deal with the internal conflict this spawns in him forms one of the major themes in the book. Roose is repeatedly rattled by the dissonance between the loving, caring, fundamentally moral character of his friends and (what he sees as) their bigotry on this one issue.
Which is to say that as a whole, the evangelical world is failing to make its case. We are not successfully articulating a coherent, comprehensive vision of human life in the image of God, and our view of homosexuality as a coherent part of that.* If we were, then our condemnation of homosexuality would be visibly of a piece with our whole life-affirming, biblical ethic, instead of striking a sympathetic observer as an arbitrary fly in the ointment. Part of the reason we are failing is that most evangelicals don’t have a coherent, comprehensive view of life. Another part of the reason is that within the mainstream Evangelical community, it has been socially safe to hate homosexuals, in the same way that it was once socially safe in white Evangelical circles to hate black people. Some of the perceived bigotry, in other words, is actual bigotry. We need to clean up our own house on this point, and sooner rather than later.
For those willing to give a sympathetic observer a fair hearing, there are many more observations and lessons to be had…but I’ll let you read the book for yourself.
*If you’re looking for a place to start, try this article.