Friday, February 19, 2010

Book Review: The Unlikely Disciple

This was one very funny book!  But I need to preface that one of the reasons I enjoyed it so much is because I spent 2 years of my life at "America's Holiest University".  So I really enjoyed reading about Kevin Roose's experience at Liberty University because I could seriously relate to many of the things he observed.  And it was fun to read about his adventures and know about many of the things he refers to in connection with the campus, the faculty and the town of Lynchburg.

The premise of this book started when a college student at Brown University came across an interesting idea for a semester of studying abroad.  Instead of going to a school overseas like most of his classmates, what about attending a conservative Christian college that pretty much represents the opposite of everything he was brought up to believe?  How about immersing himself into a culture that seems so foreign to him yet it is just within driving distance from his own University? This was the challenge that Kevin Roose took on as he admitted himself to Jerry Falwell's college not knowing quite what to expect.  

     I especially find it fascinating that Roose's path was much different from mine that eventually led me to Liberty University but both he and I had similar conclusions.  The path that led me to Liberty is a long story. So the short story is that I lived 3 years of my college life on the wild side and I eventually burned out.  After dropping out of the University of Toledo, I headed back home, and over the course of the Summer I cleaned up my life and reconnected with God, and believed He was calling me into youth ministry.  At that point, I decided to call Liberty and see if I could attend as a Biblical Studies major.  I also was escaping the toxic environment that I got involved in at other colleges.  I wanted to be at a college, even if it was just for 2 years, were I would not be overwhelmed with temptation and it could provide some structure for me to make better decisions for myself. 

So, getting back to Roose's observation:

1.  The Students at Liberty

 The first one that jumped out at me was his general assessment of the students at Liberty.  He knew he had some preconceived stereotypes in his mind of crazy right-wing wacko evangelicals.  But as he experienced campus life for himself, he realized that this concept was far from the truth.  He states that: 

Liberty students are the friendliest college students I've ever met. They're much friendlier than the students at my old school. . . I had this secular/liberal paranoia that when evangelical students were among themselves, they spent their time huddled in dark rooms, organizing anti-abortion protests and plotting theocratic takeovers. But that's not true at all. (p. 38)

In many ways this was also my experience.  I had a lot of fun at Liberty and I really enjoyed the friendships that I made when I was there.  Although a majority of the students were great people who were enjoyable to know, there were also the fringe crazies just as Roose experienced.  I met people who saw the devil around every corner.  I met one guy who was so militant about his faith that his pet name for me was "liberal".  I was always amused by this because in North East Ohio I always considered myself somewhat conservative in my views, beliefs and politics.  But when I traveled into the South and landed in the buckle of the Bible Belt, I guess I was considered liberal by some! So be it.  I realized these terms became relative depending on where you live anyhow.  I also met a guy who passionately argued how Jesus never drank any alcohol; girls who were willing to admit that they only came for their "M-R-S" Degree; and others who told me that they had to come to Liberty because their parents would only let them come there.  There was also a surprising amount of fear perpetuated about homosexuality and feminism.  I never quite understood why Falwell would target certain people groups and vilify them.  This seemed to go contrary to my beliefs that we are supposed to be loving people and reaching out to them, not castigating them as the enemy to Christianity.  I didn't get this at all and it bothered me whenever I ran into this type of fear-mongering and stereotyping, especially when it was being perpetrated from the pulpit at Thomas Road Baptist Church or in the weekly chapel sessions that we had to attend.  

2. The Falwell Mania

     Roose does notice the insane level in which Jerry Falwell is hailed as the chief.  He points out that "Simply in quantity, the Jerrymania seems, if not idolatrous, at least a little North Korean." (p. 48).  I was at the school when George Bush 41 was in office and the first Gulf War was going on.  So Falwell was still quite an icon of the Conservative movement riding on the high of the Reagan years.  When I first arrived at Liberty it was kind of exciting to see Falwell for the first time but after hearing him a couple of times I had to admit, I was not impressed with his preaching skills.  In fact, many times he sounded like he was making a political speech rather than a sermon.  And he loved to draw those lines of "us-versus-them".  I feared that this trend of building up a mini-religious-political empire around one larger-than-life personality was kind of not what Jesus had in mind when he launched the church.  Plus I got really tired of the canned speeches that he would repetitively give over and over again if you spent more than a few months on campus.  

3.  Positive Atmosphere of the Students

But once again, Roose goes back to his experience with the majority of the students remarking that: 

All in all, the Liberty students I've met are a lot more socially adjusted than I expected. They're not rabid, frothing fundamentalists who spend their days sewing Hillary Clinton voodoo dolls and penning angry missives to the ACLU. Maybe I'm getting a skewed sample, but the ones I've met have been funny, articulate, and decidedly non-crazy. . . . But one thing has become clear: these Liberty students have no ulterior motive. They simply can't contain their love for God. They're happy to be believers, and they're telling the world.(p. 63-64).  

For me, living on campus at Liberty for 2 years did a lot of good for me.  This was the one school were I was able to make friends who really inspired me to grow in my faith and excel in becoming strong in my moral convictions and religious beliefs.  

4.  Creation (Pseudo?) Science

I found it fascinating that Roose experienced many of the same things that I was involved in during my years at Liberty.  He attended a Creation Science class and came out of that experience with a lot of skepticism and questions about their distortion of science to affirm their presuppositions. I am skeptical of any type of science that starts with the presuppositions and then forces science to fit into their model of reality.  Creationists are guilty of this as well as some Darwinists.  Besides, the Bible was not written to be a scientific text. My whole view of Genesis 1 changed quite a bit in seminary when one of my professors showed how the language followed the rules of poetry and that there were many similar "creations" stories among other beliefs that had similarities and differences with the Biblical story.  Forcing a literal, scientific interpretation forced the text to say things that it was not meant to say.  

5.  Scary Evangelism

Roose also talks about Scaremare which is the big haunted house, where, at the end, the participants are preached at to accept Jesus as their Savior.  I actually had fun being a part of the haunted house.  It was a blast.  But I was a little bothered that we shoved a salvation talk onto people when they exited the house and asked them to respond by raising their hands and then celebrate at the end of the night because apparently X-number of people prayed to receive Christ.  First of all, the method seemed deceptive to me.  Secondly, how do we really know who put their faith in God, really? We tell them to say a prayer and they don't have to fear death and hell and then no follow up after that.  Oh, we say that follow-up is important but it never happened.  And is this really the salvation as seen in the Bible?  The method just seemed messed up to me.  I thought we would do more for the community in just making a fun haunted house and let them know who is sponsoring it and invite them to join our community.  

6. The Rules!

   I also loved to see that the rules at Liberty are continuing to change since I have been there.  During my time there, popular culture was shunned.  We were "supposed" to not listen to secular music, and my first year there we were "supposed" to not see movies.  What really bothered me was that there was no process for discernment that was taught to critique art and culture.  If it is a film, then it is from Hollywood, therefore it must be evil and you should not support the industry by seeing movies.  If it is music that is not Christian then it is supporting an industry that is corrupting our youth and we should not support it with our finances therefore listening to secular music is bad.  But with the creation of the internet, it seems that Liberty has eased up on the strictness of the rules and has established trying to teach discernment.  As the students are exposed to popular culture they are able to critique it appropriately along with the Christian sub-culture that many times tries hard to imitate the culture rather that offer quality art that redeems culture.  Roose makes a point by noticing that "There's a process of discernment, of partaking in the secular world cautiously while keeping one eye on your soul." (p. 83).  I think this is great that the students are being encouraged to think for themselves to discern and critique culture rather than label it all as evil and retreat into their own Christian sub-culture.  

7. Ethics Really? 

Roose also took the same "ethics" class I had to take.  This was a required class just like the Creation Science class.  This class bothered me because it was all about how to come across as a conservative evangelical.  It was more about politics and stereotyping than about real Christian ethics.  Roose observed that "Liberty's true social code . . . 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." (p. 91). It's sad when you consider the wealth of good material out there that wrestles with ethics.

8. Eschatology that needs to be Left Behind!

I found it fascinating that Roose was, in the length of just one semester at Liberty, not just exposed to end-times views (eschatology), but he could also name it as 'pretribulationary dispensational premillennialism'!  I was glad to see that Roose broke this down to explain just how recent this view really has been in the span of church history and how it has become a phenomenon as a result of Tim LaHaye and the "Left Behind" series.  I personally believe that this is a toxic view of Revelation that helps to absolve Christians of any responsibility to God's creation and humanity.  It is a view of the end times that gives way too much power to fear and evil.  It is a view that ultimately surrenders and gives up our power until Christ returns.  And I think that LaHaye also took advantage of the culture of fear that was being perpetuated throughout the evangelical church about Y2K while he smiled all the way to the bank.   He fleeced the church by taking advantage of their fear.  But enough about LaHaye.   Roose makes an excellent observation with the end times views taught at Liberty in that the . . .

. . . Problem is, a lot of Christians who believe the world is headed for imminent destruction don't use their eschatology to motivate altruism.  Some, in fact, use their belief in the coming apocalypse to justify negligence and destruction. Critics of pretrib theology point out that rapture obsession can make Christians overlook glaring social needs in the present, like genocide, disease, and abject poverty. (p. 101)

This right there is a profound statement.  Roose nails it.  I believe that this is really shady eschatology that ultimately absolves us of any responsibility to this world right now and takes a very defeatist attitude.  We are mandated to care for the creation.  We are empowered by the Spirit to do the exact things that Christ Himself was able to do.  Problem is, we don't want to believe that.  We just want to retreat into our own little Christian sub-cultures and wait for Jesus to return.  

9. Real Teaching or just Indoctrination?

     After spending a couple of weeks in class, Roose makes the astute observation that "For more than thirty years, Liberty's operating mode has been primarily dogmatic. Here, knowledge is passed down from professor to pupil, variations in worldview are systematically stripped away, and faith is explained and reinforced, never questioned." (p. 134)
This is where I struggled at times while at Liberty.  This is what made me squirm in my seat and at times even take on the professors.  When I believed that I was just being indoctrinated without the opportunity to mentally wrestle with the views for myself or offer an alternative position I got irritated fast.  Now don't get me wrong, I know that a part of education in just about every field involves some "indoctrination".  But at a certain point one must be encouraged to think for themselves and wrestle with different views.  Instead at Liberty, often we would be told that this is the view we believe and this is why all the other views are wrong. 

10.  Beach Evangelism

Roose did the same thing that I did with one of my Spring Breaks.  I signed up for a beach evangelism trip down to Florida.  I actually had a lot of fun on this trip.  But I think that a lot of the fun had to do with my previous experiences with people in that it came fairly natural for me to talk to other college students about philosophy and faith issues.  I did not come at them awkwardly but just as a fellow college student.  So I had a lot of great conversations.  I was not intent on forcing the conversation so that I would "win someone to Christ".  I just liked to get people talking in order to hopefully get them to think about issues of faith.  But Roose's experience has proved that either it has become more awkward for Liberty students to relate or maybe people are not as open to conversation.  I think that the style of "cold turkey" evangelism is the least effective, if not damaging, style of evangelism.  But at Liberty this type of free thinking would be discouraged.  Roose concludes that:

Cold turkey evangelism provides the shortest, most noncommittal conversion offer of any Western religion - which, I suspect, is part of the appeal. . . . After all, if we get ten converts during this week - an optimistic number - and our false conversion numbers are consistent with the average, this group has spent a week's worth of twelve-hour days, thousands of dollars, and suffered massive amounts of emotional trauma for what? One more Christian? Two? There must be an easier way. (p. 160)

I couldn't agree more.  In my years doing youth ministry I did start out with doing "cold turkey evangelism" style trips.  But over the years I began to see the more positive effect on teenagers when we took a trip that gave them the opportunity to be a blessing to others through a variety of means: construction, food shelters, homeless shelters, community centers, etc.  In these settings they can get close and personal by assisting and helping people and sharing God's love through meeting them where they are at in their need.  This by far has had a greater impact on my teens knowing that they are changing and transforming their world.  Those who are more vocal about their faith have much better success while they are in the middle of caring for someone. 

11.  Extreme Conservatism is the Only Right Way! 

As I spent time at Liberty I began to notice that the concept of a Christian and a Conservative overlapped so much that the two became indistinguishable.  If you were conservative, then you were welcomed with open arms.  If you claimed to be a Christian then all the better.  Politically conservative people were often defended as people who could do no wrong. The scandal involving Oliver North broke out during my time down there and you would have though the Nazi's were going after Jesus.  Roose notices quite quickly that . . .

In Liberty's eyes, the ultra-conservative interpretation of scripture carries the same inerrancy as scripture itself, and if you don't buy it all - if you're a liberal or moderate Christian - you're somehow less than faithful. That sort of prix fixe theology, where Christianity comes loaded with a slate of political views, is a big part of the reason I've been hesitant to accept Liberty's evangelicalism. (p. 171)  

This really is a sad indictment against Liberty.  I am reminded of a passage in the Bible where Jesus blasts the Pharisees in stating that . . .

"The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy loads and put them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them."  (Matthew 23:2-4)

This is the danger when we add baggage to following Christ.  We strip the Holy Spirit of any power to lead someone to their own conclusions by forcing everyone to agree with all your views upfront.  The disturbing issue is trying to determine if this is doing more damage by repelling people from the possibility of knowing Jesus because of their views of modern day Christians.  Are we doing more damage than good? Are we really approaching people in the same way that Jesus did?  Keep in mind it was the religious conservatives that got so mad at Jesus that they paid for his betrayal and insisted on his execution. 

12.  The Christian Sub-Culture meets the Real World

Here is the issue.  Many students at Liberty grew up in a Christian bubble.  They have gone to Christian schools (or were home schooled), grew up in the church and were raised by Christian parents.  Christianity is all they know.  The world out there seems dark and dangerous.  The problem is that at some point they are going to have to face that world and critique it according to what they have been taught.  Roose wrestles with his observations in that . . .

. . . what happens when a Liberty student's instilled values clash with his personal experiences? What happens when the moral system we're taught in our classes - a system in which everything is clear-cut, black or white, good or evil - comes into contact with the messy, complicated world? (p. 212)

There are only two options in my opinion.  They revert into a Christian sub-culture where they are safe within the confines of a system in which everyone they interact with seems to agree with everything they agree with.  Or secondly, their entire theological system comes crashing down when they finally come to the conclusion that life and faith are a whole lot messier than the idealized, sanitized views taught at Liberty.  

13. The Dating Scene!

It was funny for me to read Roose's experiences with dating at Liberty.  If there was one thing I enjoyed the most it was the dating scene. It was so different than my previous experiences at college but in a hugely positive way.   Rosse explains that . . .

having preordained physical boundaries takes a huge amount of pressure and anxiety our of the process. . . When dinner dates aren't just preludes to hooking up, you end up truly listening to each other. The conversation is the centerpiece, and what emerges is deeper and more intimate than in you had been spending your time trying to Don Juan your way into her bed. (p. 228)

Never in my life have I ever dated more girls more often than my first year at Liberty.  I had so much fun just getting to know so many other great girls through conversation and time spent with each other.  The irony for me was that in my two years there I dated more than I ever have but I never had any pressure to get physical.  There were no ulterior motives.  And it was very freeing just to be myself and get to know the person I was taking out.

Wrapping this up, I do have to say that Roose has a lot of great stories about dorm life, having the last interview with Jerry Falwell before his death, his "liberal" family's worries about him,  and his genuine impression of the school, the people, and the Christian faith.  There was a lot of humor and very wise insights of an outsider looking into the evangelical world.  Probably the most important concluding statement that Roose made was when he came out with the truth of who he really was to the friends he made during his semester at Liberty.  As he talked with one of the guys he states that "I wanted to tell him that his warmth toward me, and the warmth of my other Liberty friends had been a better apologetic device than all the Way of the Master routines and History of Life classes combined." (p. 313)

Imagine that! What if Christian colleges taught how to genuinely love others in the way that Christ exemplified instead of coming up with the next "program" to evangelize the world.  A heart of genuine love goes a lot farther than a program.  In fact, I am shocked that Liberty is still doing the exact same programs (Beach evangelism, Scaremare) that were popular when I was there.  

This was a fun book to read.  In fact, I would highly recommend it to anyone who would be considering going to Liberty.  You need to know what you are in for!  The fact is that we are called in the Sermon on the Mount to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Matthew 5).  Receiving a Christian education is a great thing but if you can have an impact as a follower of Christ at a regular university than go for it.  I needed to go to Liberty for two years of my life.  It was mostly a positive experience.  But I also knew I was a stranger in a strange land with the religious culture at Liberty.  My faith holds both political parties in need of critique.  My faith transcends politics and sees the good and evil inherent in both parties.  My faith does not see politics as the means to achieve its goals but a transformed heart that loves people and serves others.  My faith does not see people as the enemy but instead the systems in place that hold people in slavery to ideas that strip them of their humanity.  My faith gives plenty of room for the Holy Spirit to be the force for change in a persons life rather than a strict religious system that offers plenty of guilt and shame if you step out of line.  My hope is that Liberty will change over time for the better with the leadership of the Falwell sons.  I hope that someday it will become a campus known more for its compassion and critical thinking instead of a school of ideology and indoctrination.  

 I highly recommend this book for a lot of laughs and some deep insights to the Christian education culture. I appreciated Roose's  open minded approach to this book.  If his approach would have been to scathingly attack Christians then I would not have been drawn to his book.  But he took an honest look as an outsider and found a lot of good as well as raising some key questions that I think many students have struggled with over the years as they attend Liberty.  My hope is that the relationships Roose has made with the students and faculty of Liberty will continue to inspire him to wrestle with his faith and connect with Christ.  This does not mean turn into a conservative evangelical!  It simply means to be a follower of Christ.   

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