Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University

When I was in high school, my cousins bought tickets for the three of us to see the band Jars of Clay. They're a Christian band, but I liked them for many other reasons - the songs were catchy and they didn't seem to have a super-religious overtone. But wow. We were in for a surprise. The "concert" ended up being a evangelical come-to-Jesus kind of thing with a multitude of bands intercut with preaching, testifying, and singing, and when Jars of Clay finally emerged, they only played five songs.

What made it really strange to us, though, having grown up just as Christian as everyone else (so we thought), was that everyone around us seemed to know the various prayers and hymns. "You know the song! Sing along!" And everyone around us would be belting out lyrics, one arm raised to the ceiling and the other on the heart, and the three of us glanced at each other, confused. Left out.

Then people began running down to the stage to be "saved," and we decided that it was time to leave. We were worried that someone would notice that we were different and try to convert us. Try to get us to be... saved.

It wasn't until recently that I finally understood that event.

When I put The Unlikely Disciple on hold at the library, there were nine people ahead of me on the waitlist. And now that I've finished it, I understand why. It is a best-seller because the author experienced first-hand what it was like to enter the evangelical Christian community as an outsider, and the book was received so well because the author chose to learn why these people tick rather than writing a tell-all mocking them.

Kevin Roose, a student at Brown University, enrolled at Liberty University for one semester with the goal of learning more about a community of people with beliefs far from his own. Founded by the controversial evangelical minister, Jerry Falwell, Kevin immersed himself in a completely new lifestyle for months. He joined the choir at Falwell's church, he made good friends, he learned to follow The Liberty Way, and he even dated a bit (of course, hand-holding was as far as he could go physically, or he could run the risk of paying a fine and earning demerits).

What he discovered at "America's Holiest University" was that the students, staff, and faculty were, for the most part, very good people who truly believed in Jesus, the Gospel, and spreading the word of God. And getting through college.

Oh, and finding a spouse, of course.

But Liberty University had policies that made Kevin shake with rage, especially their deeply-held rule against the teaching of evolution and the criminalization and immorality of homosexuality. Professors were carefully chosen by the administration, and anyone who threatened to overturn the set curriculum was dismissed.

Once in a while, at one of the tri-weekly convocation sessions, someone would be "saved." He or she would accept Jesus and pledge to live his or her life in service of the Lord. And it would be the talk of campus. The whole thing was somewhat interesting, until it was revealed that only those who were "saved" would be accepted into Heaven. Your religion didn't matter - Catholic? Methodist ? Baptist? Sorry! You're going to Hell.

Unless you get the call to serve the Lord, of course.

Roose writes very, very well. The book flowed more like a work of fiction than an autobiographical account, and it was almost impossible to set down. Roose maintained his journalistic integrity, but peppered his account with his own thoughts and opinions, making the narrative even richer. The fact that he was very deeply opposed to many of the things that occurred on Liberty's campus made it more than an interesting read - one had to wonder if he was ever going to snap.

And there was always the chance that he would be discovered as an outsider.

I highly recommend this book. I would especially encourage those of you with a more liberal mindset to consider picking it up, as it really gives humanity and truth to a group of people who, I think, are mostly misunderstood as crazy, religious zealots.

Had I read a book like this before going to that concert years ago, the whole experience would have made much more sense. I wouldn't have been as confused (and frankly, scared), and perhaps I would have been able to enjoy myself more.

But I probably wouldn't have gone down to be "saved." I'm a hell-bound Catholic, after all.

No comments: