Brown University student Kevin Roose has written a largely sympathetic and often amusing outsider’s account on the spiritual lives and struggles of conservative evangelical students at Liberty University. Roose, who took a semester off at Brown, decided to enroll at Liberty posing as an evangelical for his book, The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University. Possibly setting out to write an expose of sorts on Liberty’s quirky Southern Baptist fundamentalism and the students efforts there to gear up for the culture wars, he unsurprisingly finds a much more complex story to tell.
Complex because Liberty students, like most evangelical Christians struggle with temptation, relationships, and the trials that go with being an authentic believer living in a fallen world. In regards to Roose’s own preconceived notions or stereotypes, listen to his own words:
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.
In fact, Roose’s account does a good job of demolishing the left’s stereotypes of places like Liberty, a school where you can probably find some absurd stereotypes about Ivy League schools. Roose, by a twist of fate, actually ends up conducting the last print interview of Liberty’s president Jerry Falwell before his unexpected death a few days following Roose’s hour long sit down session with Falwell. This is where the author who was once a foe of Falwell because of his many public statements, decides Falwell is more “complex” and points out a good deal of his compassion in the pages of his book. While he still disagrees with Fallwell’s brand of ministry and politics, Roose can’t but help admire his authenticity:
Realizing that Dr. Falwell isn’t a fraud – as troubling a notion as that is – has helped me solve one of the great mysteries of this semester. For months now, I’ve been puzzled by the thousands of good, kind-hearted believers at Liberty who follow a man who seems, to my mind, to be almost unredeemable. They like him, I’m learning, because he’s a straight shooter. In a half century of preaching, Dr. Falwell has said some outrageous things, and he’s angered Christians and non-Christians alike, but he’s never revealed himself as a hypocrite. He’s never been caught in sexual sin, and he’s been transparent in his financial dealings as you could reasonably expect. And in the world of televangelism, a world filled to the brim with hucksters and charlatans and Elmer Gantry – type swindlers, a little sincerity goes a long way.
The book is a great account if one is looking for funny tales and anecdotes about evangelism, the Liberty dating scene, the teaching of young earth creationism, and Christian fundamentalism in general. There are also spiritual lessons to be learned. I believe each reader will pull different lessons and truths from this account.
I’ve noticed the Emergent Church movement has embraced Roose’s book and Roose himself calls the Emergent Church, “A growing brand of evangelicalism that de-emphasizes political issues like abortion and gay marriage and seeks to return to a more spiritual form of Christianity.” This of course is a wildly sympathetic view of the Emergent Church, because some evangelicals who question the practice of de-emphasizing substitutionary atonement, hell, and doctrines like justification by faith would definitely disagree with the idea that the Emergent Church is a “return to a more spiritual form of Christianity.”
At any rate I can relate to some of what Roose experiences from my own seminary experience. Although I came in as a believer and graduated as a believer I bristled at some of the legalism associated with a Wesleyan Holiness school and worked to tame my tongue around others. Sometimes I felt like I was trapped in the endless mandatory spiritual formation in the small groups that accompanied many courses. There were many a days I felt like an outsider. But when I had problems with a decision made by the administration or from all the busy work that at times seemed unbecoming of a graduate student, I was buoyed, like Roose, from knowing and being in fellowship with some great Christians in my seminary community.
While I’m a conservative evangelical, like many evangelicals I’ve been both amused and frustrated with an element of fundamentalism. Sometimes its rigidity can appear like an eternal plague of locusts, causing me to flee wherever it lands. But if this book reinforced anything for me, it’s a very basic truth, and that is as an evangelical I love God’s people and I grieve for lost souls. I found myself wanting to minister to the troubled souls described in Roose’s book, and of course Roose himself. According to this AP article he even thinks about joining a church.
Since leaving seminary, like so many others, I’ve struggled with areas of ministry, but one thing I think I’ve always been blessed with is an ability to preach and exhort God’s Word. I can remember sitting in preaching class and my professor said, “You have to preach John 3:16 every sermon. You might have to use different passages and find different ways to say it, but the central message should be a John 3:16 one.” I agree and when I look out on a deeply troubled and complex world, it’s important to see people as the image bearers of God, and that they were created for fellowship with the Triune God, and there is no love like God’s love. And ultimately the toils and trials of this world have already been decided by the victory of Christ over sin and death. And that is indeed news worth sharing.