Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The Unlikely Disciple, by Kevin Roose

My son is graduating from high school in a few weeks and plans to head to Lynchburg, Virginia this fall to attend the largest Christian university in the world.  To familiarize myself with Liberty University I picked up Kevin Roose's insider's view of a semester at Liberty, The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University.  Roose tells of his experiences attending Liberty in the spring of 2007.  His account is honest and insightful, humorous and perhaps a bit troubling.

As a sophomore at Brown University, Roose noticed many of his friends signing up for semesters abroad, seeking opportunities to learn about other cultures.  He realized that one dominant culture in the U.S. was largely unknown to him, so he transferred to Liberty to get to know evangelicals in their native environment.  He hit up against the strict lifestyle rules at Liberty, having to put on hold the more typical college lifestyle habits he practiced at Brown.

Of course one of the biggest areas of interest is male-female relations.  Liberty students are barely allowed to touch, much less kiss or hook up.  Not that there aren't opportunities and temptations. . . . He observes that Liberty has some beautiful girls:
The first five girls who pass me are stunningly beautiful, and then the next five, and then the five after that.  They just keep parading by--a phalanx of fit, well-groomed, pearl-wearing girls, all of whom would be right at home in a J. Crew catalog. . . . It's sort of cruel, if you think about it.  Here these pious Christian guys are, trying to stave off lust at a college where thousands of world-class women stroll the halls.  It'd be like going to Willy Wonka's chocolate factory with a wired jaw.
And it's not as if students aren't looking to meet a mate.  By his description, the "ring by spring" culture is stronger there than many universities.  By his account, every girl there, and most of the guys want to find a spouse before they graduate.  Some guys struggle.  When one said he wanted to fellowship with some girls after an event, Roose concluded that "'fellowship' is Christian speak for 'hit on unsuccessfully.'"

He criticizes the Liberty culture of denying premarital sex, condemning pornography, and discouraging masturbation.  Roose feels "frustration with a religious system that gives issue of personal sexuality higher spiritual priority than helping the poor or living a life of service."  Perhaps he's right; sexual sin is, in most Christian circles, treated as more consequential than other sins.  There are accountability groups for Christians who confess their sexual struggles, but not for Christians who confess their failures to act generously toward the poor.  But I'll take Liberty over the common hook up culture found on most college campuses.

Although Roose conformed to the expected Liberty lifestyle for the most part, he still remained convinced that Liberty's conservative perspectives on social issues are wrong and perhaps evil.  He relishes those moments when his friends showed signs of breaking out of the Liberty mold.  When his friends confide in him questions about bisexuality, or about Jesus being the only way to heaven, their hints of doubt or struggle encourage him.  "It is nice to see that once in a while, amidst the hard-line dogmatism of a Liberty education, human decency still shines through the cracks."  This attitude really bothered me, as he implied that it's simply indecent to believe that bisexuality is morally wrong or that Christianity has exclusive claims to salvation.  Unsurprisingly, he would maintain that the only absolute truth is that there is no absolute truth and that the only moral wrong is the belief that there are absolute moral wrongs.

As a future Liberty parent who wants my son to receive a quality education that will prepare him for a career, I was interested in Roose's assessment of Liberty's intellectual environment.  Roose writes,
For more than 30 years, Liberty's operating mode has been primarily dogmatic.  Here knowledge is passed down from professor to people, variations and worldview are systematically stripped away, and faith is explained and reinforced, never questioned. . . . [Liberty is] a place where academic rigor is sacrificed on the altar of uninterrupted piety, where the skills of exploration, deconstruction, and doubt--all of which should be present at an institution that bills itself as a liberal arts college--are systematically silenced in favor of presenting a clear, unambiguous political and spiritual agenda. . . . Until anti-intellectual attitudes . . . are dealt with, I'm afraid Liberty will continue to wallow in academic mediocrity.
I will be interested to hear from my son and his classmates and professors whether they believe this to be true.  Roose was there ten years ago and observed a broadening of the academic and intellectual atmosphere even in his short period of observation.  Part of me shrinks from Roose's statements, but then part of me realizes that once again, Roose comes from a perspective that believes there are no absolute truths.  Roose and others like him have difficulty acknowledging that a belief in absolute truth does not preclude intellectual curiosity, questioning, and research.

Even though he was incognito, pretending to be an evangelical for the purposes of his research, Roose did experience some spiritual growth while on campus.  Participating in dorm prayer groups, convocation, and singing in the church choir impacted his attitudes.  I liked his observations on prayer.  Once Roose began to pray regularly for specific people, "all my problems snap[ped] into perspective."  Compared to what many other people are going through, "nothing in my life seems all that pressing." Also, "the compassion I dig up during those thirty minutes sometimes carries over to the rest of my day."  Not bad for someone who doesn't believe in prayer.

A friend who recently graduated from Liberty said she liked the book and felt like Roose's portrayal was on target.  Liberty seems to be a school heading in the right direction, constantly improving their academic rigor, updating their facilities, and attracting more qualified students.  There are fewer and fewer universities in the United States that don't actively demean and marginalize orthodox Christianity and conservative political views.  As a Christian, and as a parent, I can get behind a university committed to producing "Champions for Christ."

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