I’ve spent my summer indulging in my love for Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and other Tolkien lore. Tolkien’s words stay with you long after reading, like the scent of your grandfather’s cologne, and coming back to the book means simply settling down once again to the comfort of an old friend. I don’t really get “sucked into” the books, per se- it’s almost like rejoining the journey.
So it was a pleasant surprise to pick up a book at Border’s the other day and get sucked right into The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University by Kevin Roose. Seriously- I sat at the café and read about 80 pages while my coffee got cold. An English major with an interest in journalism at Brown University- purported to be one of the most liberal universities in the US- decides to get the “full story” and registers as a student at Liberty University, a right wing evangelical college founded by the late Jerry Falwell.
Now, I consider myself a recovering Christian- coming back to the faith after years of absence determined to engage with a living faith that says “come and see,” rather than “do it or go to hell.” In other words- someone who cringes at the thought of institutions like Liberty who have science professors on staff teaching creationism. And not intelligent design, mind you- what some consider a more moderate approach to creationism- this is hardcore “fitting dinosaurs on the Ark” creationism. Yeesh.
It’s easy to get caught up in the spectacle of extremes in American Christianity. And when they butt heads, it’s quite a show (thinking of Doug Pagitt’s interaction with the Way of the Master dudes). But I have to realize as a spectator, I’m just as guilty for indulging in the reactionary sideshow as those who perpetrate it.
Roose’s book humanizes the caricatures of the religious right and puts a real face on an otherwise stereotyped school. He doesn’t condone the views he finds reprehensible –one student didn’t like interracial dating because “it just isn’t right”- but he doesn’t throw the student under the bus, either. He carefully and thoughtfully reflects, often with piercingly humorous insights, on the people he encounters. And he engages and reflects on his own spiritual journey in the process.
Christians are once again starting to ask themselves “What does it mean to be Christian?” and I find hope in the tension that question brings to every facet of Christianity across the globe. This book doesn’t have answers, but like a good book, it raises more questions along those lines.