The Christian world is sometimes accused of being a little cliquey albeit not intentionally.
Sometimes we try too hard to assimilate non-believers and other times we shy away from, or even condemn those who have opposing views. Kevin Roose, a then undergraduate of Brown University felt compelled to penetrate that world when he enrolled at Liberty University as an undercover Christian.
He figured the only way to find out what evangelicals were really like was to observe them in their natural environment. Naturally, there was no better place to do this than the campus that evangelical giant Jerry Falwell himself had founded.
Roose immediately strikes me as a down to earth typical 20-something year old. Like the many driven Gen Y-ers of our time he’s actively trying to carve out a path for himself in this world. His first project, and the one I’m speaking to him about today is called The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s guide to America’s Holiest University which garnered critical acclaim from both Christian and secular media outlets such as Playboy and Christianity Today. Now he’s working on a non-fiction project about young investment bankers.
I have to call him back on his landline because his cell phone reception isn’t optimal. When I reach him there he makes a joke about being the only person under 40 in New York with a landline and we have a good chuckle over that. He’s a really pleasant sounding fellow when we start chatting and very soon I feel like I’m talking to an old friend from university.
It was on assignment for the esteemed A.J. Jacobs, editor-at-large of Esquire and author of the book The Year of Living Biblically, that Roose got the idea for the book. He was chatting with a bunch of young people at a church that he had attended with Jacobs. When the subject of faith came up and they found out he wasn’t a believer, the mood shifted a little. Roose decided then that he’d like to explore the God divide not between hardcore Republicans and Democrats but with young people his own age.
Of course the first question that’s on my mind is how as an undergrad he ended up in the company of Jacobs.
“He was working on this book and I wrote him a letter saying he was one of my favourite authors and if he ever had need for an intern, I would come to New York and work for him,” recalls Roose. “He wrote back and said, funny you should ask, I’m working on this book about trying to follow all the rules of the Bible and I’ve been really struggling with how to follow the parts in the Old Testament about slavery, so you can come and be my intern, but I have to be able to call you my biblical slave in order to fulfill that requirement.”
And that was his foot in. “On my resume I put research assistant, but really I was his slave,” says a self-deprecating Roose. Jacobs was a major inspiration for Roose whom he says is “the Paul” to his “Timothy”.
Roose says he didn’t know what to expect. “I thought I would get there and they would all be sort of radical frothing-at-the-mouth conservative stereotypes who just spent all their time in dark rooms plotting theocratic takeovers. I had no idea how complex and rich and multitextured this world would be,” says Roose. “I thought it was going to be a collection of sign waving placard toting bigots. I felt pretty certain in that view because I had never been around anyone who challenged my stereotypes.”
In the book there’s this funny sub plot where Roose starts to develop an interest in this girl whom he describes as a Tina Fey look alike. It’s funny because he’s caught in this awkward scenario where he takes her on a date but doesn’t quite know how to behave. That is in part due to the fact that he’s disguising his non-Christian-ness but also in part due to the fact that where he’s from, in his opinion, chivalry is pretty much dead. “I don’t know many people in New York City for instance who would do the thing from old time movies where they lay their jackets down on the puddles so the women can walk on them,” says Roose.
He says he felt a little torn with the entire situation. The dating scene at Liberty is undoubtedly more traditional, but on top of that, it’s a school in the South where social graces are quite enforced. “It was totally foreign,” comments Roose. Added to that Roose states that “no matter how well the date went and how smooth I was, and how many compliments I paid this girl, there was no way I was ever going to be able to make a move. I could’ve been Jake Gyllenhaal and still she would not have been receptive to that because of her moral leanings.”
Despite Liberty’s strict rules, Roose found there was something freeing about the entire experience. At Brown which was an ultra liberal university, where students had the freedom to choose their own courses Roose felt more pressure. Because a lot was already decided for you at Liberty, there was a surprising freshness to it.
“I imagined that this would be a college filled with down-trodden depressed Prozac taking Christian students, but everyone was really happy and that threw me off and eventually I came to see a logic in that,” says Roose. “At Brown, there was basically total free will. There were no required courses, you didn’t have to get grades if you didn’t want to, it was the most permissive system possible. In a way that’s very stressful because you have to make all your choices yourself.”
What Roose says is quite true. When it comes to student satisfaction surveys, the religious schools always seem to rank the highest. “At Liberty where lots of things are decided for you, there is paradoxically something freeing about that,” Roose goes on.
I ask him to recall the scene on campus, and to think back to what it was like on a typical day or night at Liberty. “I remember being at Brown and the night when President Obama won the election there was this huge rave … it was on the main green space of the campus and everyone was out there dancing and celebrating and being joyous and I just felt like man, this is what Liberty has, but they have it like three times a week,” says Roose.
“So you’re coming together and you’re celebrating and you’re worshipping and everyone around you sort of thinks and believes and feels a lot of the same things. There’s this phrase, ‘collective effervescence’ and I think that’s very important to understanding why Liberty has been so successful,” Roose goes on. “They cultivate this collective effervescence very carefully. And even if you don’t share the beliefs, its fun to be in a room where [that kind of thing takes place.] It’s a little scary at first, I have to admit, but in the end, I found myself looking forward to those experiences.”
That “collective effervescence” Roose describes isn’t difficult to understand. It’s the feeling that partisans experience at political rallies and music lovers revel in at packed concerts. At church revival gatherings, youth rallies and Christian rock concerts you often share in the energy of the crowd. Usually though, there’s also that little something else which most in the Christian world call the Spirit.
“I had a lot of experiences where I found myself questioning deeply whether or not they might be right, whether or not the people around me might have tapped into something or someone that made them happy and fulfilled and whether that was worth trying. There were moments where I found myself floating away from my belief. That was scary at first and to some people that would be considered a divine experience, that I was being either convicted or inspired by God,” says Roose. “I don’t know what to call that, I don’t consider myself an evangelical now, but I do appreciate the feeling and know what it feels like to be pulled very strongly towards a belief system.”
The encounter with Jerry Falwell:
Evangelical or not, there was one thing Roose had to do before his time at Liberty was up — meet and interview the father of the institution: Jerry Falwell.
“I was scared to meet Jerry Falwell because in my house growing up, he was the ultimate bad guy. You almost didn’t say his name if you didn’t have to, it was like Voldemort or something. So I went into this meeting thinking this is going to be terrible, this is going to be horrifying but it was actually sort of fun. I don’t particularly appreciate the things that Jerry Falwell did during his life, I don’t agree with him on probably about 99.9 per cent of what he believed but the guy was likable; it was hard to dispute that after meeting him. He was funny, he was charismatic, he was friendly. And so I think it was an important meeting just because I got to experience for myself the appeal of someone like this and how millions of people around the world could see him as an inspiring leader despite the fact that he had some pretty outrageous social and political views. It was sort of seeing the man behind the hype, seeing behind the public image, getting a sense of what else was there and I think that was really important and I’m really glad I got to do it.”
The God divide:
The experience at Liberty caused Roose to question deeply where his preconceived ideas were coming from. It also caused him to look more deeply into the God divide. Why was there so much division amongst Christians and non-Christians, Republicans and Democrats and all the rest?
Because of these divides, Roose came up with The Jonah Project.
“I was going out and doing a lot of speaking about the book and talking to a lot of groups and some people would always come up to me and say, ‘Well, I have a job or I’m in school, I can’t go ship myself to Liberty University or Brown University, I can’t get up and physically experience this other culture but I wish there was some way that we could do what you did,’” explained Roose. “So my publisher came up with the idea of giving books away to pairs. One member of the pair had to be on one side of the cultural and political spectrum and the other one had to be on the other side. So if you were a liberal Jew, you find a conservative Jehovah’s Witness, and if you watch Glen Beck every night maybe you find someone who watched Rachel Maddow every night and by doing this, you talk about the book or whatever and you come to discussing why it is that it’s so hard for people to communicate with people who disagree with them . . . respectfully.”
These days it seems people have more things to disagree with than to agree on. Even Roose himself admits he has to watch himself. It’s just too easy to adopt an ultra partisan way of thinking. If the media teaches us anything today it is that opinion is what sells. Strong opinions create controversy, ratings, and ultimately money.
“Difference is profitable, you know, you have one guy yelling on the conservative side on TV and you can put him with a guy who’s gonna yell about the liberal side, that’s much more profitable than having two guys reasonably discussing their differences,” says Roose. “I mean that would be the most boring talk show ever, you know? Conservatives and liberals agreeing to disagree about the driving issues of the day? I think it’s healthy for democracy to break out of your box and meet people who share none of your views. That was so important for me that I wanted to give other people a way to experience that.”
It would have been easy for Roose to slip easily and effortlessly back into his old way of thinking and looking at the world but these days he’s trying to keep more of an open mind. “I still try to expose myself to people whose opinions I disagree with,” says Roose. “I have opinions and I think I’m right but I also know that if I don’t get in touch with the other side and hear them present their views themselves then my brain turns that whole side of the country and [that side] of the world into cartoon characters. I think that’s really unhealthy so I have to constantly struggle against it. I think we all do.”