A few years ago, I went through this phase when I was really interested in books about Christianity practices that differed from mine. I’ve never doubted my faith but was curious about what other people believed. Rather than ask a friend and actually face another human, I turned to books. Roose’s book attracted me because he had the same questions I did. And he trained under my favorite non-fiction writer, A.J. Jacobs. I was hooked and recently found an audiobook copy through my library’s Hoopla service.
Summary from Goodreads:
As a sophomore at Brown University, Kevin Roose didn’t have much contact with the Religious Right. Raised in a secular home by staunchly liberal parents, he fit right in with Brown’s sweatshop-protesting, fair-trade coffee-drinking, God-ambivalent student body. So when he had a chance encounter with a group of students from Liberty University, a conservative Baptist university in Lynchburg, Virginia, he found himself staring across a massive culture gap. But rather than brush the Liberty students off, Roose decided to do something much bolder: he became one of them.
Liberty University is the late Rev. Jerry Falwell’s proudest accomplishment – a 10,000-student conservative Christian training ground. At Liberty, students (who call themselves “Champions for Christ”) take classes like Introduction to Youth Ministry and Evangelism 101. They hear from guest speakers like Mike Huckabee and Karl Rove, they pray before every class, and they follow a 46-page code of conduct called “The Liberty Way” that prohibits drinking, smoking, R-rated movies, contact with the opposite sex, and witchcraft. Armed with an open mind and a reporter’s notebook, Roose dives into life at Bible Boot Camp with the goal of connecting with his evangelical peers by experiencing their world first-hand.
Roose’s semester at Liberty takes him to church, class, and choir practice at Rev. Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church. He visits a support group for recovering masturbation addicts, goes to an evangelical hip-hop concert, and participates in a spring break mission trip to Daytona Beach, where he learns how to convert bar-hopping co-eds to Christianity. Roose struggles with his own faith throughout, and in a twist that could only have been engineered by a higher power, he conducts what would turn out to be the last in-depth interview of Rev. Falwell’s life. Hilarious and heartwarming, respectful and thought-provoking, Roose’s embedded report from the front lines of the culture war will inspire and entertain believers and non-believers alike.
I was fascinated by this book. Roose has a great style, writing in a very removed way of his encounters at Liberty but also letting the reader know how he feels about the people he meets. He peppers his story with studies and back story that added to my understanding. I liked how he detailed his struggle to fit into the culture at Liberty and how his encounter made a lasting impact on him. The book reminded me a bit of Jacobs and I’m glad he can teach Roose to be a good immersion journalist. I think it must have been hard for Roose to write about his friends like they were test subjects rather than his real friends, which I have no doubt they were. I thought it was very professionally done and I’m really glad I listened to this book.
The characters Roose presented reminded me a lot of every Evangelical Christian I’ve met- certifiably not crazy, open, and friendly. The only character that seemed odd to me was his roommate, Henry. I’ve never met someone so angry and aggressive before and I had trouble picturing him. It helped that all of the hallmates seemed to have a similar problem with Henry and his anger. The God I know is loving and forgiving, like many of the Liberty students Roose met. It was refreshing to see that across sects that sentiment was still there.
Jersey Joey was my favorite of Kevin’s friends. He struggled to be the Christian he wanted to be, it wasn’t easy for him, and that was refreshing. He indulged in some vices but at the end of the day, he was a really good guy and I liked him a lot. I think Joey was what Laura thought Kevin needed, an easing into Liberty culture. Going from Brown to Liberty must have been a shock. It would have been easier to go to a less stringent school first and I think Joey gave Kevin a bit of that experience. Maybe it was hard to relate to Zipper, but knowing Joey and Zipper both had the same love for Jesus helped Kevin see that not everyone will be Zipper.
I’ve had lesser experiences to what Kevin experienced. My dad’s family is Methodist but I was raised Catholic, like my mom’s family. Every time I spend a long period of time with my dad’s family, I have to ‘act Methodist’ a bit. I went to a (loosely) Methodist college so this has never been hard for me, but I say the wrong prayers before dinner to say ‘mass’ instead of ‘service’ or ‘priest’ for ‘reverend’ all the time. I don’t talk about being Catholic around my paternal grandparents. It’s not as extreme of an example as what Kevin puts himself through, but mine isn’t journalism.
I wanted Kevin and Anna to date so badly. I’m still hoping it somehow happened even though in the interview at the end he said it wasn’t happening. She was so sweet and he had a major crush on her. I’m glad he finally told her what was going on and I wonder if she’s not ok with them dating because he’s not Saved. This was the one part of the book where I would have liked more.
Kevin stated many times that the casual homophobia at Liberty really bothered him. It was the most troubling part of the book for me, too. A good friend of my husband is gay and a devout Catholic. I would never want to create an environment at our church where he didn’t feel welcomed by using words like ‘fag’ and ‘queer’ amongst our friends. It was sad to me. Christian doctrine is that everyone is a sinner so why would they call out one group of sinners more than others? It seemed counter-productive to me.
Kevin narrated the book, which I didn’t realize until the end. He did a good job narrating and even used a fun voice for Jersey Joey that I liked. I don’t see him narrating anyone else’s book in the future, but he did a good job with his own and if he ever has another piece out, I’d hope he does the narration again.
Kevin pointed out several times that even though he was able to humanize Falwell, that didn’t mean he agreed with him. You can like someone and not agree with their political or religious views. You can also agree with someone’s religious views and not like them. These things don’t have to be exclusive. I can have friends that are from different political parties and there are people I go to church with that I don’t like. Kevin’s book is a strong lesson in tolerance.
Writer’s Takeaway: I don’t think I’ll ever write non-fiction but if I do, I want to write like Kevin. He weaves facts and studies with his experiences very flawlessly. He jumps around a bit but keeps the focus on a portion of his experience at a time. He reminds me a lot of A.J. Jacobs, who he interned for and who I’m a big fan of. I hope he writes more books though he’s been successful in journalism as of late.
I learned a lot from this book that I think will stick with me for a long time. A full 5 out of 5 Stars
Until next time, write on.
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