One of the best books about America I've read in a long while
May 31, 2012 5:49 AM   Subscribe

Kevin Roose's The Unlikely Disciple, in which Brown attends Jerry Falwell's evangelical Liberty University for a semester (excerpt), has been featured on MetaFilter previously, but it deserves to be looked at in more detail. What distinguishes the book is Roose's determination to look at the people behind the belief rather than just lampooning the belief itself; he writes about interviewing Falwell (and he was in fact the last person to interview Falwell before his death), and about his uneasiness about finding the likable, human elements that went alongside the fanaticism. After publication, Liberty University allowed the book in its bookstore, but inserted a three-paragraph disclaimer warning readers of inaccuracies and telling them to be skeptical; Roose rebuts the disclaimer. An English professor at Liberty University offers an interesting perspective. Meanwhile, Roose runs a blog series called Meet Jerry's Kids, in which he interviews LU students, and The Jonah Project, where he encourages people who disagree politically or religiously to have reasoned, yelling-free discussions about the novel.
posted by Rory Marinich (43 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
Possession and/or use of tobacco: 6 reprimands + $25 fine
Improper personal contact (anything beyond hand-holding): 4 reprimands + $10 fine
Attendance at, possession or viewing of, an R-rated movie: 12 reprimands + $50 fine
Spending the night with a person of the opposite sex: 30 reprimands + $500 fine + 30 hours community service


This is what's wrong with secular schools. They have to raise their money by parking tickets.
posted by Roentgen at 6:24 AM on May 31, 2012 [3 favorites]


I wonder how many reprimands Christ doled out to his disciples. I checked my bible. It doesn't mention them.
posted by crunchland at 6:27 AM on May 31, 2012 [7 favorites]


I'm heartened by the effort on all sides to perceive nuance in each others' perspectives. Oversimplification, true Scotsmen and strawmen litter our conversations on contentious issues, and activities like the Jonah Project offer a welcome alternative.

Acknowledging nuance, though, isn't easy. For example, Professor Prior's review is generous toward Roose, but it resists acknolwedging complexity when it comes to turning a critical eye toward Liberty University's own culture, saying:
While the disturbing homophobia Roose encounters is, arguably, more reflective of the state of hormone-laden, sexually frustrated young men living in a male dorm than of principled Christianity....
There are many versions of "principled Christianity," and many "principled" Christians who justify homophobia through their reading of religion, just as others justify LGBT equality through different readings of principled Christianity.
posted by audi alteram partem at 6:30 AM on May 31, 2012 [3 favorites]


No reprimands for spending the night with a person of the same sex, I see.
posted by scruss at 6:33 AM on May 31, 2012 [8 favorites]


Roose runs a blog series called Meet Jerry's Kids

I wonder if Jerry Garcia, Jerry Falwell, and Jerry Lewis ever shared a stage?
posted by octobersurprise at 6:39 AM on May 31, 2012 [4 favorites]


Here's a video of Kevin Roose speaking about The Unlikely Disciple a couple years back. (Full disclosure, it's my event.)

Roose has gone on to write some interesting pieces since then - most recently, Mark Zuckerberg’s Nightmare Comes to Life for New York magazine.
posted by mark7570 at 6:43 AM on May 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


Some dude "infiltrates" Liberty (a school so easy to get into, they let MY dumb ass attend) then writes a book about how not everyone there was a rabid evangelical or a drooling idiot? This book brought to you by the "Department of No Shit, Sherlock." What's the follow up? "Not All Muslims Are Batshit Terrorists"? Nice job, dude. I wish I had thought of it.
posted by Optamystic at 6:44 AM on May 31, 2012


Spending the night with a person of the opposite sex: 30 reprimands + $500 fine + 30 hours community service

It'd still be worth it.
posted by Deathalicious at 6:44 AM on May 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


I wonder how many reprimands Christ doled out to his disciples. I checked my bible. It doesn't mention them.

You must not have looked too hard.
posted by designbot at 6:51 AM on May 31, 2012 [4 favorites]


It'd still be worth it.

25 reprimands in one semester = expulsion and the loss of your tuition money. Also, most of the bullshit religious course credits don't transfer to other schools. So, maybe, notsomuch. (I attended in 1989, but I doubt much has changed).
posted by Optamystic at 6:52 AM on May 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


Optamystic: "Some dude "infiltrates" Liberty (a school so easy to get into, they let MY dumb ass attend) then writes a book about how not everyone there was a rabid evangelical or a drooling idiot? This book brought to you by the "Department of No Shit, Sherlock." What's the follow up? "Not All Muslims Are Batshit Terrorists"? Nice job, dude. I wish I had thought of it."

Believe it or not, shows and books which do nothing more than reveal the banal commonality of human existence, though not particularly ground-breaking in their findings, are nonetheless useful and occasionally mind-opening.
posted by Deathalicious at 6:54 AM on May 31, 2012 [10 favorites]


Optamystic: "It'd still be worth it.

25 reprimands in one semester = expulsion and the loss of your tuition money. Also, most of the bullshit religious course credits don't transfer to other schools. So, maybe, notsomuch. (I attended in 1989, but I doubt much has changed).
"

Just curious: why on Earth did you go there?
posted by Deathalicious at 6:57 AM on May 31, 2012


I understand, but this whole project strikes me as condescending, in a "Guy takes time off from a real college to go live among the bible-thumping whack-jobs, discovers that they're human , too" kind of way.
posted by Optamystic at 6:59 AM on May 31, 2012


My parents were (are) hardcore fundamentalist Baptists, and I was a shitty high school student. It was Liberty or communtiy college. I chose Liberty. I wouldn't trade the experience for anything, but yeah, it can be very weird place.
posted by Optamystic at 7:02 AM on May 31, 2012


Roose runs a blog series called Meet Jerry's Kids

I'm not sure if it's LU students or people living with Muscular Dystrophy who should be more put off by that pithy blog title, but it's really doesn't contribute a whole lot to the goal of creating a reasoned dialogue and it seems a bit of a douchebag thing to do. Surely he knows about Jerry Lewis and that whole Labor Day Telethon thing.

Maybe it's to make up for the reviews his book received:

It's certainly not the book he pitched to his publisher as a left hook in the ongoing fisticuffs between secularists and believers. And it's not the book I anticipated when I first heard rumors among students at Liberty University, where I teach, that a young man from Brown University had come here and spent a semester undercover in order to write an exposé on command central for one side in America's culture wars.

Nothing written by Ann Coulter would ever merit such a scathing review and it would seem this Roose guy has to stir up trouble somewhere else if he's gonna get his book on the stand next to Ann's.
posted by three blind mice at 7:04 AM on May 31, 2012


From Prior's review:
Of course, Roose's academic experience at Liberty is distorted. In seeking a kind of extreme version of Christian education, he enrolls only in required freshman-level Religion and General Education classes, not in classes in other academic disciplines, or even his own major. If it's a slice of Liberty life Roose hopes to offer, it ends up more like a spoonful of batter.
That's too bad, because-- weirdo that I am-- that difference would be one of the most interesting things to read about, for me. I went to Wheaton College in Illinois, alma mater of Billy Graham, and while I emerged the bitter, cynical asshole liberal I am today, I'm decently sure there's a lot of cultural and etc. overlap with Liberty. During my time there as an English major, I lived with other English majors, philosophy majors, political philosophy majors, music majors-- mostly scum-of-the-earth liberal arts folks, the drinking, smoking, cursing sort that spent their whole time at Wheaton railing against institutionalized religion and its rigorous strictures as embodied by a top-down college administration. Everyone finds their own college while they're there, right?

Anyway, I didn't get all my gen eds out of the way at the beginning-- I preferred to space them out and have the more-fun advanced literature courses and stuff throughout my four years-- so I would up taking Intro to Philosophy the fall of my senior year. Early in the semester we were going through Plato's Euthyphro dialogue, in which Socrates thoroughly confuses Euthyphro about the nature of piety and goodness: Is it defined as those things which the gods favor, in which case goodness is arbitrary, or do the gods favor goodness because of its innate qualities, in which case there is some power greater than the gods which is determining goodness? The professor, obviously, turned this on the class, an eager group of mostly-freshmen at Wheaton College, that bastion of Evangelical Christian education. The kid behind me raised his hand and-- I shit you not-- began his statement with 'But the Bible says...' as if appealing to some authority, whichever its merits, could simply dismiss the issue. (I'm eager to point out, before some lolreligion comments pop in, that the professor-- also an Evangelical Christian-- summarily dismissed such a formulation.)

Again, these were eager freshman, and I'm decently sure that by the time they got out of college they were smarter than that. But those sorts of things-- where a particular kind of intelligence is an impediment to learning-- are what I find pretty fascinating about Evangelicalism.
posted by shakespeherian at 7:04 AM on May 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


telling them to be skeptical

Imagine that.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 7:12 AM on May 31, 2012


I'm not sure if it's LU students or people living with Muscular Dystrophy who should be more put off by that pithy blog title, but it's really doesn't contribute a whole lot to the goal of creating a reasoned dialogue and it seems a bit of a douchebag thing to do. Surely he knows about Jerry Lewis and that whole Labor Day Telethon thing.

Liberty students refer to themselves as "Jerry's Kids".
posted by Optamystic at 7:16 AM on May 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


Liberty students refer to themselves as "Jerry's Kids".

I guess you're not kidding Optamystic, but really?
posted by three blind mice at 7:39 AM on May 31, 2012


I understand, but this whole project strikes me as condescending, in a "Guy takes time off from a real college to go live among the bible-thumping whack-jobs, discovers that they're human , too" kind of way.

I see what you mean, and I'm sorry you feel that way. Unfortunately, some people need to be educated because all they know about a certain minority is what they see on television. Similar to someone saying "hey, I went to a school where there were blacks, and you know what? They're human, too!"
posted by Melismata at 7:54 AM on May 31, 2012


Optamystic: My parents were (are) hardcore fundamentalist Baptists, and I was a shitty high school student. It was Liberty or communtiy college. I chose Liberty.

This is a bit of a digression, but community colleges are not a fate worse than death and do in fact make sense for a lot of students. They're much cheaper, and nobody cares where you did your first two years of college if you graduate from somewhere else later. The class size is usually much smaller and the faculty don't resent having to teach the lower level courses. There are some disadvantages - sometimes you have trouble transferring credits, the class selection usually isn't as wide, and you might not have the best lab equipment, but they are certainly not a wastebin where we send bad students or something.
posted by Mitrovarr at 7:58 AM on May 31, 2012 [7 favorites]


And for the record, Optamystic, I would love to go to a school where I am absolutely certain about my beliefs, and be surrounded by people who share my certainty in those beliefs. I would love to be that certain about anything. Not to be, alas.
posted by Melismata at 8:05 AM on May 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


"I wonder how many reprimands Christ doled out to his disciples. I checked my bible. It doesn't mention them."

You must not have looked too hard.

Nice catch, designbot!
posted by Jody Tresidder at 8:20 AM on May 31, 2012


My niece just graduated from Liberty a couple of weeks ago.

Liberty is less easy to get into now than it was. I'm not sure it's strictly speaking hard, but it's not a cakewalk. And the student body these days has a strong upper-income skew*: time & again she'd get invited to spend weekends or holidays in expensive places with her classmates; they'd have cars & all the nice things; etc.

Freshman year was characterized by a lot of school-organized all-night prayer & "fellowship" sessions. We'd see them show up on Facebook; my wife found them disturbing, pointing out that what you do when you want someone to adopt your point of view is deprive them of sleep and make them participate in group bonding activities around said worldview.

Lynchburg is an interesting city. It's relationship with LU is deep and broad and dramatic -- Liberty has sculpted the side of a ridge that looks out over the city with the school's initials. And the airport is Jerry Falwell International Airport, which you get to in part via the Jerry Falwell Expressway.

What I'm hearing about here & elsewhere is a kid who did what sounds like a pretty darn good job, and not just 'for a kid', of writing a participant-journalist account of life inside what to most of us is a pretty strage place.

--
*I'm reminded of Wesley's admonition that 'good methodists' need to beware the prosperity that comes as a normal consequence of piety. these kids don't make any effort at pious relation with their family's money, from what I've been told. My sister & brother-in-law have been somewhat concerned that the kid would come out loving money a bit more than is good for her soul.
posted by lodurr at 8:23 AM on May 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


Indeed, Mitrovarr. I have nothing against community college, but attending Liberty allowed me to move out of the household of aforementioned nutty Baptists parents. As restrictive as Liberty was, and as ambivalent as I was about the religious aspects of the school, it was still a largely positive experience for me. This is not to say that I think that it's a good college, or that the philosophy behind it is sound or valid. I do not. I think that it's staffed by a combination of sincere, if misguided educators, and cynical lifers who couldn't hack in in the real academic world. (Kind of like "Christian Music"). The school is set up to generate cash, and piles of it, and I think that Jerry Falwell, while a very pleasant man to know, was the worst kind of huckster and charlatan. The students are really nice, though.
posted by Optamystic at 8:28 AM on May 31, 2012 [5 favorites]


optamystic, from what my niece has told me, maybe not so much has changed after all. I do think the admission standards are probably higher, but it's still a filthy rich school (my dad, who lives in Lynchburg now, makes fun of that all the time), and a lot of the kids seem to be like deer in the headlights when it comes to life outside the twin bubbles of evangelicalism and their families' wealth.
posted by lodurr at 8:32 AM on May 31, 2012


(not insinuating your parents are wealthy, btw. i assume that like a lot of schools LU makes space & aid available for people from families without a lot of $$.)
posted by lodurr at 8:33 AM on May 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


btw, another niece works there. she was kind of discretely appalled recently at the amount of money spent on a staff picnic for one of the U's schools.
posted by lodurr at 8:35 AM on May 31, 2012


the airport is Jerry Falwell International Airport, which you get to in part via the Jerry Falwell Expressway.

"I say unto you, no one shall enter Lynchburg but through me."
posted by octobersurprise at 8:55 AM on May 31, 2012 [5 favorites]


I understand, but this whole project strikes me as condescending, in a "Guy takes time off from a real college to go live among the bible-thumping whack-jobs, discovers that they're human , too" kind of way.

I recently read this book - it isn't that way. Roose really did bring an open mind to his experience and a desire not to just write about himself but to try to learn about others - his instigation for going was his realization that here were his fellow country-people and yet he knew so little about their culture. So he decided that his "study abroad" should be done at home.

I would seriously recommend this book to anyone and everyone who wishes to learn more about devout Evangelism or being born again. I was raised Christian and my mother is born-again, but as I am a devout agnostic there is so much we don't understand about each other. This book helped me understand her beliefs more than I did before.
posted by jb at 8:56 AM on May 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


Sorry to monopolize the thread, but while we're on the subject, let's focus on the "reprimand" system. Reprimands are handed out enthusiastically. The reprimands themselves come with a fine attached, and if you get a certain number of reprimands, (either by committing a series of small infractions, or one biggie) you're expelled, they keep your money. There is an appeal process, but it's an utter sham. THIS, not the religious indoctrination, is what people should be outraged about. After all, you go to bible school, it's gonna be pretty bible-y up in there.

But the fact that the administration of L.U. cynically and matter-or-factly destroys YEARS of student's lives by the often capricious application of a set of rules and that is designed to trip them up and squeeze them for cash is a real tragedy. L.U. staff work just like an American D.A.'s office. If you get caught doing something (smoking, drinking, cussin') they'll still fine you, etc., but they will go a bit easier on you if you drop the dime on any other dorm mates who may be up to similar shenanigans. Those dorm mates are then fined or expelled. A friend of mine was expelled just because she attended a party where someone else was drinking. Two other friends were expelled two weeks before graduation because they had dared to satirize some of the policies of the school. I could name dozens more. These people wasted tens of thousands of dollars, and years of their lives in pursuit of a "bible based education" and they were treated abominably.
posted by Optamystic at 9:10 AM on May 31, 2012 [6 favorites]


Grew up outside Lynchburg. Learned how to make friends with fundies because otherwise you had to hang around with cows.

First, I can't let "Jerry Falwell International Airport" go by unchallenged. That's more than a little grandiose. It's not an "airport" in any meaningful sense of the word. It's a field. Period. There isn't even a control tower. But that's neither here nor there. It's not like people in Lynchburg ever even think about it. When he was alive, Falwell needed a place to land his private jet so he built an airstrip and a big shed outside town.

But I have had occasion to chat with and sort of get to know a number of Liberty students over the years. Some of them really are total dyed-in-the-wool fundies, the sort who will finally put down your atheistic tendencies by saying "well if there's no God, maybe Hitler was RIGHT!" which is pronounced exactly like a very long "a-HA!" with no expectation of a reply from you because what reply could you possibly make to that?

On the other hand, a lot of them are there mainly because their parents are the hardcore fundies and that's the only place they'd let them go to college. I've found myself liking quite a few of them and wondering where they'd be if they'd made the choice themselves.

As for Falwell himself, I met him twice. Once we shared an elevator in Virginia Baptist Hospital while I was volunteering there and he was visiting someone. It was a pretty awkward elevator ride. The other time I watched him try to cadge free prescriptions from the CVS where my mother worked as a pharmacist. I remember a sort of disappointed bewilderment that she expected him to pay for his pills like everyone else, and the slow, sonorous line, "But I'm Jerry Falwell!" As if she didn't know who he was.
posted by Naberius at 9:11 AM on May 31, 2012 [3 favorites]


First, I can't let "Jerry Falwell International Airport" go by unchallenged. That's more than a little grandiose. It's not an "airport" in any meaningful sense of the word. It's a field. Period. There isn't even a control tower. But that's neither here nor there. It's not like people in Lynchburg ever even think about it. When he was alive, Falwell needed a place to land his private jet so he built an airstrip and a big shed outside town.

Yep, just drove by it on the similarly-named road (really just a portion of Rt 29). I've seen cropduster airports that are bigger.
posted by zombieflanders at 9:31 AM on May 31, 2012


I've been to Lynchburg 3 times, now, and have passed the prominent signage for the airport, but not the airport itself.

Well, belay that: maybe I have and didn't know it, if it's as small as y'all say it is... I'll be there next week for my mother's funeral, so maybe I'll persuade the wife to drive by it with me so I can see for reals.
posted by lodurr at 9:59 AM on May 31, 2012


"I say unto you, no one shall enter Lynchburg but through me."

Actually, that's closer to the mark than you might think. State roads are the only way into town, the N/S Route 29 (part of which is the referenced Jerry Falwell Expressway) and E/W Route 460 being the main ones. There is still, decades later, a deep well of resentment in Lynchburg that, when Interstate 64 was being built across Virginia, the state's snootier, horsier sort of folk got it steered through Charlottesville rather than through Lynchburg.

Many people will make the claim that Lynchburg is the only city in the United States of more than 100,000 people that isn't served by an Interstate highway. This isn't quite true. But I believe it is the only one east of the Mississippi.
posted by Naberius at 10:18 AM on May 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


I drive through Lynchburg on a fairly regular basis. For a while there was a big yellow billboard on the North side of town that greeted you with a picture of a massive AR-15 and offers of a range and concealed weapons classes. (Mind you I'm a Southerner and a gun owner) I always meant to take a picture of that sign but it is gone now. I almost expected to see Bill Hicks winking from behind the sign. "Jesus chooses Glock? Shouldn't you?"

I went to grad school at UVA with a guy who wanted to be a professor at Liberty. He was a dick and a slacker with a holier-than-thou attitude which made him that much more grating. We had to work together on a project and I took the work a lot more seriously than he did. In the closing days of the project he dropped the ball and I lost it, I told him he was, "a fucking moralistic hypocrite" and threatened some sort of alcohol-fueled retribution. His response, "please stop using profanity". I told him I'd stop using profanity if he'd quit talking about, "all that God damn Jesus shit". Sadly, we did not keep up after graduation.
posted by skepticbill at 10:20 AM on May 31, 2012


I would love to go to a school where I am absolutely certain about my beliefs, and be surrounded by people who share my certainty in those beliefs.

That would creep me the fuck out. I'd look around to see if the lemming migration had begun
posted by kgasmart at 10:27 AM on May 31, 2012


What happened at the lingerie party? What were they hoping would happen?
posted by discopolo at 10:32 AM on May 31, 2012


skepticbill, I think I know that sign. I think it was there as recently as last August.
posted by lodurr at 11:22 AM on May 31, 2012


These days you can do the first two years of a degree at a community college in Virginia and get guaranteed admission to a four-year institution with the right grades.

Liberty is also interesting because it has a massive online program mostly responsible the $1/2 billion in federal student aid it gets.

I know a Lynchburg native who also still talks about the failed interstate initiative.
posted by idb at 11:25 AM on May 31, 2012


It is kind of annoying trying to get there from the north. The last hour if you come at it from I-81 is on two-lanes through the hills, like as not stuck behind a truck full of logs.
posted by lodurr at 6:07 AM on June 1, 2012


Naberius: "First, I can't let "Jerry Falwell International Airport" go by unchallenged. "

I can't either. I'm not sure what airport is being referred to, but the biggest nearby airport is "Lynchburg Regional Airport/Preston Glenn Field." It has a control tower, but no customs service available so it's not an international airport (maybe it was once?). There's also the tiny "Falwell Field" nearby. I've landed there to participate in this program. It is indeed tiny and is in no way suitable for jets, with an intense slope that forces landing uphill (better hope the wind is blowing the right direction - here's a video of someone approaching to land facing the wrong way).
posted by exogenous at 7:25 AM on June 20, 2012


I'm sure my mind just inserted "international" on its own, but it is true that there's prominent and plentiful signage for Falwell's airport.
posted by lodurr at 10:08 AM on June 20, 2012


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