After reading outstanding book The Unlikely Disciple by Kevin Roose (read review), I had a few questions for Kevin. Additionally, his observations about the Christian subculture were so spot on (and amusing), it seemed imperative that I go straight to the source to learn more about Kevin Roose, a Brown University student who spent a semester incognito as a student at Liberty University. While attending Liberty, Roose had the opportunity to interview the school’s founder and president, Jerry Falwell, shortly before Falwell’s death. A big thank you to Kevin for doing a Q&A via e-mail for Backseat Writer.
I’ve heard a lot of evangelical Christians lauding your book—were you surprised to find so much support within the Christian community for The Unlikely Disciple?
You know, I really had no idea what would happen when the book came out. I wanted to write about Liberty in a way that was honest but fair – not whitewashing the school’s flaws, but not taking cheap shots at Christianity or mocking Liberty students, either. That seemed too easy. (As P.J. O’Rourke says, making fun of evangelicals is like hunting dairy cows with a sniper rifle.) I’m not crazy enough to think that all evangelicals have loved the book, but I’m really grateful that a bunch of them seem to have understood my intentions and given me the benefit of the doubt.
On the other hand, I was reading some of the online reader reviews of your books and it seems that secularists were more offended that you would go to Liberty incognito than Liberty students or evangelical Christians—why?
I’ve thought about this a lot, and here’s my current theory about whatever secular backlash I’ve gotten (and, to be fair, it hasn’t been much more than a few angry bloggers here and there): I think it’s easy for secular people to assume that evangelicals, especially conservative evangelicals of the Falwell ilk, are generally in ideological lockstep with each other, and that as an undercover journalist, I would have been the only person on Liberty’s campus having doubts, experiencing skepticism, and downright disagreeing with some of what was being said. But evangelicals understand that everyone in a Christian environment feels like an outsider sometimes. There’s a lot of disagreement and unrest at Liberty, and when you look at it that way, the presence of one liberal interloper doesn’t seem all that abnormal or offensive.
You write in The Unlikely Disciple that your beliefs were greatly challenged being amongst Christians; however, you didn’t get “saved” or “born-again.” You addressed it briefly in the book, but again, many Christians would ask this question—how could you be surrounded by all these believers, read apologetics books, and immerse yourself in the Christian world without becoming “saved”?
It wasn’t easy. There were many, many experiences throughout the semester that made me question my faith, and I was certainly tempted by Liberty’s spiritual energy. On the other hand, Christianity at Liberty is presented as an all-encompassing worldview that includes opposition to gay marriage, legalized abortion, women’s equality, and a whole host of other tenets I hold dearly. When confronted with a version of Christianity packaged like that, I could never bring myself to abandon my convictions.
What was one of the best things you saw in Christians at Liberty? On the flip side, what was one of the worst?
The best thing was the love and compassion they showed me. I’ve never felt anything quite like it. The worst was the persistent feeling that if I hadn’t been undercover, if I hadn’t fit in so well – or, for that matter, if I had been gay or Jewish or a member of the Green Party – I might not have seen that same love and compassion at all.
The students at Liberty listen to a lot of Christian music—did you discover any new singers or bands in the Christian market that you really liked?
I’m not sure what the best music I heard at Liberty was, but the most interesting was a rap group made up of Liberty students. They provided my all-time favorite hip-hop lyric: “Tryin’ to find purpose in life without Christ / Is like finding Wesley Snipes in the dark with no flashlight.” Which manages to be both biblical and racially cringe-worthy!
Not only did you grapple with your own beliefs at Liberty, you discovered that the Liberty students also wrestle with their own doubts about their faith. How you feel about their honesty and their uncertainty?
It would have been disappointing to find a campus full of brain-dead automatons, and I’m glad that my friends there were intellectually engaged and spent a lot of time doubting and questioning what they were being taught. It made the Liberty experience seem so much more authentic, and so much more human.
I found it curious that your family and friends were so dead-set against you becoming a Christian while at Liberty. It struck a nerve with me because I thought, “Man, the Roose family wouldn’t like me!” But Christians want to be liked despite their beliefs just as much as Quakers or gays or Muslims. Have Christians done a poor job in telling the world that we’re not all neo-Cons who gay-bash and try cold turkey evangelism to kids on spring break?
Actually, I think they’d love you! Let me be clear: my family is not at all anti-evangelical. They disagree with Falwell-style Christianity on a lot of social and political issues, but they were very good about supporting me while I was at Liberty, and they’ve never complained about the evangelicals I’ve met. That said, I agree with you that evangelicals have sort of an image problem in the secular world. (Gratuitous plug: my friend Matthew Paul Turner writes an awesome blog devoted to this topic, called Jesus Needs New PR.) Fixing that image problem, I think, is going to be a matter of reaching out to the secular world in a way that isn’t judgmental, in a way that respects difference of opinion and lifestyle, and in a way that makes it clear that you can be a Christian and still think critically about the world around you. The person who figures out how to say those things effectively will be the next Billy Graham. (I want a ten percent cut.)