In the spring of 2007, a young man left the comfortable confines of his liberal university to spend a semester studying another culture. Actually, that happened to a lot of young men, most likely - studies abroad happen frequently in academia. This particular semester was different, though; Kevin Roose was studying a different culture right in his own country. Kevin left Brown University to travel south to Lynchburg, Virginia, and enroll in Jerry Falwell's Liberty University. And he wrote a book about it.
Kevin was truly exploring a different culture. Raised nominally Quaker, liberal, staunchly Democratic, he was headed into a bastion of right wing religious conservatism. He didn't know what to expect, and I'm sure he had all the same nightmares that a missionary heading to Africa for the first time might have. But just like most missionaries, Kevin Roose learned something that shocked him:
The students at Liberty were normal people. The faculty were normal people. And even the "monster" himself, Jerry Falwell, was a normal person.
The book was, I'm sure, intended to be an expose of what went on at Liberty University. Instead, The Unlikely Disciple became a fascinating story of how one young man, who was willing to approach things in an open-minded fashion, learned something about "the other side" of the Culture Wars. He learned that they were human.
Roose's story paralleled my own experience at Liberty in some very interesting ways, even though I was there 20 years before him. His stories of Dorm 22's rebels reminded me of my sophomore year at Liberty, when I lived on the "Hell Side" of Dorm 4. We were the pranksters, the "reprobates," the guys who usually got blamed when something bad happened (like the 3 AM fire alarms). We even got our own radio dedication — someone requested Guns N' Roses' "Welcome To The Jungle" and dedicated it to "Dorm 4 — the Hell Side!" at Liberty. So I knew what Roose ended up learning — the kids at Liberty don't walk lockstep behind Jerry Falwell. And much like Kevin Roose, my own spirituality changed a bit at Liberty - but rather than changing from a completely non-spiritual person into someone who was more spiritual, I changed from a hardcore, King James Bible Only fighting fundamentalist to a much less hardcore, thoughtful, reasonable evangelical.