I admit that when I first requested this book to review, I thought it looked like it had the potential to be interesting, but I wasn't really sure what I thought overall about the idea of it. In reality, it has turned out to be one of the best books I've read this year, I didn't want to put it down, and I've managed to find a way to bring it into most conversations this week.
I need to tell you a couple of things right off the bat, because there is no way I will be able to write this review without including a bunch of autobiographical information and analysis. The first is that I grew up in an evangelical Christian home, and the second is that I attended a Christian college.
Now...about the book. Kevin Roose is interning for A.J. Jacobs (The Year of Living Biblically) when they stop in at Thomas Road Baptist Church. While there, Kevin is a bit nervous at first about interacting with all of these evangelical Christians associated with Jerry Falwell. His knowledge of Jerry Falwell pretty much comes from the inflammatory things he said after 9/11. But while chatting with a few people from the church he learns about Liberty University, the country's largest evangelical Christian liberal arts university. When he can't stop thinking about it, he decides to go undercover for a semester at Liberty.
Now Kevin's own background is that of a Quaker, although he has never been able to fully believe in the concept of God. He was studying at Brown University before his semester at Liberty and is pretty liberal in idealogy.
He gets some crash course training in the life of an evangelical before going down to Liberty. He was warned of off cussing (which I found to be spot-on) as the sure-fire way people would know he wasn't who he said he was.
Now Liberty University is strict. Even stricter than the school I attended, which was also in the south and had some rules that other people can't believe. Some rules my school shared with Liberty include curfew, single gender dorms, room check (ours was every other week as opposed to three times a week, though), and mandatory chapel attendance. And of course no drinking or drugs.
When I want to my college, I went with the attitude that I wanted to be there and that I was going to submit to the rules and authority I was choosing to place myself under. I can still remember shortly after arriving, hearing some screaming in the hall. One of the girls on my hall had just been told she couldn't wear a certain pair of pants and she was MAD. Oh yeah, we had a fairly strict dress code. We would have fashion shows at the beginning of each semester to show us what was appropriate to wear. So clearly not everyone was happy with the rules. In fact, they were a subject of frequent discussion. My first roommate left after a semester because she couldn't take it.
I can imagine that to some of you, this sounds like the worst thing ever. But I don't think the rules were in place to punish, but rather because they were trying to educate and develop the whole person. I don't think all of them were necessary, but they had some unexpected side benefits. For example, curfew forced us to get to know our hallmates better and really bond. We had some very very sweet times after curfew.
Anyway, Kevin is at first exhausted after a few days at Liberty trying to fit in. One of the funniest parts of the book to me is when he tries to clean up his language and says things like "glory be!" He gets some strange looks, and soon realizes there are other substitutes for foul language!
One of the biggest things he seems to have trouble dealing with are the social values of a place like Liberty University. One of the biggest differences between Jerry Falwell's version of evangelical Christianity and my own is that politics plays a huge role. I'm not saying that a lot of evangelical Christians aren't Republicans....they are. But personally, I don't think that faith and politics should be that tied up in each other. While I think that faith informs politics, I don't think there are any cookie cutter answers. So it's sad to me that at a place like Liberty it's assumed that everyone is a Republican.
There's another part where he goes on a spring break trip of cold turkey evangelism. I cringed through the whole chapter. I just don't believe in that kind of evangelism at all and it was painful to read about.
So I am going to say this...if you are an evangelical Christian, there are portions of this book that will make you feel uncomfortable. If you are not an evangelical Christian, there are likely portions of this book that should make you feel uncomfortable, too.
Kevin's liberal family hates that he's there. But it's almost through some of the things they say that it's revealed how the deep the divide is in our country. For example, when his lesbian aunt says it's natural he'd connect with the people on a human level even if he disagrees with everything they believe, I couldn't help but think..."everything?" Some things yes, but everything? And when his family and friends send celebratory e-mails at the death of Jerry Falwell, it was hard not to think of them as being very cold. I wasn't a huge fan of Jerry Falwell, but I didn't even celebrate at the death of Sadaam Hussein...know what I mean? It seemed his family and friends could use some open-mindedness. Another little thing that bothered me was the frequent use of the word pious. Do they really use that word at Liberty a lot? I've never really heard any Christians use that word much!
But apart from that, this book is insightful, funny, interesting, and extremely well written. I didn't want to put it down at all. Kevin makes some good friends and comes away with some new perspectives even if he doesn't convert to evangelical Christianity. And reading the book reminded me of my own college experience and how wonderful it was...the depth of community we shared. When Kevin observes that people openly talk about their relationships with God, I felt a pang of longing. There was no place like college for that. Even in church, people are much more reserved. But when you're sharing so much of your lives together, there's no room for pretension.
I recommend this book to absolutely everyone. I do want to state again that it is not an example of all evangelical Christianity but really a more fundamental sort. Even so, the very best parts of what evangelical Christianity have to offer...mainly love, do come through.
Things You Might Want to Know: There are some curse words.
Giveaway: Hachette has said that I can give away up to 5 copies so if you are interested in reading this book and have a United States or Canadian mailing address please leave a comment with a valid email address and tell me what interests you about this book. I hope to get a lot of entries! Giveaway is open until April 12.