Thursday, 30 July 2009

Undercover among American evangelicals

There's a bit of a vogue at the minute, particularly in the United States, for books that feature undercover investigations into the American evangelical scene. The most recent is Kevin Roose's, The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner' s Semester at America's Holiest University (2009). Roose, an English literature student at the arch-liberal Brown university in Rhode Island, goes on a semester's exchange at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. The book is incredibly funny, people in the cafe were looking askance at me the other day as I laughed outloud at some bits of it, account of Roose's experiences, but it ends up far from being a diatribe against some of the worst excesses of American fundamentalism.
Roose seems to have been metored in the writing process by A. J. Jacobs, whose A Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible (2007), is, just as the subtitle says, Jacob's hilarious account of his attempt to put ALL of the commands of the Bible, both Old and New Testament into practice! Roose's narrative is given add piquancy by the fac t that he conducted the final interview with Jerry Falwell, just a couple of weeks before his death, during the final week of Roose time at Liberty. Falwell was probably the leading evangelical figure, after Billy Graham I guess, in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s, but his stock-in-trade are his highly-offensive remarks about those who disagree with his conservative views, most famously of course, his blaming of the 9/11 terror attacks on feminists, homosexuals and abortionists in the US. In person, the Falwell Roose actually meets comes over as more friendly and genial than his rabid comments might lead one to expect, not that that's much comfort I guess. But from the sermons and addresses Falwell gave during Roose's time at Liberty, he seems to specialise in folksy self-help as much as anything else. Having said this his hour-long sermon/diatribe against global warming was plain ludicrous! On the last page or so Roose muses on the incongruity of Falwell's grave, the headstone on which is a ten-foot limestone cross, topped with an eternal flame powered by a propane feed. 'A former segregationist, and the way you memorialize him is by erecting a burning cross?' (p. 310).
Falwell, though, represents a very particular brand of American evangelicalism; the process of conversion is reduced to praying the sinner's prayer, new Christians are then loaded with a set of rules to live by, no smoking, no drinking, no dancing, no watching suspect movies, spending too much time alone with members of the opposite sex etc etc - you get the picture! Theologically, young earth creationism and the Rapture figure pretty highly in every conversation it seems, and there' s an assumption that only those who support the Republican party are true Christians and true Americans (not sure which if these two is most important from the book to be honest!). What emerges is a highly legalistic version of evangelicalism, fundamentalism with no fun whatsover if you like!
The star of the book is really Roose himself, and following his story during his semster at Liberty becomes quite compelling. He arrives with many of the expected preconceptions, but its to the credit of many of the students at Liberty, with whom he lives in what seems like very close quarters, that these preconceptions very quickly melt away as the kindness, prayerfulness and cameraderie of the students wins him over. He never really gets close to conversion, whatever that means at Liberty, but his journey certainly helps him to bridge some of the chasms of America's Culture Wars. I suppose my biggest concern throughout was what Liberty students actually thought the gospel was; this comes through very forcibly on a week-long evangelism trip Roose takes with some students to Daytona Beach in Florida. The method of evangelism seems to be to hit people as hard and aggresively as possible with the idea that they're on the road to Hell, and get them to pray the slightly vaccuous sinner's prayer. No wonder the number of people in the US who claim to be born again is so high, if this style of evangelism if so prevalent. One wishes that Roose had encountered more Christians who had a greater sense of the complexity of Scripture, and who located godliness in the person of Jesus and the practice of radical discipleship, rather than a list of do's and dont's.
So if your looking for some light Summer reading, Roose's book is very highly recommended. There's lots in that will make you laugh out loud, and tons that will make you wince too!

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