A Sinner's Semester at
America's Holiest University
(Grand Central)Despite the subtitle, Kevin Roose --- called by his Liberty University friends "Rooster" --- is hardly a sinner, at least not by my reading. And there is a chance that Liberty University is not "America's Holiest University." Bob Jones U. might take the prize there.
Still, Rooster's spring semester, going from Brown University to pristine Liberty might evoke some contrast. Brown is where you may find sex, dope and rock and roll, says the author. Liberty is where you also will find it ... but a little better hidden. Like in room 220, just down the hall from his room.
He had a chance to join the Peace Corps, to go to Uganda, say. But instead he chose to go to an equally alien universe, there in Lynchburg, Virginia. He may also have found God ... he says that after his months there, he now finds comfort in prayer; but he also found much of the same old same old.
There were classes on the history of the Bible, which he enjoyed; and on proselytizing, which he didn't. There was singing in the choir at Falwell's home Thomas Road Baptist Church which he liked; and there were his fellow classmates endless comments about "fags" and "queers," which, he says, he didn't care for all that much.
There was a weekly seminar titled "Everyman's Battle" on avoiding the sins of masturbation. How? Well keep the doors open; play holy music on your stereo; avoid the all-too lorky pages on the internet.
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Rooster turns out to be somewhat of a soft-soap, but Unlikely Disciple --- and even Liberty U. --- can be fun. It's about classes and professors and roommates; but it's also about dirty movies behind locked doors; about the guys eyeing a girl with a too-tight tee-shirt; about those who sneak off-campus.
And the rules? No Beer Bong Week. Be in your dorm early. No dancing. No kissing. No girls undressing in the men's dorms. Hell, no women in the dorms, clothed or unclothed.
Reminds me of the years, o those years ... sixty years ago ... in an east coast boarding school. Sounds to me like Rooster had the same rules to live with that I did. Get to chapel by 8 am. Be in church on Sunday. No boozing. Wear tie and jacket. No dope. No Beast. The Beast with Two Backs. (Or even One Back ... see Everyman's Battle, above.)
I survived three Puritan Years in that place. And I remember at times vaguely longing for the structure I left behind after I went off to college. Rooster seems to have some of the same longings. Touch of the Stockholm Syndrome maybe.
Some of the best chapters have to do with the mental-set. Talk about God. Talk to God. Daily. Hourly. Loudly. Take a break, drive to Daytona Beach in the "Jesusmobile," try to find converts there in the go-go bars and on the drunken beaches: "Are you trying to convert me?" asks a lady "in a pink bikini, drinking Rolling Rock with a foam koozie."
"Well, yeah, but..."
"Listen," she snaps, "this is pretty rude of you. I'm out here trying to enjoy my day at the beach, and you're coming over here telling me that I need Jesus ... Man, the Bible-thumpers are the ones you gotta watch out for. They're some sick assholes --- no offense."
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Sex, love, passion: this is the bizarre undercurrent in Liberty's universe. Despite his liberal pretensions, Rooster doesn't seem to be making anything up. Even stranger, he seems to have come up with a genuine affection for his companions and the university where he did his homework for Unlikely Disciple. It seems rather odd ... this lingering fondness of his for such oddities.
For instance, there is something called "the Quiverfull movement" --- Christians who vow "to have as many children as biologically possible."
The movement takes its name from a Bible verse that praises a man 'whose quiver is full.' ... The logic goes like this: a Christian couple wouldn't turn down perfect health or massive amounts of money, so why would they turn down children, the biggest blessing of all?
"Some Quiverfull couples top out naturally at two or three kids, but more often, the number climbs to twelve, thirteen, fourteen, or higher before menopause hits."
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Rooster often comments that Falwell's rants about homosexuality and women's liberation are overboard. But perhaps Falwell's main vice was his locker-room mentality. In one of his services he says, "Listen up, students ... Now I made sure there were five thousand girls here on campus, and five thousand boys. I don't know how much more I can do. Folks, we need more Liberty babies for Christ. Let's get going."
"Let's get going." My God. Rooster ultimately snags an interview for the campus newspaper. It becomes the climax of the book (Falwell was to die a week later). Roose lobs none but the easiest questions: "What are his hobbies? Where does he take his wife out to dinner? Does he have an iPod?" He reports on Falwell's favorite drink (Diet Peach Snapple) and how many red ties he has (forty or fifty).
And then there is the man's proudest accomplishment. "The back comes off his chair as he tells me about the time he placed a stink bomb under the chair leg of Bob Jones, Jr., the then-president of Bob Jones University, at a conference of pastors."
"When he sat down, the bomb broke," he says, his belly rising and falling with laughter. "And in a crowded auditorium, it got pretty rank pretty quick."--- Pat Larkin, M. A.