The Unlikely Disciple

I just finished this book, the Unlikely Disciple, by a kid named Kevin Roose… it is about 300 pages and I was so fascinated I read it in about 3 sittings, 2 of which were on the same day.

The basic gist is a student at Brown University in Rhode Island (which, politically and theologically is somewhere to the left of Berkeley) goes “undercover” for a semester at Liberty University (which is, politically and theologically, somewhere to the right of Jesus–wink :)). In this book he observes Liberty, a classically evangelical school, from the inside.

The book is based on a rather dubious ethical premise (he lied about who he was) and Roose is, at times, a rather inconsistent thinker. Furthermore, he says some things that I just don’t think are fair… but, that said, it is a very entertaining, engaging and insightful look at evangelical culture from an “outsider’s” perspective. I laughed a lot, learned a lot, and felt ashamed quite a few times. Roose is congenial, sympathetic, and fairly even-handed. Though we would approach some of life’s most important questions from a very different perspective than I do, I found his analysis of “my” life very helpful.

It is worth reading just to see how we as Christians look to those on the “outside”, and to see what intelligent, articulate, surprisingly MORAL “unbelievers” think about us. This book will take you beyond “apologetics as usual” and get down to the real heart of why many people in our society won’t believe in Jesus. In other words, this is not a book about the truth or falsity of the resurrection… rather, it reveals the cultural assumptions that make it difficult to even consider the possibility of the resurrection.

I’ve jotted down a few stream-of-consciousness musings from reading the book… but let me first say that this is not personal for me, in that I did not go to Liberty. Though I feel like I do have a lot in common with the believers at Liberty, there are some things that I do differently than they do. I believe some of what Kevin Roose criticized Liberty for he is correct in (and many at Liberty, even on the faculty, would agree too!). In fact, in some places, he may not have gone far enough in his criticisms! All that to say, in the below I am trying to neither defend or accuse Liberty, just to interact with Roose a little bit…

Second, this is not intended to be a review, per se… the below is not even close to exhaustive and I didn’t even proofread it that well. It’s just a stream of consciousness… So, don’t judge me. :)

Roose doesn’t understand why so much emphasis is laid on sexual purity by Christians at Liberty when they could be dealing with the other much-more-important issues in the world-such as poverty and injustice. He sees the quest for purity as a distraction from what he sees as the more important task of helping a hurting world. He seems absolutely bewildered as to why so many guys stay overwhelmed in their desire to be pure.
I have some level of appreciation for Roose’s line of thought, in that it is reminiscent of Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees for “straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel.” Christians can be tremendously narcissistic, spending $100 worth of effort on dealing with masturbation while giving only a .02 worth of thought to helping the poor.

But that said, Roose’s belittling of the need for purity vis-a-vis social justice assumes that the betterment of man is the highest good in the universe. That’s why it’s a tragedy to focus on personal purity when other humans are in need of help. But if the highest good in the universe is the glory of God, and if our primary purpose is to live daily and for eternity in His presence, personal purity takes on a whole new dimension. If God’s primary purpose in creating us was for Himself then purity in our thought life is not irrelevant.

God’s instructions regarding the Old Testament temple put an unseemly amount of specifications to keep the temple pure, effort and resources that could have gone into alleviating poverty. But it was God’s plan. Because He is pure, those who follow Him just strive to be pure as well. If it is true that we are now the temple of the Holy Spirit, then maintaining the purity of our bodies and souls is one of life’s most important tasks! Serving others, maintaining purity… are all ways of serving God!

If you’re still having trouble seeing the point, exchange emotional impurity for sexual impurity in the equation. Imagine if you fantasized all day about hurting and killing other people. Would that be the kind of environment God would “live” in? Would working to eliminate that impurity in your heart be an unhealthy endeavor? Certainly not if God lived inside of you! God is holy, and those who want to walk with Him must be holy as well (Heb 12:14).

All this to say that perhaps the reason Roose doesn’t understand the emphasis we place on personal purity is because he has a fundamentally different worldview than we do, in which man, not God, is the highest priority universe. Elevating man to the place of God, is, of course, the essence of sin, and so we can’t dismiss an emphasis on purity.

Roose sees our commitment to the truth of God’s word as a type of academic surrender. I share with him his concern of Christian anti-intellectualism. Fundamentalism has, unfortunately, unnecessarily silenced some legitimate academic pursuits. We really do need to be open to following truth WHEREVER it goes. But Christians also understand that we, according to the Bible, are unable to come to reliable answers on life’s most important questions on our own. The Bible presents Jesus to us as the Son of God, with many “infallible proofs.” If Jesus is who He says He is, then we can trust what He says even when we haven’t proved it for ourselves. That is not a blind leap into the dark-because it really does ask you to consider if the evidence leads you to conclude if Jesus is who He says He is. If you conclude that, however, it stands to reason that you can accept what He says about other things. Though faith in Jesus is not a leap in the dark, it is a “shortcut” to some of life’s most important questions. Of course, Jesus did not give us a lot of scientific or historic explanation about things. He gave us the gifts to study and explore those things on our own, but always in concert with, and never in contradiction to, His revealed precepts.
ALL of us operate with faith assumptions. Roose assumes that ALL truth can be best obtained by academic study. He assumes that man is smart enough to figure out, himself, the answers to life’s deepest questions. There is no reasoning given for that assumption; it is a leap in the dark. That assumption is behind his doubts in the Bible. He should doubt his doubts.

This perspective will also help you get a grasp on what Roose seems to reject most about Christianity: what he sees as the Christians’ “intolerance” of the homosexual lifestyle. By “intolerance,” Roose does not mean not that he thinks Christians refuse to live in a society where people are allowed to be homosexuals. He recognizes that, in the sense of personal liberty, Christians are most definitely “tolerant.” By “intolerance” he means that Christians refuse to accept homosexuality as a viable alternative and we insist on calling it sinful. Roose finds this such an egregious sin that it is difficult for him subsequently to excuse all the Christian “virtues” he has come to love when we embrace “the worst type of religion,” that “excludes” and “judges” people.
Roose is, of course, correct, that Christians have too often been known for judging and excluding rather than love and grace. But it appears to me that he has failed to really try and see this question from our perspective. Roose assumes that homosexuality is not a moral choice, but a genetic inevitability. If it is a moral choice, and if God does set the rules, then Christians have no choice but to obey God. We can tolerate the sin and love the sinner, but it is blasphemous to God and cruel to others (since God’s ways are best) for us to say otherwise.

For you Christians that are reading, let me reverse the question to help you get a grip on how he sees this. Imagine you had a neighbor that was an outspoken racist, believing that dark skin was a sign of God’s curse. He believed that dark skin was the result of a moral evil that a person nursed in his heart. He thought that people should be free to be black in our country, but he was clear that it was still a moral evil. Should our country be a place where people are free to believe that hideous racist ideology? I suppose I can grit my teeth and say yes. You are free to believe that and live here, but I hate it… and would really have a hard time even being friends with you if you believed that. Your belief about the inferiority of black people would infuriate me to the point that I don’t believe friendship could ever be possible. That is how people who believe homosexuality is genetic look at us. They don’t understand when we say that we love the sinner and hate the sin. They see us as judging and excluding someone for something they can’t help, and hold us in the same disgust we would hold the racist. They feel it is their moral obligation to impugn our backwards ways.

We’ll never bridge this great gap in the culture war until we answer the basic question… is sexuality a matter of morality? If so, does God get to make the rules about sexuality and if He does what does He say about homosexuality? If it’s God’s world, not man’s, then He gets to call the shots on even things as intimate and personal as sex.

My final comment concerns Roose’s frequent lament that he wishes his secular community could have the warmth of prayer, the communal caring, and the fervency of faith without all the doctrines of Christianity. Roose finds that he loves to pray, he loves to open up his life to caring friends… he muses about wanting to have that and not the “harsh,” intolerant doctrines of Christianity!
What he may fail to see is that all these things flow directly out of the Christian doctrines He finds so intolerable: the fervency of Christian praise comes from recognizing the awesome sovereignty of God in our universe (which assumes He gets to make the rules) and from understanding how great His love was for us when He saved us (which assumes the sinfulness of sin). The warmth of Christian community comes from the humility we have in understanding we are sinners and in modeling ourselves after the love Christ showed to us. The beauty of Christianity comes entirely from Christ-all that He is, nothing less. Where there is no Christ (known through the doctrines) there will be no Christianity.
I doubt Kevin Roose will ever read this, but, if perchance that happens… Kevin, thanks for a great, well-written book. As I said above, I did learn a lot from it. I have just one question for you… It is apparent that you’ve heard all the arguments for Jesus. Many of them you sympathize with, or are even persuaded by. But what you can’t get over are objections to Christian teaching that would call sinful what you see as harmless (sexual impurity, the sinfulness of consenting homosexual sex, etc.) But what if your fundamental assumption, that man is the ultimate and highest good in the universe, was wrong, and instead God is Himself the highest purpose in the universe? Would that change how you saw things?

Finally, one thing I commend you on is your understanding that if you are going to accept the Lordship of Jesus, then you must also accept the things that He taught. Because you do not feel you can accept the things the Bible teaches, you will not surrender to the Lordship of Jesus. Many try to say they accept the Lordship of Jesus but deny anything He taught that they don’t agree with. This, of course, is a non-sequitir… as Jesus Himself said, “Why do you call me Lord, Lord and do not the things I say?”

That said, I want to clarify that accepting Jesus does not necessarily mean accepting every facet of the culture or positions of Liberty University. All of us, including me, have blindspots and areas of inconsistency. I’m sure Liberty has has them as well. I hope you can, in grace, overlook them. Furthermore, realize that not even every conservative, evangelical Christian agrees with Liberty’s stances on every political or scientific issues. So, I would invite you to explore the question of whether or not Jesus is Lord and, if He is, to come to your own convictions about those secondary things.

Above all I want to “remind” you (in the words of C.S. Lewis) that the center of Christianity is not a position on sexual ethics or abortion. The center of Christianity is Christ, and Christ only. So, if you disagree with what Christians believe on some issue of morality, suspend the question for a while and just deal with the center: Is Jesus who He says He is? If He is, follow Him… wherever He leads. Be open-minded enough to doubt all your assumptions. Doubt your doubts. If Jesus is who He says He is, then only the brashest hubris would tell Him He is wrong about issues of life or eternity. “Who do you say that I Am?”

Thank you, my friend, for such a warm, considerate, and sympathetic book! You are an example to me of the love that seeks to understand.

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  1. Pingback: Posts about Holy Spirit as of April 27, 2009 | PRAYtheREVOLUTION

  2. Roger Simpson   •  

    I believe that any objective reading of the Bible will clearly reveal that homosexual behavior is a sin. [Cf. Romans 1]

    It could be that there is such a thing as a genetic predisposition toward homosexuality. In any case, it is certainly true that all people have a predisposition toward sin generally as a result of the “Adamic Curse”. Therefore, I don’t think arguing about whether or not homosexuality has a genetic basis really makes much difference.

    I believe that all of us have an inherent sin-nature. This is consistent with what the Bible says. It could be for some that the genetic penchant towards homosexuality is more pronounced than for others. Also, it could be that homosexuality is a result of environmental factors during childhood. I’m a software engineer not a psychologist. I don’t know, even in principle, what type of experiment could be proposed, that would confirm or refute the proposition that homosexuality is only environmental — without any genetic basis.

    Based upon my limited knowledge of people living a homosexual lifestyle my “layman’s opinion” is that homosexuality is some complex mixture of both genetics and the environment.

    To me it doesn’t make any difference. I don’t think God gives us a pass on sin just because we are created as sinners. This applies to homosexuality as well as every other sin. I don’t think homosexuality deserves “special status” as a protected sin. Also, I don’t think homosexuality is any “worse” than any other sin.

    We are all in this sin-boat together. We could argue all day long about who has the “worse sin”. Fortunately, this is an academic argument in that each of us can be a recipient of God’s free gift which removes the eternal penalty for our sins even if it does not blot out the consequences of these sins during the remainder of our life here on earth.

  3. Tim Rogers   •  

    Brother JD,

    Interesting take on Roose’s book. I have not had the opportunity to read it yet, so my comment will be on your definition you have given concerning the author’s explanation of intolerance.

    By “intolerance” he means that we refuse to accept homosexuality as a viable alternative and we insist on calling it sinful.

    How does one accept homosexuality as a viable alternative lifestyle when the Bible clearly calls it sin? I am not debating whether it is nature or nurture here, I am speaking about the homosexual acts, which the Bible defines as sin. However, by your explanation of one’s skin pigmentation you appear to take the position that one is born with a homosexual gene that makes one unable to control their homosexual gratification. By doing this you present the discriminatory injustice done to those with dark pigmented skin as the same behavior of Christians that lovingly express that homosexual behavior is sin. It seems that homosexuals in your explanation of the author’s view of intolerance, should be told that they cannot help themselves and this is the only tolerant view that we can take. That being said, when Miss California was asked by a gay judge: Vermont recently became the fourth state to legalize same-sex marriage. Do you think every state should follow suit? Why or why not? was she being intolerant, according to Roose’s view, when she responded that personally she belived marriage was between a man and a woman? While she clearly defined marriage she was denied the crown because of her personal views. Would you argue that according to what the gay judge said on the Today Show below, is the knife of intolerance cutting in one direction? Here is what the Gay Miss USA Judge told Matt Lauer: “She’s a Christian, but I don’t want her talking about Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, because that’s offensive to all of the Jewish Americans, all the Muslim Americans, to all the atheist Americans.

    So, maybe you can help me understand how honestly stating one’s belief, without any animosity toward homosexuals, can be construed any other way but intolerant by those like Roose. If that is the case we as Christians have just given over the public arena for fear that we are going to be perceived as intolerant.

    Blessings,
    Tim

  4. J.D. Greear   •  

    Tim, I would agree with you. I’m just trying to get us to see it from their perspective. As I said, we must be clear that homosexuality is perverse and sinful… just as with Muslims we must be clear that Jesus is the Son of God and Mohammad is a false prophet. But understanding what that means to them will determine HOW we say it to them. That’s all.

  5. Pingback: The Unlikely Disciple « Josh’s Blog

  6. Darren   •  

    Am reading “unlikely disciple” now. Disagree somewhat with your characterization of Roose’s position on homosexuality. He sometimes commented that Jerry Falwell was a “moderate” compared to some of the students. Why did he say this? By calling Liberty students intolerant, he is talking about behavior that he observed that would and should be beyond the pale for most Christians. The use of “faggot” and other like language, as an acceptable form of swearing and demeaning others. Discussions among fellow students who said that homosexuals should be basically be beaten. Acting as if people who practice homosexuality are not even human. Personally, I think the Liberty students made it easy for Roose to say that Christianity is “intolerant” toward homosexuals. Part of his argument also stems from the seeming inconsistency of Christians willing to be more accepting of sexual immorality when its not homosexual. For a non-Christian, this notion must be puzzling. Why do fundamentalist evangelicals get all lathered up about homosexual behavior, while sometimes giving short shrift to the more obvious sexual sins in our midst?

    Certainly this is part of a much larger debate. How do we hate the sin and love the sinner? That is one of the profound questions that all of us must answer as Christians. Anyway, I too found Roose’s book interesting. I think the questions he poses are helpful to any of us, who have struggled with how we can better live out our faith.

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