Kevin Roose, a Brown University sophomore, one of the most secular campuses in the country, spent a semester taking courses on Young Earth Creationism and Evangelism 101 at Jerry Falwell’s ‘Bible Boot Camp’ Liberty University, in order to, as he puts it, ‘learn about my conservative Christian peers and find out whether any common ground existed between my world and theirs.’ He documented his experiences in a new book, The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University.

I think readers will find this undercover experience fascinating, especially if they have heard tale about the ‘The Liberty Way’, which prohibits hair ‘longer than the middle of the ear’ on male students and bans the viewing of a Rated R movie on or off campus ($50.00 fine + 12 community service hours).

Salon posted an excerpt about spending his Spring Break traveling to Daytona Beach on a mission trip to (attempt to) convert drunken revelers. He couldn’t bring himself to play the part when it came to the fiery bits of open-air preaching, so he came up with a plan on how he would blend in when it came to witnessing to people on the beach.

Evangelism to strangers, though,- that doesn’t sit nearly as well with me. So I set some guidelines for my Daytona mission. First, I would distance myself reasonably from evangelical theology. If I told someone about Jesus, I’d begin, ‘Well, according to one reading of the Bible …’ or ‘Some Christians think …’. Second, I wouldn’t condemn anyone. And third, if things ever got to a point where I was doing too well, where someone was on the verge of converting, I’d find a way to get out of the conversation quickly, no matter how out of character it was.

He gives some statistics about the effectiveness of this type of evangelism, making me wonder about why anyone would subject him/herself to this kind of abuse:

In the book that accompanies our Way of the Master program, I found several sobering statistics about the percentage of apparent converts who stay involved with the church in the long term, including one from Peter Wagner, a seminary professor in California who estimated that only 3 to 16 percent of the converts at Christian crusades stay involved.

Instead of being condescending, his way of describing evangelical Christianity is to put the reader in conversation with the students’ thoughts and struggles with the world, in order to understand their motivations:

I’m trying to treat Daytona as a weeklong thought experiment. For one, a little mental distance is the only way I can keep myself from feeling like the Grinch Who Stole Spring Break. But more than that, it’s the only way I’ve found to place myself into the moral space of aggressive evangelism, to try to understand how well-intentioned Christian kids,- some of the nicest people I’ve met all semester,- can end up on streetcorners in Florida, shouting hellfire and damnation to the masses.

Part of it, I’m sure, is that these students are convinced that their actions are compassionate and altruistic. All week, we’ve heard pep talks like this one from Scott at last night’s post-Razzle’s debrief: ‘To me, here’s the motivation to evangelize: If I’m a doctor, and I find the cure for a terminal illness, and if I care about people, I’m going to spread that cure as widely as possible. If I don’t, people are going to die.’

This New Atheist read the Salon excerpt and concluded that ‘evangelism equals predation,’ never mind the Liberty students spent their Spring Breaks hardly getting a single convert and were literally spat on. I’ve been exposed to the culture of aggressive evangelism and of those who scoff at religion. I, along with the vast majority of the country, belong to neither of these groups.

But we could use more of the kind of writing from Roose to better understand one another.

In case you’re interested, you can download ‘The Liberty Way‘ [PDF] to see the type of environment Roose subjected himself to for the semester:

  • If a Liberty student takes one step in the opposite sex’s room or in the same room as someone drinking alcohol, on or off campus, it’s a $150 fine + 18 hours community service.
  • Witchcraft or seances carry the biggest punishment, $500.00 + 36 hours + possible withdrawal
  • An abortion carries the same punishment as sexual assault, so if you’re raped and have an abortion, you get the same punishment as your abuser.

I wonder if he attempted to transfer his credits for Young Earth Creationism back to Brown.