Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Book Review – The Unlikely Disciple

Over my vacation, I read The Unlikely Disciple by Kevin Roose upon a recommendation by the FriendlyAtheist. Some lighter, enjoyable reading.

First the Book Reviewy Part:

It is a story of a secular student, raised in a Quaker, liberal household with an extremely “general” view of God (what I would call typical Americana) who decides to join Liberty University for one semester and write about his experiences amongst the conservative, fundamentalist Christian crowd.

He begins his tale with how he was accepted in the University, what preparations he did to “bone up” on what he should know, and his family’s initial reactions. He then spends the remainder of the book detailing his adventures, including his internal reactions to people and their statements, his own developing indoctrination into the system, and describing those he met. Including Jerry Falwell himself.

It was easy-reading; the author did a good job keeping the reader interested in what happened next, whether he would be found out as a non-Christian, and what would happen to the students he met. He described the classes he attended, and the social life of the campus.

I would recommend you get the first few chapters to review, or glance through it at a bookstore before buying. The tone and message stays consistent throughout, so if you like portions of it, you would probably like the whole thing. For me—this was a library-loan worthy book, but not something I see reading again.

Now, my individual impression:

First, I was surprised at the lack of educational depth at Liberty University. I understand the author deliberately took introductory Christian-focused classes—but some of his tales were downright surprising. For example, he indicated his difficulties in learning the names of the New Testament books in order.

This is college? I might expect these fundamentalists not knowing Greek—but not even knowing the books of the Bible? I’ve probably had to know that since 3rd grade!

Or he talked about having fill-in-the-blank notes. Where the teacher hands out copies with most of the notes filled in, and the student just fills in the blanks. “Jesus was the _____ of the world” and you write in “light.” I never remember a fill-in-the-blank note in college. I am scratching my head trying to remember one in high school. And apparently this was in more than one class!

Secondly, I laughed as the author was surprised at meeting the variety within Christian fundamentalists. Just as non-theists are lumped together in one concept by Christians—the author commits the same error by assuming fundamentalists would all look and act the same. There were all the familiar characters from my history.

The Rule Enforcer: the Guy (it was always a guy) who insisted on following every single letter of the law, and inevitably reached a point of authority to impose it on others. Mr. Roose wrote on the RA who sat out at the Movie Theater to catch people going into R-Rated Movies. I know him.

The Rebel: the people who watched the R-rated Movies and were considered the “bad crowd.” The author discussed a certain “room” that everyone wanted to be at, because they were the rebels. In my first college—that was our room. Yet underneath, the Rebel was no more rebellious than your average teenager.

The Rule discriminatory. The person who felt some rules were important until it applied to them. The person who never liked others sneaking kisses (apparently kissing was rule violation at Liberty) until they got a girlfriend/boyfriend. Then it became “O.K.”

The homophobe, the prayer, the “Let’s talk,” the sex-obsessed. All from my past; all here.

Thirdly, I was not surprised at how much the author enjoyed the relationship and camaraderie with Christians. When they thought he was a Christian—he enjoyed how supportive and encouraging and communal the society was. When they discovered he was not a Christian, because they already knew him, he became a “potential Christian” and maintained some of the companionship.

Unfortunately, this often ends when the Christian feels like you are no longer one of them, or a potential. Not just in becoming a heretic (like me), but in church meetings when another Christian trounces your idea, or at Church softball games. Its all fun and games until the Christian perceives they are crossed.

Finally, it was a bit scary how easily Average Theist could assimilate into the community. Mr. Roose talked about how it was initially shocking to hear so much “You are gay” and “Faggot” and “Homosexual” all as derogatory talk. Yet after a time, hearing it over and over, it became less so. Soon you could see in the tenor of the book, it became de rigor--accepted for what it was.

In the end, I forget how odd fundamentalism must be to others completely unaccustomed to it. Being raised and living in it for so long, this all seemed like a trip down memory lane.

Monday, April 06, 2009

God’s Priorities

My wife is an avid Michigan State University Fan. “Avid” may not be a strong enough adjective—obsessed would be the terminology psychiatrists would use. We have the flags, the stickers, the dog collars, the pillows, the blankets and even a room with Spartan wallpaper border. Pens, screen savers, wastebaskets. And every imaginable coat, sweater, sweatshirt, or hat.

To give you an inkling of how “MSU” my house is, you would have to understand there is a friendly (like Hatfield-McCoy “friendly”) rivalry between MSU and University of Michigan. My wife never roots for U of M. I didn’t realize how deep and insidious this was being passed onto our children until the day I was having a conversation with my youngest. 7 or 8 at the time. We have a relative who attends U of M.

Youngest: I can’t wait to see C…..but….
Me: Yes?
Youngest: Don’t tell Mommy….[whispering]…she goes to a VERY BAD SCHOOL!

Ah the joys of brainwashing children.

Secondly, what you would have to know about my wife is that her favorite sport is basketball. She played basketball in High School. Watches basketball (college) whenever the opportunity arises. When the NCAA 64 was being played locally last year—she got tickets. Even though the teams playing were all from out of town. Needless to say, our March is absolutely controlled by “March Madness.” Brackets, games—the works.

This year, the Final Four of the NCAA was to be played in Detroit. Over a year ago, my wife began scheming and planning to get tickets. As you get them through a lottery system, my wife had every friend, relative, neighbor, or minor acquaintance signing up in the hopes of getting tickets.

And she got four (4). She was ecstatic. This was the equivalent of Super Bowl, World Series and the U.S. Open all rolled into one.

This year her beloved Spartans were not likely to get past the top 8—in other words, probably not coming to Detroit. Yet they managed to beat a higher-seeded team to be in the Final Four. She was thrilled to see them play at least once.

Then they did the even more unlikely, and won again on Saturday—meaning they are in the Championship Game. My wife thought she was in heaven. A dream come true.

Now I am not going to say my wife prayed for this to happen…but I am pretty certain someone did somewhere! Yet while all these things were being put into play, 100’s of 1,000 of children were dying from starvation. From easily treatable diseases. Surely someone was praying for them?

It is usually at this point the atheist says something like, “Why would God allow those children to die?” and the Christian is supposed to respond with, “Who are you to ask God, ‘Why?’” and we get into a bizarre discussion debating characteristics of a creature we cannot verify a thing about.

I guess I am looking at this slightly differently. We all agree it is unlikely MSU would be going to the Final Four this year. Not impossible—just unlikely. And even more unlikely it would happen in Detroit and my wife would get tickets and so on. We all probably agree that if there was a personal, interactive God, it would be within its power to manipulate the universe in such a way to make sure MSU was in Detroit, playing the Final Four, with my wife in the audience.

It is also possible for this God to prevent starvation. To facilitate cures for diseases. Yet it does not.

It would seem, in the grand scheme of things, if there was an interactive God, for whatever reason, it is more important to it that MSU be in the Final Four, then for children to live. Because that is the situation in the world.

How are we able to discern anything about a creature that has priorities so contrary to what we believe? I can understand people who are motivated by things I am not—maybe they have a higher priority for a larger salary than I do. Or they love a sport more than I do, and will commit time and effort to it.

But imagine someone who thinks it is more important a certain team plays basketball than 1000’s dying? We can’t get our hands around that; we can’t understand that. In fact, if we presented a moral dilemma where a person chose to go to a basketball game at the expense of 1000’s of people dying—we would lock them away! We would question the stability of their mental state!

It baffles me when I read theist say, “God finds this important….” Or “God looks at that….” Or “God wants this….” or “God dislikes….” We can’t even understand the priority system of such a God; to talk of “likes” and “dislikes” is pure unadulterated speculation.

You have a God (if there was such a creature) who finds it more important to have a world where my wife gets to go to a basketball game than to save dying children. Don’t tell me you understand the inner-workings of what such a creature desires—you can’t even explain its priorities.