I’m not sure when I first heard the name Jerry Falwell. Growing up in a very conservative pastor’s home during the heyday of the Moral Majority, it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to figure that his name may have been up there with Peter, James, John, and some of the other well-known biblical figures of the New Testament.
While my parents never idolized Falwell, I heard his name enough during my childhood for it to have stuck. Christian radio, magazines, music, conferences, and so much more were enough to expose me to the bubble that Mr. Falwell may have actually been responsible for helping to create.
A few years ago, a friend was driving to Lynchburg for work and asked me if I wanted to go along. It was not too long after my mom had died and my dad’s health was moving downward quickly. So, time in the car with a friend for a few hours seemed like a good distraction from everything that was swirling around me. He told me that he had a presentation and meeting but I could take his car and drive around Lynchburg once we got there.
Although I hadn’t planned on going to see the “school that Jerry built,” I found myself driving down the highway where I glanced a sign that said “Liberty University” for the next exit. I thought to myself, “Why not?” I mean, even though I’m in the same state, I didn’t know how often I might find myself out this way again, and besides, I was by myself, I had the perfect opportunity to spend as much (or as little) time as I could want exploring.
I followed signs to the campus and found a parking spot by the bookstore. I made my way over to DeMoss Hall where the visitors center was located. As I walked in, friendly, smiling faces greeted me and wasted no time giving me information about the school. I even received a free copy of Jerry Falwell’s autobiography (I still haven’t read it, but after my recent experiences and readings, it might have moved up my reading pile….a little). They invited me to visit the Jerry Falwell Museum across the hall.
I spent some time in there and talked to the older gentleman who was volunteering at the museum that day. He was friendly, and because I can still be lacking in my own self-confidence, I threw out the fact that I was raised and ordained Baptist…..I did, however, leave out the part that I had transferred my ordination to the Presbyterian church.
It was a beautiful, sunny day, so after I had looked around at the museum for a while, I walked around the campus a little bit more. I walked past the little prayer chapel and eventually made my way over to the place where Jerry Falwell is buried.
I have to say, it was a little much for my taste. With a huge stone cross and an eternal flame, it had the hint that they had been trying too hard to emulate JFK’s grave in Arlington and yet make it abundantly clear that Falwell’s focus was a little different than Kennedy’s had been and that he had lived his life very differently than Kennedy had.
I couldn’t help but look around from that vantage point at the sprawling campus, the huge “LU” symbol on the side of the mountain, and this slightly overdone memorial/grave and wonder about focus. I knew what Falwell has said that he stood for, but I wondered whether that message was somehow lost in translation. It seemed that I was looking at a kingdom built to a man, honoring and memorializing him, almost to the point of idolatry.
Overall, I left the campus with a sense that I needed to process everything that I had seen. It was a little bit of an overload for my senses and I felt like there was more reading and studying upon Falwell that needed to be done. I had seen a glimpse at this man that I knew little about save for the occasional outcries within the media over some statement or other that he had made.
A while after the visit, the experience had kind of fallen back into the recesses of my mind. There was nothing that would really make it stand out to me. About a year after my initial visit, however, I was back on the campus again for a large Christian men’s gathering. As I soaked in that experience, it did nothing but solidify the thoughts that I had the first time that I had been on campus regarding focus. While it was an impressive campus, I kept wondering what it was all for.
It was some time after both of my visits that I stumbled upon a book while browsing the shelves at Goodwill. I think that I vaguely remembered having heard something about the book, but it didn’t strike my attention in that initial hearing. For whatever reason, when I saw “The Unlikely Disciple” by Kevin Roose at Goodwill, it struck my attention and I decided to pick it up.
Kevin Roose was a sophomore at Brown University when he decided to get some firsthand experience at discovering the decidedly vast gap between the secular and sacred. He transferred to Falwell’s Liberty University for a semester and went incognito to gather information for the book. He disguised himself as a student and a Christian and went to work figuring out what this evangelical Christianity was all about.
The book sat on my shelf for months before I finally cracked it open and began reading it. Once I started though, I couldn’t put it down. It felt almost like a bad accident on the side of the road, the kind that when everyone drives by but cranes their neck to see what happened. It was a painful read for me who has spent the better part of my life within the bubble of the Christian sub-culture. Roose’s insights and observations were spot on, he hit the nail on the head of so much that has come to symbolize fundamentalism in America.
I think that the thing that was so painful about it was the ability of Roose to peel away the layers and find a way to disguise himself within those layers without anyone really knowing the difference. I say that not because I feel as if he were an intruder but because it’s sad to me that the most distinguishing thing about Christians is cosmetic, outward, and seemingly superficial rather than being something that is internal and personal, that translates to something deeper than simply sin management.
Some of Roose’s impressions and observations felt fairly indicting for me. In some ways it felt like someone had infiltrated my family and told everyone secrets that were supposed to be kept within the family. You know, the whole “What happens in Vegas” thing except in regards to family. Roose observed the difference between the beliefs of many of his fellow students and their actual lifestyle and actions. While he saw many of them as kind and loving in some areas, he also saw some major discrepancies which led him to scratch his proverbial head.
As I continued to read, I thought to myself, “What is this saying about this sub-culture if he sees this stuff in a brief period of time?” I mean, one of the things that I have always tried to do is be honest about who I am and what I believe. Apart from that, one of the biggest things that my parents taught me was to be consistent, something that they modeled incredibly well. If people see inconsistencies in Christians, that’s our fault, not theirs, right? Shouldn’t our lives and actions match what we believe and the things that we say?
But it seems that Roose saw something in these Liberty students that was different, He said, “It’s hard to watch Liberty students singing along to worship songs during convocation, raising their hands and smiling beatifically, and not wonder whether they’ve tapped into something that makes their lives happier, more meaningful, more consistently optimistic than mine.” The overused mantra of “Preach the gospel and use words if necessary” seems to resound from this observation. Although he saw this difference and wondered about what was there that he was missing, it wasn’t convincing enough for him to embrace it himself.
But the kind and complimentary statements may end there. Roose saw the discrepancies in the belief system of his fellow students. He saw that there were more similarities between them and his friends who he considered “secular,” maybe even more similarities than differences. It’s just that the differences were pretty glaring.
Roose observed many of the things that have gotten lots of press within the evangelical church. He talked about the fact that there was “Frustration with a religious system that gives issues of personal sexuality higher spiritual priority than helping the poor of living a life of service.” He saw Sunday mornings as being about entertainment that resulted in what he called “Church Lite.” He talked about the general closed mindedness of many educators, particularly at Liberty and how there were no chances taken for exploration because of the culture that had been created, a culture “where academic rigor is sacrificed on the altar of uninterrupted piety, where the skills of exploration, deconstruction, and doubt – all of which should be present at an institution that bills itself as a liberal arts college – are systematically silenced in favor of presenting a clear, unambiguous political and spiritual agenda.”
I sat there reading the book and wondered how I was doing in all of these areas. I don’t think that he was plugging for people to change their beliefs but to at least take a deep look at them and understand them better. Simply saying “That’s what I was taught” or “That’s what my church believes” doesn’t really cut it when talking to people who are diametrically opposed in ideology and worldview.
This book is almost a necessary read for those Christians who can’t quite understand why the world looks at the Church with such disdain. While some might be offended at some of Roose’s language and attitude, I think it’s kind of important to understand how Christians end up coming across to people with whom they don’t agree. I wonder how willing Christians would be to do the same thing that Roose did, to go “cross-culturally” into a secular environment in an attempt to better understand people with whom they disagree or don’t see eye to eye.
Roose did a good job of documenting his own changes as well. While his journey and experience did not necessarily bring him to become a Christian, he was able to see some real value in the experience and I think he came to the realization that there was something different about the people at Liberty, people with whom he had originally thought that there existed a wider gap between him and them.
The danger in any observations about anything is that you are always only getting a small picture window into a world and a perspective. The spectrum is rarely as narrow as one observation shows you. While Roose got a good picture of Liberty’s version of fundamentalism, evangelicalism, and Christianity, it was still just that, Liberty’s version. Roose got a window into some people with whom he connected better, with whom he actually became friends based on commonalities rather than differences. He glimpsed some people who seemed to stand out more than others simply because they had chosen to buck the system, to swim upstream and against the tide that was so predominant and prevalent at Liberty.
Like him or hate him, the one thing that can be said of Falwell is that he was consistent, something that can’t be said of a lot of Bible thumping bigwigs who tout one thing while living something else. Falwell may have been incredibly vocal in his beliefs and disagreements, but he seemed to have lived what he believed, and honestly, that’s one of the most important things.
This whole read was another reminder to me that how I think I am coming across to others and how I really am coming across are not always the same thing. It’s important to do self-assessments to see what’s getting lost in translation and how I am presenting myself. Truth is truth, sure, I believe that, but it’s certainly possible that that truth comes across as anything but when it lacks a presentation of love and concern.