This is the first installment of a new weekly series on this blog, called “Meet Jerry’s Kids.” Every Monday or so, I’ll be posting an interview with a different Liberty student about their experiences at Bible Boot Camp. (”Jerry’s Kids,” which you may know as an advocacy group for muscular dystrophy, doubles as the name of a popular Facebook tribute group to Jerry Falwell, Liberty’s late founder.) Some of these students I knew while I was at Liberty, some I didn’t. Some are pious pastors-in-the-making, some are one reprimand away from expulsion. All will be interesting.
This week, I’m talking to Steve Buchanan, a junior Philosophy major. Steve, like most of the students I met during my semester at Liberty, spends a lot of time studying the core doctrines of conservative Christian faith. Unlike most Liberty students, though, Steve says his studies have brought him “more and more towards agnosticism.”
Name: Steve Buchanan
Why/how did you end up at Liberty?
My grandparents would often take me to church growing up. On March 12th, 2000, I became an evangelical at an altar call at the Warrenton Assembly of God. I don’t even remember the exact contents of the sermon. Even though I was only 11, what I do clearly remember is how skillfully the pastor was able to build up a profound sense of despair, meaninglessness, and an emotional guilt about wrongdoing in the minds of the audience. I wanted more out of life, something that the pastor said he could give.
I was an Evangelical all throughout middle and high school. I took my new faith seriously: I still have quite a stockpile of books and pamplets and concordances with such names as Jerry Falwell, D. James Kennedy, Ravi Zacharias, John MacArthur, James Dobson and so on from those years. I witnessed to friends on many occassions. After high school, Liberty was my first (and only) choice, I wanted to be a part of Falwell’s movement to restore America to what I then saw as its former glory.
The real doubts about my faith began after the end of my first semester there. There was no eureka moment or sudden realization or anything like that. Doubts about the plausibility of Evangelical teaching (especially on creationism) and on the validity of the Old Testament began the downward spiral.
What’s your favorite thing about Liberty?
There are good people here. Most of the faculty are driven by a strong work ethic and even stronger convictions. The entire campus has a pulse, every person is part of the larger living movement that is dedicated to remaking America and restoring what they see as Christian values in society. I miss having that same clarity of purpose and zealousness for the cause that I once had.
Your least favorite thing?
The mission of the school is clear: To produce “Champions for Christ.” Even the mere thought that a core doctrine of the Evangelical movement is false is a Satanic attempt to cause doubt and distress in the mind of a believer. The texts used are often written by Evangelicals for Evangelicals. Alternative points of view are considered only to show the student how to dismantle them. In all classes the infallibility of the Protestant Bible is taken as a given fact, as something that is self-evident.
Many of the students here have been involved in Christian education circles since pre-school. Having never heard an alternative point of view offered, it’s easy to see why most here accept wholesale the fact that the Universe is less than 10,000 years old. Any item of evidence that contradicts the scriptures is disregarded as false, and the views of the ‘evolutionists’ are misguided at best, subversive at worst.
What’s the best Liberty class you’ve taken? The worst?
I will say that there are excellent professors in the philosophy department who know something of epistemic humility, many hold degrees from prestigious state institutions. Having heard the arguments against conservative Christianity, they aren’t intellectually threatened by fairly presenting other systems of thought on their own merits. I’d say my best course so far was an investigation of Eastern philosophies, which was taught very fairly by a superb professor.
The worst, without question, was a course I took on world religions whose primary purpose was to train students for missionary work. We would learn about Hinduism from a “Biblical” perspective, meaning that the faith of nearly a billion minds (that predates Christianity by at least fifteen centuries) was pagan and false. Then we would learn how to present the gospel to a Muslim or a Catholic or whatever. Courses taught like that should not be accredited, it was an academic disgrace.
If you could say one thing to a high school senior considering attending Liberty, what would it be?
If you are a conservative Evangelical then Liberty is probably a good match for you. If you’re looking to be challenged academically or want to learn the wild diversity of alternative human thought on its own merits, don’t come here. U.S. News & World report ranks Liberty as a Tier 4 school (the lowest quality). Your undergraduate years are a critically important time for personal development in all areas of life. Liberty will stunt your growth, I strongly believe that.
When’s the last time you prayed? What did you pray for?
My personal prayer life is now mainly centered on quiet meditation, sometimes consciously reflecting on the meaning of dreams or religious issues. At other times I empty my mind of all content, save a sensation of calm. I consider this a form of prayer that has been rather neglected by the Semitic traditions. I do practice prayer as it is usually viewed in the West, though I often recall Kierkegaard’s famous quote: “Prayer does not change God, but it changes him who prays.” Whether or not my prayers for the health of family and friends are heard, I don’t know.
What’s an unexpected fact about yourself?
Just five years ago, never in my wildest dreams would I have thought I would be heading more and more towards agnosticism. I will say that I am driven to know the truth, and I will ruthlessly pursue it to the limits of human endurance.
(Please feel free to post more questions for Steve in the comments. Liberty students: want to be interviewed? Shoot me an e-mail.)
For a couple years now, I’ve been on Jerry Falwell’s “Falwell Confidential” listserv, which was taken over by his son Jonathan after his death. Jerry’s weekly missives were typically devoted to attacking the left, and were decidedly aggressive in tone, but Jonathan (who has a Twitter!) seems to be using the listserv to promote a softer, gentler version of conservative evangelicalism. In last week’s Falwell Confidential, called “The Lost Art of Civility,” the younger Falwell sang the praises of The Civility Project, a new social initiative started by an evangelical Christian (and former assistant to Falwell Sr.) named Mark DeMoss, and Lanny Davis, a longtime Clinton associate. In these excerpts from Jonathan’s e-mail, I was shocked at how reasonable and…well…un-Falwellian he sounds:
…We have grown so divided and so suspicious of those who are on “the other side,” that we have largely lost focus of the issues, centering more on inconsiderate taunts or the belittling of our adversaries. Terms such as “left-wing whacko” or “right-wing fascist” have become commonplace, and they ultimately get us nowhere in terms of achieving real social/political resolutions.
…I see [civility] as a biblical concept. Consider I Peter 2:17: “Honor all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the King” (NKJV). (Notice that this verse does not say, “Honor the King, as long as he’s a pretty good guy,” nor does it say, “Honor all people, as long as they belong to your political party.”)
All in all, pretty fascinating stuff from the heir to the Religious Right. Read the whole thing here.
Of course, Jonathan Falwell doesn’t speak for all evangelicals, but combined with this week’s meeting of The Poverty Forum, a group of Christians from both ends of the political spectrum who have teamed up to address the upswing of domestic poverty in the economic crisis, I’m cautiously hopeful that the American culture war in the Age of Obama is becoming, if not less widespread, at least a little less obnoxious.
Oh, and real quick, a few of this week’s media hits:
- The Unlikely Disciple is on the book page of this month’s Details. (The one with Kanye on the cover.) Check out the review (they called it “sharp and balanced”) on stands, since I don’t know if it’s going online or not.
- My Marie Claire interview is now online, complete with hilariously mismatched photo of Pope Benedict. Read it here.
- Blog reviews are starting to roll in. Check out this one, from teen book site Reading Rants. (PSA: If you’re a blogger and want to review the book, e-mail me for a free review copy.)
Cross-posted from The Huffington Post:
Celebrating Valentine’s Day at Jerry Falwell’s College
At most American colleges, young lovers are spending Valentine’s Day doling out Whitman’s samplers, stuffed animals, and long-stemmed roses to their crushes and significant others, hoping to get lucky in the process. Not so at Liberty University, the late Reverend Jerry Falwell’s “Bible Boot Camp” for young evangelicals.
As I found out when I spent a semester undercover at Liberty for my book The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University, many hard-line evangelicals don’t celebrate Valentine’s Day at all. As holidays go, it’s considered fairly dangerous - not because there’s anything inherently sinful about chocolate and flowers, but because allowing Christian college students to acknowledge Cupid’s wiles makes them more likely to kiss, fondle, and sleep with each other, all activities prohibited by Liberty’s 46-page code of conduct, called “The Liberty Way.”
Instead, every February 14th, my classmates at Liberty (and thousands of other evangelical teens across America) celebrate the National Day of Purity, a conservative Christian holiday designed to promote abstinence before marriage. The Day of Purity was founded at Liberty in 2003 by Mat Staver, the president of Liberty Counsel and dean of the Liberty School of Law, who wanted to give Christian students an alternative to a secular Valentine’s Day and its lustful associations. On February 14th, participants agree to wear “LivePure” wristbands and white t-shirts to symbolize their commitment to abstinence, and many sign purity pledges, putting their promises in ink.
When I was at Liberty, I heard Dean Staver promote the holiday with a speech to the entire student body, during which he compared premarital sex to a nuclear accident. “In Chernobyl,” he said, “radioactive material was contained in the reactor, and it produced power, light, and heat. But as soon as the reactor broke and melted down, it produced destruction and death. The nuclear reactor that God created is husband and wife, committed to each other in a lifelong commitment. And when sex is contained within that reactor, it produces unity and intimacy. But when it is taken outside, it results in abortion, disease and death, harm and hurt. It tears apart husbands and wives, and damages children.”
As you might expect from sentiments like that, the National Day of Purity is about more than simple abstinence. In fact, most of Dean Staver’s speech at Liberty was devoted to attacking liberal initiatives like same-sex marriage, legalized abortion, and the redefinition of gender boundaries. The Liberty Counsel’s website, laments the fact that “there is a concerted effort in the schools and media to turn our youth away from traditional values,” and quotes a gay activist who says, “If we do our jobs right, we’re going to raise a generation of kids who don’t believe the claims of the religious right.” Staver is determined not to let that happen, and the National Day of Purity is one way he intends to advance the conservative Christian cause and take back the culture.
Among my classmates at Liberty, though, Staver’s broader political agenda seemed to pass mostly unnoticed. Liberty students are generally pretty vocal about their sexual abstinence even without being prompted by a holiday, and on February 14th, many boyfriends and girlfriends on campus seemed to hold relatively normal - if physically restrained - celebrations of the classic Valentine’s Day. (I did, however, see a few people passing out “Scripture Conversation Hearts,” the heart-shaped candies with Bible verses replacing “Hug Me” and “Be Mine” on the front.)
In fact, Liberty’s celebration of the National Day of Purity may have inadvertently contributed to a minor outbreak of sexual sin - just the thing it was intended to prevent. On the day itself, I saw six guys from my hall huddled on the sidewalk outside the dining hall, standing in a circle and snickering to each other. They called me over, and a senior named Ben whispered in my ear:
“Don’t make it obvious, but look at that girl.”
With his eyes, he motioned to a very attractive blonde standing behind him. She was wearing her crisp white Day of Purity t-shirt, leaning back against the building and talking on her cell phone.
“What about her?”
Swiveling around slowly, I laughed out loud. White t-shirts? In 30- degree February? What was Dean Staver thinking? The blonde stood unaware, gabbing into her phone while all six of my hallmates stared at her hardened nipples, which were poking through her shirt like a pair of Cupid’s arrows. For these young Christian men, at least, the National Day of Purity came as a righteous blessing indeed.
It’s been a busy week, so I haven’t had time to sit down and write the fuller posts currently kicking around in my head, but I wanted to throw out a few quick nuggets of note:
- First, my editor, Ben Greenberg, got profiled in Publisher’s Weekly for their “50 Under 40″ series a few weeks back. PW is the publishing industry’s main trade publication, and being singled out as an up-and-coming talent is a big deal. Ben, who has been working with me on this book for more than two years, is a great editor and a complete mensch to boot, and his optimistic thoughts on the future of publishing are well worth hearing. Read his interview here.
- Second, I vaguely remember taking a test in my Evangelism 101 class at Liberty about the “spiritual gifts” listed in the Bible, which include “mercy,” “encouragement,” “exhortation,” “discernment,” and half a dozen others. It was a hard test, and I’m pretty sure I did badly on it, but a new survey released by The Barna Group, an evangelical polling firm, makes me feel a little better. When asked about their biggest spiritual gifts, one-fifth of the Christians participating in the survey named a gift that isn’t mentioned anywhere in the Bible, like “a job,” “a house,” “a sense of humor,” or oddly enough, “clairvoyance.” See the ego-boosting Christian Post article about the survey here.
- Third, my column in today’s Brown Daily Herald answers a pressing question on Brown’s campus these days: How are we going to get out $800 million back? (Brown, for those of you who don’t go there, just released a financial report detailing a probable loss of $800 million from the endowment, give or take.)
- Last but not least, a great review for The Unlikely Disciple came in yesterday, this time from Library Journal, a trade publication for librarians. At the risk of violating the law of Christian humility, I’ll post it after the jump and pray for forgiveness later tonight.
The new issue of Marie Claire hits stands this week, with a feature about THE UNLIKELY DISCIPLE in the Love/Sex section (near the back). The Q&A, called “Holy Sex: Dating the Evangelical Way,” is about the dating climate I entered at Liberty, and how I struggled to reconcile the teachings of my second-wave feminist mom with Liberty’s rules against romantic contact and its staunch Baptist traditionalism.
The book isn’t officially out for six-ish weeks, so it’s a little early for buzz-building publicity, but I’m not complaining, and I love the article — even though I can’t quite figure out what the people in the accompanying photo are doing. I’ll post a full scan of the article on the Press page soon, but until then, check it out on the rack. It’s the March issue, with Jennifer Aniston, Drew Barrymore, and Ginnifer Goodwin on the cover, and it looks something like this:
Also of note this week: Dr. Randall Balmer, an Episcopal priest and professor of American Religious History at Barnard (and enthusiastic blurber of The Unlikely Disciple) was on The Daily Show last Thursday to promote his new book, God in the White House. I haven’t read the new book yet, but Dr. Balmer’s landmark book about evangelical culture, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory, was hugely helpful during my semester at Liberty. (See his interview with Jon Stewart here.)
The hardest section of my book to write, by far, was the one about masturbation at Liberty. It was challenging for a few reasons:
– Because my grandparents/parents/middle-school teachers will be reading it and judging me accordingly.
– Because I may have to get a real job someday, and masturbation stories rank up there with felonies and DontDateHimGirl.com profiles on the list of things you don’t want showing up in your Google results.
– Because masturbation at Liberty is an incredibly, uh, touchy subject. And while 99% of American college students masturbate with no compunction whatsoever, self-love is high on the sin hierarchy at Bible Boot Camp — somewhere between cheating on an exam and smoking a joint. In my book, I write about the time I paid a visit to “Every Man’s Battle,” Liberty’s on-campus support group for chronic masturbators. It consisted of a dozen guys sitting around a conference room table confessing their “victories and falls” to a pastor, and it was odd and heartbreaking all at once.
Now, thanks to a Christian group called the Passion For Christ Movement (PFCM), graduates of “Every Man’s Battle” can proclaim their freedom from onanism with EX-Masturbator t-shirts.
PFCM’s website has a whole line of confessional t-shirts, including EX-Fornicator, EX-Homosexual, EX-Diva, EX-Atheist, EX-Hypocrite, and EX-Slave – the last of which is what my friend Robert would call “loaded” — along with a video explaining the rationale behind the campaign, most of which is taken from the same Bible passages and bits of folk wisdom I heard in “Every Man’s Battle.” (See the group members’ anti-masturbation manifestos here and here.)
I’m sure the shirts will sell like hotcakes, but I don’t know a single Liberty student who would wear one of these in public (except maybe EX-Diva, which is a little more like something you’d find at PacSun). And unless I’m underestimating Christian America’s social awareness, it’s pretty obvious to me that evangelical teens aren’t going to be PFCM’s primary market.
So who will? Gawker thinks these shirts will be an ironic hit among hipsters. Me, I’m betting on horny frat boys. Watch your back, Vaginatarians.