Generally, I do not read books that revolve around religious issues unless they are written by a member of that faith. I have zero tolerance for faith bashing, no matter who the target may be. As a member of a faith frequently under fire (I am a Mormon), my thought is that people develop many misunderstandings about my faith from reading writings of those outside it, and while some of them are amusing, the majority of the time they are very derogatory. I hope people choose not to read those types of books on my faith, and in exchange I refuse to read books that injure the reputation of other churches.
After reading two excellent reviews of Kevin Roose’s book, which chronicles his experience as he becomes a sort of “foreign” exchange student on what he terms his “semester abroad”, I decided to add this book to my TBR, given that both reviewers mentioned how nonjudgemental and evenhanded his writing is. Kevin was three semesters into his English degree at Brown University, a bastion of liberal thinking, when he decided that he wanted to embark on a bit of an ethnographic experiment and spend a semester at Liberty University, the school affiliated with Christian evangelical Jerry Falwell, a school at the polar opposite of his liberal upbringing and education. He went into the experience knowing that he wanted to write a book about his semester.
Right from the beginning it is very apparent that Kevin is very willing to be open-minded, wholeheartedly engaging personally in all aspects of Liberty students’ religious and campus culture. The book is very funny, without ever being derogatory; it easily passes my litmus test for that criteria. It is readily apparent when the author disagrees with his classmates and professors on issues, but his handling is such that as a reader I never felt that he disparages people, just respectfully questions their beliefs as being different from his own. A very tough road which time and again he handles with aplomb.
All aspects of life at an evangelical Christian university are covered. The reader follows Kevin in all of his coursework; Liberty is a full curriculum liberal arts university, but Kevin chose to take all religious themed courses while he was there. In addition, life in the dorm and the friendships he built there (some very close ones), extra-curricular activities, dating and sex, spring break in Daytona Beach (not the usual variety), church attendance, and other related topics are discussed.
Several factors make this book well worth a read, chief among them being how honest Kevin is about his own thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors and how he is affected by being immersed in a culture so foreign to his own. In the end, because he is so open-minded, he produces a thought-provoking look at life on the other side of the liberal/conservative and faith divide.
My one warning about the book would be that it is not really appropriate for an audience younger than college age, as there are discussions about specific sex acts to which some parents might hesitate to expose younger children.
Overall, this is a very well-written, tightly edited look at a sensitive topic handled with candor, wit, and grace. I definitely recommend this one for all adult readers.