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A True Story and Legitimate Questions

In 2007, Kevin Roose transferred from secular, liberal Brown University to evangelical, conservative Liberty University. This was not because he had been converted; Roose was raised in a version of the Quaker tradition which, according to him, involved sitting quietly in a chairs arranged in a circle for large portions of their meeting time–by the time he reached college age, Roose was (and remained) agnostic at most. Instead, Roose intended to enter the student body “undercover” and write a book about (what most of the country regards as) Fundamentalist Christianity from the perspective of an insider.

The result of this endeavor is Roose’s fascinating book The Unlikely Disciple (Grand Central, 2009). In it he gives a (surprisingly?) even-handed account of his experience at Liberty and consciously attempts to humanize a segment of the religious world which is frequently referred to only in stereo-typical terms. During his time at Liberty Roose sang in Thomas Road Baptist Church’s choir, adopted a daily prayer habit, attended a campus support group intended to help its members with purity in their thought life, and even interviewed Jerry Falwell for the campus paper. In short, Roose appears to have successfully checked his biases at the registration office, immersing himself in the Liberty lifestyle, then stepping back to report on his experience.

By lending us his eyes, the “outsider” Roose offers us opportunity for a number of insights into our culture, but this week I was reminded (by an article at another blog) of one in particular I would like to share.

Late in the book, Roose recounts a peculiar sensation he experienced during two different worship services held on Liberty’s campus the week of Easter. He begins by describing the second event, which took place during one of the Easter morning services at Thomas Road. He relates, “…during the second service, while I’m singing the same three resurrection hymns I sang last time, I find myself getting swept up in the mass joy.” He then elaborates by describing the first occurrence of the sensation in more detail:

[I]n honor of Holy Week, Liberty held a special communion service in the basketball arena. It was a pretty spectacular sight. A hundred-foot cross was constructed on the floor of the arena, with thousands of grape juice-filled plastic cups and industrial-size buckets of communion wafers sitting on top. The whole thing was spotlit from below, which gave it a strange ethereal glow.

…after[the communion service], the campus praise band played a song called “Make a Joyful Noise to the Lord.” It’s a catchy, upbeat number, and the only thing that distinguishes it from the twenty other catchy, upbeat numbers in the praise band’s repertoire is that this one has built-in audience participation–when the front man sings the title line, the congregation whoops and hollers, literally making joyful noises.

That’s when it happened. When I heard thousands of Liberty students erupting in joy all around me, in a dark arena with a huge glowing cross, I got that same tingling sensation. This time, it began to feel like there was a string connected to the top of my head, and it was being pulled slowly upward, toward the ceiling. Pretty soon, I was joining the rest of my classmates in shouting and cheering–not out of any duty or desiring to blend in, but because in that moment, I couldn’t restrain myself.

It is clear as well, from the rest of the book and other things Roose has written, that the reason he was so carried away had nothing to do with being overwhelmed by the beauty of any newly recognized truth. This leads us, I should think, to ask some questions. Subsequent to reading this, I asked myself the following:

How exactly does something like this happen? Has this ever happened to me? If this type of thing were the norm in my culture, would I even notice if it happened to me?

I’m sure there are other pertinent questions, but perhaps the most salient question we may ask is this: does the music/singing in my own church affect me in a way entirely different from the way this song affected (unbeliever) Kevin Roose, or does it affect me in the same way, merely to a different degree?


About David Oestreich

David Oestreich lives in northwest Ohio with his wife and three children. He is a maker of poems, photographs, fishing flies, and Saturday afternoon semi-haute cuisine. His poetry has appeared in various venues, both print and online.

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