Review: The Unlikely Disciple, Kevin Roose

Kevin Roose, son of liberal Quakers, decided to leave Brown University and spend a semester at Jerry Falwell’s “Bible Boot Camp”, Liberty University.  There he attended classes on biblical history and evangelism, participated in a mission trip to Daytona Beach during spring break, and joined a support group for chronic masturbators.  When he announced his intention to spend a semester at Liberty, his family and friends expected him to find a group of intolerant arch-conservatives marching in lockstep, but the reality (of course) was far more complicated.

I could not put this book down.  I must read thousands of books that are exactly like this book.  I am fascinated, fascinated, by fundamentalist Christian culture because although it is officially the same religion as mine (Christianity), it is so massively unlike the religious culture in which I was raised.  As a Catholic girl, I grew up completely unaware of the fact that there were churches in which people would stand up not on script because there was no script.  Do you know, people in some churches wave their hands during songs?  (I wrote “snogs” just there, an amusing mental image.)  Because the Holy Spirit moves them?  Catholics do not do that.  We only wave our hands when they have palms in them because it is Palm Sunday and we are doing a procession.

Roose writes with affection and respect of his friends at Liberty, his teachers and spiritual advisors, and even Falwell himself (not, as you may imagine, the favorite person in the liberal Roose household).  His friends are people who believe passionately in their religion, who struggle to overcome what they perceive as failings, and who are surprisingly kind and accepting of Roose even after he confesses his subterfuge to them.  (I would be sort of angry.)

MORE.  I MUST HAVE MORE.  I am full of ’satiable curiosity.  I am so interested in what it is like to be all sorts of things that I am not.  What is it like to be a nun, what is it like to be a talk therapist for adolescents, what is it like being a cop?  I am obsessed with what things are like, day to day; which is to say, I am not so much curious about the theology behind the Rapture, as I am interested in how the belief in it affects people and changes how they live their lives.

Other reviews:

At Home with Books
My Friend Amy
Age 30+…A Lifetime of Books
Open Mind, Insert Book
Reading Rants
A Patchwork of Books
Joystory
Should Be Reading
Book Nook Club
The Printed Page

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May I now address the other thing that has occupied me this weekend?  It is the BBC miniseries State of Play, on which the 2009 American film was based.  I have not yet found a way to describe it that gets it to sound anything like as good as it is.  Political thriller! (But I do not like political thrillers.)  Brilliant cast of actors! (But only Bill Nighy and James McAvoy are well-known in America, and they’re not the leads.)  You know that Russell Crowe film?  (That’s plainly a non-starter.  I can’t stand Russell Crowe.)

Whatever.  If you’ve not seen it, you’ll just have to take my word for it.  State of Play is about journalists tracking down sources and taking care of each other and having integrity.  David Morrissey plays a politician called Stephen Collins, whose mistress goes under a train in an apparent suicide*.  John Simm plays Cal McCaffrey, Collins’s former campaign manager and current writer for the fictional newspaper The Recorder, working with fellow reporter Della Smith (the always lovely Kelly MacDonald) to find out what led to Collins’s mistress’s death.

*Americans don’t say “goes under a train” or “goes under a bus”.  Wonder why.  Seems like a reasonable turn of phrase to me.  And am I mistaken in thinking that we also do not say “non-starter” much on this side of the pond?

Whether you are a political thriller sort of person or not, I swear to you, this miniseries is well worth watching.  The relationship between Collins and McCaffrey is the linchpin of the series, and the two actors play off each other gorgeously.  Writer Paul Abbott manages to keep the tension up throughout the six episodes, so if you ever feel like the story’s winding down, and you are safe to relax, I WOULD RECONSIDER.

Would anyone care to recommend me some more good British television to watch?  My library has a fair selection of BBC dramas, but I just don’t know what ones to get.

Sex and the Soul, Donna Freitas

I recently read Mark Regnerus’s Forbidden Fruit, and found it unsatisfyingly lacking in good stories; I have had the opposite problem with Donna Freitas‘s Sex and the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance, and Religion on America’s College Campuses.  Like Regnerus, Freitas is interested in exploring the intersection of religion/spirituality and sex in America’s youth, though she focuses on college students where Regnerus’s book was more interested in teenagers.  She conducted interviews with students at different types of universities – Catholic ones, evangelical ones, regular public ones – about their spiritual and sexual lives and those of their community.

Many good stories here – college students are so much more interesting and articulate than high school students, or maybe I just got that impression because Freitas quotes from her interviews so extensively.  The chapter dedicated to “Evangelical Purity Culture” freaked me out, just as those things always do.  Purity: it’s a weird thing to want.  Here is a paragraph that does my head in.

A number of women I interviewed had detailed fantasies about the role a promise ring would play during her engagement, on her wedding day, and throughout her marriage.  One young woman explained how one of her friends “melted down her chastity ring and put it into her husband’s wedding ring,” which she thought “was pretty cool.”  Another had moved her promise ring to her right ring finger when she got engaged, and had plans to present it to her husband after the marriage ceremony as a special token of how she’d “saved herself” for him.  This same young woman also spoke of her promise ring as a kind of “purity heirloom” that her husband would someday pass on to their daughter.

I have just reread the paragraph twice and I cannot get my mind around why you would want to a) wear a purity ring, and b) describe yourself as “pure” because you haven’t had sex like sex makes you dirty, and c) have your husband pass on your purity ring to your daughter like Here, honey, this is a symbol of your mother’s purity, now please live up to it and don’t be filthy and sully yourself by having sex until I specifically give you away to someone.  Ick!  This father-daughter chastity thing is so ickily Freudian to me.  Fathers are not the guardians of their daughters’ sexuality prior to marriage.  That is weird.

There were loads of good interview stories all throughout the book, which I liked because people can tell you more (obviously) about their motives and beliefs than surveys seeking statistics.  However, I would have liked to see some comparisons between the interviews Freitas excerpts for us, and statistics from studies on a broad scale regarding college students’ sexual behaviors and adherence to religion or whatever.  As much as I was interested to see what the students were saying about themselves and their peers, I would have liked some helpful statistics to provide context.  Then I wouldn’t have gotten all skeptical-face about some of her conclusions and complained about how just because those people at those colleges said it didn’t make it true of everyone (as I’m sure she well knows).

Sex and the Soul raises questions about colleges’ roles in creating open, frank dialogues for their students regarding sexuality and religion.  Evangelical colleges, Freitas points out, provide a structure for how sexuality should go: rigid and unflinching as the structure may be, they are discussing it – giving their students a framework for navigating their sexuality.  She is bothered by the fact that institutions of higher education offer so little room for the personal, which “is not rigorous enough to warrant a place in the curriculum”.  Despite the lack of helpful contextualizing statistics, which made it seem like the author was leaping to conclusions (I am not sure about its academic rigor), I thought Sex and the Soul was most interesting, all thought-provoking and full of different portraits of college life.

Freitas has also written a book called Killing the Imposter God, about Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials books.  The idea apparently being that Philip Pullman is actually writing a Christianer book than he thinks he is.  Except I need to reread the Philip Pullman again, as it’s been ages since I read them last.

The Patron Saint of Butterflies, Cecilia Galante

Cecilia Galante is a lovely name.  The Patron Saint of Butterflies is quite good too.  It’s all about two girls in a religious commune, Honey and Agnes.  As children they were the best ever of friends, always racing and playing and having a jolly time together, but now that they are a bit older, Honey has begun to rebel against their religious leader, while Agnes is getting ever more scrupulous about her religious observances.  When Agnes’s grandmother comes to visit and discovers that the commune people (communists?) are being abused by their religious leader, she becomes determined to take Honey, Agnes, and Agnes’s little brother Ben away.  Honey’s happy about this.  Agnes not so much.

So guess what?  Cecilia Galante was part of a religious commune when she was young.  She said she was lucky her family stayed together after that, because a lot of the commune families broke apart after the commune did.  I am fascinated by this.  I am so curious about what her commune was like compared with the seriously sinister one she writes about in The Patron Saint of Butterflies.  Though no creepy sex stuff, which is what you always hear about with cults, right?  (Jim Jones, I’m talking to you.  You were dreadful.)

However, despite the fact that the commune was all communey, and that’s creepy, I feel like more could have been done with Emmanuel and particularly with Veronica.  They’re there, we don’t like them, but they’re not as interesting as they could be.  They could be more threatening, right?  Or more complex?  I don’t know, they just don’t seem to do that much!  The two girls, Honey and Agnes, are interesting, but the adults mostly aren’t so much.  What’s good about the book is the girls’ seeking freedom; the other plot stuff sometimes seems less thoroughly managed.

Other thoughts:

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Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis

Surprised by Joy is the book C.S. Lewis wrote about his religious development.  Searching for joy.  He writes about being a kid, and finding joy in certain books he read – it is very C.S. Lewis, and at times it was really touching.  C.S. Lewis is at his nonfiction best in this book – he’s not talking about the ways in which other Christians fail to measure up.  He’s talking about himself, just himself only, and the changes he went through in himself that led him to his current beliefs.  Look what he says people seemed to be saying, when they talked about other religions – it made me smile:

The accepted position seemed to be that religions were normally a mere farrago of nonsense, though our own, by a fortunate exception, was exactly true.

And this, which rang so true with me:

What I like about experience is that it is such an honest thing.  You may take any number of wrong turnings; but keep your eyes open and you will not be allowed to go very far before the warning signs appear.  You may have deceived yourself, but experience is not trying to deceive you.  The universe rings true wherever you fairly test it.

However, the two passages that I found really moving were the ones where he was actually talking about his conversion to Christianity.  I liked it because he spoke eloquently about how he kept making decisions, meeting people, reading authors, making changes, that led him inevitably to the conclusions he eventually reached.  Not because I think Christianity is the natural inevitable conclusion of any right-thinking person – I very, very much do not – but because it seems to have been so much the right thing for C.S. Lewis himself.

The odd thing was that before God closed in on me, I was in fact offered what now appears a moment of wholly free choice.  In a sense.  I was going up Headington Hill on the top of a bus.  Without words and (I think) almost without images, a fact about myself was somehow presented to me.  I became aware that I was holding something at bay, or shutting something out.  Or, if you like, that I was wearing some stiff clothing, like corsets, or even a suit of armor, as if I were a lobster.  I could open the door or keep it shut; I could unbuckle the armor or keep it on.  Neither choice was presented as a duty; no threat or promise was attached to either, though I knew that to open the door or to take off the corset meant the incalculable.

And I got a little teary when I read this:

You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet.  That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me.  In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.

Things like this that shine with sincerity are the reason that I keep forgiving C.S. Lewis when he acts like a jerk.  I mean, you know, this, and the fact that his Narnia books lie permanently at the center of my imagination.  In addition, he says nice things about G.K. Chesterton, and I love, love, love G.K. Chesterton.  I have never reviewed any of his books here, because it would be pointless – I would just keep on putting block quotes around large sections of things he said that delighted me, and I would never be able to say anything about him myself.  Due to his unrelentingly brilliant way with words.

“The Problem of Susan”, Neil Gaiman

While I’m in a talking-about-C.S.-Lewis groove, I might as well review this short story.  I reread it yesterday because I was thinking a lot about C.S. Lewis and Aslan and God, and leaving Susan behind when everyone heads into Aslan’s country.  And here’s what I came out of it with: This story hurts my feelings.  On C.S. Lewis’s behalf, my feelings are hurt by this story.

The main body of the story isn’t the problem.  I think the story is great actually.  It’s essentially a young reporter interviewing a professor of children’s literature, who (it’s very strongly implied) is the grown-up Susan Pevensie.  She’s talking about her life after her siblings all died, how she had to identify their bodies, and how she didn’t have much money following the death of her parents, and so forth.  There’s this tone of bewildered melancholy, and weary anger, which I thought was excellent.  These are points which I think need to be made about Susan from The Last Battle, because even making the argument that her crime was caring too much about girly things, and no longer believing in Narnia – even making that argument, the passage comes out damn sexist, whatever Lewis intended.  So hurrah for Neil Gaiman, putting a face on what Susan would have been going through back in the real world, while everyone she loved was frolicking around merrily in Aslan’s country.  (The other three Pevensies didn’t seem to bother much about her either.  I expected better from Lucy.  And Edmund, actually.  Their big sister!)

But, oh, the bits in italics, which framed the main story, hurt my feelings so much.  (Even though I can see how the story would have been incomplete if he had just taken those bits out.)  I’m excerpting a bit, which is rather explicit, so don’t read it if that’s going to bother you.  Aslan and the White Witch have made a deal to divvy up the Pevensy kids, the boys for her and the girls for him:

The lion eats all of her except her head, in her dream.  He leaves the head, and one of her hands, just as a housecat leaves the parts of a mouse it has no desire for; for later; or as a gift.

She wishes that he had eaten her head, then she would not have had to look.  Dead eyelids cannot be closed, and she stares, unflinching, at twisted thing her brothers have become.  The great beast eats her little sister more slowly; and, it seems to her, with more relish and pleasure than it had eaten her; but then, her little sister had always been its favorite.

The witch removes her white robes, revealing a body no less white, with high, small breasts, and nipples so dark they are almost black.  The witch lies back upon the grass, spreads her legs.  Beneath her body, the grass becomes rimed with frost.  “Now,” she says….

And when the two of them are done, sweaty and sticky and sated, only then does the lion amble over to the head on the grass and devour it in its huge mouth, crunching her skull in its powerful jaws, and it is then, only then, that she wakes.

Not something I often say, and not something I really ever want to say, but shut up, Neil Gaiman.

At first this was just a kneejerk reaction.  As an adult I recognize that sometimes Aslan is a bit smug and aggravating, but still there is this huge part of me that just finds him safe and comforting.  I identified really strongly with Lucy when I was a kid – I think because when you’re a kid, people often don’t listen to you, and nobody would listen to Lucy about Narnia – so I also identified with her relationship with Aslan.  Also, when I went and woke up my parents with nightmares, they would tell me that Aslan would blow my bad dreams away.  You know, like he blew away Eustace and Jill in The Silver Chair, most terrifying Narnia book ever; and that’s what I would imagine when I was falling back asleep.  In fact I still do.  So I was never going to take kindly to something like this.

However, on an intellectual level – and, disclaimer, I don’t know if this response is any fairer – but this business with Aslan and the Witch just seems mean-spirited.  Not because I mind things in which God doesn’t come out too well – for a while I was absolutely entranced by the His Dark Materials books, so much so that I bought all three of them, in hardback, right after I finished The Amber Spyglass; and Angels in America is one of my favorite plays ever (brother’s from the homeland!), as well as being one of my desert island movies.  (Hm, I seem to have Angels in America on the brain – could be my subconscious signaling me to read it again.)  I’m Catholic, but as a trend I really don’t mind when God is portrayed negatively, when it reflects the author’s beliefs and attitudes about the world.  I figure, God is tough.  God can take it.

“The Problem of Susan”, to me, is a whole different question.  It’s not an assault on God; it’s a specific, personal assault on one specific person’s affectionately rendered depiction of his beliefs.  C.S. Lewis wrote Aslan to reflect his experience of God, and as I’ve said, that man loved God like nothing else.  Whether you agree with him or not, he wrote Aslan with such absolute sincerity and love.  I think it is unkind to take such an honest expression of someone’s religious devotion, and do this with it; no matter how much you disagree with him, or find his beliefs about women/God/whatever, to be damaging.  It makes me feel all yucky to read this part of the story – a reaction I don’t think I’ve had to something I’ve read since this horrible book I got for my eleventh birthday, the contents of which I don’t remember at all, but which upset me so much I hid it under the couch and still couldn’t sleep knowing it was in the house so I got up and threw it in the trash and poured wet coffee grounds on top of it.

I’m not pouring wet coffee grounds on top of “The Problem with Susan”.  I just wish Neil Gaiman had been more respectful of C.S. Lewis.  And I say this as a girl who likes dressing up pretty with stockings for parties, and has been from a young age completely displeased with how Lewis dealt with Susan in The Last Battle.  (Y’all should see the sexy, sexy yellow dress I got for Christmas.  You know how hot Kate Hudson was in her yellow dress in How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days?  This dress is just like that.  But my hair is longer.)

Okay.  This marks the end of my C.S. Lewis apologetics.  You will not hear another peep out of me about C.S. Lewis.  I am reading his letters but I won’t say a word.  Coming soon: more Sandman, more Shakespeare, the seventh Harry Potter book for heaven’s sake, the interesting book about virginity I am reading, and hopefully some Susan Hill, since every book blog on my blogroll seems to be reading Susan Hill recently.  But no more of the Sally Lockhart books.  I’m tired of them because everyone died, and the Eleventh Doctor has pretentious hands.  Also maybe some science fiction.  I feel myself getting into a very science fictiony mood.  We’ll see how that plays out.

A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr.

This review brought to you by: Indie Sister, the same girl responsible for my reading Neil Gaiman.  I am always wary of Indie Sister’s book suggestions.  Sometimes she says to read things like Coin-Locker Babies, which gave me terrible underwater nightmares, and which I have really tried hard to forget completely; and sometimes she says to read Neil Gaiman and gives me a massive huge new source of happiness.

I checked out A Canticle for Leibowitz a month ago, and I only finished it last night.  I kept putting it off.  I’m not the hugest fan of science fiction that there has ever been.  Eventually I looked up Walter Miller on Wikipedia and discovered that a) he converted to Catholicism; and b) he struggled with mental illness his whole life before eventually committing suicide.  These things gave me much more of a fellow feeling for Walter Miller, so I decided to read his book.  And I loved it.  He killed himself before finishing a sequel to Canticle, so THANKS A LOT, MENTAL ILLNESS.

Oh, this book was so good.  Oh, I liked it so much.  I don’t want to return it to the library.  It’s set in the Southwestern United States many years after a world-wide nuclear war, following which there was a major backlash against technology and learning, which people perceived to have been the cause of the mass destruction.  Leibowitz was a Jewish clever man who converted to Catholicism, founded a monastic order, and worked really hard with the Church to save books for future generations; and he was martyred.  All this a long time ago.  The first part of the book is set before Leibowitz is canonized, and a young monk discovers relics of him; and then the second part (possibly my favorite?  I couldn’t decide) is set many years later, at the beginning of a sort of new Renaissance, and a scholar comes to the Abbey to study all the Leibowitz documents they have there; and the third part is about how everyone’s getting set to destroy the world.  Again.

This book was so, so good.  Really.  With added poignancy because Walter Miller served in the Allied forces.  And – my family made fun of me when I said this but here it is – I liked it that the Catholics weren’t all humongous jerks.  Not because I am one of those people with a bumper sticker that says “I’m thankful for the thousands of GOOD priests”.  I am not one of those people.  I want to key those people’s cars.  But because there are such a lot of bigoted, sexist, closeminded, insulting, rude Catholic priests around, and I always want Catholic priests to be nice and wry and morally upright; and it was nice to read a book in which most of them really were.

I just loved this book to pieces.  I loved how each of the parts of the book mirrored an aspect of our history – the Dark Ages and the Renaissance and the modern times – and how religion fit into each of those times.   That was neat.  All circle-of-life-y.  And I found the people in the books remarkably sympathetic, especially sweet innocent Brother Francis in the first part, all confused by how upset everyone was getting, and so sweet with the bandits and the relic – bless him.  And I liked this:

The answer was near at hand: there was still the serpent whispering: For God doth know that in what day soever you shall eat thereof, your eyes shall be opened: and you shall be as Gods.  The old father of lies was clever at telling half-truths: How shall you “know” good and evil, until you shall have sampled a little?  Taste and be as Gods.  But neither infinite power not infinite wisdom could bestow godhood upon men.  For that there would have to be infinite love as well.

And this:

We have your bloody hatchets and your Hiroshimas.
We march in spite of Hell, we do–
Atrophy, Entropy, and Proteus vulgaris,
telling bawdy jokes about a farm girl name of Eve
and a traveling salesman called Lucifer.
We bury your dead and their reputations.
We bury you.  We are the centuries.

And this:

And the last old Hebrew sat alone on a mountain and did penance for Israel and waited for a Messiah, and waited, and waited, and–

Yup.  A Canticle for Leibowitz.  What a good book.  “We bury you.  We are the centuries.”  Wow.

Keeping Faith, Jodi Picoult

Yeah, pretty much, Jodi Picoult.  Her books tend to be largely the same.  Keeping Faith has all the elements – moral quandaries, relationship troubles, fierce mothers, legal battles, and handsome men hopelessly in love with the protagonist.  I read it because I was at my parents’ house and I didn’t have my books with me, and I needed something to read for a while.  And then of course I got interested and took it home to finish it.  As I say, it was much like all of Jodi Picoult’s other books.  Always entertaining but not generally worth rereading.