Breaking: Fundamentalists are people too

RooseCover.jpgSeveral years ago, when I submitted an interview article in the Evangelical Press Association's Higher Goals Awards competition, my grim (and non-evangelical) judge dismissed the piece because it was a Q&A. Never mind that it was a friendly Q&A with Andrew Sullivan, soon after he wrote Virtually Normal, and appeared in the newspaper of the evangelical ministry Episcopalians United -- not exactly Sullivan-worshipping territory. I remembered this judge's reflexive hostility to the Q&A form this week when comparing two pieces about Kevin Roose, a senior at Brown University who astonished some journalists by attending Liberty University -- yes, the school founded by Jerry Falwell -- for one semester. Roose returned to Brown alive, and without becoming a fundamentalist robot.

This sort of thing has been done before, especially in Mike Bryan's more comprehensive Chapter and Verse: A Skeptic Revisits Christianity (1991), for which Bryan studied at Criswell College in Dallas. Still, it's refreshing when writers expand their ideological boundaries, find full-orbed human characters across cultural divides and write without condescension about their discoveries.

One piece about Roose is by Eric Tucker of The Associated Press, who gives it 900 words. The other piece is a Q&A by Jessica Bennett of Newsweek, who gives it just over 600 words. The two articles both have their strengths and weaknesses, and overlapping sound bites, but Tucker's report is not one-third better than Bennett's.

Tucker delivers a few more details -- an "aggressively anti-gay" student is a dorm hallway's outcast rather than a role model; Falwell loved diet peach Snapple and the TV show 24; and Roose is thinking of joining a church. But some details also sound too predictable and tidy:

... some students also grilled him about his relationship with Jesus and condemned non-believers to hell.

After a gunman at Virginia Tech killed 32 people in April 2007, a Liberty student said the deaths paled next to the millions of abortions worldwide — a comment Roose says infuriated him.

In the Newsweek piece, Roose shows a charming and self-effacing touch:

Well, on Facebook, God was the No. 1 most-listed interest among Liberty students. At Brown, it was ultimate Frisbee. So it was just a 180-degree turn. I had to follow their 46-page code of conduct: no drinking, no cursing, no hugs lasting longer than three seconds. So there goes, like, 95 percent of my day.

... Did you ever feel guilty about deceiving your new friends?

I did, and I tried to be as honest as I could. When people asked, I told them I'd come from Brown. I expected raised eyebrows, but often what I got was pity. They thought I was fleeing secularism, and they'd say, "Oh, Liberty must be a breath of fresh air." And I'd be like, "You have no idea."

Ask the right questions and a short Q&A gets the job done -- without an additional layer of potential bias.

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