Why I Didn’t Attend Falwell’s Liberty University (it was too liberal)

This post first appeared over at Jesus Needs New PR a couple weeks ago.

In January of 2007, Kevin Roose walked on to the campus of Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, ready to join 25,000 other students for the start of the spring semester. But there was one thing that set Kevin apart from his classmates, something his new friends wouldn’t know about until after he left Liberty at the end of the semester. Kevin was a transfer student from Brown University, a school every bit as secular as Liberty was religious, and had decided to spend his “semester abroad” in Lynchburg, VA, instead of England or Italy. After spending a couple days on the campus of Liberty several months earlier, on a research trip with an author he was working for, he had realized he didn’t know anything, really, about evangelical Christians, and found that trying to carry on a conversations with “them,” even with his peers, was like trying to communicate with someone from a completely different culture, someone who didn’t even speak the same language. He wanted to get past the stereotypes, beyond what the culture wars tell us about who our enemies are, and so decided to spend a semester at an Evangelical university, with plans to write a book about his experience. The decision to attend Liberty, then, was an easy one: he couldn’t imagine a more conservative institution, and he wanted to get the full immersion experience.

When I read The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University, Kevin’s story of his time at Liberty, just after it was published a couple years ago, the first thing that struck me was how different our stories were. While Kevin chose Liberty because of how conservative and extreme he thought it was, I chose not to attend Liberty for the exact opposite reason. Continue reading

Send Andrew Osenga to Space

For at least the last five years or so, whenever I think to check the “most-played” list in my iTunes, I’m never surprised to see that at least half the songs on the list are by Andy Osenga, many of them listed there because of the late nights where I hit repeat over and over again on a song, needing to hear it just one more time.

From his work with his first band, The Normals, through the years he was with Caedmon’s Call – as Derek Webb’s replacement – to his five solo albums (and counting), I find something in Andy’s music that I need, lyrics that provide comfort and encouragement, words that give voice to unspoken yearnings, disappointments, and desires, confessions and promises. Lines that remind me of the kind of person I want to be, and how I might get there. Continue reading

The Sword of the Lord

This was also posted at Jesus Needs New PR

It is difficult, if not impossible, to know who you are without knowing where you came from, without knowing the history of your people, your place. For me, that story revolves around my great grandfather.

My mother’s grandfather, John R. Rice, was an Independent Baptist preacher and evangelist. Although he died fifteen months before I was born, his shadow loomed large over my childhood. My identity came from him, and he was, first and foremost, a Fundamentalist. From a sermon preached in 1928, early in his ministry, “Why I Am a Big F Fundamentalist,” to one of his last books, published in 1975, just five years before his death, “I Am a Fundamentalist,” that remained his most important identifier. With two hundred books and pamphlets to his credit (more than sixty million copies in print) and a biweekly newspaper he edited, the Sword of the Lord, that had a circulation topping out at over three hundred thousand, he was sometimes called “America’s Mightiest Pen.” His role as a principle player in two of the defining moments of 20th century American Fundamentalism – the 1957 split with Billy Graham over his ecumenical New York crusade, the end of a long friendship between the two, and the very public disagreement with Bob Jones, Jr., over the issue of secondary separation in the mid 70’s – cemented his role as an elder statesman of Fundamentalism. At his funeral service, one mentoree of his, Jerry Falwell, called his death the “passing of an era…He was God’s man for the hour. I looked on him as the guardian of fundamentalist truth for this generation. More than any other person, he was the most trusted man in fundamentalism…” Continue reading

Why I read Frederick Buechner

This was originally posted at My Friend Amy’s blog as part of her “Frederick Buechner week.”

When it came time to critique the piece I was workshopping at a writing class I took part in the end of last summer, Lauren Winner, the esteemed leader of our class, offered as one of her critiques that she thought I quoted Frederick Buechner too many times. When I attempted to explain that my quotations of Buechner were there because reading his books had helped me arrive at where I stand today, but that I was sure later drafts of the piece would rely less on Buechner’s words as I found my own, Lauren interrupted me, saying, “then write that. Write about how reading Buechner helped you become who you are today. That I would be interested in reading.”

So here it is: my attempt to explain something of what the writings of Frederick Buechner have meant to me. I have said elsewhere, and readily repeat it here, that I count myself among those are are still able to call themselves Christian, at least in part, because of the work of Buechner. When the voices of my fundamentalist religious upbringing threaten to drown out everything else, I have only to read something from Buechner to remember, once again, that maybe, just maybe, there is something to this whole thing. Continue reading

Some thoughts on expanding our moral imagination

I’ve written before about my admiration for the work of Reinhold Niebuhr, in, for example, the following posts:

  • The tension between pedagogical caution and honesty
  • Naïve idealism / bitter realism
  • Never Safe against Temptation
  • I was, then, as you might imagine, happy to hear President Obama allude to another Niebuhr quote in his recent speech in Tuscon, and so wrote up some thoughts about it for Jesus Needs New PR, along the way tossing in quotes from Wendell Berry, David Dark, and Frederick Buechner.

    In his address in Tucson on January 12th, for the memorial service remembering the victims of the gunman who opened fire at U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords open meeting, President Obama exhorted those gathered, along with a listening nation, to “use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.” His choice of words – “expand our moral imaginations” – was deliberate. He has used that phrase at least once before in a speech, in his Nobel Lecture delivered in December of 2009, where he encouraged “the continued expansion of our moral imagination; an insistence that there is something irreducible that we all share.” In both cases, President Obama was undoubtedly referencing the work of the greatest American theologian of the 20th century, Reinhold Niebuhr – whose work has been an influence upon Obama – and his book Moral Man and Immoral Society, where he wrote the following: “The most perfect justice cannot be established if the moral imagination of the individual does not try to understand the needs, interests and feelings of his fellow human beings.”

    Read the full post here

    Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird

    The first book I ever read about writing was Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. I was in high school, just beginning to realize that writing was something I wanted my future self to do, and so I asked my aunt and uncle, both published authors, what books on the craft of writing they would recommend. Besides Bird by Bird, the other book they recommended was Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, and both of them proved to be tremendously helpful. I was prompted to pick up Bird by Bird again last night after a writer friend mentioned it in her e-mail, and read the first chapter before I went to bed. After coffee with my friend Matthew Paul Turner this morning where it came up again, I read another twenty pages over lunch, and plan to read the rest of it this week.

    “Becoming a better writer is going to help you become a better reader,” she writes near the beginning of the book, “and that is the real payoff.” The act of putting the words down on the page is the part we should value, the reason why we do it, she repeats over and over, not the end goal of possibly being published. Continue reading

    Buechner’s Magic Kingdom

    I finished reading Frederick Buechner’s The Eyes of the Heart: a memoir of the lost and found last week, after starting it two years ago. It didn’t take that long to read because of the length; it’s only 180 pages. Rather, every time I picked it up, I couldn’t help but start back at chapter two once again, with its touching account of his lifelong friendship with the poet Jimmy Merrill. In their early 20’s, Buechner and Merrill shared a house for a summer on a small island off the coast of Maine, where they both worked on their first books. Buechner, writing these words fifty plus years after the events described therein, describes beautifully the process of growing up, of finding out who you are.

    Looking back, I think I see now how Jimmy and I were not much better than my characters at communicating with each other the innermost truth of who we were, not, I think, because it was a truth that either of us shied away from sharing-what made us such fast friends was that there was no topic we shied away from-but because we were only beginning to glimpse it ourselves. The selves we were beginning to grow into that summer were still in the shadowy wings awaiting their entrance cues… In the meantime we went on being the only selves we knew how to be just then[.]

    Finally, though, I kept reading past the second chapter, and found a lovely passage in chapter three where he describes his library and some of his favorite books. Continue reading