Kevin Roose was in a good mood when we met up at Housing Works recently—the Brown University senior had just found out earlier that day that Liberty University’s bookstore had decided to stock copies of The Unlikely Disciple, his memoir of a semester spent as a student at the evangelical Christian university. “I don’t want to ruffle any feathers there,” he conceded; he’s still in touch with many of his former classmates, who have remained his friends. (“I’m probably the only person on Facebook with friends from both the Brown and Liberty networks,” he joked.)
We’d hit upon the idea of introducing Roose to Kyria Abrahams, who had just published I’m Perfect, You’re Doomed, a memoir of growing up in a Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation. While Roose had always had a book in mind—his first trip to Liberty had been as a research assistant accompanying A.J. Jacobs on a Year of Living Biblically field trip—she had originally struggled to create a one-woman theatrical show out of her experiences. “It was too much information,” she recalled. “It was just a mess, and I never would’ve thought of doing it as a book if Janice Erlbaum hadn’t suggested it to me.”
We joked that while Roose might have to deal with critical attacks on his book from an extensive fundamentalist Christian media, Abrahams didn’t really have that problem; Jehovah’s Witness media is pretty much limited to The Watchtower and Awake!. Similarly, we laughed, although people have a lot of preconceptions about what fundamentialist Christians are like—as Roose put it, “I had a liberal secular prejudice that the students would spend all their time plotting abortion clinic protests”—nobody really knows that much about the Jehovah’s Witnesses other than the door-to-door stereotype. And, Abrahams added, it’s unlikely that her former congregation would read her memoir: “You don’t need to read anything with an opposing argument because it’s wrong, and if you do Satan can get into your head and give you doubts. On the other hand, they might read my story and say, see, we were right. She stopped believing, and her life was miserable.”
“But I don’t hate the Jehovah’s Witnesses in any way,” Abrahams emphasized. “I came to an acceptance that for some people, that’s the right thing in their lives, and though I used to be really anti-religious, you can’t be critical without offering something else.”
Meanwhile, Roose is back at Brown, and managed to create a minor controversy last month when a fill-in editor at Publisher’s Lunch was convinced that a clearly satirical piece he wrote for the college paper about Random House hiring Rhode Island School of Design students as creative consultants was actual news and distributed it as such.* (“I was getting emails from Random House employees all afternoon about how I’d sent their bosses into a panic,” he laughed; we were amazed Random actually went so far as to issue a statement of denial implicitly criticizing him for having a sense of humor.) He couldn’t get Brown to give him credit for any of his coursework from Liberty, so he won’t be graduating until the end of 2009; what happens after that?
“My first project is to graduate, and then I’ll pray about what to do next,” Roose said, acknowledging the followup question that regular prayer was one of the legacies of his semester at Liberty. “I’m comfortable calling myself a Christian now,” he elaborated. “I can reclaim that term. It means something to me now, even if it doesn’t mean the same thing to my friends at Liberty.” But the prayer, he continued, wasn’t about filing requests with God: “It’s not so much that prayer changes things,” he explained, citing the theologian Oswald Chambers, “but that prayer changes me, and then I can change things.”
* We judge not, lest we be judged.