book reviews, homosexuality, religion

Repost: My review of The Cross in the Closet, by Timothy Kurek…

I posted this review on my original blog on March 25, 2014. It appears here as/is.

Today’s review is about Timothy Kurek’s 2012 book, The Cross in the Closet.  I don’t remember why I downloaded this book.  I think I heard about it somewhere and decided it sounded interesting.  Right now, it’s selling for about $5 on Amazon, so that might have also had something to do with my decision to buy.  I read Kurek’s book in a matter of hours…  and when I was finished with it, I was kind of reminded of this video.

This video is definitely NSFW, but it’s funny… 

The Cross in the Closet is the true story of how Timothy Kurek, like several authors before him, decided to fake something in order to develop empathy.  Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed: On Not Getting By In America, faked being poor and uneducated so she could write about what it’s like to be poor and having to work at minimum wage jobs to get by.  I read her book in the early 2000s and enjoyed it the first time I read it.  Then I read it again and it kind of pissed me off.  Ehrenreich wasn’t really poor and knew there was an end to when she’d have to fake being poor.  She had an escape from poverty– there was a light at the end of the tunnel that she could use to bolster herself when things got really hard.  That’s not to say that I don’t think she learned anything.  It’s just to say that her experience wasn’t all that authentic.

In a similar fashion, Timothy Kurek, who grew up near Nashville in a conservative Christian home and spent a year at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, faked being gay for a year.  At the start of his book, Kurek writes about how Jerry Falwell had preached against homosexuality and how people who are gay or lesbian are living sinful lives.  When Kurek is confronted by a gay activist who calls him “brother”, he calls the man to repentance.  He is very sure of his position; that homosexuals are hopeless sinners who lead disgusting lives.  He treats them terribly.

After a year at Liberty, Kurek goes back to Tennessee because his parents split up.  He starts hanging around a karaoke bar in Nashville, where he becomes acquainted with some homosexuals.  One of his dear friends, a young woman he knew from church, comes out to him.  She is devastated because her parents have disowned her.  As Kurek awkwardly comforts his friend, he can’t find the right words to say.  He realizes that he’s been bigoted.  He starts to realize that homosexuals are people too.  Then, he decides he’s going to experiment.  He hatches his plan to come out as gay to his family and friends, even though he is straight.  He will spend a year on this charade, learning something about the homosexual community.

Kurek’s family seems to take his announcement with shock and dismay, but they still talk to him.  His pastor at church sends him a rather hateful missive about not condoning the sinful gay lifestyle.  Some of his friends quit talking to him.  Kurek goes to a gay bar and is immediately hit on, which makes him uncomfortable.  Fortunately, he has a gay friend from the karaoke bar who serves as his boyfriend during the year to keep him from being hit on by interested men.  The friend, whose name is Shawn, is black, handsome, and a very gifted singer… and he doesn’t have a problem playing “boyfriend” at first.

I was intrigued by Kurek, who claims to be a conservative Christian, but does things that I wouldn’t expect from a lifelong conservative evangelical Christian.  Though Kurek writes that he spent a lot of hours in church, he smokes clove cigarettes.  At the start of the book, he claims to have only tasted beer twice, but by the end, he’s very much a drinker.  He dances.  He also swears a lot for someone who is so apparently Christian.  All of these things go against what I’ve been taught about the evangelical Christian community and what they think is okay.     

As the year passes, Kurek finds himself becoming more involved and therefore more knowledgable about the LGBTQ world.  He makes many friends, works in a gay cafe where he learns how to make excellent lattes, and goes to a lot of karaoke bars.  He learns that many homosexuals are wonderful people and some are not so wonderful.  He makes some very dear friends, even as he fights his natural attraction to women.  He even discovers that homosexuals can love God when he stumbles across a transvestite singing “Awesome God” at a karaoke show.  In short, Kurek seems to learn that in the most important ways, homosexuals are really not so different than straight people are.  One thing I noticed from Kurek’s book is that the gay community he was briefly a part of seemed very tight knit and caring… not unlike some church communities.  Although knowing what I know about some churches, I bet the gay community’s caring was more genuine.  From what Kurek writes, most of the homosexuals he befriended during his gay year were still friends when he came clean.

Actually, Kurek’s description of the karaoke bars was interesting to me, since Bill and I once went to one in Key West, Florida.  I happen to love karaoke and they had a great show going.  We went; I sang; and the people there were really great.  We had a blast… though I would be lying if I said Bill wasn’t very uncomfortable at first.  He didn’t know how to behave.  Bill has an adopted “half-sister” who is a lesbian, though she’s 19 years younger than he is.  He doesn’t know her as well as he’d like to, but through Facebook we’ve discovered that she’s a truly wonderful person who is very involved in her community.  But despite having a lesbian sister, Bill hasn’t been exposed to members of the gay community nearly as much as I have and really felt out of his element in a gay bar.  For that reason, I could empathize with Kurek’s first experiences visiting establishments that cater to the homosexual community.

Kurek’s year of being “gay” was difficult, though his experience being “gay” definitely wasn’t as difficult as it was for most of the new friends he made.  Again, Kurek knew his condition was temporary and could count down the months before he could be straight again.  His family and friends were by and large decent about it… until his brother and his wife found out halfway through the year that Kurek had lied about being gay.  It caused a huge rift that Kurek describes rather poignantly.  Kurek is close to his brother, so his brother’s anger was very painful for him.  Unrequited love on the part of Kurek’s “boyfriend” Shawn, seems to make Kurek’s experiment more difficult for Shawn.

I was surprised by how Kurek’s homosexual friends took the news when he told them he wasn’t actually gay.  They mostly seemed okay with his experiment.  I’m sure that to many of them, what Kurek did was pretty bold and maybe even kind of cool, especially since it led to Kurek being more empathetic.  However, I couldn’t help but realize that Kurek’s experience with being gay was not as authentic as it might have been.  In fact, it was a bit contrived and what he did is nothing new.  And I wondered if any of his new friends were offended by Kurek’s decision to be “fake and gay”.  He doesn’t mention any that I remember, though.

Kurek’s writing is basically okay, though there are some typos and misspelled words in his manuscript.  Kurek’s dialogue also sometimes feels a little scripted… like something I might hear on a soap opera.  He seems very young, too… which I believe he was when he wrote this book.  The youth seems to inject his writing with the kind of testosterone that makes young men single-minded and dogmatic about certain things.  The writing got a little preachy at times.  That being said, I thought The Cross in the Closet was basically an interesting book.  I would recommend it to anyone who thinks reading about Kurek’s experiment might interest them.  You could certainly read worse.

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book reviews, education, religion

Repost: Kevin Roose tries out Liberty University…

Here’s a book review I wrote for Epinions.com in 2009. Since I’ve been on a fundie kick lately, I’m reposting it here as/is.

Sometimes life can take you to places you never dreamed you’d go. Such was the case for Kevin Roose, who was, in the fall of 2006, a student at Brown University. Like so many other students of his ilk, Roose was very much a free spirit who liked to party. But Roose was also a curious reporter who happened to be working with author A.J. Jacobs.  In 2007, Jacobs published his book The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible. Inspired by Jacobs’ experiment trying to live his life as literally by the Bible as possible, Roose decided to trade in his wild ways at Brown for a semester at Liberty University, a conservative evangelical Baptist school in Lynchburg, Virginia, founded by the late Jerry Falwell. Roose chronicles his experiences at Liberty in his book The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University (2009).

I had just started reading Jacobs’ book when I got my copy of Roose’s Unlikely Disciple. Though I was thoroughly enjoying reading about Jacobs’ stab at living biblically, I couldn’t resist putting down Jacobs’ book in favor of Roose’s. You see, I am a native of Virginia and graduated from Longwood College (now University). Longwood is located in Farmville, Virginia, just a mere 45 minutes east of Liberty. I had some high school friends who attended Falwell’s famous school and had driven past Liberty on many occasions on my way to my grandmother’s house in Natural Bridge, Virginia from Farmville. Though I never in a million years would have wanted to attend Liberty– not even for a semester– I have always been curious about the place. So reading Roose’s book seemed a lot more urgent to me than finishing Jacobs’ book was, even though it appears that Roose’s project was inspired by his mentor’s earlier work.

Roose’s background

Obviously, Kevin Roose is very intelligent, since he managed to get into Brown University. His parents are very liberal and not very religious.  Roose explains that they most closely identify with the Quakers but were never a particularly churchgoing lot. When Roose proposed to attend Liberty for a semester, his parents and the rest of his family were not too thrilled. Like so many other people, they had heard Jerry Falwell’s well publicized remarks about how secular America had caused God to punish Americans with 9/11. They had heard him talk about how Tinky Winky, the beloved purple Teletubby of the children’s show, was actually a symbol to promote the acceptance of homosexuality. They had seen Falwell on television, blustering about how the liberals were degrading America with immorality. Roose’s family and friends were shocked that he’d want to be associated with Jerry Falwell, even just for a semester. And yet, though he wasn’t that into being an evangelical Christian, Kevin Roose applied to Liberty University as a transfer student and was accepted.

Changes!

Using a witty and appealing writing style, Roose explains what it was like to be a fish out of water at Liberty. He writes about how he had to learn to fit in as an evangelical Christian. The process was harder than the average person might realize. For one thing, Roose had to learn how to refrain from cursing while, at the same time, not react too harshly when he heard someone refer to a homosexual as a f*gg*t. Next, he had to learn about the Bible and actually take classes in the Old and New Testament. He had to change the way he approached members of the opposite sex, including the way he dated them. And he also had to stop drinking.

The results of Roose’s new lifestyle had some surprising effects on him. Though he knew he would only be at Liberty for a semester, Roose found himself changing with the experience, mostly in a positive way.  Just quitting drinking allowed him to enjoy hangover free weekends. He also managed to score the last print interview with Jerry Falwell, who died at the bitter end of Roose’s semester at Liberty.

My thoughts

I hesitate to think that Liberty University is actually America’s “holiest” university. There are quite a few evangelical Christian colleges out there, at least a couple of which are much stricter than Liberty is. For instance, as Roose points out in his book, at Pensacola Christian College (PCC) in Pensacola, Florida, men and women use segregated stairwells and are not allowed to stare too long at each other. A prolonged gaze at someone of the opposite gender is known as “optical intercourse” or “making eye babies” and can lead to significant punishment. At Bob Jones University (BJU) in Greenville, South Carolina, students were not permitted to date outside of their races until the year 2000. And women are not permitted to wear pants in public at either PCC or BJU; instead, they have to wear long dresses or skirts with pantyhose. But, I think for someone like Kevin Roose, Liberty was probably holy enough.  Shoot, I always thought Liberty University’s name was very ironic, considering the restrictions its students live with.

In any case, I really enjoyed reading Kevin Roose’s story about life at Liberty. I was very impressed by how much research Roose did, both in terms of the school and the conservative Christian movement in general. His writing is very easy and fun to read, as well as insightful. Having spent some time around college students and graduates of prestigious universities, I think I was afraid Roose might be a snob about going to Liberty after being at Brown. But Roose manages to maintain a very objective and open-minded attitude about Liberty. In fact, he even reveals some of the guilt he feels about hiding his true agenda from his new friends and colleagues. I half expected Roose to decide he wanted to stay at Liberty after all.

Overall

I think this book will really appeal to anyone who’s ever been curious about the religious right or Jerry Falwell. Roose includes some tidbits about Falwell that humanize the man a great deal. I also think The Unlikely Disciple is good reading for anyone who’s either attended or is planning to attend Liberty University– as long as they have a sense of humor.  I would also recommend this book to anyone who’s just curious about it. It’s often very entertaining, yet ultimately rewarding to read. I came away from reading this book thinking that Kevin Roose’s life was greatly enriched from his semester at Liberty; so was mine, as a result of Roose’s willingness to share.

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politics, religion, true crime

Less drama… more mama…

Wow. I really could go on a tear today. I have a lot I could write about. I think I’ll start with Kellyanne Conway’s decision to step away from Trump’s re-election campaign. She says it’s “[her] voice and [her] choice”. Apparently, this is coming about due to her 15 year old daughter, Claudia, who has gone viral on TikTok criticizing Donald Trump and her mother’s support of him. Meanwhile, Conway’s husband, George Conway, is stepping down from his role on The Lincoln Project, a conservative anti-Trump political action committee. Why? Because these two folks have four children who are evidently going off the rails. Or, at least Claudia is… based on what I’ve read.

Let’s hope the next Trump advisor knows how to sit properly…

I don’t pay any attention to Kellyanne Conway myself. I thought she was laughable in the early days of the Trump nightmare and I never took her seriously. If she really is deciding to step down to be there for her kids, I think that’s a good decision. Better late than never, I suppose. At least we won’t see her sitting like a double amputee in the White House anymore. However, her poetic rhyming for the press could use a bit of shoring up in the wit department. Whatever she does, I hope it doesn’t involve a return to stand up comedy.

Alternative jokes?

Next on the agenda… Jerry Falwell and his sex scandal!

I have not made it a secret that I was born and raised in Virginia, and that is a hotbed of televangelism. My own childhood was spent in the shadow of Pat Robertson’s empire out of southeastern Virginia. I grew up watching WYAH, channel 27, which was owned by Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network and had all kinds of censored sitcoms, cartoons, westerns, religious programming, and weird PSAs on it.

But in the southern central part of Virginia, there’s Lynchburg, home of Liberty University, which was founded by televangelist Jerry Falwell. I went to college at Longwood, which is about 55 miles east of Liberty. I used to drive through Lynchburg to visit my grandmother, who lived in Natural Bridge, Virginia. I remember getting the willies as I passed Liberty’s huge campus, remembering the religious vibes from my own part of the state.

But it seems that right now, the Falwell family is back in the news. Jerry Falwell Sr.’s son, Jerry Falwell, Jr., who looks like someone should put horns and a pointy tail on him as they hand him a pitchfork, is in the news right now because he and his wife, Becki, were apparently having an affair with a 29 year old business partner named Giancarlo Granda.

Falwell has been leading Liberty University since 2007, and it’s definitely grown under his leadership. However, Liberty students are required to adhere to a strict code of conduct which rules out sex outside of marriage between a natural man and a natural woman, drinking alcohol, and a bunch of other stuff that I don’t feel like looking up right now. Mr. Falwell was clearly engaged in activities that would not be tolerated from Liberty University students when he was recently photographed on a yacht with his pants unzipped as he drank some kind of dark liquid. He claimed it wasn’t alcohol, but it sure looked like it was.

Falwell took a leave of absence from leading the university when that photo started circulating. But then, more information came to light which prompted university officials to encourage Mr. Falwell to step down from his role as Liberty University’s president. Falwell initially agreed, but supposedly changed his mind, and now he’s throwing his wife, Becki, under the bus. All I can think is that Falwell is a pretty poor example of a Christian, but I think a lot of televangelists are pretty much charlatans, anyway. I have never been very comfortable with much organized religion, but I have been both fascinated and repelled by the religious folks I’ve seen on TV. There have been too many stories of these charismatic folks taking advantage of the poor and gullible who look to them for hope and guidance.

Of course, Falwell’s conduct should not be a surprise. His famous father, who started Liberty University in 1971, was not a whole lot better. See the below videos from 1987, during which Falwell Sr. was trying to defend the scandal that rocked the PTL network.

PTL always fascinated me when I was growing up, although it was never included in our cable channel line up. I probably could have fallen down the rabbit hole in a big way if it had been.
Yep… Jerry Falwell Sr. was full of shit, too. But he doesn’t look as evil as his son does.
The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Like I said… I find religious types like the Falwells and their ilk fascinating to watch. Almost all of them are total hypocrites who are up to their eyeballs in shit. Falwell Jr. is kind of a handsome guy, in a devilish sort of way. I would never trust him, though, mainly due to his dogged support of Donald Trump, who is about as anti-Christian as a man can get. And now, it seems my instincts about Jerry Falwell, Jr. were dead on. He’s definitely a dishonest creep, at the very least.

And finally…

It looks like the juicy thread I started last month about Erin McCay George in a Facebook group for Longwood University has reignited. Some more information has come to light about what went on back in the days when we were in college. I’ve heard from a former roommate of hers, as well as from a few people who worked with her on the college newspaper, for which she was editor in chief.

I was once myself briefly a Rotunda reporter. If I had continued with it, I might have had more insight than I would have ever wanted about Erin McCay George. From what I’ve read so far, she was not a very good person, underneath a veneer of superficial respectability. But then, that is often the case for people who commit crimes. Maybe it seems obvious that she wasn’t “good”, since she’s now in prison for 600+ years. But I can think of cases in which someone was in the wrong place at the wrong time, or got hooked up with someone who took advantage of them somehow. I don’t think that’s the case for Erin George. The more I learn about her, the more I think she has a serious personality disorder of some kind. I empathize with people who were in her sphere of influence, because I have an inkling of what that must have been like for those people.

More and more, I think that if only Erin had gone to jail for allegedly embezzling money from Longwood University back in the 90s, she would probably not have committed murder. If anything, her case is one that should show people that it’s important to hold others accountable when they commit crimes. But then, maybe if she hadn’t shot her husband for money, Longwood would have eventually caught up with her and prosecuted her for what she was accused of doing, back in the day.

It’s amazing to me how many people are interested in this case. Ever since I first wrote about it in 2013, back when I was still using Blogger, I’ve heard from all kinds of people who knew Erin at Longwood, knew Erin’s children in England, and even one of Erin’s children. People around the world are oddly fascinated by this story, and I’m not sure why. I even reposted my original posts about Erin George on this blog because a German requested to read them. I know the book she wrote about being in prison is being used in college courses, but I can think of a lot of true crime cases that would seem more interesting than Erin’s was.

Anyway… for all of the grief I get from social media, sometimes it really is useful.

Well, I’m going to sign off for now. Arran is jonesing for a walk and I need to practice my guitar. I’m glad to have a new topic or three for today. I’m sure if I could stomach watching politics, I’d have even more to write about. But I don’t really enjoy writing about Trump. I’d rather write about kooky religious shit. Maybe Falwell Jr. will give me an opportunity to do that.

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