My friend, the writer Kevin Roose, just started a project where he's trying to build a bunch of little brid ges across the red-blue/atheism-religion culture gap. Not a grand Roebling-style bridge. Just a few small foot bridges. But it's a start.
To back up, I met Kevin when I was writing a book about following all the hundreds of rules in the Old Testament. During my project, I was looking for a way to address the thorny issue of biblical slavery, because certain parts of the Scriptures seem to condone the practice. The closest thing to a legal slave in the Tri-State area? An intern. It fulfills the "unpaid labor" part of the definition, at least. So I hired Kevin - then an 18-year-old freshman at Brown University - as my intern/slave for a summer. He did research. He sold my possessions on eBay for me. He baked me a delicious loaf of Ezekiel bread.
Kevin also came with me on a research trip to Jerry Falwell's church in Lynchburg, Virginia. When we got back to New York, Kevin had an idea: What if he transferred from ultra-lefty Brown University to ultra-righty Jerry Falwell's Liberty University for a semester, and wrote about the experience?
The book came out last year and it's called The Unlikely Disciple. Kevin didn't take the easy road, which would be to mock those across the cultural divide. Instead, he went into this venture with curiosity and compassion and an open mind.
Kevin doesn't agree with a lot -- well, almost all -- of the late Falwell's theology and politics. Kevin enjoys the occasional R-rated movie and vodka cocktail. He doesn't let Falwell's church off easy for its views on homosexuality. But at the same time, Kevin treats the Liberty folks fairly and seriously. And he even finds life-changing wisdom in certain aspects of the Liberty worldview.
This month, as a clever way to promote the release of his paperback, Kevin started what he calls The Jonah Project. He's offering 500 free copies of "The Unlikely Disciple" to pairs of readers. But not just any readers - they have to be ideological opponents. You can only get a copy of the book if you agree to discuss it with someone whose views you hate. If you're an MSNBC watcher, you need to pair up with a FoxNews fan. And then, you're encouraged to post a video or text entry about your spirited conversation. As Kevin says, "The theory is that we need to break out of our echo chambers to become smarter and better citizens. And that this is a way to self-improve without having to pack up and move to Lynchburg, VA."