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Book Review: The Unlikely Disciple by Kevin Roose

19 Jan

For this week, a change of pace.  Some of you know that I love to read and write book reviews.  I stumbled upon this appealing memoir by Kevin Roose who wanted to experience Christian college “with as little prejudgement as possible.”  So he went undercover as a transfer student at Liberty University, founded by the late Jerry Falwell, controversial leader of the Moral Majority.  From his experiences at Liberty, he penned The Unlikely Disciple-A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University (Grand Central Publishing 2009).

It is a journey into the heart of the southern, mostly white, conservative evangelical sub-culture, a culture almost as foreign to Mr. Roose as another country.  Then a sophomore attending Brown University, Mr. Roose could not have picked a college more different than Brown, a liberal Ivy League university.  Liberty bills itself as the world’s largest Christian university with 29,000 undergraduates with strict rules prohibiting drinking, dancing, and physical contact between the sexes: “Liberty was founded as a conservative Christian utopia, and by those standards, Brown, with its free-spirited student body, its grades-optional academic scene…is a notch or two above Sodom and Gomorrah.”

Throwing himself completely into Liberty’s academic and campus life, he joins a 300-person church choir and takes Liberty’s core curriculum classes like Evangelism 101, Old Testament Survey, and History of Life, a creation studies course.  He gives up cursing – “Without cynicism and cursing, what will I say to people?” – and drinking – “My mind is razor sharp, and my eyelids are defying gravity” – to fit in.  He prays and adopts the evangelical jargon.  He even ventures on a mission trip to evangelize to beach-going, hard-partying college students in Florida during spring break.

What emerges is an entertaining, thoughtful and even-handed chronicle of his semester on the other side of the God Divide.  He befriends his fellow students and dorm-mates, many of whom he finds to be warm, genuine, funny, and intelligent.  While he admires them, he laments that “Liberty is a place where professors aren’t allowed to take chances with their course material…where academic rigor is sacrificed on the altar of uninterrupted piety, where the skills of exploration, deconstruction, and doubt…are systematically silenced in favor of presenting a clear, unambiguous political and spiritual agenda.”  For the sake of its students, he’s “praying for a turnaround.”  His prayers may be answered, as the new leadership at Liberty appears to loosen up some rules.

In the end, the friendships Mr. Roose formed from his time on campus left the deepest impressions: “…I had experienced immense spiritual growth at Liberty…the warmth of my…Liberty friends had been a better apologetic device” than any sermons or class lectures.  His maturity and skillfulness as an engaging writer are evident as he portrays Liberty students, faculty and administrators as complex, multifaceted human beings and not one-dimensional caricatures of fire and brimstone Bible-thumpers.  Even his views of Rev. Falwell undergo fine-tuning as he conducted the last print interview of Mr. Falwell and witnessed the outpouring of grief on campus upon the death of the Liberty founder.

While he does not buy into every aspect of the Liberty ethos, Mr. Roose’s book offers hope that personal relationships can bridge over troubled waters of any cultural divide.  The Unlikely Disciple is a fun read and the author’s capers on campus will suitably amuse readers.

 

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