Jennifer's Reviews > The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University

The Unlikely Disciple by Kevin Roose
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's review
Jan 07, 2010

it was amazing
bookshelves: memoir
Read in October, 2009

In an effort to spice up my book reviews, I've been tinkering with different ways to review books. For this book, I thought it might be fun to review it by paying homage to the Ten Commandments. (This is not meant to be blasphemous or disrespectful in any way but for a book about religion, I thought it would be fitting and fun.)

The Ten Commandments for the Unlikely Disciple

1. Thou shalt follow in the footsteps of thy mentor.

Kevin Roose was an intern for the writer A.J. Jacobs (one of my favorite writers, by the way). While A.J. was conducting research for his book, The Year of Living Biblically, Kevin accompanied him to Thomas Road Church in Lynchburg, Virgina—the 20,000 member megachurch founded by Jerry Falwell. When A.J. and Kevin visited the church, Kevin was intrigued by an encounter with some college students he met. The students attended Liberty University—the largest fundamentalist Christian university in the U.S. Liberty was also founded by Falwell and affiliated with Thomas Road Church.

After reviewing his conversation with the Liberty students, Kevin is inspired to conduct his own experiment—much like his mentor Jacobs (who has created a cottage industry of sorts by conducting experiments in his life). Curious about the lifestyle of young college students at an ultra-conservative Christian college like Liberty, Kevin decides to enroll at Liberty for a semester as an "undercover" student, with the intent to immerse himself in the Liberty environment to gain a better understanding of the life of an evangelical Christian. (Kevin likens this experiment to his version of "studying abroad.") What he discovers during the course of this experiment is the basis of this book.

2. Thou shalt keep an open mind.

Kevin transfers to Liberty from Brown University, which he describes as:

... a school known for everything Liberty is not. In fact, it wouldn't be unfair to call the schools polar opposites.

Besides coming from an ultra-liberal college, nothing in Kevin's background prepares him for Christian fundamentalism. He was raised by Quaker parents but in a house that was "practically religion-free." He has several relatives who are openly gay (a big no-no in the fundamentalist Christian world). His main impression of Jerry Falwell is as:

...the arch-conservative televangelist with the least effective brain-to-mouth filter in the English-speaking world. I remembered that he had gone on TV to blame the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 on feminists, homosexuals, abortionists, and the ACLU, among others.

Yet Kevin is determined to keep an open mind while at Liberty—and he does an amazingly good job at it. One thing that struck me about this book is that Kevin is never judgmental or condemning of his fellow Liberty students or instructors. He does not mock them or look down on them. Instead, he makes a sincere effort to understand a culture that is wildly different from his own.

3. Thou shalt immerse thyself in the lifestyle of those thou are wishing to understand.

When Kevin enrolls at Liberty, he doesn't exactly lie but he isn't completely forthcoming about everything or his intent to write about his experiences either. If asked why he transferred, he simply says he wanted to know what a Christian college was like. He immerses himself in the life of a Liberty student—living in the dorms, taking exams, joining the choir, going to church. When asked if he was a Christian, he simply answers "Yes"—an answer that was strictly true but not truthful. He also makes the conscious decision to hold back his true feelings on hot topics such as homosexuality and creationism.

4. Thou shalt make a sincere effort to understand the beliefs of others.

While at Liberty, Kevin attends a variety of classes that teach the core beliefs of Christian fundamentalism. One of the most problematic courses for him is a biology course on young-earth creationism:

Every biology professor at Liberty teaches that God created the universe about six thousand years ago in six literal, twenty-four-hour days, pretty much the way it looks now. This is the most extreme version of creationism, the most literal of the literal, and it makes no compromises. Carbon dating that has revealed scores of million-year-old fossils? Defective. Noah’s Flood? As historical as the 1985 World Series.

The sections regarding Kevin's courses on this topic just boggled my mind. He writes about how several of his professors are well-respected scientists, yet teach and believe young-earth creationism, which flies in the face of pretty much all scientific knowledge. It was fascinating to me how these professors could reconcile their scientific pursuits with their religious beliefs. Learning about some of the doctrine taught at Liberty was one of the most interesting aspects of the book for me. My version of the book included some of the exam questions from various classes Kevin took at Liberty, and it was unbelievable to me to see what students were taught.

5. Thou shalt seek further guidance for areas that require more exploration.

One of the areas where Kevin struggles during his time at Liberty is the wholesale condemnation of homosexuality. Anti-gay slurs are commonplace and unremarked on. Yet there is almost an obsession with homosexuality among the men of Liberty, as if it is so distasteful and so awful that students must renounce it and prove their heterosexuality on a daily basis. Wondering what life would be like for a Liberty student who is gay, Kevin seeks counseling on the subject. His counselor surprises him; he is steeped in concern and love for Kevin and truly wants to help him "get better." It was an interesting aspect of his experience at Liberty, and one that makes you realize how deep-rooted these beliefs are in the fundamentalist community.

6. Thou shalt try even that which makest thou uncomfortable.

During his stay at Liberty, Kevin decides to spend spring break evangelizing at Daytona Beach with other Liberty students. This was a difficult task for Kevin because, for the first time in his experiment, he is out in the "real world" but acting as an evangelical. After being immersed in Liberty University where fundamentalism was pervasive, it is a shock for Kevin to be out in the secular world where he and his fellow Liberty students are viewed suspiciously and as outsiders. Consider this section where Kevin describes the reactions of the people he and his recruiting partner try to convert:

Some people give the hidden-camera-show look. The guys let out a small chuckle, perhaps thinking Claire has just mastered the practice of deadpan irony. Then, when they see her waiting unblinkingly for a response, they sweep the landscape, looking for a tech crew.

A few people get genuinely angry. One biker said, “If I wanted to hear I was going to hell, I’d call my ex-wife.”

Then there’s the you-poor-things response, which thus far has come exclusively from old ladies. When Claire begins her spiel about accepting Jesus Christ as your personal savior, these ladies’ faces soften into sympathetic smiles. They listen patiently, like a grandmother hearing a Girl Scout sputter through her cookie pitch—then they turn Claire down as politely as possible. One woman, who looked like Mrs. Butterworth in a one-piece, asked us, “Now, who put you two up to this?”

7. Thou shalt be open to the possibility of spiritual growth.

Throughout the book, Kevin struggles to find meaning in the experiences he has at Liberty. So he is surprised to find himself experiencing moments of transcendence and true spiritual growth. He realizes that although he doesn't believe much of what Liberty teaches, he is beginning to uncover a spiritual side of himself.

There’s a difference, it seems to me, between the form of religion and the content of religion. Right now, I’ve got all of the form and not much of the content. I pray like a Liberty student, I read the Bible like a Liberty student, and I sing in the choir like a Liberty student. I even go on dates like a Liberty student. And for the most part, I’ve enjoyed living this way. But I still don’t believe the same things Liberty students believe about God. I still don’t believe, as Dr. Falwell said during Easter services this morning, that “the resurrection of Christ is an indisputable fact.” And yet, the possibility is entering my mind.

8. Thou shalt return to whence thou came.

Despite forming strong bonds with his fellow students (and even dating a girl he develops feelings for), Kevin returns to Brown at the end of the semester. Yet the experience does not leave him untouched, and he ponders the futures of his fellow Liberty students and what the world will hold for them when they leave the sheltered grounds of Liberty. One of his observations stuck with me as he quotes a professor from one of his classes:

"My biggest worry about you, about all of you, is that you’ll become educated beyond your obedience.”

... This, too, struck me as depressing. What he was saying, in effect, is that there’s a cap on a Liberty education, a point at which knowledge becomes dangerous rather than useful.

9. Thou shalt write beyond thy years.

It was hard for me to believe that Kevin Roose was a young college student when he wrote this book. His writing is assured and mature. Even more than that, his insights and ability to empathize with the Liberty students seemed wise beyond his years. I don't think I would have had the ability to be as open to this experience as Kevin was, and I know I couldn't have written an entire book with as much maturity as he has done. It was an impressive book—both the writing and the subject matter. Yet don't make the mistake in thinking that his writing is dry and humorless. On the contrary, his writing is accessible and frequently amusing. And the way he works in pop culture references was a treat. An example:

I mean, come on. A liberal arts college by Jerry Falwell? How about an etiquette workshop run by Courtney Love?

10. Thou shalt write another book, I hopeth.

Kevin Roose has a bright future before him, and I anxiously await his next book. I wonder what topic he will turn his attention to next. Will he follow in the footsteps of his mentor, A.J. Jacobs, and attempt another immersive, undercover experience? Or will he turn his keen eye for observation, his formidable writing talent and curious mind to another topic? Whatever it is, I'll be there to read it. Well done, Mr. Roose.

My Recommendation

I am giving this book 4.5 stars. I thought it was fascinating, well-written and compelling. I would highly recommend it to pretty much anybody. One of my Top 10 books for 2009.
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