Patrick Gibson's Reviews > Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University

Unlikely Disciple by Kevin Roose
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Feb 06, 2011

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From the liberal, secular halls of Brown University to the hub of Evangelical higher education and back again, it seems like an unlikely journey. Kevin Roose, a sophomore at Brown, decided that instead of the ubiquitous semester abroad, he would explore, up close and personal, a particular strata of American culture. And so Roose, raised Quaker in a not very religious household, transferred to Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, the conservative Baptist school founded by none other than Jerry Falwell. His book, The Unlikely Disciple, records the months he spent undercover there.

Roose didn't intend to pretend he was something he wasn't, had no interest in tricking anyone, and didn't want to write a sordid expose on the religious culture of Liberty. Yet, in order to understand the school he was attending, even briefly, he had to pretend to be evangelical himself and make sure the students and instructors really believed him. But he quickly found himself surrounded by a student body that could quote scripture effortlessly, prayed all day, and lived by a strict moral code. The classes he attended focused on defending evangelical theology to the world (his science class was "young-earth science," which rejects evolution and asserts that the earth is a mere 6,000 years old).

When not in class, he prayed with his new friends, dated girls he was not allowed to kiss, attended lectures by Sean Hannity and Karl Rove, and sung in the choir at Falwell's local megachurch. Still, he and his friends and dorm mates also snuck in R-rated movies, talked about sex, smoked cigarettes and complained about "The Liberty-Way," the school's strict code of conduct. While most students at Liberty accepted the rules and the religious movement's social parameters, there were those who challenged them, even if just a bit.

The Unlikely Disciple is witty and well-written, and Roose's style is readable yet expressive. What is most interesting here is not the examination of such a fascinating school (though that makes for a compelling read), but the balancing act Roose must perform as he tries to find empathy for a group of people who are just as often close-minded, bigoted and intellectually rigid as they are kind, generous and sophisticated. Because he is a young man, Roose is open to many emotional possibilities, and while on the one hand he deplores the homophobia he witnesses daily, he comes to find comfort and strength in the type of prayer and community Liberty is based on. These contradictions he duly records, and so we readers are privy to not just the inner sanctum of Liberty University but the inner sanctum of Kevin Roose as well.

At turns funny and frustrating, Roose's is more than promising and his objectivity commendable. Telling, though, is that he begins to run out of steam towards the end, the narrative stalls just a bit, and he gets repetitive. There are plenty of ideas left for him to mine (the bigotry, intolerance, the rejection of mainstream science he encounters are all very real), but readers will sense a hesitation: he has become, perhaps, a tad too close to his subject, and the people he thought he would never be like have become friends and love interests. This wishy-washiness is important as well because we are watching a young man questioning and then questioning the questions he set out to ask.

Despite any minor blunders, The Unlikely Disciple is a great read, and Roose is an excellent tour guide to a world of purity promises, literal biblical interpretation, holy-rolling hip-hop, Christian support groups, street corner missionary work (in Daytona Beach during spring break no less!) and much, much more.
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