When I first heard the premise of Kevin Roose’s new memoir The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University, I was immediately intrigued: an Ivy League student from a secular, liberal background plunges himself into the conservative “Bible Boot Camp” world of Liberty University where Evangelism 101 is a core class and a forty-six page code of conduct called “The Liberty Way” governs students’ social lives. I wasn’t sure to expect, honestly, but I was curious and excited to read his take on the strange world of evangelical America… and very pleasantly surprised by what I found.
The story begins when Kevin Roose, a sophomore at Brown University, decides to take on a project that stuns his family and friends. Just “to see what Christian college is like” (and write a book about it), he decides to transfer to Liberty University, the school founded by the late Reverend Jerry Falwell, and immerse himself in the foreign world of evangelical Christian culture. He signs up for religion classes, sings in the choir at Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church, befriends rebels and pastor’s kids, and even secures a rare opportunity to interview Dr. Falwell himself (which, in a twist too bizarre for fiction, turns out the be the pastor’s final print interview).
The story is already compelling, and on top of that, Kevin is a very talented writer. One minute, he’s a perceptive journalist, recording observations with a critical eye and sharp wit. The next, he’s a storyteller, weaving the narrative with moments of insight and heartfelt reflections on his own spirituality. The writing is simply poetic sometimes, such as one of my favorite lines from early in the book, as he describes the extent of his spiritual life before Liberty: “Quakers talk about God as an ‘inner light’… my inner light flickered a lot, like the overhead fluorescent at a Motel 6, and sometimes, it burnt out altogether.”
The ability to strike this balance between intellect and heart is the beauty of The Unlikely Disciple and what makes it such an engaging read. Of course, there are criticisms levied at the atmosphere of Liberty; Kevin expresses discomfort proselytizing to strangers on a spring break trip to Daytona, politically charged classes, and paranoia toward homosexuality that pervades the campus, the sort of things most people would expect in a story about a religious school. But at the same time, he describes his hallmates in Dorm 22, the students and faculty, and even Dr. Falwell himself with warmth and humanity. There’s a reverent sense of love throughout the book that is refreshing to read, because, after all, it’s easy to take the “Christians are weird” approach. Instead, he commits from the start “to learn with an open mind, not to mock Liberty students or the evangelical world in toto.”
I loved the stories of the incredibly diverse students, from the rebellious Jersey Joey and Kevin’s “Christian crush” Anna, to “ultra-happy” neighbor Zipper and even Henry, the only one that unfortunately fits the gay-bashing, hard right image. Possibly my favorite story from the book has to be the interview with Dr. Falwell. I never was a Jerry Falwell fan myself, but to read this other side of him – a friendly “religious Willy Wonka” that owned 40 red ties and chugged a Diet Snapple Peach Tea every afternoon – I couldn’t help but, well, almost like the guy. This different perspective added to the sadness of the final chapter about the week after Dr. Falwell’s death (and incidentally, Kevin’s final week at Liberty).
I can’t recommend this book enough, no matter which side of the “God Divide” you find yourself on. From my Christian side, it was thought-provoking and challenging to my ideas and faith, and, oddly enough, melted a bit of the cynicism I catch myself falling into when I think of all we can get wrong. In the closing words of the acknowledgements, he writes to the students, faculty, and administrators of Liberty, “experiencing your warmth, your vigorous generosity of spirit, and your deep complexity, I was ultimately convinced – not that you were right, necessarily, but that I had been wrong.” Nice to know that maybe we do get something right.
For more info about The Unlikely Disciple visit kevinroose.com