Review

The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University

by Kevin Roose

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 debut 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.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on January 24, 2011

The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University
by Kevin Roose

  • Publication Date: March 26, 2009
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
  • ISBN-10: 044617842X
  • ISBN-13: 9780446178426