Brown University student Kevin Roose decided to study abroad for a semester. Instead of heading to a cosmopolitan European city, he headed to Lynchburg, VA, to attend Liberty University. Founded by the late Jerry Falwell as a liberal arts institution for Christians, Liberty is one of the last places a secular liberal like Roose expected to find friendship, laughter, and even God. From his one-on-one interview with Falwell shortly before his death to the wacky guys in Dorm 22, Roose’s memoir, The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University, is an amusing, thoughtful, and well-written book.
Going incognito as a Christian student, Roose sets about to be as open-minded as possible while conducting research for his book. The result is a honest look at some of the worst and best things about Liberty University, Jerry Falwell, fundamentalist Christianity—and if we let it penetrate deeply enough—ourselves. As Roose examines various aspects of a Liberty education, including the indoctrination of right-wing politics (Sean Hannity was a chapel speaker and Newt Gingrich spoke at graduation), he does so with a grain of salt and a ton of wit. His outside observations about Christian subculture are spot-on, in both good and bad ways.
For example, when going to a Christian college, it’s almost a given that any number of students will have a “ring by spring.” Roose picks up on this writing, “…outside of Jane Austen novels, nowhere is marriage a more frequent topic of conversation than at a Christian college.” Clearly, he has never been to a ladies Bible study (for good reason). Roose calls Christian merchandise “evangel-kitsch” and worship artist Chris Tomlin, “the evangelical equivalent of John Mayer”—just plain hilarious! Also amusing is Kevin’s quasi-romance with a delightful girl name Anna, his escapades with Dorm 22’s Jersey Joey and his band of hell-raisers, and his participation in the choir at Thomas Road Baptist Church, founded by Falwell. He is rightly offended by his friends’ use of words like “queer,” “gay,” and “faggot” as free flowing insults which showcase immaturity and intolerance towards those they are supposed to show love and respect.
Then there are the darker parts of Liberty—not the seedy student underbelly—but the harsh legalistic side of Falwell’s fundamentalist Christianity. Even in conservative Christian circles, most cringe at the name “Jerry Falwell”—his inflammatory speech against gays, abortionists, and everyone with whom he disagreed, his infamous 9/11 remarks, and his disturbing associations with fundies. Since he was writing about Liberty, Roose decided it was necessary to meet the big man himself and did so by interviewing Falwell about his lighter side. Roose is able to humanize Falwell as he retells the story of his one-on-one interview with Liberty University’s founder and president. Who would have thought Falwell was a Snapple enthusiast, a trickster who put a stick bomb under the chair leg of Bob Jones, Jr., or a fan of the TV show, “24”? Just as finals come to an end, Jerry Falwell dies making Roose the last person to ever do a print article on the chancellor.
In the end though, it’s the lives of the students and faculty that make the biggest impact on Roose. While he is still not a firm believer in God, finds young-earth creationism ridiculous and Liberty’s rules too restrictive, he leaves the school changed. How changed, you ask? I refuse to divulge all the juicy details or share how Roose breaks the news that he was spying on all his friends in order to get material for his book. As he summarizes his Liberty experience, Roose writes, “You wonder if maybe accepting Christ would be worth it just so you could be as happy and bright-eyed and earnest as everyone around you.”
Most surprising of all, The Unlikely Disciple is not a condemnation of fundamentalist Christianity, nor is it a shining testimony of “finding Jesus” and “getting saved.” It is a book about one college kid’s journey into the inner sanctum of Christianity and his thoughts living in the midst of “Bible Boot Camp.”
Amy’s Rating:: 5 out of 5 stars!
Note from Amy:: This is truly one of my new favorite books. You MUST read this book if you’re at all curious what secular liberals think of conservative Christians. Go buy The Unlikely Disciple by Kevin Roose right now! You can also visit Kevin Roose online at kevinroose.com. Oh, and check back for an upcoming interview with Kevin about his book, his life, and whatever other questions I throw his way!