Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester

Over winter break I read a book by a journalism student at Brown, Kevin Roose, called The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University.The book is the author’s account of a semester attending Liberty University.

Liberty is a school literally billed as the largest and fastest growing Christian Evangelical college in the world. For Kevin Roose, who grew up in a “crunchy liberal enclave” in the middle of the Lake Erie Rust Belt, the semester he spends away at Liberty is far more foreign than any abroad.

You may not have heard of Liberty. I certainly hadn’t before I read the book. But you’ve probably heard of its founder, the Reverend Jerry Falwell, a brazen and controversial figure for his outspoken stance on subjects ranging from civil rights to US relations with the rest of the world.

Falwell was once the spiritual leader of the Thomas Road Baptist Church, a megachurch in Virginia where Roose was inspired to experience evangelical Christian life from the inside.

Meeting some church-goers while working on a journalism assignment, Roose curiously enters into discussion with them until, finding that he is not an evangelical Christian, they close him out and treat him as an outsider, focusing only on converting him.

As a result, Roose determines that the only way to understand evangelical Christianity is to be one.

Fascinated by a culture so alien to his own but determined to pass as a native, Roose went through what he calls “Bible Boot Camp,” learning Sunday school lingo and how to pass as a Christian who might go to Liberty. His dedication is admirable and he relates the process with humor.

If you look into this book expecting evangelical bashing, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Roose clearly states in the first few pages that he is trying to understand evangelical culture, not mock it. Of mocking, he jokes, “[the] task is far too easy to be interesting.”

P.J O’Rourke once compared making fun of born-again Christians to “hunting dairy cows with a high-powered rifle and scope.” Now, Rooke says, with the likes of Ted Haggard and movies like Jesus Camp, “it’s more like hunting the ground with your foot.”

The book reads like a recollection, and Roose tells the story with an attempt to share the experience with as little prejudice as possible. Roose explains his struggles with dating and reconciling his own and his family’s values with his experiences.

He admits that, as a heterosexual white male, he is in the best position to enjoy Liberty. A black hallmate encounters racism when he dates a white girl. Virginity is encouraged for men but required of women. Roose’s roommate constantly and violently spews hatred and threats against homosexuals.

Roose struggles throughout with the disconnect between being welcomed and pulled into a culture which approves of what they know about him, and recognizing that there are those he loves who would not be greeted with the same welcome.

In the end, Roose paints a compassionate picture of Jerry Falwell’s school, the students in it, and even the man himself. Admitting their flaws and often cringing at and even crying about them, he finds and shares the humanity that connects him to the people he first met at Thomas Road, who closed him out because he was an outsider.

It’s a fascinating book. Often beautiful, often frustrating, Roose gave me an opportunity to give Falwell’s people a chance. I recommend it highly to evangelicals and not alike.

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