The Unlikely Disciple, by Kevin Roose

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Publication date – June 3, 2010

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) As a sophomore at Brown University, Kevin Roose didn’t have much contact with the Religious Right. Raised in a secular home by staunchly liberal parents, he fit right in with Brown’s sweatshop-protesting, fair-trade coffee-drinking, God-ambivalent student body. So when he had a chance encounter with a group of students from Liberty University, a conservative Baptist university in Lynchburg, Virginia, he found himself staring across a massive culture gap. But rather than brush the Liberty students off, Roose decided to do something much bolder: he became one of them.

Liberty University is the late Rev. Jerry Falwell’s proudest accomplishment – a 10,000-student conservative Christian training ground. At Liberty, students (who call themselves “Champions for Christ”) take classes like Introduction to Youth Ministry and Evangelism 101. They hear from guest speakers like Mike Huckabee and Karl Rove, they pray before every class, and they follow a 46-page code of conduct called “The Liberty Way” that prohibits drinking, smoking, R-rated movies, contact with the opposite sex, and witchcraft. Armed with an open mind and a reporter’s notebook, Roose dives into life at Bible Boot Camp with the goal of connecting with his evangelical peers by experiencing their world first-hand.

Roose’s semester at Liberty takes him to church, class, and choir practice at Rev. Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church. He visits a support group for recovering masturbation addicts, goes to an evangelical hip-hop concert, and participates in a spring break mission trip to Daytona Beach, where he learns how to convert bar-hopping co-eds to Christianity. Roose struggles with his own faiththroughout, and in a twist that could only have been engineered by a higher power, he conducts what would turn out to be the last in-depth interview of Rev. Falwell’s life. Hilarious and heartwarming, respectful and thought-provoking, Kevin Roose’s embedded report from the front lines of the culture war will inspire and entertain believers and non-believers alike.

Thoughts: When I first found out that A J Jacobs’s “slave” was writing a book of his own, I was intrigued, and decided there and then that I had to get my hands on it. I’m happy to say that it was a fantastic book, a truly inspiration look at crossing the culture divide between religious and secular, showing how the line between left and right are not always as clear as many people want them to be.

Kevin Roose was inspired to take a semester away from Brown and transfer to Liberty University, a strict Christian university known for, is essence, being run by Jerry Falwell. It was a daunting prospect. Having to pretend to fit in while still maintaining journalistic distance, running the risk of making friends who have no idea about a very large part of his personality, spending time in close quarters with people whose ideology he didn’t exactly share. Immersion journalism is always tricky, especially in a time of such contention between the religious and secular worlds.

I was quite impressed with the way Roose handled everything – that is, with humour and an open mind. He didn’t try to instantly condemn everything from Liberty just because of its associations, neither did he attempt to fake blind acceptance. He struggled, he took chances, and he came away from the experience a changed man, but its a chance that he eventually felt somewhat comfortable with going through. He took something away from Liberty that he didn’t enter with, more than just the notes he took.

What he discovered, in essence, is that the people on both sides of the divide are remarkable similar in their good and bad points. Both sides have their misconceptions of the other, both sides have their jerks whom nobody likes, both sides have their sweet caring people who make your life better for having known them, and both sides have their secret dissidents and malcontents. It’s a prime example of not judging a book by its cover, of basing your opinions on experience rather than knee-jerk assumptions and self-imposed blindness.

You can’t help but close this book with a feeling of deep respect for what Kevin did. You can’t help but feel somewhat changed, yourself, after following along with his journey. There are things to laugh at (Jersey Joey’s constant ribbing), things to raise a wondering eyebrow at (Every Man’s Battle meetings to help stop masturbation), and things to give serious thought to (the way the university deems education as a dangerous thing that can lead students away from God), things to make readers pause and wonder just what all the fuss is about, on both sides of the debate.

Ultimately, this was a well-done experiment and a fantastic memoir that comes highly recommended for anyone on either side of the fence. Give it a chance; I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.

3 comments on “The Unlikely Disciple, by Kevin Roose

  1. I've come across this book somewhere else, and that reviewer also loved it. I can't imagine undertaking to write a book like this, but kudos to the author for going into it with an open mind!

  2. Great review. I'd heard about this book some time ago, but forgot about it until I saw this. Thank you.

    If you want to read something similar, if quite different in authorial tone, then try Matt Taibbi's “The Great Derangement” – it's not exclusively about a non-believer infiltrating a Religious institution, but there are a few chapters about the author's year-long study of a particular church. He, too, struggles to keep distance, and he certainly takes some risks. He goes in with preconceptions, and they are all mostly affirmed. But, he does it fairly and with an incredibly gonzo style of wit.

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