What would happen if you took a student from Brown University, a decidedly liberal college, and sent him for one semester to one of the bastions of conservative education, Liberty University (LU)? While this sounds like the makings of yet another “reality” TV show, it is exactly the situation Kevin Roose placed himself in during his sophomore year at Brown. Instead of embarking on a European cultural experience, he decided to experience an American culture, yet one decidedly foreign to him. In his own words, he states, “Here, right in my time zone, was a culture more foreign to me than any European capital, and these foreigners vote in my election! So why not do a domestic study abroad?” (p.10)
The result of this “domestic study abroad” is his book, The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University. In it, he documents his experience of being completely immersed into the world of evangelical Christianity. Surprisingly (or maybe not so surprisingly?), Roose is able to pass himself off as part of the evangelical crowd, so much so that at the end of the book when he reveals his true purpose for being at LU, most if not all of his friends are completely shocked. He gets involved in everything he can in an attempt to learn the culture. He joins the church choir, takes Bible classes, works hard to curb his swearing habit, and even goes on a weeklong missions trip for some street evangelizing. Along the way, he discovers that while some of his previous held beliefs of the stereotypical evangelical are true, many other beliefs about them are unfounded.
Roose’s writing style flows very well, making this book feel like a relatively quick read. What gives this book an edge though is the evenhandedness with which Roose gives his encounters. He is just as quick to praise the good he finds at LU as he is to point out the flaws. For example, it doesn’t take him long to realize that many of the students and faculty at LU are sincere in their love for God and their desire to let others about God. At one point, Roose states “I’m still adjusting my mind to all the earnest God talk I’m hearing at Liberty….But one thing has become clear: these Liberty students have no ulterior motive. They simply can’t contain their love for God. They’re happy to be believers, and they’re telling the world.” (p.64) He also tells of his encounter with a pastor who, while firmly believing homosexuality is a sin, doesn’t involve himself or encourage the “gay-bashing” that Roose does come across in the dorms. The pastor wanted to help those who struggle with “same-sex attraction” by befriending them, not berating them. Although it is evident that Roose disagrees with the underlying belief that homosexuality is sinful, he can’t help but respect the pastor for his approach.
On the flip side, we observe with Roose the disconnect between the students’ theological beliefs and how it affects their lives on the practical level. Many of the guys in Roose’s dorm engage in frank and often crass discussions about women. At first it seemed like Roose was unfairly painting all LU men with the same brush; however in the end I think he focused more on these types of encounters because he wasn’t expecting this and also because he admittedly liked to hang out with the “wrong crowd” as it were – those more prone to indulge in such behavior. While he admires those students willing to be ridiculed and rejected while street preaching, he makes a fair point in asking whether or not this is truly effective. He has a difficult time in some of the classes where his professors draw a distinct line between accepting what science says vs. accepting what the Bible says.
In the interest of full disclosure, I am more in the evangelical category than not. My graduate degree is from LU and my undergraduate degree is from the even more conservative Pensacola Christian College (a college that Roose mentions briefly in an effort to find a stricter environment than the one at LU- believe me, LU has nothing on PCC!) That being said, I don’t think LU could get a more evenhanded, balance perspective from someone who is not only unfamiliar with the evangelical culture, but is in many areas diametrically opposed to the LU belief system. If I were an administrator at LU, I would take great encouragement from the fact that the students’ zeal for God was readily evident. I would be encouraged by the stance taken by such individuals as the pastor who reached out in love and grace to those struggling with same-sex attraction. On the flip side, I would be concerned about the disconnect between the students’ faith and the application of that faith in the everyday areas of life.
In the end, I would not recommend this book so much to people outside the evangelical circle so much as I would recommend it to those INSIDE evangelicalism. To get a true grasp of how effective a culture or belief system is, you have to have an outside perspective and Kevin Roose gives us exactly that. (5/5 stars)