Book Review: The Unlikely Disciple

Full disclosure: I got this book for free from the publisher by offering to review it here, which I did because I wanted to read it. My first foray into blogger whoredom, some might say. Will shill for books! But I will always state clearly if I received something for blogging about something.

Originally posted May 26, 2009, at http://bornattherighttime.blogspot.com/.

I did a crazy thing recently: I read a book. I mean read it, for fun, at my leisure, in places other than in front of my computer, with no red pencil or tracked changes in sight. Hey, for a person who edits books all day and often doesn’t want to see another printed word by the end of the day, unless the alternative is dealing with a fit-throwing toddler, finishing a book is a major accomplishment. Happily, Kevin Roose gave me a story that made me want to keep reading: The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at Americas Holiest University.

Kevin Roose was a student at Brown University in Rhode Island, which is the academic and philosophical opposite of Jerry Falwell’s “Bible Boot Camp,” Liberty University, or by conservative Christian standards, “a notch or two above Sodom and Gomorrah.” But after visiting Falwell’s church in the course of a job, Roose was frustrated that the “God Divide” between himself and the evangelical students he met seemed so great. Were they really so different? Or just living in separate worlds?

Roose noted a study showing that 51 percent of Americans don’t know any evangelical Christians, even casually. And neither did he. (But before you rush to judgment on that, churchy folk, how many liberal non-Christians hang out in your bubble? Most of us are guilty of sticking with those most like us.)

So what did he do? He crammed on Christian literature and music, B.S.’d Liberty’s application essays with Christian lingo, and registered for classes at Liberty as his “semester abroad.” Undercover, of course. (Cue suspenseful music and situational hilarity.)

Let’s just say that his experience gave new meaning to baptism by immersion. Roose lived in a dorm, joined the Thomas Road church choir, learned acceptable substitutes for colorful language, and started spending Friday nights at Bible study instead of at parties or watching R-rated movies. He visited a group for guys struggling with, um, certain temptations, and he even landed a face-to-face interview with Jerry Falwell, which turned out to be Falwell’s last.

As you might imagine, plopping a secular liberal into a lot of these situations is a recipe for tension and humor, and Roose writes with plenty of snap and wit as well as honesty, charity, and thoughtfulness. I really enjoyed the sharp humor and storytelling and would recommend this book for those qualities alone.

But The Unlikely Disciple is more than just a fun book with a clever premise. I think there is real value here for the Christian who is willing to consider, “If that’s how outsiders see Liberty, how do they see me?” If someone went undercover to your church, how would they experience it? Are we making our faith into a bubble, and if so, how can we let outsiders in—or better yet, step out of it ourselves? After all, if there really is a “God Divide” in America, God’s people should be the ones trying to bridge it. Kevin Roose showed that it can be done, because on a personal level, the divide is not so great after all.

The one criticism I might have of the book is that it purports to reveal evangelical culture without clearly defining what an evangelical is. If it’s the broad standard of someone who believes the Bible and calls themselves “born again,” evangelical includes me, but by Liberty’s strict standards I’d flunk out. I mean, I’m a Presbyterian—a conservative one who takes the Bible seriously, sure, but not one to take it all literally as they do at Liberty. I’d consider myself evangelical but not a Liberty fundamentalist—and I’m guilty of looking askance at Falwell and his style of fundamentalism and politics from the outside almost as much as Roose.

So a little more nuanced definition of terms would probably make the broad spectrum of Christianity clearer for Roose and his readers, but then again, that’s the point—at Liberty there are only two kinds of people, saved and unsaved, and they’re not likely to consider you saved unless you meet all the criteria of conservative evangelical (really fundamentalist) theology. But what Roose says of Liberty is just as true for all Christianity: “Once you dig under the surface, Liberty is every bit as messy and diverse as any secular college, and lumping everyone on this campus into a single category seems irrational and simplistic.” Indeed the same goes for any group—secular college students, those of a different political party, those of any certain age or generation. Roose’s peek into life at Liberty gets its wallop from his outsider-gone-underground perspective, but his best contribution to the cultural conversation is illustrating how the same we all are at the basic level.

And if Roose can convince at least a few secular liberals and a few conservative fundies to give each other a chance, at least one of Jerry Falwell’s prayers will be answered: that Kevin Roose would enter journalism “in key places where he can make a difference in the culture.” He’s certainly on his way, and I’ll be watching to see what he does next.

Kevin Roose’s blog: http://www.kevinroose.com/blog/

Kevin Roose on Twitter: http://twitter.com/kevinroose

Liberty in the news last week: LU pulls the plug on campus Democrats

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