In mid-May I tore through Kevin Roose’s The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University. It was recommended to me by my friend Michelle, who knows from good memoirs, her (and my) favorite genre: She reads two or three books a week! (When I ask how she has the time to do so, she says, “I don’t watch any television.”)
Roose was a student at Brown University and a writer’s assistant to A.J. Jacobs, he of the extreme lifestyle challenges, when work on Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically took him to the mega-church of Dr. Jerry Fallwell in Lynchburg, Va. There he met students from Falwell’s Liberty University, became intrigued by his brief interaction with them, and the rest is this book. Roose takes a leave of absence and enrolls at Liberty during the spring semester of 2007.
I spent most of the book alternately laughing and shuddering at his description of the self-described “evangelical liberal arts college” and its students (both of which hit pretty close to home for me) and marveling at Roose himself.
I kept having to remind myself that Roose was only 19 when he attended Liberty. He approached the experience with incredible self-assurance and a true desire to understand what for him was pretty much “the other side” in our nation’s ever more vicious culture wars. He did everything that his classmates did — and almost always enthusiastically. He takes the requisite creationism course (though it completely baffles him); he finds a “devotional” buddy (someone with whom he studies the Bible outside of class); he sings in the choir at Falwell’s church; he prays every day; and, in one of the book’s most hilariously uncomfortable parts, he even goes to a self-help group for men who are struggling with masturbation (forbidden according to the school’s sect of Christianity).
I generally found Roose extremely thoughtful and open-minded about these experiences (sometimes to the horror of his liberal family, especially his aunt and her female partner). By far my favorite part was his reflection on his experience of daily prayer. He struggles at first to do this authentically, because he’s not sure that he believes in G-d. So he begins by articulating his hopes for his family and friends, and he comes to find that — non-belief in G-d notwithstanding — he actually enjoys the opportunity for reflection. One day his prayers for a friend motivate him to write a letter of encouragement to that friend, which was received with gratitude at a difficult time in that friend’s life. This book was an unlikely impetus for my own reflection on prayer — but I certainly felt motivated by Roose’s thoughts.
As Roose himself acknowledges, one of the reasons his experiment has success is because he is a straight, white, (at least nominally) Christian man. He thoughtfully reflects on this privilege on more than one occasion: in his interaction with one of the few black guys in his dorm, harassed for dating a white girl, then as one of his roommates because more outspokenly and virulently homophobic as the semester progresses, and then when he hosts a Jewish friend from Brown for a weekend. Unfortunately, Roose falls short in considering the experience of women on campus, except insofar as he and his friends date them. I would have appreciated his delving into a little deeper into the attitudes towards and expectations of women as evangelical Christians (besides how to date Christian men). By giving ink to only that aspect of the female experience at Liberty, Roose is as reductive of women’s roles as Liberty (presumably) is.
There is also the issue of the book’s subtitle: Liberty as presented is hardly a “holy” institution; no place as obsessed with demonizing gay folks, or home to such casual racism, could be described as such. In fact, one of Roose’s takeaways is that the students at Liberty are in the main similar to their counterparts on the other side of the culture war: Good-hearted people struggling to find a way to live out their values in the world — and just as flawed as anyone else. (Yes, many students at Liberty engage in the taboos of drinking, drugs, swearing, and premarital sex.) And a “sinner”? While that’s likely how the adherents to Fallwell’s brand of Christianity might characterize Roose, I was consistently struck by his earnestness and sincerity.
Coincidentally, Roose is at Liberty during two historical events: the massacre at Virginia Tech in nearby Blacksburg, and the death of Dr. Falwell. Both provided interesting windows into the university’s culture. The reaction to the Tech shooting is hardest for Roose to comprehend, as the campus ultimately settled on a this-is-part-of-G-d’s-plan-and-therefore-must-have-happened-for-a-reason interpretation of events, which attitude enfuriates Roose.
And in a turn of events that Roose couldn’t have scripted better, he ended up conducting the final print interview of Falwell’s life. Unsurprisingly, he finds Falwell to be neither the monster nor the saint that he is usually considered — but just an ordinary guy, even a decent human being. There was a time when I might have found this hard to understand, but after living in North Carolina for three years and witnessing the love locals have for Jesse Helms, a similarly polarizing national figure, I get it.
As Dostoevsky writes, “In most cases, people, even wicked people, are far more naive and simple-hearted than one generally assumes. And so are we.”