Quite a long time ago, I read The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs, where the author, a liberal New Yorker, spends a year of his life attempting to literally follow every command in the Bible. I remember enjoying it, so when I saw The Unlikely Disciple (2009) by Kevin Roose, it sounded both interesting and familiar. It turns out, it was familiar for a good reason. Kevin Roose was A.J. Jacobs’s intern, and was the student Jacobs took with him when he visited Jerry Falwell’s church in Virginia. It was this internship and trip to Virginia that gave Roose an idea for a book of his own, and The Unlikely Disciple was born.
I don’t really like to label myself, but I’ll go ahead and call myself an atheist. Although I find personal spirituality sometimes inspiring, I am increasingly frustrated with organized religion. And the larger the church, the more it seems to be about power and control rather than all the good things religion can bring. Unlike Roose, I grew up going to church somewhat regularly and was a part of a number of religious youth groups. Thus, some of the attitudes and rules were not new to me. I realized sometime in high school that as much as I liked the idea of heaven and a God helping you, caring about you, and showing you how to live your life, it’s just a fairy tale. Although some of my friends from youth group were genuine and caring, the hypocrisy of others turned me off of religion entirely.
Kevin Roose was a student at Brown University when he decided to take a semester “abroad” and transfer to Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University in Virginia. Roose’s plan was to make a good-faith effort to truly become a part of the conservative, evangelical Christian student body. Coming from Brown, one of the most liberal colleges in the country, and having a family that heartily disapproved of any influence Liberty might offer made for a nice contrast. Roose moved into the dorms, made friends, and explored as much as he could of the school while he was there. Trying to lie as little as possible, he told people he came from Brown when asked, but pretended to be a believer to fit in.
So, Roose voluntarily left the freedom and debauchery of Brown for the strict rules of Liberty, including: no smoking, no drinking, no hugging for more than three seconds, no cursing, and no R-rated movies. He takes as many Bible-centric classes as he can take along with the required Bible courses, one of which is focused on decrying evolution. Roose seems surprised that many of his fellow students are nice and relatively normal. He even falls for a girl there. I found the descriptions of his experiences pretty fascinating, from the mega-church services on Sunday to Roose’s Spring Break trip to Florida: a small school group travels to the Spring Break mecca in order to evangelize all the drunk sinner’s enjoying themselves–seriously one of the most ridiculous and hilarious parts of the book.
Along the way, Roose tries to see what things are like for people who are not straight, white, and male. One of his floor mates runs into some pretty stark racism when he begins dating a white woman. Roose finds that, despite the rules, some students at Liberty do actually have sex, but women who have sex are judged much more harshly. Finally, Roose talks to a professor/pastor about gay students. The pastor assumes Roose is gay and tries to counsel him out of it. It would be funnier if it weren’t also so sad.
However, there were a couple of things that bothered me about this book. First, I sometimes didn’t like the way Roose dealt with women. He spent a lot of time describing and being surprised by how hot some of the women were. I also wish he’d done more digging into what fundamental Christianity means for women. Roose mentioned the double standard on sex, but didn’t go much further. Can women get birth control at the student health clinic when the school rules forbid sex? Maybe they can, but I would guess that most would be too afraid to ask. Second, Roose plays up the fact that Liberty University was changing him. I think he was trying to drum up some tension, to make us wonder if he’d end up staying at Liberty, and if he really would become born again. I didn’t think for a minute that Roose wouldn’t go back to Brown, and this constant deliberation felt forced and unnecessary.
On the whole, I was impressed by Roose’s creativity, drive, and dedication, at only nineteen years of age, to conceive and write this book. He even managed to get [one of?] the last interviews with Jerry Falwell. It’s an interesting glimpse into another world, and I appreciate that Roose tries to humanize his fellow students and bring us together rather than lampoon them.
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