The Unlikely Disciple
An Ivy Leaguer spends a semester undercover at a fundamentalist Christian university – and is surprised by what he discovers.
It took blinding light and God’s voice to convert the Apostle Paul. But it required only 16 weeks at a fundamentalist Christian university to change an Ivy Leaguer from Brown.Skip to next paragraph
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Not that Kevin Roose, a self-described agnostic, ever lost that fish-out-of-water feeling at Liberty University in Lynchburg Va., where the living is clean – cussing and kissing results in swift and severe fines – and students spend spring break in Daytona saving souls.
The focus there is always on God, who is, after all, the most-often-listed interest on the school’s Facebook page.
Fundamentalist Christians in America have always set themselves apart, and in so doing have piqued the nation’s interest. So in the winter of 2007 Roose, then a sophomore at Brown University, opted out of the more traditional semester-abroad options. Instead, he enrolled as a transfer student at Liberty in an undercover effort to discern what makes these deeply religious students tick.
His mission was to dissect – not depart a forever-changed man.
Thankfully, what results in The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University, is a little bit of both.
Telling a story only an outsider on the inside could report, Roose shines in his ability to present fundamentalist Christian life with crystal-clear detail. His fresh eye and knack for levity highlight minutiae a theologian might deem trivial, but also serve to effectively illuminate life at Liberty, a school established in 1971 by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, a founder of the Moral Majority known for his early support of segregation, belief in creation science, and dogmatic focus on purity.
But it’s the story of Roose’s transition from straight-up agnostic to half-convinced believer who prays that gives the book purpose. While Christian fundamentalists in America are often mocked – think “Saved” or “Religulous” – a burgeoning evangelical movement makes understanding students from schools like Liberty crucial. If a kid from Brown can begin to bridge the divide in just one semester, then there’s hope for the rest of us struggling to better understand people we know only by the labels like “fundamentalist” or “Religious Right.”
You couldn’t ask for a more unlikely disciple than Roose, who grew up in a pseudo-Quaker family, his religious studies consisting of exactly one high school class that briefly convinced him that, “God was a left-wing superhero who led the global struggle against imperialism and corporate greed. Sort of a celestial Michael Moore.”
He’s woefully unprepared for what he encounters at Liberty, where everyone asks, “Do you know Christ?”
Or acts in other perplexing ways. A dormmate announces after a first date, for example, “I’m goin’ to the chapel, boys!!! Who wants to be the best man?!?! Who wants it?!?!”