The Unlikely Disciple
An Ivy Leaguer spends a semester undercover at a fundamentalist Christian university – and is surprised by what he discovers.
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Initially confounded by first dates that definitely won’t end in a kiss, creation science, and trying to discern if Jerry Falwell bobblehead dolls are subversive or idolatrous, Roose’s unique position also lets him see how students struggle to remain virtuous in a secular society, leaning on each other for support. He grows to view the coeds as “seemingly normal ... this is not a group of angry zealots.”Skip to next paragraph
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The bonds he forms even inspire him to begin praying with a pal, which leads to a daily prayer habit.
He’s not completely convinced, but prayer helps “my problems snap into perspective.... I’m focusing more on people with real hardships ... [and] the compassion I dig up during those thirty minutes sometimes carries over to the rest of my day.”
Suddenly Liberty students seem a whole lot easier to relate to.
Walking the fine line between humanizing this group and highlighting how they set themselves apart sometimes trips Roose up, however. In part, he’s hindered by his undercover status. He struggles, for example, to confront the seeming hypocrisy with which many of his friends address issues of gender, race, and sexual orientation, failing to question them in a way that could reveal how religion can rationalize hateful attitudes. It’s a missed opportunity to address the exact concerns many outsiders have about Christian fundamentalists.
Maintaining his cover is one reason for his silence. But Roose also lacks the theological training needed to really unpack the beliefs he encounters. He uses terms like “evangelical” and “fundamentalist” interchangeably, for instance, without adequately explaining how Liberty kids are really a subset of a much larger group of evangelicals.
He also neglects to explore the power of alternative theological beliefs, especially outside Liberty. Roose scoffs at one professor who argues the fossil record supports the Biblical creation story: “Isn’t the appeal of young-earth creationism supposed to be its simplicity? If I say I don’t believe in evolution, can I get an A and skip the rest of the semester?”
For Roose, the idea is ludicrous. Yet the “science” behind creationism is helping to drive campaigns to teach creationism and intelligent design in school districts nationwide. It’s also a major reason more than a half-million people have trekked to Petersburg, Ky., since the 2007 opening of a multimillion-dollar creation museum.
While Roose didn’t ponder theology ad nauseam, he did pack a tremendous amount into his 16 weeks.
He joined the choir at Liberty’s megachurch, received spiritual direction, interviewed Falwell shortly before his death, and took the spring-break mission trip to Daytona – all of which bring the Liberty experience to life.
The Daytona trip is particularly memorable for inspiring Roose to ponder how Liberty prepares students for life in a secular world (anesthetizes them to rejection), and for showcasing one of the book’s funniest moments. While attempting to save souls, Roose is dressed down by a trio of pretty Jewish sunbathers who take offense when he asks, “Do you know Jesus Christ as your personal savior?”
In the end, Roose ministers more to himself than anyone else, and now, back at Brown, he continues to nurture a nascent prayer life.
More will surely come from this protégé of A.J. Jacobs (the author of “The Year of Living Biblically”), and here’s hoping Roose dips another toe into religion coverage.
“The Unlikely Disciple” deserves a big “Amen.”
Sarah More McCann is an intern at the Monitor.