The Unlikely Disciple

An Ivy Leaguer spends a semester undercover at a fundamentalist Christian university – and is surprised by what he discovers.

The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University Grand Central Publishing 324 pp., $24.99

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.

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?!?!”

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.”

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.

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