Wednesday, September 02, 2009

An Unlikely Disciple: a review

I guess one of the silver linings in having a nasty head cold is that I get to catch up a little bit on my reading. I’ve been reading The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holist University by Kevin Roose. Roose got the idea to enroll for a semester at Liberty Univerty while he was interning for A.J. Jacobs during his “year of living Biblically".
Lately I’ve been running into a common theme in my reading, discussions with friends and online discussions. Nothing is really black and white. In spite of parties on every side of an issue trying to over simplify the world the world just keeps refusing to cooperate. More than any other theme, this book seemed to reinforce this. Perhaps it’s just the state of mind that I’ve been in lately, but that’s what I took from this reading.
Roose, a very liberal Quaker, attending Brown University went into the situation fully prepared to be exposed to the stereotypical extreme right-wing, evangelical students that his liberal family had warned him about. And he did meet a few of them. However, the overwhelming majority of the students that he lived with and learned to love did not fall into the extremes of the stereotype. In fact the one student who did meet the stereotype was ostracized by the rest of the guys in his dorm because his views were so extreme. Most of the students at Liberty had much more nuanced views on religion, morality and politics than he expected.
Roose’s outside perspective gives an interesting view of a lot of evangelical doctrines and behavior. Roose is a white, heterosexual, protestant male and hence has the benefit of being the ideal demographic for a Liberty student. Aware of this Roose decided to seek out what it would be like to not fit so neatly into this special demographic. He talks at length with a black friend about the school’s and Rev. Falwell’s history of opposing civil rights. When he tries to meet some closeted homosexuals on campus to discuss their views on the school he gets accidentally roped into the school’s homosexual reform counseling. Rather than push the issue that he isn’t really gay he rides it out for a while to see how it must feel for those at Liberty who are.
As part of his General Education curriculum Roose has to take a course called GNED 102. In that course they learn about the inerrancy of the Bible, that the world is literally only 6000 years old, they learn about the evils of the homosexual agenda and the proper place of women in the home. Roose points out that in many ways this is the stereotypical class that most non-Liberty students envision when they speculate about the curriculum at Liberty. It’s the counter-point to how most Liberty students feel about secular education. As if they are required to attend a class that teaches you how to smoke pot, have gay sex and become an atheist. No such class actually exists at Brown University and the sad reality is that GNED 102 does exist at Liberty.
Roose also stumbled across a fundamental irony at Liberty University. You see most evangelical Christians are anti-intellectual. They actually think that gaining too much worldly knowledge can drive one away from God. So why does the University exist in the first place? A very good question and one that isn’t completely resolved in this book. Roose finds that in spite of the school’s criticism of doubt and the trumpeting of religious certainty that, in practice, there actually is a health amount of doubt and open-minded questioning of belief among the students and the faculty.
By some odd twist of fate Jerry Falwell ends up granting his final print interview before his death to Roose. Despite the fact that he disagreed with him on most major issues Roose grew to understand even like Dr. Falwell. Not wanting to blow his undercover status Roose primarily asked softball questions but those questions ended up putting a very human and likable face on Falwell. Despite the political differences of opinion, I thought the interview was a charitable eulogy for one of America’s most controversial religious figures.
After his semester at Liberty Roose comes back to come clean about the fact that the was essentially a mole. All of his friends accept him and look forward to reading the book. However, many have issues with the fact that he isn’t saved. Being so indoctrinated into a black or white, heaven or hell, saved or damned culture they have a hard time with the fact that here is a good person that they have prayer with and for and yet he doesn’t fit into the neat little boxes that the culture has told them that all people have to fit into.
I really identified with this book on many levels. I too feel that much of religion is anti-intellectual. I too feel that churches need to act move like churches and less like political action campaigns. And I too have a hard time fitting into a religious culture that looks upon doubt as a weakness and stresses certainty and “knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt”.
I’m putting this book down as one more piece of evidence that the world is rarely, if ever, as black and white as some try to paint it.


  1. Thanks for the review. Thought provoking...(there you go, again).