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The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University Paperback – June 3, 2010
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From Publishers Weekly
In what could be described as religious gonzo journalism, Roose documents his experiences as a student for a semester at Liberty University, the largest Christian fundamentalist university in the United States. Coming from progressive Brown University, the author admits that the transition to Liberty, with its iron-clad attempts at controlling student behavior, came with much anxiety. He trains himself to control his foul language and even begins to pray and study the Bible regularly, much to the bewilderment of his liberal Quaker parents. He suffers his way through a course debunking evolution, but finds enjoyment in a Scripture class. Roose may be young—he's a 19-year-old college sophomore—but he writes like a seasoned veteran and obviously enjoys his work. He quickly makes friends at Liberty, but is naïvely stunned and not a little disgusted by their antigay rhetoric. School founder Rev. Jerry Falwell granted Roose an interview for the student newspaper shortly before the famous evangelical's death in May 2007. "Complicated" is how Roose describes Falwell, which is a good descriptor for his undercover student experience. (Mar.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Brown University student Roose didn’t think of himself as being particularly religious, yet he conceived the novel idea of enrolling at Liberty University, the school Jerry Falwell built, thereby transferring from a school “a notch or two above Sodom and Gomorrah” to the evangelical equivalent of Notre Dame or Brigham Young. His reasons were logical, though curious. To him, a semester at Liberty was like studying abroad. “Here, right in my time zone, was a culture more foreign to me than any European capital.” He tells his story entertainingly, as a matter of trying to blend in and not draw too much attention to himself. One hardened habit he had to break was cursing; he even bought a Christian self-help book to tame his tongue. Throughout his time at Liberty, he stayed level-headed, nuanced, keenly observant. He meant to find some gray in the black-and-white world of evangelicalism, and he learned a few things. His stint at Liberty hardly changed the world but did alter his way at looking at it. That’s a start. --June Sawyers --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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The Ten Commandments for the Unlikely Disciple
1. Thou shalt follow in the footsteps of thy mentor.
Kevin Roose was an intern for the writer A.J. Jacobs (one of my favorite writers, by the way). While A.J. was conducting research for his book, The Year of Living Biblically, Kevin accompanied him to Thomas Road Church in Lynchburg, Virgina--the 20,000 member megachurch founded by Jerry Falwell. When A.J. and Kevin visited the church, Kevin was intrigued by an encounter with some college students he met. The students attended Liberty University--the largest fundamentalist Christian university in the U.S. Liberty was also founded by Falwell and affiliated with Thomas Road Church.
After reviewing his conversation with the Liberty students, Kevin is inspired to conduct his own experiment--much like his mentor Jacobs (who has created a cottage industry of sorts by conducting experiments in his life). Curious about the lifestyle of young college students at an ultra-conservative Christian college like Liberty, Kevin decides to enroll at Liberty for a semester as an "undercover" student, with the intent to immerse himself in the Liberty environment to gain a better understanding of the life of an evangelical Christian. (Kevin likens this experiment to his version of "studying abroad.") What he discovers during the course of this experiment is the basis of this book.
2. Thou shalt keep an open mind.
Kevin transfers to Liberty from Brown University, which he describes as:
... a school known for everything Liberty is not. In fact, it wouldn't be unfair to call the schools polar opposites.
Besides coming from an ultra-liberal college, nothing in Kevin's background prepares him for Christian fundamentalism. He was raised by Quaker parents but in a house that was "practically religion-free." He has several relatives who are openly gay (a big no-no in the fundamentalist Christian world). His main impression of Jerry Falwell is as:
...the arch-conservative televangelist with the least effective brain-to-mouth filter in the English-speaking world. I remembered that he had gone on TV to blame the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 on feminists, homosexuals, abortionists, and the ACLU, among others.
Yet Kevin is determined to keep an open mind while at Liberty--and he does an amazingly good job at it. One thing that struck me about this book is that Kevin is never judgmental or condemning of his fellow Liberty students or instructors. He does not mock them or look down on them. Instead, he makes a sincere effort to understand a culture that is wildly different from his own.
3. Thou shalt immerse thyself in the lifestyle of those thou are wishing to understand.
When Kevin enrolls at Liberty, he doesn't exactly lie but he isn't completely forthcoming about everything or his intent to write about his experiences either. If asked why he transferred, he simply says he wanted to know what a Christian college was like. He immerses himself in the life of a Liberty student--living in the dorms, taking exams, joining the choir, going to church. When asked if he was a Christian, he simply answers "Yes"--an answer that was strictly true but not truthful. He also makes the conscious decision to hold back his true feelings on hot topics such as homosexuality and creationism.
4. Thou shalt make a sincere effort to understand the beliefs of others.
While at Liberty, Kevin attends a variety of classes that teach the core beliefs of Christian fundamentalism. One of the most problematic courses for him is a biology course on young-earth creationism:
Every biology professor at Liberty teaches that God created the universe about six thousand years ago in six literal, twenty-four-hour days, pretty much the way it looks now. This is the most extreme version of creationism, the most literal of the literal, and it makes no compromises. Carbon dating that has revealed scores of million-year-old fossils? Defective. Noah's Flood? As historical as the 1985 World Series.
The sections regarding Kevin's courses on this topic just boggled my mind. He writes about how several of his professors are well-respected scientists, yet teach and believe young-earth creationism, which flies in the face of pretty much all scientific knowledge. It was fascinating to me how these professors could reconcile their scientific pursuits with their religious beliefs. Learning about some of the doctrine taught at Liberty was one of the most interesting aspects of the book for me. My version of the book included some of the exam questions from various classes Kevin took at Liberty, and it was unbelievable to me to see what students were taught.
5. Thou shalt seek further guidance for areas that require more exploration.
One of the areas where Kevin struggles during his time at Liberty is the wholesale condemnation of homosexuality. Anti-gay slurs are commonplace and unremarked on. Yet there is almost an obsession with homosexuality among the men of Liberty, as if it is so distasteful and so awful that students must renounce it and prove their heterosexuality on a daily basis. Wondering what life would be like for a Liberty student who is gay, Kevin seeks counseling on the subject. His counselor surprises him; he is steeped in concern and love for Kevin and truly wants to help him "get better." It was an interesting aspect of his experience at Liberty, and one that makes you realize how deep-rooted these beliefs are in the fundamentalist community.
6. Thou shalt try even that which makest thou uncomfortable.
During his stay at Liberty, Kevin decides to spend spring break evangelizing at Daytona Beach with other Liberty students. This was a difficult task for Kevin because, for the first time in his experiment, he is out in the "real world" but acting as an evangelical. After being immersed in Liberty University where fundamentalism was pervasive, it is a shock for Kevin to be out in the secular world where he and his fellow Liberty students are viewed suspiciously and as outsiders. Consider this section where Kevin describes the reactions of the people he and his recruiting partner try to convert:
Some people give the hidden-camera-show look. The guys let out a small chuckle, perhaps thinking Claire has just mastered the practice of deadpan irony. Then, when they see her waiting unblinkingly for a response, they sweep the landscape, looking for a tech crew.
A few people get genuinely angry. One biker said, "If I wanted to hear I was going to hell, I'd call my ex-wife."
Then there's the you-poor-things response, which thus far has come exclusively from old ladies. When Claire begins her spiel about accepting Jesus Christ as your personal savior, these ladies' faces soften into sympathetic smiles. They listen patiently, like a grandmother hearing a Girl Scout sputter through her cookie pitch--then they turn Claire down as politely as possible. One woman, who looked like Mrs. Butterworth in a one-piece, asked us, "Now, who put you two up to this?"
7. Thou shalt be open to the possibility of spiritual growth.
Throughout the book, Kevin struggles to find meaning in the experiences he has at Liberty. So he is surprised to find himself experiencing moments of transcendence and true spiritual growth. He realizes that although he doesn't believe much of what Liberty teaches, he is beginning to uncover a spiritual side of himself.
There's a difference, it seems to me, between the form of religion and the content of religion. Right now, I've got all of the form and not much of the content. I pray like a Liberty student, I read the Bible like a Liberty student, and I sing in the choir like a Liberty student. I even go on dates like a Liberty student. And for the most part, I've enjoyed living this way. But I still don't believe the same things Liberty students believe about God. I still don't believe, as Dr. Falwell said during Easter services this morning, that "the resurrection of Christ is an indisputable fact." And yet, the possibility is entering my mind.
8. Thou shalt return to whence thou came.
Despite forming strong bonds with his fellow students (and even dating a girl he develops feelings for), Kevin returns to Brown at the end of the semester. Yet the experience does not leave him untouched, and he ponders the futures of his fellow Liberty students and what the world will hold for them when they leave the sheltered grounds of Liberty. One of his observations stuck with me as he quotes a professor from one of his classes:
"My biggest worry about you, about all of you, is that you'll become educated beyond your obedience."
... This, too, struck me as depressing. What he was saying, in effect, is that there's a cap on a Liberty education, a point at which knowledge becomes dangerous rather than useful.
9. Thou shalt write beyond thy years.
It was hard for me to believe that Kevin Roose was a young college student when he wrote this book. His writing is assured and mature. Even more than that, his insights and ability to empathize with the Liberty students seemed wise beyond his years. I don't think I would have had the ability to be as open to this experience as Kevin was, and I know I couldn't have written an entire book with as much maturity as he has done. It was an impressive book--both the writing and the subject matter. Yet don't make the mistake in thinking that his writing is dry and humorless. On the contrary, his writing is accessible and frequently amusing. And the way he works in pop culture references was a treat. An example:
I mean, come on. A liberal arts college by Jerry Falwell? How about an etiquette workshop run by Courtney Love?
10. Thou shalt write another book, I hopeth.
Kevin Roose has a bright future before him, and I anxiously await his next book. I wonder what topic he will turn his attention to next. Will he follow in the footsteps of his mentor, A.J. Jacobs, and attempt another immersive, undercover experience? Or will he turn his keen eye for observation, his formidable writing talent and curious mind to another topic? Whatever it is, I'll be there to read it. Well done, Mr. Roose.
I am giving this book 4.5 stars. I thought it was fascinating, well-written and compelling. I would highly recommend it to pretty much anybody. One of my Top 10 books for 2009.
Brown University is known for being liberal and anti-religious. Liberty University is the strict, conservative, Christian institution founded by religious icon Jerry Falwell. The author, Kevin Roose, is a student at Brown University who decides to spend a semester Liberty. He is intrigued by the university. Why would so many young adults choose a school like Liberty?
Don't college students all want to party and live with no rules? Do they all want to be there?
So Roose decides to not only attend Liberty, but to immerse himself in the culture. He joins every single club, organization, class, mentor, etc. he can find to give him the most authentic Liberty experience. He expects to find Christian robots that have been programmed by religious parents or other authority figures. What he finds instead are real young men and women, who are as imperfect as any other college student. They struggle with their beliefs. They make stupid choices. They fight. They cheat. But they all have a goal for something higher - faith in God.
Kevin Roose is surprised by what he finds at Liberty. He found real people with real problems. He is amazed at the community he found so quickly. When Kevin struggled there was always a half dozen guys to help him out. He found chapels - a burden to some students - an uplifting time of unity and spirit.
I do not know much about Liberty. I have examined their student code of conduct (which is nearly fifty pages). They are definitely strict and pretty obstinate, but in the end they have a strong mission. Students are attracted to that mission; they want a school with a purpose.
I was so impressed by this book. Once I started I could not put it down. It was such a refreshing look on Christian higher education. I would recommend this book everyone I know that works in education.
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