Law Religion Culture Review

Exploring the intersections of law, religion and culture. Copyright by Richard J. Radcliffe. All rights reserved.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Book Review: The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University (2009).

Undercover journalism, conducted out in the open.

That's my brief, oxymoronic description of Kevin Roose's The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University (March, 2009)--a product of his semester as a student at Liberty University.

Taking a leave of absence from his studies at Brown University, Roose decided to spend Spring semester, 2007 at Liberty and then write about it.

While hiding his writing agenda, Roose didn't hide his identity. He matriculated as Kevin Roose, from Brown, and a Christian (p. 12), albeit from a nominally Quaker background (pp. 6-7). "If anyone ever asked, I'd say that I was a Christian (strictly true)" (p. 12), "although I wasn't an evangelical Christian" (p. 12). Interestingly, "Liberty application [didn't] require a mandatory statement of faith" (p. 12) like many other conservative Christian colleges such as Biola University.

Roose explains his approach: "I did want to see what Christian college was like, with as little prejudgment as possible....If I went to Liberty, it would be to learn with an open mind, not to mock Liberty students or the evangelical world in toto." (p. 11.)

Roose was largely successful in this two-fold endeavor. By throwing himself into the experience he learned what a Christian college was like, and largely did so without mocking Liberty "or the evangelical world in toto."

Roose actively participated in Liberty life perhaps much more than his fellow students. For example, he sang in the Thomas Road Baptist Church (connected to Liberty) choir (singing in front of millions on tv); conducted "cold turkey evangelism" at Daytona Beach during Spring Break; interviewed Rev. Jerry Falwell (Liberty's chancellor at the time) and wrote about it in the school newspaper (which turned out to be Rev. Falwell's last print interview before dying at the end of that semester); participated in a men's accountability group; played intramural sports, among other activities.

Some of his observations were not so profound and some were. For example, Roose acts like it's a revelation that it's easier to wake up on a Sunday morning without a hangover. (pp. 56-57.) On a more serious note, Roose poignantly summarizes his learning at Liberty: "By experiencing [Liberty people's] warmth, [their] vigorous generosity of spirit, and [their] deep complexity, I was ultimately convinced--not that [Liberty people] were right, necessarily, but I had been wrong." (p. 319; emphasis added.)

This multi-faceted learning process forms the bulk of the book. Given this "deep complexity", Roose mercifully (mostly) leaves behind the simplistic stereotypes of "evangelical Christians" (a hackneyed term poorly defined in the book and elsewhere). As an Ivy League student, he discovers that Liberty's studies are quite rigorous on the whole, and even admits some struggles to achieve high grades in the courses. "I worked twice as hard at Liberty as I ever did at Brown." (p. 106.)

This book does better than Hanna Rosin's similar, but more detached and political God's Harvard: A Christian College on a Mission to Save America--a reporter's book about Patrick Henry College reviewed here on December 13, 2007. (Roose mentions reading Rosin's related New Yorker article while writing his book. (p. 241).)

Unlike Rosin, Roose investigated while a student at the subject school. Perhaps as a result, Roose's book is much more empathetic and nuanced. For this reason, The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University (a lame title especially since Liberty doesn't tout itself as the nation's "Holiest University") receives a much higher recommendation. Look for more from Roose--as of the publication he was a Brown senior. This book portends well for his writing career.