Thursday, April 30, 2009

Reading: The Unlikely Disciple

The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University
by Kevin Roose
Grand Central Publishing (March 26, 2009)

Kevin Roose is a sophomore at Brown and an intern for writer, A. J. Jacobs, when first introduced to Liberty University through students he meets at Thomas Road Baptist Church. His conversation with the group of students frustrates Roose because he realizes there is a cultural gulf between him and them.

He decides to enroll in Liberty for a semester in an effort to understand the culture and to write a book about the experience. Roose is 19 at the time. He secures his parent's and school's permission, completes an application to Liberty, and is accepted.

Roose writes that the "evangelical world, in my mind, was a cloistered, slightly frightening community whose values and customs I wasn't' supposed to understand. So I ignored it." Roose is slightly frightened but his family and friends seem terrified of the prospect.

Because of his experience in speaking with the Liberty students, Roose decides to impersonate an evangelical during his time at Liberty. He writes "Naturally, I wanted to be as honest as possible." So he crafts his background story in that spirit and even receives help from the one Christian he actually knows.

He does manage to blend in with the Liberty students he meets. He is surprised to find that they are not the homogeneous stereotypes he had thought. He also finds there are some things about Liberty that is even worse than he had expected.

He makes friends. He learns to compartmentalize his life and his studies. He surprises himself by how well he adapts. He keeps his secret and takes sufficiently good notes to write an interesting book.

Towards the end of his time he is even able to interview Dr. Jerry Falwell. The resulting article is acclaimed on campus and gains some exposure off. Dr. Falwell dies the day before Roose is set to leave Liberty and Roose delays his departure until after the funeral. His article then gains even greater attention.

Before the book is published Roose returns to Liberty and confesses his subterfuge to his friends. He is surprised by the gracious responses of forgiveness and friendship.

In the end Roose reflects on the experience. He admits to being permanently changed but unconverted. He writes that his semester at Liberty did not "bridge the God Divide" but he thinks the barrier is not insurmountable. He even writes about his youth although mostly in the context of writing a book.

Now what did I think about the book?

It is a good book. It is interesting. It is well written. The characters in the book are portrayed humanly and the situations are realistic. There is little sense of contrivance and there is the ring of truth.

There are several strands of unresolved tension. Will Kevin get caught? Will Kevin fall in love? Will Kevin be converted? Will Kevin pass his courses? Will Kevin lose his friends and family? Will Kevin betray his new friends?

It is the novelty I suppose that makes one start reading. It is the tension and realism and writing that keeps one reading.

So I recommend the book.

I have more things I want to write though and I am sure I will.


Lori1955 said...

From what you have written, the thing that strikes me the most is the idea of going to these lengths to try to understand something that is different. It is so easy to just be prejudiced against the things we don't understand.

dave said...

I agree. Going this far to understand another group and then to write honestly is admirable in my opinion. I suggest there should be a lot more of it -- both ways.