Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Unlikely Disciple

The Unlikely Disciple
Author: Kevin Roose
Grand Central Publishing, 2009 [Kindle edition]
336 pages

I don't often talk about my religious beliefs, and there's a reason for that: I was raised as a mainline Protestant - and while we're pretty good with feeding the hungry and dealing with matters of social justice, we don't (typically) evangelize. But I had grandparents who were evangelicals, so at least 4 times a year I was exposed to the other end of the Protestant spectrum. Going to church with them was always an odd combination of entertaining and horrifying: spontaneous prayers, interruptive shouts, speaking in tongues, baptisms by immersion - these things did not take place in my home church, so I was always on sensory overload on these visits.

Because of my life experiences, I could immediately relate to Kevin Roose, the author of The Unlikely Disciple: He was raised as a Quaker by parents who were politically liberal in a state that is typically known for being conservative. During his freshman year at Brown University - one of the most liberal universities in the USA - he got the idea to spend a "semester abroad" -- studying at Liberty University in Virginia. Liberty is the Lynchburg institution founded by the late Jerry Falwell, who in addition to being a preacher was a founder of the Moral Majority and a leader in the movement that encouraged many evangelical Christians to vote Republican. Thus, the book's subtitle: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University.

I really wasn't sure what to expect with this book. I didn't know if Roose would - you know - go down there actin' all Yankee and superior-like and write about how backwards everyone was - or if he'd end up becoming one of them. Ultimately, that's the "spoiler" that I won't give away. But I will say that I found the book to be very fair to all sides - without being fake about it. If you read the reviews on any of the major online bookstores, you'll see that most people agree with me on this call.

Roose shows up in January as a transfer student, and is quickly immersed in The Liberty Way. There are tons of rules on everything from haircuts to public displays of affection and movie-watching (only G, PG, and PG-13 are allowed). Bible study and chapel attendance are mandatory. Unmarried students are expected to be celibate, and there are curfews and strict rules about leaving campus. Female student are not allowed in the male student dorms, and vice versa. This in sharp contrast to Brown, which has few rules and like most other secular universities, has co-ed dorms.

He dives into Sunday worship services at Thomas Road Baptist Church, the Lynchburg megachurch established by Falwell. Pretty soon, he's singing in the choir - one of three hundred voices. At first, Roose is mesmerized by all the lights and sounds and technology - apparently this is his first megachurch experience - and he's fascinated by the emotional responses of the people in the audience. Remember, he was raised as a Quaker; he points out that Quaker services are often silent. But eventually he becomes used to things, and before you know it, he's one of the regulars.

Meanwhile, back at school, he experiences a curriculum that is very different from Brown's. At Liberty, he took courses like Old Testament, New Testament, Evangelism 101, and classes in Ethics and Creation Studies. In Creation Studies, he learned that the Earth is only six thousand years old; that the Earth took exactly six 24-hour days to create; that humans co-existed with dinosaurs; and that we definitely did NOT evolve from animals. In another class, he learned about Quiverfull, a growing movement among certain groups of evangelicals; married couples refuse to use birth control in order to have as many children as possible - kind of like the Duggars of TLC reality show fame. He also learned the fine art of evangelizing, and spent his Spring Break at Daytona Beach - not partying, but attempting to save souls on the beach and outside nightclubs . . . and experiencing the frustration and disappointment of failed attempts.

Throughout the semester, Roose stayed "undercover." No one knew he wasn't an evangelical Christian already, or that he was planning to write a book about his experience. At some point, though, he begins to question his own ethics. For example, he meets a girl that he really likes a lot, but "calls it off" with her because he doesn't want her to think that he's only in a relationships with her for the story.

Some of the people and situations he encounters are quite funny. For example, he visits one of the university chaplains to learn about a program that's supposed to "reform" homosexuals . . . he talks about his gay friend . . . and the chaplain thinks he's gay (as in "sure, you have a friend. Um-hum.") Speaking of gay, it may be cool at Brown, but not at Liberty. Acts of homophobia displayed by some of the members of his dorm - including one of his roommates - strikes a hard chord with Roose, who has friends and family members who are gay. He believes that this is just one of several social issues that Falwell and some other evangelicals have unnecessarily used as a wedge to divide, rather than unite, the country.

But as the semester goes by, Roose learns several lessons. One is that people don't always fit the stereotype. Not all Liberty students are anti-gay. Not all Liberty students are Republicans or politically conservative. Most don't even really care about politics. They don't all agree with their professors or take the Bible literally or believe the content they're being taught. And - shock! - some aren't even Christians, let alone "born-again" Christians. The lessons related to stereotype-busting are some of the most important in the book, I think.

At some point late in the semester, Roose approached the school newspaper with an idea to write an article about Falwell. They agree to support it if he can get an appointment with the chancellor. To everyone's surprise, Roose actually gets an appointment for an interview. In the chapter devoted to this experience, we get a very interesting glimpse inside Falwell's office and life. Instead of asking the usual boring political questions, Roose asks Falwell what young readers really want to know: What's his favorite drink? (Diet Snapple Peach Tea) What's his favorite TV show? (24) How many of those famous red ties does he own? (between 40 and 50) Will we ever be able to have dances at Liberty? ("Not in my lifetime.") The resulting article is published in the school paper as promised, and Roose becomes a campus celebrity. In a matter of days, Falwell dies, suddenly. So Roose has the distinction of being the last person to ever interview Falwell for print.

I could go on, but no matter what I write, it won't do justice to this very interesting and insightful book. The fact that The Unlikely Disciple was only nineteen when he went to Liberty, and twenty when he wrote the book, is particularly impressive. I think that Kevin Roose has a long and fruitful career ahead of him, and I look forward to more from this young author.

Rating: 4.5 stars - Excellent writing. Riveting topic. Smart kid.