Friday, March 21, 2014

Book Review: "The Unlikely Disciple" by Kevin Roose

The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University Kevin Roose
Published: March 26, 2009
ISBN: 044617842X
Genre: Memoir
Source: Personal Copy / Book Club Selection
Highly Recommended

As a sophomore at Brown University, Kevin Roose didn't have much contact with the Religious Right. Raised in a secular home by staunchly liberal parents, he fit right in with Brown's sweatshop-protesting, fair-trade coffee-drinking, God-ambivalent student body. So when he had a chance encounter with a group of students from Liberty University, a conservative Baptist university in Lynchburg, Virginia, he found himself staring across a massive culture gap. But rather than brush the Liberty students off, Roose decided to do something much bolder: he became one of them.

Liberty University is the late Rev. Jerry Falwell's proudest accomplishment - a 10,000-student conservative Christian training ground. At Liberty, students (who call themselves "Champions for Christ") take classes like Introduction to Youth Ministry and Evangelism 101. They hear from guest speakers like Mike Huckabee and Karl Rove, they pray before every class, and they follow a 46-page code of conduct called "The Liberty Way" that prohibits drinking, smoking, R-rated movies, contact with the opposite sex, and witchcraft. Armed with an open mind and a reporter's notebook, Roose dives into life at Bible Boot Camp with the goal of connecting with his evangelical peers by experiencing their world first-hand.

Roose's semester at Liberty takes him to church, class, and choir practice at Rev. Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist Church. He visits a support group for recovering masturbation addicts, goes to an evangelical hip-hop concert, and participates in a spring break mission trip to Daytona Beach, where he learns how to convert bar-hopping co-eds to Christianity. Roose struggles with his own faith throughout, and in a twist that could only have been engineered by a higher power, he conducts what would turn out to be the last in-depth interview of Rev. Falwell's life. Hilarious and heartwarming, respectful and thought-provoking, Kevin Roose's embedded report from the front lines of the culture war will inspire and entertain believers and non-believers alike.

My Thoughts:
This is a re-read for me--I had originally read it, on the recommendation of an Agnostic friend--back in 2009 when it was first published.  This year, I suggested it for my book club as our March selection.

This book was born out of another book--My Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs.  In that book, Jacobs takes on a "slave" as part of his Biblical experience.  The 21st century American translation for "slave" is apparently "unpaid college intern" and Kevin Roose, as freshman at Brown University, fit that bill.  As part of his slave duties, Roose accompanied Jacobs on a research trip to Liberty Univeristy in Lynchburg, TN where, while waiting for Jacobs to conclude an interview or something, Roose first makes contact with "the other side."

I have to start with a very notable thing about this book: it is one of the few books that I enjoyed more the second time I read it--and, to be fair, I enjoyed it quite a bit the first time I read it.  I don't know if it the 5 added years in maturity caused this, or the fact that I didn't have to cut through the initial shock factor to get to the meat of the book that caused this phenomenon.  Whatever it is, I'm not complaining.

I will say that I could relate to a lot of this.  I did not attend Liberty, but I did attend a school (the College of William and Mary) with a large evangelical presence.  Coming from the Pacific Northwest, this was a sector of the population that I had had very little contact with until going to college.  As a Christian (mainline Protestant), I had a number of things in common with these people--more than Roose did when he embarked on his experiement--but there was still a bit of a chasm between us.  I am still in touch with some of my evangelical friends from school and I am glad that they were part of my college experience.

My head is still spinning from the fact that Roose was in college when he wrote this.  When I was his age, I was still trying to decide on a major and here he is, writing a book.  I guess that summer of slavery was good for him.

But, anyway, back to the book.  I adored this book--one thing I have never been able to truly understand is the divisions within Christianity.  I mean,  I get that we have different ways of expressing out faith, but the idea of you have to do this and this and this to be saved is just beyond me.  Last time I checked, we were saved by God's Grace (yeah, I'm a Lutheran).  I think that Roose was actually quite brave to try to at least understand this divide by going into the Lion's Den of American Evangelicalism.

One thing that caught me this reading that I didn't pick up on the first time I read this book is the question of ethics.  I mean, Roose is pulling off a great deception here and is pulling others--his classmates and hallmates--unknowingly into the deception with him.  While this is something to think about--and it should be thought about while reading this book--I found it to be a part of the book and not a detriment to the book.  Roose, himself, questions his ethics during his Liberty experience.

Roose is a very gifted writer.  This could have been a comedic book or it could have been overly academic.  It was neither--it was an entertaining, thought provoking account of someone who chose to learn about a foreign culture (one that was a 12 hour drive away).

I will say this: I think different readers will have different reactions to this book depending on their own views.  I can see how some might find it cynical and others might find it insulting and others might find it preachy.  However, I can't base my own feelings on how others might feel and, in the end, this has become on of my favorite memoirs.

I was not solicited for this review and I received no compensation for this post.  All opinions are mine and mine alone.

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