Friday, July 13, 2012

Review: The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University

The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University
By Kevin Roose
Grand Central Publishing 2009
315 pages
Borrowed from my dad 

The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University

While working as a writer's assistant, college student Kevin Roose encounters a group of evangelical students from Liberty University. When their conversation turns awkward, he wonders how different the students at that college are from his classmates at Brown University. Instead of going to Italy or France for his semester abroad, he registers as a transfer student at Liberty and begins a semester of learning about the Bible, prayer, and Liberty's infamous leader Jerry Falwell. 

Mr. Roose, at the age of 19, becomes a student at Liberty and records every conversation and experience he has during the semester. He adheres to the dress code, attends chapel services, joins the choir at Rev. Falwell's church, and goes on a missions trip to convert the unwashed masses enjoying spring break at Daytona Beach. He has candid conversations about lust and sex with the other young men on his floor, dates a few Christian girls, and is one of the last people to interview Rev. Falwell before his death. 

There is a lot going on in this book and Kevin Roose is an able narrator. He has an easy writing style and he comes across as the kind of guy you would want to hang out with in real life. I give him a lot of credit for his ability to keep an open mind at the age of 19. He has an ability beyond his years to be respectful of those who are different from him and to consider all of the possibilities in every given situation. 

He writes, “I didn’t come to Liberty to get a new religion, of course. I came here to spend time with the practitioners of another faith, to learn how they lived. But it was crazy of me to expect that I could situate myself among these people twenty-four hours a day, befriend them, and adopt their mannerisms without also internalizing and grappling with their beliefs.”

But the downside to this book is there is no major change for Roose. He spends a semester with people whose beliefs are very different from his occasional Quaker upbringing and his only revelation is that his classmates are not as different as he might have imagined. While this is obviously an important lesson, I think it is one that most of us have already learned. Those of us who are rational, conscientious adults already know that people are people, mostly trying to do their best, regardless of race, creed, or religion. While it would be surprising for Kevin to either discover that his classmates and mentors at Liberty were unreachable religious fanatics or to have a deep religious conversion experience himself, it would certainly make for more interesting reading! 

The Unlikely Disciple might be a good read for you if you want to get an inside look at the inner workings of Liberty University and the Rev. Jerry Falwell. Roose presents a very balanced, respectful look at a group of people who are often misunderstood and maligned. However, this book ultimately suffers from a lack of change in our narrator. His journalistic attempts to present a fair, well-rounded picture ultimately leave this book feeling flat. If a man goes on a journey and comes back unchanged, has he really gone on a journey at all? 


  1. The title and synopsis make this book sound so good, it's a shame that it fell a bit flat. I would probably enjoy it though, I'm completely non-religious so typically find anything religious interesting. And we don't have anything like Liberty here, so that makes it more intriguing.

    1. Maybe that was a part of my problem too. While these people are certainly extreme examples, I am familiar with many of the things they believe. If this had been about Muslims or Judaism, it might have been a more engaging experience for me.