He may consider himself an unlikely disciple, but as Kevin Roose finds out after a semester at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, he’s hardly atypical when it comes to doubt, lifestyle or even worldview. Apparently, the 21st Century version of LU has a student body composition that while different in some respects, in others appears to be a microcosm of the larger college and university universe.
Kevin, a journalism student at Brown University — where they spell “Liberal arts” with a capital ‘L’ — notices the whole “study abroad” opportunity to spend a term immersed in a different culture and decides that the American fundamentalist culture is just as interesting, plus he doesn’t need a passport.
Unlike books like Rapture Ready and Righteous, this book isn’t the result of hours of research conducted from the safety of the authors home turf, albeit with a few field trips added. No, this is the field trip of the decade, involving total immersion, total focus and commitment, and shrouded in total secrecy. Only his off campus, pre-Liberty contacts know what he’s up to, and they’re concerned he’s going to undergo a conversion before the semester ends.
Which brings me to: This is a book with an actual plot; as in ‘a beginning, a middle and an ending.’ It’s investigative, yes; but it’s also autobiographical as the author tells the story subjectively and transparently. It’s the story that every secular journalist who ever covered the late Jerry Falwell, or Liberty University, or Thomas Road Baptist Church simply never got. It’s the story you can only get by being there.
Some Christian bookstores chains are carrying this title and some aren’t. (No, Lifeway isn’t; not even with a “Read With Discernment” warning.) That’s probably fair. The language is a bit edgy at time, but in general, it tells the story in an honest and balanced manner.
Whether or not a high school student considering Liberty University should read this is another question. It could either raise social expectations for the teenager who is going to a Christian college somewhat against their will; or lower spiritual expectations for the prospective student who believes that dorm life at a Christian college is going to be life transforming. Ditto the possible consequences should the parents read it.
For the rest of us, who don’t have an emotional stake in this issue, I would say that this particular title comes really close to a ‘must-read.’ Why? Because this is probably as accurate a portrayal of Christian college life as any you will ever read, written by someone who had no previous history, and no particular axe to grind.
He did however have some preconceived ideas. Watching those tweak, morph, or just plain get deleted is what makes the book so engaging. As Kevin Roose himself might say after reading Unlikely Disciple, “Hey, Kevin; I’m praying for ya.”
Kevin Roose – Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University; Grand Central Publishing; hardcover; March 2009