Reviewed by Karen Swallow Prior
Surprised by Love
The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University isn't the book its author, Kevin Roose, thought it would be. It's certainly not the book he pitched to his publisher as a left hook in the ongoing fisticuffs between secularists and believers. And it's not the book I anticipated when I first heard rumors among students at Liberty University, where I teach, that a young man from Brown University had come here and spent a semester undercover in order to write an exposé on command central for one side in America's culture wars.
It's not the book it was supposed to be because, as it turns out, Liberty University wasn't what it was supposed to be.
This isn't to say that some of the worst stereotypes of evangelicalism, fundamentalism, the Bible Belt, and Christian higher education aren't reinforced by Roose's experience. They are. Nevertheless, Roose largely gets beyond the stereotypes and humanizes even those whose views he finds "reprehensible." And in the process, Roose gets a good dose of humanizing himself.
In both conception and execution, Roose's narrative parallels that of his mentor, A. J. Jacobs, in The Year of Living Biblically. Inspired by his experience as Jacobs' slave (aka unpaid intern) during the writing of that book, Roose—once he gains the reluctant approval of Brown University administrators and his parents—sets out on a domestic version of the semester abroad.
The concerns and, at times, outright opposition of Roose's family and friends about his project add significant tension to his narrative. This conflict—between his old life and his new one, as well as the internal conflicts that grow throughout his stay—is one of several elements that make the book a compelling read.
The most important element, however, is simply that Roose is a talented writer (astonishingly so when one considers that he was only 19 when writing the book). My favorite sentence offers a good example of Roose's synthesizing wit, keen insight, and sharp style: "Even in its weather patterns, Lynchburg, Virginia, is a fundamentalist city." He continues, "Unlike the fickle New England winters I came from, where snow, sun, fog, and rain operate on a twenty-minute loop, Lynchburg in February has good days and bad days, and nothing in between."
This passage rings true to my own introduction to Lynchburg. Having—like Roose—arrived from the North, I experienced some of the same culture shock Roose relates. But having also come—unlike Roose—from an evangelical background, I understood that many of the differences we both encountered are more rooted in the North-South divide than in the secular-Christian one. In fact, a good number of Roose's experiences at Liberty that he attributes to the school's brand of conservative theology, I would argue, stem less from doctrine than from Bible Belt culture. Roose's failure to distinguish between Christian mores and cultural ones reflects a conflation that is ours in the first place. Nevertheless, it's a conflation that proves a stumbling block to his willingness "to believe in Jesus as Lord."
A sometimes startling view of contemporary evangelicalism through an outsider's eyes is reason enough to read this book. But there's also Roose's humor, often at his own expense, to keep readers turning the pages. Knowing that the success of his project depends upon being able to blend in as a regular Liberty student, Roose nevertheless has some Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur's Court moments. In a misguided attempt to find palatable substitutes for his customary curse words, he utters phrases like "Glory!" and "Good Heavens!"; the clothes he's brought conform to Liberty's dress code—from 10 years ago, that is; and when he leaves a baseball game early for choir practice at Thomas Road Baptist Church, he can't quite blame his dorm mates, in light of such missteps, for suspecting he might be gay.
Despite the false starts, Roose finds the students at Liberty to be "the friendliest students I've ever met." "In fact," he writes, "that's the thing that strikes me hardest: this is not a group of angry zealots." He is surprised to realize that the "students have no ulterior motive. They simply can't contain their love for God." Clearly, Roose adheres to his resolution to conduct his experiment "with as little prejudgment as possible and "with an open mind."
Any lingering doubts about Roose's commitment to objectivity are exploded by his portrayal of a few exultant responses by some family and friends from back home to Rev. Jerry Falwell's sudden death near the end of the book. These reactions aren't pretty—but, then again, neither are all the things Roose witnesses among the Christians at Liberty University.