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Reviewed by Karen Swallow Prior

Surprised by Love

An outsider's view of Liberty University and the faith it embodies.

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.

While the disturbing homophobia Roose encounters is, arguably, more reflective of the state of hormone-laden, sexually frustrated young men living in a male dorm than of principled Christianity, other aspects of Roose's experiences at Liberty read like cautionary tales straight from Mark Noll's The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Roose is an English major, and like any English major worth his salt, he reads everything like a text.  He pays attention to both form and content and to any disunity between the two. Much of what he has trouble reconciling about his experience is related to what he sees as discrepancies between the content of religious belief and the forms it takes at Liberty University. First, there is the masturbation ministry. Then there's the Spring Break missions trip to Daytona Beach for a week of "cold turkey evangelism." Finally, he is understandably confused by what he sees as a compartmentalized approach to education, one which, on one hand, presents itself as grounded in eternal truth claims but, on the other, seems (at least in some of the classes he takes) to eschew the higher levels of inquiry and critical thinking that should flow naturally from such a firm foundation.

Of course, Roose's academic experience at Liberty is distorted. In seeking a kind of extreme version of Christian education, he enrolls only in required freshman-level Religion and General Education classes, not in classes in other academic disciplines, or even his own major. If it's a slice of Liberty life Roose hopes to offer, it ends up more like a spoonful of batter.

Consequently, despite finding plenty of "smart people" at Liberty, Roose describes it as "a place where academic rigor is sacrificed on the altar of uninterrupted piety." He says he's learned from others that "education and piety are not mutually exclusive, and the sooner the school's higher ups take this to heart, the sooner Liberty students can go about the business of loving God with their minds." Despite his breezy style, clearly Roose has done his research, and one suspects he's been reading folks like George Marsden and Gene Edward Veith, along with Mark Noll. Even so, at five weeks into the semester, Roose finds he's had to "work twice as hard at Liberty as [he] did at Brown."

He learns also to "appreciate the rigid behavioral structure" of the school. He studies hard, exercises more, abstains from alcohol, loses weight, and in dating, feels liberated from the secular hook-up culture.

Not surprisingly, Roose interprets much of the good he finds in his experience through the lens of pragmatism. He quotes William James' The Varieties of Religious Experience throughout the book as he tries to reconcile his increasing admiration for certain aspects of evangelicalism with his opposing political and social views. But even pragmatism can't explain the most profound part of his experience.

I didn't meet Roose until two years after his semester here, when he sat in my office for a friendly, hour-long chat on one of those "good days" of February in Lynchburg, just a few weeks before his book's release. He still comes back to visit the friends he made here—and, on this trip, to talk about the book. Of all the unexpected events at Liberty, the one that most moves him, one included in the book but conveyed even more poignantly face-to-face, is the love his Liberty friends showed him when he finally revealed the truth about who he is and why he enrolled here. One of his roommates, he says, expressed their reaction best: "How could I not forgive you when I've been forgiven so much?" Roose shakes his head in disbelief, sitting in the chair next to mine. "I never expected the people here to apply the principles of their belief to their lives in such a real way."

It is this sense of love, ultimately, that Roose can't shake, even two years later. He found at Liberty a kind of community, he acknowledges, that has no parallel in the secular world. "I never thought," Roose writes to the school in the book's acknowledgements, "that the world's largest evangelical university would feel like home … . But by experiencing your warmth, your vigorous generosity of spirit, and your deep complexity, I was ultimately convinced—not that you were right, necessarily, but that I was wrong."

Roose's life was changed for the better through his semester at Liberty. And hopefully, Liberty University will be changed for the better, too, through having seen itself through the eyes of a stranger—an angel of sorts, perhaps (as Roose intimates in the book's epigraph), that we entertained unaware.

Karen Swallow Prior is Chair, Department of English and Modern Languages, and associate professor of English at Liberty University.

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