Monday, September 21, 2009

Review: The Unlikely Disciple


Kevin Roose was a 19-year-old Brown University student when he decided to try a unique variation on the traditional semester abroad: he would go undercover at Liberty University in Lynchburg, VA, Jerry Falwell's "Bible Boot Camp." Raised more or less Quaker by politically liberal parents, he took evangelical* lessons from a friend before signing up for classes: Contemporary Issues , History of Life (i.e., young-earth creationism), Evangelism 101, and survey courses in Old Testament, New Testament, and Christian theology.

He suffered instant culture shock, of course. He was amazed at his teachers' and fellow students' nearly obsessive concern with homosexuality. His parents and especially his lesbian aunts were terrified that he would go over to the dark side. And he feared his spontaneous reactions ("Holy shit!") would give him away--though he learned to admire Liberty students' creative alternatives ("son of a friggin' biscuit!").

I was in the mood for a comic novel when I absent-mindedly picked up Roose's tell-all book, The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University. Within minutes I was laughing out loud and reading his stories to Mr Neff (who was trying to read something else at the time). Maybe you have to have had a somewhat fundamentalist upbringing to fully appreciate the humor, though readers with no first-hand experience of right-wing Christianity should still enjoy this anthropological tour of a university that issues reprimands (for hugging! watching an R-rated movie! wearing torn jeans!) as frequently as Dolores Umbridge, Hogwarts' high inquisitor, issued educational decrees.

One reason the book is a good read is that Roose does not have an agenda beyond understanding an alien culture. Appalled by the anti-intellectualism and homophobia at Liberty, he is nevertheless interested in his Bible and theology classes, intrigued by chaste dating, and attracted by the atmosphere of prayer, both public and private. He examines not only the school's way of life but also his own shifting opinions. For example, he writes:
I'm still not totally settled on prayer. Part of me still thinks it's a waste of time, and another part of me wonders whether I could be increasing my levels of compassion some other way--watching Nancy Grace every day, maybe, or reading news stories about famine in third-world countries. It's probably a bad sign if the only way I can tone down my narcissism is by forcing myself to believe that God is monitoring my thoughts. But for now, it doesn't seem to be hurting anyone, so I guess I'll keep at it. When I think of the benefits I'm reaping, a little cognitive dissonance seems like a small price to pay.
Another good feature about the book is that Roose has done his homework. His website lists popular books he read to help him act evangelical, and the background information he weaves seamlessly into his stories shows that he must have read plenty of more serious works besides.

I appreciate Roose's stance as a conciliator, not an ideologue. Without giving up his pre-Liberty convictions, Kevin learns that even Jerry Falwell had a good side, and that people of widely divergent religious and political views can still be friends. "This particular religious conflict," he writes, "isn't built around a hundred-foot brick wall. If anything, it's built around a flimsy piece of cardboard, held in place on both sides by paranoia and lack of exposure."

As a politically liberal Catholic living among evangelicals in Wheaton, IL, I've run into ignorance-based paranoia. I've also run into it from the other side, when I was a theological conservative from DuPage County taking classes at Loyola University in Chicago. Most of us think we know what the other guys are like, even if we don't know them very well. Cheers to Kevin Roose for first-hand (and first-rate) reporting and for making us laugh heartily, with malice toward none.
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*Evangelicalism is a big tent. As Roose well knows--but too many journalists do not--evangelicalism is not synonymous with the religious right. Jerry Falwell called himself evangelical. So does Jim Wallis, author of God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It.

2 comments:

grifter said...

Glad you enjoyed the book, just as I enjoyed your review. I would, however, dispute your comment that you "absent-mindedly picked up" The Unlikely Disciple, as I recall having personally "evangelized" you on it. I'll forgive the oversight for now :)

LaVonne Neff said...

Hey, Griff, I should have given credit where credit was due! However, the fact that I picked it up off my to-read stack when I really wanted to read a comic novel was rather absent-minded of me, wouldn't you say?