Undercover undergrad finds God where he least expected

Undercover undergrad finds God where he least expected

May 31, 2009
Written by Daniel Hazard

What do you get when you mix one part tree-hugging Ivy-Leaguer, one part inactive Quaker and one part Christian fundamentalist breeding ground? Surprisingly enough, you get Kevin Roose's entertaining and thoughtful book, "The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University."

The experiment began when Roose realized he didn't really know anyone who considered themselves part of the Christian "right." He had religious, even evangelical, friends – but nobody in his circle of acquaintances would have considered themselves a fundamentalist.

Roose's religious experience was limited at best. He says the closest he came to a coherent understanding of faith was when he learned about Central and South American liberation theology as a senior in high school. The study left Roose "briefly convinced that God was a left-wing superhero who led the global struggle against imperialism and corporate greed. Sort of a celestial Michael Moore."

His inquiry into Liberty University's culture was fostered when he was interning for A.J. Jacobs, author of "The Year of Living Biblically." Roose encountered a group of Liberty students while doing research at the Rev. Jerry Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist Church and was intrigued.

He knew little of Falwell, but cringed at his accusations against "feminists, homosexuals, abortionists and the ACLU" as the cause of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. "Like many non-evangelicals, I knew Rev. Falwell only as the arch-conservative televangelist with the least effective brain-to-mouth filter in the English-speaking world," he says.

Still, he was curious about Falwell's university with its 10,000 (mostly) eager students who were committed to the ideals of evangelical education and willing to abide by the all-encompassing Liberty Way ethical code that forbade all but the most banal and safe/sinless activities.

And so Roose begins, with lively dialog and meticulous daily journaling, his exploration of life at Falwell's Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va.

It took some convincing of his parents, the cajoling of his Brown University admissions advisor and extensive tutoring in "evangelical-ese" from his only born-again friend (Laura, the "evangelical Yoda"). But Roose was determined to understand a side of American Christianity that few would get to see — but that many were subjected to in the media nonetheless.

During his spring 2007 semester at Liberty, Roose encountered the culture and faith of this fundamentalist epicenter. Disengaging from his libertine Brown University lifestyle took some time. Originally fixated by the quantity of beautiful women at Liberty (once ranked the second-hottest campus by Playboy magazine!), Roose moves his energies to fitting in with evangelical friends and studying.

Bible, Contemporary Issues and History of Life are the sampling of courses that Roose chronicles most closely. The Bible — literal, God breathed, inerrant. Contemporary issues – abortion, socialism/communism and homosexuality – enemies of real Christians and must be fought. History of Life — young earth creationism — none of this wishy-washy intelligent design and definitely no Godless evolutionary studies.

Outside the classroom he begins seeing someone and then breaks it off when she starts to uncover the truth of Roose's project. He is curious as to the level of grace extended to those who don't comply with Liberty's sexual purity code and, through a series of crossed connections, finds himself in a masturbation support group — then another group for those struggling with homosexual feelings.

He encounters the hostility of a roommate's violent tirades against homosexuals and liberals, the humility of a befriended Liberty student who gets pregnant, and the acceptance of dorm-mates exploring their place as young men while forging their own Christian identity, not necessarily the identity Liberty wants them to adopt.

Roose is never converted to the brand of conservative Christian fundamentalism that Liberty espouses in its recruitment brochures. What he is surprised by, however, are the ways daily prayer, Bible reading, holy conversations and a clear mind (the Liberty Way forbids alcohol) bolstered his spiritual development as a liberal Quaker.

In the end, Roose discovers a group of friends at Liberty who complement his spiritual path and offer their unconditional understanding and continued support once his book project is revealed.

When asked about the contribution his work will make to the cultural God-divide that exists in America, Roose says, "Hopefully it is an invitation to build bridges between people who haven't wanted to understand each other."

Roose is an adept journalist and, not unlike Barbara Ehrenreich in "Nickel and Dimed," gets caught up in the visceral aspects of his experiment. And we, the reader, are better for it. Considering the bulk of the research and writing for "The Unlikely Disciple" occurred when Roose was just 19, we can only hope he gets caught up again.

"The Unlikely Disciple" offers a view behind the curtain of an institution that many on the religious left fear and finds people who are likable and, like Roose, are working out their faith. It should stand as a testimony that religious bigotry can happen whenever one party avoids encounters with the other.

The Unlikely Disciple
By Kevin Roose
Grand Central, 2009
Hardcover, $24.99
ISBN: 978-0446178426

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