The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University (by Kevin Roose)

7 01 2011

For European cats the concept of “evangelical Christians” is a little bit otherworldly. For American liberal-minded Brown student Kevin Roose it was at least interesting enough to explore that ‘other world’ within his own country to transfer for a whole semester to Liberty University, aka Bible Boot Camp, and to consider it akin to studying a semester abroad.

For European cats a little explanation is well in order. Liberty University was established by evangelical fundamentalist and über-conservative Jerry Falwell (also the charismatic televangelist of Thomas Road megachurch), who once condemned the Teletubbies TV-show because he saw Tinky Winky as a rolemodel for ‘the gay lifestyle’. Besides that Jerry Falwell was the founder of the Moral Majority, probably the largest political lobby-group the Evangelical Christians ever had, and who basically made sure that the USA ever had Ronald Reagan for president…twice.  He was also the man who blamed the attacks of September 11, 2001 on feminists, homosexuals, abortionists, and the ACLU…

For any humanist thinker it would be easy to go into Falwell-land and make a complete mockery of it. Not so for Kevin Roose. He wanted to go into this experience curious, but as unbiased as he could to note down what he saw, to describe what “these people” experienced, and to immerse himself as far into this deeply conservative Christian culture as possible . That said, this book didn’t arise out of nothing. Roose clearly did have a journalist agenda before he enrolled at Liberty. It was always his intention to write a book about his experience, so a little bit of lying had to be carried out, despite the fact that he did give up drinking, cursing, having sex, and other average student pastimes. Instead he started praying, talking to pastors for spiritual guidance, going to courses such as ‘Evangelism 101’ and ‘Young Earth Creationism’.  He also discovers that despite all the differences to what he’s used to at his Ivy League college, his fellow students at Liberty are also surprisingly ‘normal’ and have to deal with the same dilemmas as his secular friends.

So did Kevin come out of this ‘unharmed’? Did his political and societal beliefs change dramatically? This is something you will have to find out for yourself. What I will say is that for a 19-year-old this is one balanced and thought-provoking book. Turns out he did have certain assumptions about evangelical Christians (his upbringing, his family, his Ivy League education all had been completely different from anything he saw at Liberty, so he was bound to have them), but he wasn’t afraid to leave them behind as he entered Liberty or to see them completely shattered. Not even a lot of seasoned journalists would look at their ‘subject’ as even-handed and earnestly interested as Kevin Roose does here. For that alone the book deserves an extra star. And if nothing else, this book is one large plea to keep an open mind, to challenge your ideas and accept to have your ideas challenged in return.

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