Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Unlikely Disciple by Kevin Roose

A couple of years ago I read A. J. Jacobs's book The Year of Living Biblically, which I enjoyed but critiqued as being a rather individualistic exercise rather than rooted in actual communities of spiritual practice. Well, I just read a book that follows Jacobs's lead but ups the ante. Kevin Roose, who was a research assistant for Jacobs on Year of Living Biblically, left his liberal Ivy League college to spend a semester at the fundamentalist/evangelical Liberty University, exploring how life is lived and faith is practiced at Jerry Falwell's school. The result is The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University.

I loved this book. It was a delight to read, laugh-out-loud hilarious at points, poignant and thought-provoking at others. A nominal Quaker who does not self-identify as "born again," Roose is tremendously fair to the folks at Liberty, as he finds himself slowly becoming acculturated to the conservative Christian subculture. He discovers that students at Liberty are not all the religious wingnut stereotypes many outsiders imagine them to be; they're just people, with all of the complexities and foibles that mark the human condition.

What's fascinating is that Roose enters into regular rhythms of Christian practice such as prayer, reading Scripture, participating in worship services and sharing in small groups. The result is that he starts to see things from the point of view of his Liberty classmates, so much so that when he visits his secular relatives he feels odd not praying before dinner and wonders if people he sees are saved or not. He becomes far more understanding of Christian belief and even becomes sympathetic to Falwell himself, despite disagreeing strongly with him on many issues. Roose is a model of civility, and his participant-observer exercise in undercover journalism should help believers and unbelievers alike understand each other better.

I have been noticing in recent years that most arguments in religion or theology, as well as many attempts in evangelism and witness, go nowhere because people on different sides have different "plausibility structures" that make certain beliefs possible or impossible. In many ways, we are socialized into or out of our beliefs; we find ourselves in communities that support or reject our thinking, and we find new ideas more plausible when we are in subcultures or contexts where such beliefs are the norm. Kevin Roose dared to leave his previous context to immerse himself in a conservative evangelical world that his friends and families thought outrageous and even dangerous. The result was a certain degree of change in belief. It wasn't a dramatic Damascus-road conversion from 1 to 10, but perhaps more of a subtle shift from maybe a 3 to a 5 or 6.

I don't consider Liberty or Falwell my particular tribe; I find them to be more conservative than the moderate evangelical circles I usually move in. But Roose's book helped me see the Liberty community as real people and not just caricatures. And Roose himself is honest about his own doubts, objections and questions, giving Christian readers keen insights into how non-evangelicals hear and perceive evangelicals. This would be a great book for Christian and non-Christian friends to read and discuss together.

Part of me thinks this book should be made into a movie, though another part of me thinks that a Hollywood treatment would probably ruin the experience. Reading this book was an engrossing, immersive experience, one that evoked memories of my own undergrad years at a conservative Christian college. The Unlikely Disciple is a gripping narrative, and not just because you want to find out if he ends up with the cute evangelical Tina Fey-lookalike girl. This book is probably the closest that many folks will ever get to attending a school like Liberty, and it's amazing how Kevin Roose makes you wish the semester wouldn't fly by so quickly.


Kacie said...

I read the first few pages of this one at Borders and loved it... am waiting for my own copy now!

PaulAngone said...

Thanks AL for the honest and insightful review. I've heard so many good things about this book that now I just need to go buy it. And it always brings a smile on my face to see a young twentysomething getting his writing out there. Gives me confirmation that the rest of us struggling to be heard, can possibly be lent an ear.

Unknown said...

Sounds like a very interesting book.

Unknown said...

I even liked Jacobs' book ... mostly because by the end, he had discovered that it was more satisfying to thank God than to "be grateful." To me, that suggests that he'd accidentally moved from something like a -102 to a +5 on the "relating with God" scale, even if the exercise was individual and intended to be comedic. And of course, one of his next exercises was the month of doing everything his wife wanted him to do -- where he practiced loving his nearest neighbor as himself.