"The Unlikely Disciple"

I finished this book over my recent vacation to Wisconsin. It's about a Brown student, Kevin Roose, who decides to "infiltrate" Liberty University (a conservative evangelical Christian college founded by the late Jerry Falwell) to discover what goes within the institution. Since Roose wasn't raised in an evangelical home his knowledge of Christianity is lacking so he has to "bone up" a bit in order to fit into Liberty's culture. Initially, Roose wrestles with the "Liberty Way" laws that restrict student's choices (e.g. no R movies, no sex, no sleeping in church services, etc.), which, if violated, carry varying penalties. He also deals with course material that champions young-earth creationist views and is deeply influenced with strong evangelical perceptions. As Roose moves through his semester, he learns that not everyone at Liberty is entirely comfortable with aspects of the university (e.g. one student wonders if having Liberty on his transcripts will hinder his ability to get into certain law schools). He also finds some interesting "support groups", one of which deals with helping kids to not masturbate (because, you know, that's evil and bad and stuff). He also gets the unique opportunity to interview Jerry Falwell just weeks before his death. All this time, he tries to play the part of being a Christian, and he finds out that being so immersed in that culture starts to affect his view of the world. In the end, he goes back to Brown and confesses to his Liberty friends what he was up to - suprisingly, he finds out that they are not angry with his "experiment" and he still keeps in touch with them.

This is a great book. Roose is a great writer, and you quickly forget that he's only in his early 20s (I highly doubt I could've ever pulled off what he did at that age and write about it with such humor, grace, and wit). He definitely has a liberal mindset, but he tries very hard to play the part and not tip anyone off as to what he's doing. However, he never tries to judge those around him; he's just trying to see what brings people to Liberty. It was interesting to see that by immersing himself in that culture, it inevitably seeps into his personality - he recalls going on weekend trips with old friends and seeing a gay couple holding hands and doing a double-take ... because he just hasn't seen that in such a long time, it's almost become foreign to him. It was also interesting to read of Roose's physical transformation. Being so focused on the courses and numerous activites that seem to take up a lot of every Liberty student's time and not going to the typical college parties, he ends up loosing a lot of weight and he feels more energetic.

I wish Roose would've spent a bit more time with his psychotic roommate who thinks that pretty much everyone is gay (and that's not the word the roommate uses to describe gays either). His roommate reminded me of Kevin Spacey's next door neighbor from the movie "American Beauty" in that he had an extreme hatred for gays ... but the truth was he was gay and was struggling with this fact. I had to wonder if Roose's roommate was gay but just could not bring himself to admitting that fact because that was "evil" and "abhorrent". Roose tries to interact with the guy, but in the end his roommate was too toxic to be around and figure out what was going in inside his head. I still wonder what happened to that guy, though ... is he going to pull a Haggard?

There were a fair amount of passages that I found really funny or interesting - here's a couple samples:

Here these pious Christians guys are trying to stave off lust at a college where thousands of world-class women stroll the halls. It'd be like going to Willy Wonka's chocolate factory with a wired jaw.

Entertaining a crisis of faith would mean reevaluating every aspect of your life, from the friends you hang out with to the classes you take to, really, whether you should be at Liberty at all. In a faith system as rigorous and all-encompassing as this, severe doubt is paralyzing. Better just to keep believing, keep living life, and take up the big questions later, when not so much is at stake.

At Liberty, I've met hundreds of people whose lives have been made better and more virtuous by their faith. But I've also seen a process whereby some reasonable, humble believers are taught to put their religious goals above everything else. This is how you get gentle Christian kids condemning strangers to hell in Daytona Beach, and it's how you end up with a group of Liberty students sitting around a prayer room talking about the ideological crops that can be reaped from a national tragedy.

Spending time alone with Dr. Falwell in his office hasn't made me a convert. When I look at him, I still see a man who has used his charisma and razor-sharp business acumen to spread the worst form of religion. He may be friendly and compassionate with his followers, but making a judgment of him based on how he treats the people in his flock seems a little like complimenting the builders of the Death Star for their solid metalwork. It might be true, but it's sort of beside the point.

As I watched her being dunked in the water, coming up with her hair dripping, the wet robe gripping her body, I can't stop my mind from wandering to that Denise Richards pool scene from Wild Things. Which probably means I'm not ready to get baptized, come to think of it.

I was part of the evangelical Christian world for a while in my life, and I always find it fascinating when someone does a study/report like this. Roose's experience when he goes to Daytona Beach brought up a lot of memories for me as I was one of those Christians who would go to Spring Break along with a bunch of Christians (all affiliated with Campus Crusade for Christ) and try to get people to convert to Christianity. Now, I view such activites as pointless, and Roose's experience demonstrates that dealing with people on Spring Break are just not interested in listening to evangelicals - in fact, people get downright hostile. I really can't blame them - I get quite annoyed these days if anyone tries to shove their religion in my fact. I tend to shove back harder.

This is book that I would easily recommend to anyone. Read it if you get the chance. I enjoyed it and I found it hard to put down.

* Posted at 07.07.2009 07:17:21 AM CST | Link *

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