Heathpie’s CBR-III Review #7 – The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University

When I was in high school, my cousins bought tickets for the three of us to see the Christian band Jars of Clay – I was a fan. The songs were catchy and they didn’t seem to have a super-religious overtone. But… wow. The “concert” ended up being a evangelical come-to-Jesus kind of thing with a multitude of bands intercut with preaching, testifying, and hymn-singing, and when the headliners finally emerged, they only played five songs.

What made it really strange to us, though, having grown up just as Christian as everyone else (so we thought), was that everyone around us seemed to know the various prayers and hymns. “You know the song! Sing along!” And everyone around us would be belting out lyrics, one arm raised to the ceiling and the other on the heart, and the three of us glanced at each other, confused. Left out.

Then people began running down to the stage to be “saved,” and we decided that it was time to leave. We were worried that someone would notice that we were different and try to convert us. Try to get us to be… saved.

It wasn’t until recently that I finally understood that event.

When I put The Unlikely Disciple on hold at the library, there were nine people ahead of me on the waitlist. And now that I’ve finished it, I understand why. It is a best-seller because the author experienced first-hand what it was like to enter the evangelical Christian community as an outsider, and the book was received so well because the author chose to learn why these people tick rather than writing a tell-all mocking them.

Kevin Roose, a student at Brown University, enrolled at Liberty University for one semester with the goal of learning more about a community of people with beliefs far from his own. Founded by the controversial evangelical minister, Jerry Falwell, Kevin immersed himself in a completely new lifestyle for months. He joined the choir at Falwell’s church, he made good friends, he learned to follow The Liberty Way, and he even dated a bit (of course, hand-holding was as far as he could go physically, or he could run the risk of paying a fine and earning demerits).

What he discovered at “America’s Holiest University” was that the students, staff, and faculty were, for the most part, very good people who truly believed in Jesus, the Gospel, and spreading the word of God. And getting through college.

Oh, and finding a spouse, of course.

But Liberty University had policies that made Kevin shake with rage, especially their deeply-held rule against the teaching of evolution and the criminalization and immorality of homosexuality. Professors were carefully chosen by the administration, and anyone who threatened to overturn the set curriculum was dismissed.

Once in a while, at one of the tri-weekly convocation sessions, someone would be “saved.” He or she would accept Jesus and pledge to live his or her life in service of the Lord. And it would be the talk of campus. The whole thing was somewhat interesting, until Roose discovered that only those who were “saved” would be accepted into Heaven. Your religion didn’t matter – Catholic? Methodist? Baptist? Sorry! You’re going to Hell.

Unless you get the call to serve the Lord, of course.

Roose writes very, very well. The book flowed more like a work of fiction than an autobiographical account, and it was almost impossible to set down. Roose maintained his journalistic integrity, but peppered his account with his own thoughts and opinions, making the narrative even richer. The fact that he was very deeply opposed to many of the things that occurred on Liberty’s campus made it more than an interesting read – one had to wonder if he was ever going to snap.

And there was always the chance that he would be discovered as an outsider.

I highly recommend this book. I would especially encourage anyone with a more liberal mindset to consider picking it up, as it really gives humanity and truth to a group of people who, I think, are mostly misunderstood as over-the-top, religious zealots.

Had I read a book like this before going to that concert years ago, the whole experience would have made much more sense. I wouldn’t have been as confused (and frankly, scared), and perhaps I would have been able to enjoy myself more.

But I probably wouldn’t have gone down to the stage to be “saved.” I’m a hell-bound Catholic, after all.



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6 responses to “Heathpie’s CBR-III Review #7 – The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University

  1. Even Stevens

    Thanks for this review, I love reading stuff like this. I’ve been Catholic and then became Christian as a teen and now I suppose I still am Christian, but I’ve definitely fallen out of practice. I often find it hard to reconcile my beliefs about gay marriage (for it) and relationships and many other things with church policies, which I often just flat out disagree with. But I still love God and still have my faith. So thanks for recommending a book that doesn’t approach every Christian as a raving lunatic.

  2. Krista

    Thanks for the review! I bought this a few weeks ago when I bought a nook and I’m looking forward to reading it. The whole premise of the book intrigues me and from the few snippets I read at the bookstore before I bought it on my nook, it’s a very well-written book.

  3. I should really read this book. I was raised in a rather fundamentalist Christian family and now I’m a liberal Episcopalian, and sometimes describe myself as an agnostic Christian. Even as an outwardly good Christian girl, I struggled when I was surrounded by my kind and there was lots of spiritual talk or fervent prayers or vigorous chorus singing. I could not get into it, though I faked it well, especially the singing, which I enjoyed as long as I wasn’t expected to close my eyes and wave my hands in the air. I at least didn’t go to a Christian university, though I joined the Baptist Student Union at my college. I did date a guy at a conservative Christian university and went to visit him there for a special banquet (not a dance, of course). I was shocked by the strict rules as I’d come from a coed dorm with very little regulations. I also kept tugging my dress down because it was a bit short by their standards, and of course when I did that I showed more cleavage than I was supposed to show. Weird night.

    Anyway, great review and I’ll have to read this some time. Even some of us raised in this culture need to be reminded of the good and the bad instead of just seeing those Christians as cartoons.

  4. Great review indeed. He’s a stronger person than I would’ve been. I would’ve snapped probably within the first week, ha.

  5. I’m definitely going to have to pick up this book. I went to a Christian college, but it was way more liberal than Liberty. I had a friend that went there and attended one of their “college weekend” things when I was in high school. I knew after that one weekend that it was too strict for me…and I’ve grown up in church. I’m grateful that my college was very accepting of just about anyone. We had gay students, non-Christians, people who were unsure of their beliefs…I even remember an unwed pregnant girl who attended with no problems.

    Thanks for the review!

  6. mswas

    I read this for CBR2 and enjoyed it just as much as you did. I completely agree with your entire review – well done!

    I just googled him to find out what he’s doing next and I found his blog: http://kevinroose.com/ . Looks like he’s doing a lot to get discussion going about his book. Check out http://kevinroose.com/jonah/.

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