Now here’s another memoir that capitalizes on a couple of trends I’ve noticed in my reading lately: the “I’ll do something odd for a year (in this case a semester) and write about it” trend, and the “friend of A.J. Jacobs whose book bears some striking similarities to his” trend. Kevin Roose was A.J. Jacobs’ intern when he wrote The Year of Living Biblically; you may recall the passage in which Jacobs decides he’ll take Kevin on as an intern on the condition that he’s allowed to refer to him as his “slave” and apply Biblical rules regarding slaves (although there are no beatings). Kevin got a pretty good payback from being a slave, because now his own book is out with a blurb from Jacobs on the front cover, which can’t hurt.
But say that his book is trendy and that he probably got some help and guidance from his former slave-owner is not intended in any way to denigrate Kevin Roose’s accomplishment in The Unlikely Disciple. His plan was to attend Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University for a semester (Kevin was a student at Brown University at the time) to explore from inside the world of evangelical Christianity, which to him was an alien culture. Coming from a family of not particularly devout Quakers, Roose went “underground” at Liberty, pretending to be a born-again Christian. The fact that he didn’t come clean about his background and motives created some strain in his new friendships, but allowed him to see Liberty students and faculty, at least to some degree, as they would see each other, rather than presenting their best face to an outsider.
What Kevin Roose discovered at Liberty University comes as no shock to anyone who’s actually attended a conservative Christian college. He discovered that the Liberty student body was no vast conservative monolith but a collection of diverse people: along with students who wholeheartedly embraced the Liberty lifestyle he found rebels who broke the rules and critical thinkers who questioned the rules. He found that conservative Christian college students were real people, people who became his friends, people who were able to have fun and enjoy their college years even without weekly bouts of drunken partying. He found people who sincerely and genuinely believed and lived out their faith, as well as those who were just going through the motions. He found people who were loving and accepting as well as a few who were harsh and judgemental.
As I said, no shock to anyone who’s actually lived in a conservative Christian mileu. But the important point here is that all this was a shock to Kevin Roose, and he believes it would have been to most of his family, friends, and fellow students at Brown. In fact, throughout the semester at Liberty, Roose’s friends on the “outside” seem to be constantly concerned that he’ll end up either brainwashed, or tarred and feathered. The premise of the book is that America’s cultural divide is so deep that those on either side of the right/left, Christian/secular border know almost nothing about each other, and that lack of knowledge breeds hatred and mistrust.
Kevin Roose’s goal in spending a semester at Liberty and writing this book was to throw a bridge across that cultural divide, and in his own small way he seems to have been successful. He certainly emerges with a better appreciation of who conservative Christians are and what motivates them, and shares it with his readers in prose that is always witty and fun to read. At the same time, he doesn’t uncritically accept what he hears at Liberty. The far-right-wing politics, the narrowing down of political focus to a handful of issues, the widespread homophobia — all these things bother him. But what bothers him perhaps even more is that he is learning to love and respect the people who hold these views — including, to his own surprise, Jerry Falwell himself, when Kevin gets an exclusive interview with him. This turns out to be Falwell’s last print interview, as he suddenly dies during final exams, leaving the Liberty campus in mourning and leaving Kevin Roose with a killer ending for his book.
The epilogue tells us about how Kevin eventually came clean and confessed his motives to his friends at Liberty — much later than I would have liked him to do; he basically waited till the book was about to come out and he couldn’t hide anymore, whereas it seemed clear to me from his own narrative that he could have admitted the truth near the end of his Liberty semester without losing face.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. One of the unexpected effects it had on me was to make me nostalgic for the three years I spent at Andrews University (the Seventh-day Adventist university in Michigan where I got my undergrad degree). Andrews in those days was an atmosphere very similar, in many ways, to Liberty University as Kevin Roose describes it, and I came to it partly as an insider — a practicing and deeply commited Adventist kid — and partly as an outsider — having grown up in a place far away from the large centres of concentrated, institutional Adventism many of my classmates had come from, and having already spent a year at public university. I loved almost every minute of those three years and would gladly go back and re-live any day of them. Reading Kevin Roose’s book made me wonder how life at an Adventist college appears to outsiders, and whether they would come away with any of the same warmth and appreciation for our subculture — and whether any of the same things would turn them away from fully embracing our community and our beliefs.
Though Kevin Roose undergoes some moments of spiritual awakening and transformation while at Liberty, he does not choose to become a born-again Christian. Here, again, he’s a bit like his mentor Jacobs, who did not decide to become an Orthodox Jew after spending a year observing all the Biblical commandments, but who did find that the experience brought a new spiritual depth to his life as a secular Jewish agnostic. Likewise, Kevin Roose doesn’t accept Jesus and get saved, but he does learn to pray and to be open to the possibility of God in the world. He points out that to his born-again friends at Liberty, that’s not “enough,” but I think it’s a pretty important step. It speaks well of both Kevin Roose and of the people he encountered at Liberty that he came away from the experience with greater openness towards, and understanding of, evangelical Christianity, rather than being completely turned off.