Here’s a book review I wrote for Epinions.com in 2009. Since I’ve been on a fundie kick lately, I’m reposting it here as/is.
Sometimes life can take you to places you never dreamed you’d go. Such was the case for Kevin Roose, who was, in the fall of 2006, a student at Brown University. Like so many other students of his ilk, Roose was very much a free spirit who liked to party. But Roose was also a curious reporter who happened to be working with author A.J. Jacobs. In 2007, Jacobs published his book The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible. Inspired by Jacobs’ experiment trying to live his life as literally by the Bible as possible, Roose decided to trade in his wild ways at Brown for a semester at Liberty University, a conservative evangelical Baptist school in Lynchburg, Virginia, founded by the late Jerry Falwell. Roose chronicles his experiences at Liberty in his book The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University (2009).
I had just started reading Jacobs’ book when I got my copy of Roose’s Unlikely Disciple. Though I was thoroughly enjoying reading about Jacobs’ stab at living biblically, I couldn’t resist putting down Jacobs’ book in favor of Roose’s. You see, I am a native of Virginia and graduated from Longwood College (now University). Longwood is located in Farmville, Virginia, just a mere 45 minutes east of Liberty. I had some high school friends who attended Falwell’s famous school and had driven past Liberty on many occasions on my way to my grandmother’s house in Natural Bridge, Virginia from Farmville. Though I never in a million years would have wanted to attend Liberty– not even for a semester– I have always been curious about the place. So reading Roose’s book seemed a lot more urgent to me than finishing Jacobs’ book was, even though it appears that Roose’s project was inspired by his mentor’s earlier work.
Obviously, Kevin Roose is very intelligent, since he managed to get into Brown University. His parents are very liberal and not very religious. Roose explains that they most closely identify with the Quakers but were never a particularly churchgoing lot. When Roose proposed to attend Liberty for a semester, his parents and the rest of his family were not too thrilled. Like so many other people, they had heard Jerry Falwell’s well publicized remarks about how secular America had caused God to punish Americans with 9/11. They had heard him talk about how Tinky Winky, the beloved purple Teletubby of the children’s show, was actually a symbol to promote the acceptance of homosexuality. They had seen Falwell on television, blustering about how the liberals were degrading America with immorality. Roose’s family and friends were shocked that he’d want to be associated with Jerry Falwell, even just for a semester. And yet, though he wasn’t that into being an evangelical Christian, Kevin Roose applied to Liberty University as a transfer student and was accepted.
Using a witty and appealing writing style, Roose explains what it was like to be a fish out of water at Liberty. He writes about how he had to learn to fit in as an evangelical Christian. The process was harder than the average person might realize. For one thing, Roose had to learn how to refrain from cursing while, at the same time, not react too harshly when he heard someone refer to a homosexual as a f*gg*t. Next, he had to learn about the Bible and actually take classes in the Old and New Testament. He had to change the way he approached members of the opposite sex, including the way he dated them. And he also had to stop drinking.
The results of Roose’s new lifestyle had some surprising effects on him. Though he knew he would only be at Liberty for a semester, Roose found himself changing with the experience, mostly in a positive way. Just quitting drinking allowed him to enjoy hangover free weekends. He also managed to score the last print interview with Jerry Falwell, who died at the bitter end of Roose’s semester at Liberty.
I hesitate to think that Liberty University is actually America’s “holiest” university. There are quite a few evangelical Christian colleges out there, at least a couple of which are much stricter than Liberty is. For instance, as Roose points out in his book, at Pensacola Christian College (PCC) in Pensacola, Florida, men and women use segregated stairwells and are not allowed to stare too long at each other. A prolonged gaze at someone of the opposite gender is known as “optical intercourse” or “making eye babies” and can lead to significant punishment. At Bob Jones University (BJU) in Greenville, South Carolina, students were not permitted to date outside of their races until the year 2000. And women are not permitted to wear pants in public at either PCC or BJU; instead, they have to wear long dresses or skirts with pantyhose. But, I think for someone like Kevin Roose, Liberty was probably holy enough. Shoot, I always thought Liberty University’s name was very ironic, considering the restrictions its students live with.
In any case, I really enjoyed reading Kevin Roose’s story about life at Liberty. I was very impressed by how much research Roose did, both in terms of the school and the conservative Christian movement in general. His writing is very easy and fun to read, as well as insightful. Having spent some time around college students and graduates of prestigious universities, I think I was afraid Roose might be a snob about going to Liberty after being at Brown. But Roose manages to maintain a very objective and open-minded attitude about Liberty. In fact, he even reveals some of the guilt he feels about hiding his true agenda from his new friends and colleagues. I half expected Roose to decide he wanted to stay at Liberty after all.
I think this book will really appeal to anyone who’s ever been curious about the religious right or Jerry Falwell. Roose includes some tidbits about Falwell that humanize the man a great deal. I also think The Unlikely Disciple is good reading for anyone who’s either attended or is planning to attend Liberty University– as long as they have a sense of humor. I would also recommend this book to anyone who’s just curious about it. It’s often very entertaining, yet ultimately rewarding to read. I came away from reading this book thinking that Kevin Roose’s life was greatly enriched from his semester at Liberty; so was mine, as a result of Roose’s willingness to share.
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