Book Review: The Unlikely Disciple

(Author’s note: this review originally appeared at Blogcritics.org. I let them have the search engine mojo on this one because I got the book in no small part thanks to my association with them. It was originally posted on May 2, 2009, but I wanted to make sure it was available here on my own site as well.)

In the spring of 2007, a young man left the comfortable confines of his liberal university to spend a semester studying another culture. Actually, that happened to a lot of young men, most likely – studies abroad happen frequently in academia. This particular semester was different, though; Kevin Roose was studying a different culture right in his own country. Kevin left Brown University to travel south to Lynchburg, Virginia, and enroll in Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. And he wrote a book about it.

Kevin was truly exploring a different culture. Raised nominally Quaker, liberal, staunchly Democratic, he was headed into a bastion of right wing religious conservatism. He didn’t know what to expect, and I’m sure he had all the same nightmares that a missionary heading to Africa for the first time might have. But just like most missionaries, Kevin Roose learned something that shocked him:

The students at Liberty were normal people. The faculty were normal people. And even the “monster” himself, Jerry Falwell, was a normal person.

The book was, I’m sure, intended to be an expose of what went on at Liberty University. Instead, The Unlikely Disciple became a fascinating story of how one young man, who was willing to approach things in an open-minded fashion, learned something about “the other side” of the Culture Wars. He learned that they were human.

Roose’s story paralleled my own experience at Liberty in some very interesting ways, even though I was there 20 years before him. His stories of Dorm 22’s rebels reminded me of my sophomore year at Liberty, when I lived on the “Hell Side” of Dorm 4. We were the pranksters, the “reprobates,” the guys who usually got blamed when something bad happened (like the 3 AM fire alarms). We even got our own radio dedication β€” someone requested Guns N’ Roses’ “Welcome To The Jungle” and dedicated it to “Dorm 4 β€” the Hell Side!” at Liberty. So I knew what Roose ended up learning β€” the kids at Liberty don’t walk lockstep behind Jerry Falwell. And much like Kevin Roose, my own spirituality changed a bit at Liberty – but rather than changing from a completely non-spiritual person into someone who was more spiritual, I changed from a hardcore, King James Bible Only fighting fundamentalist to a much less hardcore, thoughtful, reasonable evangelical.

One of Roose’s themes in the book is that faith and reason are not mutually exclusive, even when Liberty says it is. That, in fact, is something I learned at Liberty, though I can’t really say that any of my professors taught it to me. I learned it in much the same way Kevin Roose learned his lessons at Liberty – from the people I met there. From roommates, dorm mates, RA’s, prayer leaders. From seeing what others were going through. From seeing that there were people who were good Christians who believed differently from me on many issues, and realizing that was okay.

This is an important book for people on both sides of the God Gap. The “secular liberals” need to be aware that there are actual human beings on the other side; the conservative Christians need to do the same. I find it ironic that some of the most heated criticism for the book has come not from Liberty students but from the left, who are convinced that Roose needs to be deprogrammed because of his stay at Jerry Falwell’s reeducation center. They miss the point of the book, unfortunately.

But there is also value for evangelicals as well. We need to see how we are perceived, because even as many of those perceptions are wrong, they are wrong because of the way we present ourselves. Our rhetoric and our preaching are nothing if they don’t match our lives, and far too often they don’t. Our beliefs do not match our actions, and that’s a stinging indictment.

If I had the money, I would buy a copy of The Unlikely Disciple and hand it out in convocation on Monday at Liberty. Thankfully, the book is available at the new bookstore on campus; unfortunately, it contains a somewhat misleading disclaimer that the administration has placed in each book. If there are factual errors in the book (and I have personally heard Jerry Falwell tell us that Christians need to feed the hungry before we can ever hope to witness to them, which is one issue the disclaimer addresses), it is because we haven’t been clear concerning our message, or our intent. We need to be aware of how we are perceived, and take steps within our beliefs to change that perception.

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