The Unlikely Disciple (review: 4/5)

The Unlikely Disciple
The Unlikely Disciple chronicles Kevin Roose’s semester “abroad”–he transfers colleges for a semester, from Brown University to Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. This is exactly the kind of nonfiction I like: adventurous, curious, open-minded, respectful. You get a sense of his attitude in the Acknowledgements section, where Roose’s final thank-you is to the students, faculty and administration at Liberty: “By experiencing your warmth, your vigorous generosity of spirit, and your deep complexity, I was ultimately convinced—not that you were right, necessarily, but that I had been wrong.” I love that attitude. LOVE.

Why did he do it? Unfamiliarity, mostly:

One recent study showed that 51 percent of Americans don’t know any evangelical Christians, even casually. And until I visited Thomas Road, that was me. My social circle at Brown included atheists, agnostics, lapsed Catholics, Buddhists, Wiccans, and more non-observant Jews than you can shake a shofar at, but exactly zero born-again Christians. The evangelical world, in my mind, was a cloistered, slightly frightening community whose values and customs I wasn’t supposed to understand. So I ignored it.

I’m in the half that knows quite a few evangelicals, so it was really refreshing to see them treated sympathetically. It is so easy to dismiss crowds you might not agree with, or that you only know by association with FOX News (shudder). Roose offers a bunch of anthropological observations, which I found to be the best part, because many of them ring so true:

Outside of Jane Austen novels, nowhere is marriage a more frequent topic of conversation than at Christian college.

He also talks a bit about how, even at an evangelical college, everybody doubts… There’s a sort of paranoia about yourself and a concern for others that animates social life. What he first perceives as prying (“Are you saved?”) is actually an expression of genuine concern. And at the same time, this paranoia is balanced with a kind of self-help/empowerment vibe. Sin and salvation are two sides of the same coin:

Of all the people I expected to have a moral awakening this semester, Joey was at the bottom of the list. Liberty does this to you, though. It tempts you with the constant possibility of personal realignment.

Later in the book he joins a group for a spring break evangelism trip, down at the wild, sinful beaches of Florida. No success. Part of what cripples this crowd is a language barrier:

Claire’s other problem is total linguistic isolation. She, like many other Liberty students, speaks in long, flowery strings of opaque Christian speak. When a twenty-something guy named Rick tells Claire he doesn’t believe in God, Claire sighs and says, “Listen, Rick. There’s a man named Jesus Christ, and he came into my heart and changed me radically. And there is a God who loves you, and who sent his son to die on the cross for you, to take away your sins and my sins, and God shows himself to me every day. When I don’t have hope for tomorrow, Jesus never fails. His love is never ending.”

It’s no surprise that language is one thing that separates particular communities, but I’d never thought about it in a religious context before. Later in the book, when he’s talking about conversion, he echoes the bit about language and community:

Maybe the transition isn’t so smooth when the foreign experiences deal with God. The anthropologist Susan Harding defines a religious conversion as the acquisition of a form of religious language, which happens the same way we acquire any other language–through exposure and repetition. In other words, we don’t necessarily know when we’ve crossed the line into belief.

If there’s a weakness in this book, it’s that I would have liked to read more about the culture that is Liberty University. He says he peppers other people about their history, beliefs, reasons for being at Liberty, etc. (sometimes to the point of raising suspicions of his true purpose there), but it’s mostly about his own experience. This is a fair approach, but there’s still a voyeuristic side of me that would like to dig more into the sociology of the college itself. Anyway, great book. Recommended.