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Pondering the pages ~ The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University by Kevin Roose

April 15, 2009

theunlikelydiscipleSo last night I finished The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University by Kevin Roose. It was enlightening, informative, entertaining and in places eye popping and mind boggling. For being a young man 19 years of age and experiencing college in two vastly different environments I thought he did a fabulous job of comparing the differences and the sameness among students and university life at both colleges. I thought it was balanced not leaning too much one direction or another. Kevin’s Quaker, democratic, liberal background is so vastly different from his soon to be friends that I wasn’t sure how well he’d adapt to living in a strictly controlled, structured, totally religious environment. He came through with flying colors. Along the way he learned some valuable life lessons. And really isn’t that what college is about – the experience.

How does a student from one of the most liberal universities, Brown (university link) end up at one of the most conservative, Liberty (university link)? Well for Kevin it started with a research trip to Thomas Road Baptist Church. Thomas Road Baptist Church and environs were conceived of and brought to life by the late Reverend Jerry Falwell. Being a budding journalist and inquisitive young man his interest is piqued by this weekend trip to God’s country. “These days, it seems like all my college friends talk about is study abroad, the modern rite of passage in which students spend a semester in Paris, Barcelona, Munich or any of the other first- world cities with low minimum drinking ages. The appeal of these programs – at least from a school’s perspective – is that experiencing a foreign culture firsthand makes us more informed global citizens. But what about American citizens? Here, right in my time zone, was a culture more foreign to me than any European capital, and these foreigners vote in my elections! So why not do a domestic study abroad? If I enrolled at Liberty for semester, I’d get to take the same classes, attend the same church services, and live under the same rules as my evangelical peers. And maybe I’d be able to use what I found to help bridge our country’s God Divide, or at least to understand it better.” [The Unlikely Disciple by Kevin Roose, pages 10-11].

So we join Kevin on his journey through “Bible Boot Camp” where it’s all about “training champions for Christ”™. His semester isn’t much different from that of the average college student: he attends class, goes to study group, takes exams, participates in extracurricular activities, he shares a room with two other guys, and occasionally dates. But he also sings in the church choir, goes to religious services several times a week, learns to pray and attends pray groups, is mentored by a campus religious leader. It’s typical in so many ways yet different in a hundred others. Boys will be boys and they do boy things. (My personal favorites are the band of renegades who hang out in Jersey Joey’s room breaking rules while trying to reconcile the life they lead with the Liberty way.) They tease each other, rough house, hang out, watch R-rated movies, drink, smoke, talk about, and eye, the girls, surf Facebook and Myspace. What won’t happen at most universities is punishment. And these types of activities at Liberty are heavily regulated along with curfews, dress codes,  and public displays of affection. They are punishable by reprimands, fines and community service. In some cases expulsion.

It’s a roller coaster of emotions. It’ll challenge what you know, or think you know. Fact versus fiction. It’ll test you in ways you never imagined. It even might put you up against a wall or back you into a corner. Biases and prejudices will get called out. Be careful how and who you judge. You meet the hard liners, the liberals, and those straddling the middle road between the two. You’re greeted by ordinary, everyday young people who struggle with the same issues as their secular counterparts – belonging, dating, sex, grades, professors, gossip, parental control, sibling  rivalry.

While Kevin doesn’t buy into everything he was exposed to over that four month period he did come to some revelations of his own. It changed him in ways he never anticipated. It gave him some grounding. He has since returned to Brown and accumulated back into life there but carries with him bits and pieces of his Liberty experience.

It’s culture shock 101. All of my understanding of Evangelicalism before this has been through various modern media outlets. If you’re looking for some real, been there, done that, insight into the world of Evangelical Christians and what makes the youth of this religion tick pick up The Unlikely Disciple. I wasn’t disappointed and I don’t think you will be either.

Take a peek inside:


A good book should leave you…slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading it.
~William Styron, interview, Writers at Work, 1958


  1. April 15, 2009 9:19 pm

    As someone who lives slightly less than an hour from Liberty, this book sounds especially interesting. This one is going on my TBR list. It should be very entertaining.

    • April 16, 2009 4:04 pm

      It is very entertaining. Just remember to keep an open mind! 🙂

  2. April 16, 2009 6:16 am

    Great review. This is in my TBR pile and I look forward to reading it. (We pass Liberty every time we drive to my in-laws.)

    • April 16, 2009 4:06 pm

      Thank you. It was kind of an addictive read. He had quite the semester and it ended on a very emotional note.

  3. April 16, 2009 8:28 am

    I definitely want to read this one. Since my education was kinda the opposite – very conservatively religious for the first 13 years, and the public university – I have a feeling I will relate to the author, although possibly in a backwards way.

    • April 16, 2009 4:08 pm

      If my copy didn’t already have a new home it’d be on it’s way to you. I think you would enjoy this one. While I lean much more in Kevin’s direction nevertheless it was very enlightening and I’m glad I picked up.

  4. Carol permalink
    April 16, 2009 10:52 am

    This one sounds really interesting, it’s already on my TBR list.

  5. April 16, 2009 4:09 pm

    It is very interesting. I enjoyed this author’s take on the whole situation because he actually lived the life for 4 months blending in with his new peer set.

  6. Warren permalink
    April 16, 2009 7:54 pm

    I’m a Liberty grad (class of ’86) and I’m looking forward to reading this one. I’ve heard from some folks who were on campus while Roose was there, and they all seemed pretty interested in his take on things (though one resented being “written about like we’re some pack of gorillas in the Congo that he was able to observe up close.”

    Also ironic that Roose was the last person to interview Jerry before he died (not sure if he discussed that in the book).

    • April 17, 2009 5:41 pm

      Kevin Roose does write about his interview with Dr. Falwell in this book. It was interesting that he choose to make it more about the person than about beliefs and doctrines. And what he comes away from that interview was interesting also. He didn’t/doesn’t agree with the teachings/beliefs/practices but he liked him as a man and a man of integrity, in the sense that Dr. Falwell never wavered or backtracked. He also writes about Dr. Falwell’s passing, the effect on the staff and student body and staying on campus for the funeral.


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