Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University

The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest UniversityThe Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University by Kevin Roose

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I could not put this book down.

Kevin Roose, an Ivy League-educated liberal agnostic with a Quaker upbringing, decided that instead of doing a semester abroad like everyone else at Brown University, he would explore a different culture right here in the U.S.A., that of evangelical Christianity.

He spent a semester somewhat undercover at Liberty University, which was founded by Rev. Jerry Falwell. His parents and in particular, his lesbian aunts, were very worried about his decision to consort with the enemy. They worried that he would be outed as a liberal, or worse, become converted and change entirely.

Although Roose found much to trouble him (blatant homophobia, subtle and not-so-subtle racism, pure disregard for science and history, and sexist attitudes toward women, men, and marriage), he also found himself making friends. He realized that not all evangelical Christians are as conservative or straightforward as he had thought. He discovered that he actually envied their passion and the deeper meaning and purpose in their lives. He found that living a "cleaner" college life (without alcohol or partying) resulted in feeling a whole lot healthier. He actually enjoyed some of his religion classes, and found himself challenged by some of the curriculum (while other classes were hopelessly full of defenses of the bible vs. science and other academic truths). He made some great friends with people whose company he truly enjoyed, even though their backgrounds and beliefs were very different.

Beyond classes and university life, his adventures included going on a spring break trip to Daytona Beach to attempt to convert the partying heathens; going on dates with evangelical girls (one of whom he becomes very attached to, and decides to stop seeing because he realizes he's not being honest with her); singing in the massive choir at Jerry Falwell's enormous church; going to see a pastor/professor who specializes in helping gay men conquer their sexual orientation; interviewing Jerry Falwell for a university magazine article and finding that he could be charming as well as infuriating; and being actually moved by Falwell's death, when he saw the way the community reacted to the event. (Falwell died a few days before the end of the semester.)He also had a violently homophobic roommate who was convinced that Roose was gay (if only because he didn't join in the homophobic taunts), and Roose actually began fearing for his safety during his time there.

What I liked about this book is that it shows us that if everyone can find some common ground, perhaps we would all understand each other a little better. Roose did not get "born again" when he was at Liberty. His aunts, parents, and Brown friends were relieved when he left.

As of publication, Kevin Roose was a senior at Brown. The fact that he could write such a compelling, well-written book, combined with his ability to keep his mouth shut and stay somewhat undercover during his semester "abroad," means that he will be a much better journalist than I ever could be.

I will always remember sitting in a bible study during my freshman year at PLU (which attracted a lot of evangelical Christians because it was a Christian university), and the other girls were expressing worry that some of their friends would go to hell. I said that my best friend from high school was Jewish (and turned out to be gay, as well), and I didn't believe for one second that a loving God would send him to hell. We got into a heated debate, and I never went back. This was essential for my sanity and well-being...but perhaps not so good for the hope of everyone understanding each other's viewpoints better. I find that I do not have patience to get into heated debates with other people, especially if I sense that the other person does not respect my opinion.

Roose, however, was respectful and open to being changed by the experience. If every person could spend 3 to 4 months in another culture, religion, or environment, we would be a more peaceful world, because we would understand each other just a tiny bit more. And that would be a wonderful thing. I look forward to reading more of Kevin Roose in the future.

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