While assisting A.J. Jacobs during the writing of The Year Of Living Biblically, Brown University undergraduate Kevin Roose spent a day at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, home to 14,000 fundamentalist undergraduates, 800 creationist faculty members, and pastor, president, and Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell. Back in his Ivy League dormitory, Roose hatched the idea of spending a sort of semester abroad, except he wouldn’t be leaving American soil. Instead, he would transfer to Liberty University for a semester to find out from the inside what the student body, classes, and campus culture were really like.
The result is The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester At America’s Holiest University, a well-written, thoroughly entertaining, and surprisingly three-dimensional view of the institution Falwell often called “Bible Boot Camp.” Roose is an engaging, reflective guide to Liberty both in its strange and familiar aspects. Roose’s hallmates like to blow off steam by wrestling in the hallway, playing videogames, and talking about girls. They also have assigned residential prayer leaders, rules against hugging someone of the opposite sex for more than three seconds, and a homophobic atmosphere that would shame any fraternity. As might be expected, the student body is paleo-conservative and sincerely evangelical.
But Roose finds unexpected complexities in his new friends. They appreciate the protection their monolithic ideology and explicit behavioral guidelines provide against the kinds of temptations (and the need for making their own decisions) found at secular universities. But many are critical of “The Liberty Way,” the student handbook which prescribes male hair length, acceptable movie ratings, and dating policy. The general-education curriculum (including classes like Evangelism 101) makes a mockery of the liberal-arts tradition by injecting anti-evolution, pro-Protestant values into every lesson and every test. One of Roose’s classes featured a guest lecture by one of the many pastors of Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church, who pleaded with the 200 students in attendance not to “become educated beyond your obedience.” And some of Roose’s fellow students chafed openly at the restrictions on freedom of thought and inquiry in their classes.
But the charm and emotional heft of Roose’s book lies in his honesty about how Liberty changed him. He not only sees the attraction of a university filled with like-minded peers who share a common commitment, but he finds solace in some of the practices that bind them together, like daily prayer. The ways his hallmates display depth and difference tempers his concern about potential brainwashing. Yet Roose allows himself to get eloquently angry about the way that every event, even the Virginia Tech massacre (which happened during his Liberty semester), gets turned into a weapon for the administration’s pet cultural battles. And he’s disgusted with the gay-bashing that’s not only tolerated as typical male behavior, but actively encouraged through The Liberty Way’s obsession with sexual sin as the pinnacle of immorality.
Nevertheless, when Roose’s off-campus friends and family send him messages that betray their fear and loathing for the people sharing his education, it’s clear that Liberty doesn’t have a monopoly on intolerance. The Unlikely Disciple serves as a refreshing cease-fire in the wearying culture wars, likely holding surprises for anyone—theist, atheist, or somewhere in between—who gives it a chance.