I’m sure I’m not the only one who buys books only to let them sit for years ignored and unread on some shelf. I’m also sure I’m not only one, who after finally reading one of these ignored and unread books, exclaims after finishing it, “that was great!” “Why did I wait so long to read it?” That is how I felt after reading Kevin Roose’s 2009 memoir The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University. This little gem of a book sat on my shelf for five years before I finally read it. Considering The Unlikely Disciple might be the most enjoyable book I’ve read so far this year, I’m kinda kicking myself for not reading it sooner. Really, I have no excuse. Back in 2011 Claire from The Captive Reader gave it a glowing review and that should have been enough for me to get off my duff and read it. But anyone who owns lots of books while at the same time is a heavy user of public library knows that it’s not easy to read everything you want to read, let alone what you should read.
Published in 2009, The Unlikely Disciple recalls the year Kevin Roose spent undercover as a sophomore at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. After visiting the conservative evangelical college as part of an assignment for writer A. J. Jacobs, he found himself fascinated with the place. Wondering what student life must be like at Liberty, he transferred from Brown University after his freshman year. Believing Liberty’s faculty and students would freak out if they discovered he was really an undercover journalist doing research he kept his mission a top-secret. At Liberty he threw himself headfirst into his covert project. From singing in Falwell’s church choir to faithfully attending prayer meetings and Bible studies and to even spending spring break “witnessing” to young partiers in sunny Florida he totally immersed himself in evangelical Christian subculture. All this from a young man who saw himself as very liberal and not very religious (a nominal Quaker at most).
I loved this book for a couple of reasons. One, it’s well written. Considering The Unlikely Disciple is his first book and he wrote it when he was 19 or 20 years old is even more impressive. Two, when describing his experiences at Liberty Roose is incredible fair and nonjudgemental towards the people around him. They’re never described as evil religious zealots or uber-conservative bomb throwers.
All in all, the Liberty student’s I’ve met are a lot more socially adjusted than I expected. They’re not rabid, frothing fundamentalists who spend their days sewing Hillary Clinton voodoo dolls and penning angry missives to the ACLU. Maybe I’m getting a skewed sample, but the ones I’ve met have been funny, articulate, and decidedly non-crazy. They play pickup basketball, partake in celebrity gossip, and gripe about homework just like my friends in the secular world. In fact, I suspect a lot of my hallmates at Liberty could fit in perfectly well at a secular college.
As he grows to respect and develop friendships with his fellow Liberty students the more he feels pangs of regret knowing he’s deceiving them in order to infiltrate their world. (These fears and misgivings also complicate any dating life he might have while attending Liberty.) Expecting to find only people who see the world just in black and white he instead finds the bulk of Liberty’s student body are far more complicated and nuanced to stereotype. He’s also surprised to learn that not all of them follow the University’s strict code of conduct all the time.
This is a fantastic book and I have no problem recommending it to readers of any, or even no religious persuasion. I can easily see it making my Best of List for 2014. I Highly recommend The Unlikely Disciple.