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

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

4.1 299
by Kevin Roose

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No drinking.
No smoking.

No cursing.
No dancing.
No R-rated movies.

Kevin Roose wasn't used to rules like these. As a sophomore at Brown University, he spent his days drinking fair-trade coffee, singing in an a cappella group, and fitting right in with Brown's free-spirited, ultra-liberal student body. But


No drinking.
No smoking.

No cursing.
No dancing.
No R-rated movies.

Kevin Roose wasn't used to rules like these. As a sophomore at Brown University, he spent his days drinking fair-trade coffee, singing in an a cappella group, and fitting right in with Brown's free-spirited, ultra-liberal student body. But when Roose leaves his Ivy League confines to spend a semester at Liberty University, a conservative Baptist school in Lynchburg, Virginia, obedience is no longer optional.

Liberty is the late Reverend Jerry Falwell's "Bible Boot Camp" for young evangelicals, his training ground for the next generation of America's Religious Right. Liberty's ten thousand undergraduates take courses like Evangelism 101, hear from guest speakers like Sean Hannity and Karl Rove, and follow a forty-six-page code of conduct that regulates every aspect of their social lives. Hoping to connect with his evangelical peers, Roose decides to enroll at Liberty as a new transfer student, leaping across the God Divide and chronicling his adventures in this daring report from the front lines of America's culture war.

His journey takes him from an evangelical hip-hop concert to choir practice at Falwell's legendary Thomas Road Baptist Church. He experiments with prayer, participates in a spring break mission trip to Daytona Beach (where he learns to preach the gospel to partying coeds), and pays a visit to Every Man's Battle, an on-campus support group for chronic masturbators. He meets pastors' kids, closet doubters, Christian rebels, and conducts what would be the last print interview of Rev. Falwell's life.
Hilarious and heartwarming, respectful and thought-provoking, THE UNLIKELY DISCIPLE will inspire and entertain believers and nonbelievers alike. Ebook exclusive: Bonus quiz

Editorial Reviews

Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
It's midnight in Lynchburg, Virginia, and Roose is kneeling on his dorm room floor. No, he's not reeling from too much beer. He's praying. And at Liberty University, such behavior is fairly uneventful. The world's largest evangelical college, with a 10,000-strong study body, Liberty is a training ground for the conservative Christian right, which until his death, was lorded over by the Reverend Jerry Falwell. So what happens when a fairly typical student from an Ivy League university tries a semester at Bible boot camp?

His Bible in hand, Roose embarked on a new life slated to last just one semester, with no pot smoking, no binge drinking, and no sex. He hewed to a rigorous new path of Bible study, choir practice, and prayer groups. But a month into his Southern sojourn, he discovers the worrisome part: he's feeling his own beliefs shift. Is it a great awakening? Maybe, maybe not.

A fresh, candid look at what goes on behind the closed doors of our nation's Christian colleges, The Unlikely Disciple is a revelation: a completely balanced memoir that shows us, with the aid of Roose's keen eye and generous spirit, that faith is a lot more complicated than it seems. (Summer 2009 Selection)
Blake Wilson
Roose has a dry, age-appropriate sense of humor, but he carefully avoids any snark…Roose's "amateur ethnography" is most useful not for its quick glosses of political and doctrinal issues, but for its vivid, sunny and skeptical portrait of life among the saved.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

In what could be described as religious gonzo journalism, Roose documents his experiences as a student for a semester at Liberty University, the largest Christian fundamentalist university in the United States. Coming from progressive Brown University, the author admits that the transition to Liberty, with its iron-clad attempts at controlling student behavior, came with much anxiety. He trains himself to control his foul language and even begins to pray and study the Bible regularly, much to the bewilderment of his liberal Quaker parents. He suffers his way through a course debunking evolution, but finds enjoyment in a Scripture class. Roose may be young-he's a 19-year-old college sophomore-but he writes like a seasoned veteran and obviously enjoys his work. He quickly makes friends at Liberty, but is naïvely stunned and not a little disgusted by their antigay rhetoric. School founder Rev. Jerry Falwell granted Roose an interview for the student newspaper shortly before the famous evangelical's death in May 2007. "Complicated" is how Roose describes Falwell, which is a good descriptor for his undercover student experience. (Mar.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

This highly readable, entertaining, and thought-provoking narrative offers an insider's account of fundamentalist Christian culture from an outsider's secular perspective. When he was a Brown University sophomore (he'll graduate this year with a degree in English literature but has already had work published in Esquire and Spin), Roose opted to spend a semester "abroad" in Lynchburg, VA, as a student at Liberty University, founded by Jerry Falwell and now the world's largest evangelical university. Working undercover as an amateur journalist/ethnographer, Roose describes Liberty campus life as he experiences it, from faculty course lectures in creationism to abiding by the Liberty Way, a strict code of conduct that forbids "immoral" activities such as R-rated movies, student demonstrations, and physical contact beyond a three-second hug. As Roose reinvents himself for the role, he forms relationships with the Liberty students and faculty (including meeting and interviewing Falwell, who died in May 2007) that challenge his assumptions about fundamentalist Christian culture. Humorous anecdotes are interspersed with thoughtful analysis. Recommended for libraries of all types. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 11/5/08.]
—Brian Greene

Kirkus Reviews
Ivy League student spends three months immersed in an alien culture at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University. Instead of cavorting through the major European capitals for a semester like many students his age, Roose shocked family and friends by enrolling at one of the nation's most conservative Christian universities. After an attempt to interact honestly with his fundamentalist peers was met with awkward silence and resistance, Roose decided to go undercover, pretending to be a recently converted evangelical Christian in order to write about the reality of life on campus. To improve the ruse, he added his voice to the 300-strong Thomas Road Baptist Church choir, joined weekly Bible studies and one-on-one prayer sessions with his dorm buddies, and even traveled to Daytona Beach during spring break to evangelize on the frontlines. Reared in a liberal Quaker home, Roose had to develop a new body of knowledge, from Young Earth creationism to the trials and triumphs of "witnessing" for Jesus. Participation in this hyper-religious community of young people led him to identify more with his friends at Liberty, blurring the line between the writing project and his own faith. Therein lay the danger of his experiment: Roose lost much of his objectivity by drawing too close to the group he studied. Throughout the semester, he noted the progress of the transformation, but he chose to dwell on its positive aspects, such as an increasing sense of connection to God and the cherished realization that not all fundamentalist Christians are hate-mongering hypocrites. The climax of his semester was his interview of Falwell just days before his death. The author's complex emotions about the interview andFalwell's death signaled that, like it or not, his semester at Liberty had altered Roose's way of thinking-though perhaps not permanently, as he was still a teenager at the time and would soon return to the uber-liberal embrace of Brown University. Problematic but engaging participant observation.
From the Publisher
"Hallelujah for Kevin Roose. This is a remarkable book. He takes us on a fascinating, funny, nuanced journey that doesn't condescend or make glib judgments. It's just what the culture wars need. If I didn't already have kids, I'd adopt Kevin."

--A.J. Jacobs, New York Times bestselling author of The Year Of Living Biblically

"What happens when a Brown undergrad goes undercover at Liberty University? If he's a writer as insightful and open-minded as Kevin Roose, he ends up learning as much about himself as he does about the evangelical Christians he lives with. The Unlikely Disciple provides a funny, compassionate, and revealing look at Jerry Falwell's 'Bible Boot Camp,' and the surprisingly diverse band of true believers who make it their home."

--Tom Perrotta, New York Times bestselling author of Little Children and The Abstinence Teacher

"Kevin Roose has produced a textured, intelligent, even sympathetic, account of his semester at Liberty University. He eschews caricature and the cheap shot in favor of keen observation and trenchant analysis. THE UNLIKELY DISCIPLE is a book of uncommon wisdom and insight. I recommend it with enthusiasm."

--The Rev. Dr. Randall Balmer, Episcopal Priest and Professor of American Religious History at Barnard College, Columbia University

"[Kevin] tells his story entertainingly...level-headed, nuanced, keenly observant."

"Kevin Roose is a delightful writer, and this is a humane book. Read it and I predict you'll have less paranoia, more exposure to 'the other,' and a larger dose of Roose's generous and hopeful faith."
--Brian McLaren, author of A New Kind of Christian, A Generous Orthodoxy, and Everything Must Change

"Keenly observed, funny, and compassionate. Kevin Roose parachutes us into a seldom-glimpsed and little understood pocket of America, then guides us through a story of religion and country more resonant than any of us could have imagined."
--Robert Kurson, New York Times bestselling author of Shadow Divers and Crashing Through

"This is a brilliant book. Absolutely brilliant. Roose's wisdom, humanity, and love kept me going. And I laughed. A lot."
-- Rob Bell, founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church and bestselling author of Velvet Elvis and Sex God

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Read an Excerpt

Prepare Ye

It’s midnight at Liberty University, and I’m kneeling on the floor of my dorm room, praying.

This is not a particularly unusual event. Any night of the week, a quick stroll through Liberty’s campus would reveal hundreds of students in the same position, making the same kind of divine appeal. At this school, we pray for everything: good grades, a winning football season, religious revival in America, chicken fingers in the dining hall. Our God is a workhorse God, and as the Bible instructs, we petition him without ceasing. Put it this way: if prayers emitted light, you’d see us from space.

Our chancellor, the Reverend Jerry Falwell, always tells us that prayer is the key to a productive Christian life. And, well, he should know. In 1971, Rev. Falwell felt God calling him to start a Christian college in his hometown of Lynchburg, Virginia. He answered the call, and over the next thirty-six years, while organizing the Moral Majority, shepherding one of America’s largest megachurches, and establishing himself as the father of the Religious Right, he found time to transform that Christian college into what it is today: the world’s largest evangelical university, a ten thousand–student training ground for America’s conservative Christian youth. “Bible Boot Camp,” he calls it.

It’s a tongue-in-cheek name, but a fairly accurate one. Like a West Point drill sergeant, Rev. Falwell prides himself on discipline. His field manual, a forty-six-page code of conduct called “The Liberty Way,” governs every aspect of our lives and dispenses concrete punishments when we veer off course. Such as:

  • Possession and/or use of tobacco: 6 reprimands + $25 fine
  • Improper personal contact (anything beyond hand-holding): 4 reprimands + $10 fine
  • Attendance at, possession or viewing of, an R-rated movie: 12 reprimands + $50 fine
  • Spending the night with a person of the opposite sex: 30 reprimands + $500 fine + 30 hours community service

Rev. Falwell envisioned Liberty as a Christian safe haven where young evangelicals could get a college education without being exposed to binge drinking, pot smoking, sexual experimentation, and all the other trappings of secular coed culture. He planned to make it the evangelical equivalent of Notre Dame or Brigham Young, a university where every student would be trained in the liberal arts, fortified in the evangelical faith, and sent out into the world as a “Champion for Christ.”

That plan must have worked, because today, our school is still a bastion of sparkling Christian purity—sort of the anti-Animal House. On this campus, you’ll find girls who are saving their first kisses for marriage, guys whose knowledge of the female anatomy is limited to the parts you can show on basic cable, and students of both sexes who consider it a wild Friday night when their Bible study group serves Cheetos and Chex Mix.

Of course, you’ll also find Liberty students who aren’t so sheltered, who don’t walk around campus humming hymns and speaking in parables. Like any other religious community, Liberty has its fair share of nonconformists. A few Liberty students, in fact, choose to live relatively normal collegiate lives, even when it means violating “The Liberty Way.” That’s why I’m praying on the floor of my room tonight—because my friend Dave is in trouble.

It started last Friday afternoon when Dave, a brawny, goateed shot- putter on Liberty’s track team, approached his friend Wayne with an idea.

“Let’s get out of here for the weekend,” he said.

Dave explained that one of his high school friends, a non-Christian girl named Jessie, had invited both of them to a special party at her secular college, three hours away from Lynchburg.

“A lingerie party,” he said. “Wayne, she invited us to a lingerie party. Like . . . a party . . . where the girls wear lingerie.”

Wayne chuckled. “Naw, man. You know we can’t do that.”

He was right. Attending a party of any type is forbidden under “The Liberty Way,” but a lingerie party would be off-the-charts sinful. Still, as Dave talked more about the party and how many beautiful, scantily clad girls would be there, he felt his resistance weakening. I mean, I haven’t been off campus all semester. And what harm could one night do? By the time Dave finished his pitch, Wayne’s mind was made up: he wanted to go. The party wouldn’t be holy, but it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, either. So the two friends signed out on the campus log sheet—to the off-campus apartment of an older Liberty student they knew—and drove to secular school instead.

The party was wilder than they’d expected. Girls in sheer negligees and lacy bustiers floated around the room, grinding lustily with each other while loud hip-hop music blared over the rowdy yells of beer pong players. Dave had gone to some parties in high school, but Wayne was relatively new to the scene, and getting comfortable took three or four cups of a beverage he’d never heard of (“jungle juice,” was it?).

After an hour of drinking, Dave and Wayne felt loose enough to unveil their big surprise: two pairs of special underwear, purchased in advance for the occasion. Dave stripped down to a black man-thong, and Wayne, a bit more reserved, wore a pair of SpongeBob SquarePants boxers. They drank and danced and cavorted with the secular students until the wee hours, using Dave’s digital camera to snap the photos he would eventually post, for posterity, on his MySpace profile.

That was the fatal step, of course, and no one can quite understand why Dave did it. Did he really think his secrets were safe on the Internet?

Was he trying to get kicked out?

These are the questions that have circulated through our dorm for the past week. By now, we’ve heard all the stories. We’ve heard how, a few days after the party, Dave found an urgent e-mail from the dean of men waiting in his inbox. How, when he was brought in to the dean’s office, Dave tried to make the case that he hadn’t been at a party. How the dean had pulled from his desk a stack of photos, culled from Dave’s MySpace page, that proved otherwise. How some of the photos had been shockingly lewd, including one of Dave in his man-thong, holding a bottle of liquor in each hand while looking up a girl’s skirt. How Dave had broken maybe half the rules in “The Liberty Way,” including “Attendance at a dance,” “Sexual misconduct and/or any state of undress,” and “Possession or consumption of alcoholic beverages.” How he was served with the biggest punishment on our hall—and maybe at Liberty—all year: seventy-eight reprimands, a $650 fine, and thirty hours of community service. How, at that point, adding up Dave’s punishments was a matter of procedure, like sentencing a serial killer to twenty-three consecutive life sentences, because the alcohol alone was enough to expel him.

In short, the guy needs a lot of prayer.

After rising from my knees, I walk to Dave’s room. He’s in there with Wayne and a few other friends, still discussing his dean’s office debacle. Dave is still waiting for the official news of his punishment, but he seems to have made peace with the fact that, barring a miracle, he’ll be gone by next week.

“I should have done more bad stuff while I was at it,” Dave says, chuckling as he picks at a bag of popcorn. “I mean, they can’t kick me out twice, right? I could have snorted some coke or something.”

“Come on, Dave,” says Joey, a Jersey-born freshman who lives at the end of the hall. “At least try to be serious about this.”

“I can’t, dude,” Dave says. “When I get serious, I feel pain in my heart.”

Wayne is in better shape, it seems. There were no photos of him on Dave’s MySpace page, just photos of their car ride together. His meeting with the dean of men is tomorrow, and he’s planning to say that he dropped Dave off and went somewhere else, skipping the party altogether.

“Are you positive he doesn’t have any pictures of you at the party?” Joey asks.

“No, not positive,” Wayne says. “But there are none on the Internet. He would have to have another source.”

“If he catches you,” Dave says, “you should bust out a Jesus quote.”

Wayne’s eyes widen. “What?”

“Jesus hung with sinners and tax collectors, dude. If he can hang with sinners, you can, too.”

“Yo, that’s a pretty good idea.”

“You guys are retards,” says Joey. “Jesus hung with sinners, but he didn’t sin with them. It’s not like the tax collectors had a lingerie party and said, ‘Yo, J.C., you gotta get over here, it’s off the hook!’ ”

We’re screwing around, but in truth, this is no laughing matter. Dave, our friend and hallmate, is about to be expelled from school, and Wayne may go with him. Our dorm has hosted its share of controversy this semester, but no one expected this. What Dave and Wayne did was against the rules, of course, but some of us wonder whether, in this case, the punishment truly fits the crime.

“I heard about a guy who got more reprimands than you, Dave,” says Wayne.

“No way. More than seventy-eight?” says Dave.

“Yeah. A few years ago. This guy got triple digits. Broke every rule in one night. He went to a few parties, smoked weed, had sex with a girl, went dancing, destroyed some property. I think he might have even done some homosexual stuff, too.”

Joey sweeps his eyes around the room.

“Pretty much what secular kids do every weekend, huh?”

I used to be a secular kid. Still am, I guess. It’s hard to tell sometimes.

These days, I go through the motions of a model Liberty student. I attend prayer groups, I sing in the church choir, I spend my Friday nights at Bible study. When it comes to socializing, I follow the old Baptist moral code: “Don’t drink, smoke, or chew, and don’t go with girls who do.”

But what Dave, Wayne, Joey, and the rest of my friends at Liberty don’t know is this: I haven’t always lived this way. In fact, everything I do here—the Bible study, the choir, the clean-cut morality—it’s all part of a borrowed life.

Three months ago, I was a student at Brown University, a school known for everything Liberty is not. In fact, it wouldn’t be unfair to call the schools polar opposites. Liberty was founded as a conservative Christian utopia, and by those standards, Brown, with its free-spirited student body, its grades-optional academic scene, and its active chapter of the Young Communist League, is a notch or two above Sodom and Gomorrah.

If such a thing exists, I considered myself a fairly typical Brown student. I studied English lit, drank fair-trade coffee, attended the occasional anti-war protest, and sang in an a cappella group.

This semester, I transferred to Liberty precisely because it was so different—not just from my old school, but from anything I’d ever seen before.

I grew up in the tiny college town of Oberlin, Ohio, a crunchy liberal enclave plopped down improbably in the middle of the Lake Erie Rust Belt. My parents are Quakers, a rather free-spirited sect of Christianity whose members (called Friends) spend a lot of time talking about peace and working for social justice. But despite our affiliation, our house was practically religion-free. We never read the Bible or said grace over our meals, and our attendance at Quaker services was spotty—though we did visit a small Baptist church once a year to sing Christmas carols. (To be clear: this is the kind of Baptist church where the pastor swaps out the gendered language in the carols, like in “Lo! How a Rose E’er Blooming” when “as men of old have sung” becomes “as those of old have sung.”)

When high school came around, I left home to attend a boarding school in the Philadelphia suburbs. It happened to be a Quaker boarding school, but going there was hardly a religious decision. In fact, during high school, I wasn’t sure what I thought about my parents’ religion, or about religion in general. I liked learning about the Quaker moral tenets—simplicity, peace, integrity, and equality—but when the subject of God came up, I always found myself lagging behind. Quakers talk about God as an “inner light,” and while I understood that position intellectually, I couldn’t bring myself to think that there was a divine being who existed independent of the human mind, who guided our decisions and heard our prayers. To put it in Quaker terms, my inner light flickered a lot, like the overhead fluorescent at a Motel 6, and sometimes, it burnt out altogether. The closest I came to consistent faith was during my senior year religion class, when we learned about the Central and South American liberation theology movements and I became briefly convinced that God was a left-wing superhero who led the global struggle against imperialism and corporate greed. Sort of a celestial Michael Moore.

You can probably guess, then, how I felt during college, when by virtue of a job I had taken as a writer’s assistant, I found myself standing in the lobby of Jerry Falwell’s twenty thousand–member Thomas Road Baptist Church, which occupies the entire northern end of Liberty’s campus.

My boss, the journalist A. J. Jacobs, had taken me to Thomas Road on a research trip for his book, The Year of Living Biblically. I had never been to a megachurch before, and there was something thrilling about the idea of seeing Jerry Falwell in action. Like many non-evangelicals, I knew Rev. Falwell only as the arch-conservative televangelist with the least effective brain-to-mouth filter in the English-speaking world. I remembered that he had gone on TV to blame the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, on feminists, homosexuals, abortionists, and the ACLU, among others. I had seen some of his other inflammatory remarks, like when he told CBS’s 60 minutes that the prophet Muhammed was “a terrorist,” or when he said that AIDS was “God’s punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals.”

But Jerry Falwell in theory and Jerry Falwell in practice are two very different things, and by the time I was standing in Thomas Road’s cavernous lobby on a mild Sunday morning in July, watching a few thousand Falwell devotees mill around, my thrill had turned into stomach-clenching anxiety. My inner monologue was going a mile a minute: Who are these people? Do they really love Jerry Falwell? Do they believe 9/11 was caused by gay people, too? How is that even possible?

And what’s a coffee shop doing in a church lobby?

When A. J. left to take notes on another part of the church, I chatted up a group of Thomas Roaders I found in the lobby, two girls and a guy who looked to be around my age. I introduced myself, told them why I was visiting, and asked how long they’d been coming to Thomas Road.

“We come here every week,” they said. “We go to Liberty.”

I wasn’t sure whether “go to Liberty” was some sort of coded religious language, like “walk the path” or “seek the kingdom,” so I asked. I had to chuckle when they told me that “Liberty” meant Liberty University, a Christian liberal arts college founded and presided over by Rev. Falwell. I mean, come on. A liberal arts college run by Jerry Falwell? How about an etiquette workshop run by Courtney Love?

But I wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt, so I asked them to tell me more about their school.

“Oh, I love Liberty!” said one of the girls, an effusive blonde in a green sundress. She spent five minutes making an enthusiastic pitch, which included statistics about Liberty’s recently opened law school, its top-ranked debate team, and its Division I athletic program. She told me that Liberty has grown at a rate—from 154 students in 1971 to nearly 25,000 in 2007 (including more than 15,000 taking courses via the Internet)—that few colleges, secular or religious, have ever matched.

It was impressive stuff, but it wasn’t quite what I wanted to know.

“So, what do you guys do for fun?” I asked.

They looked at each other quizzically, then back at me. The blonde stammered, “I mean, we do different . . . things. I don’t really know what you’re asking.”

This wasn’t getting me off on the right foot. Maybe I needed to break the ice.

“Any good parties around here? ”

But I got no chuckles, only blank stares. The guy, a long, lean boy-band type with jutting platinum hair, squinted and peered down his nose.

“Do you know Christ?”

I was new to evangelical argot, so I didn’t know that if a Liberty student has to ask this question, he probably knows the answer already. The way I saw it, I could (a) tell him I did know Christ, which might not go so well if he decided to follow up, (b) try to deflect with sarcasm again, something like, “Yeah, he’s a friend of a friend. We don’t really hang out much,” or (c) admit that I was a foreigner.

Too scared for (a) or (b), I chose (c). I told him I didn’t know Christ, and after he spent five minutes explaining why I should consider meeting him, I said, as gently as I could, that I wasn’t interested in converting.

“Please don’t be offended,” I said. “It’s just not my thing.”

They glanced at each other, all three a little mystified. Not my thing? How could it not be my thing? They didn’t browbeat me, but I had definitely made them uneasy. We made a little more small talk, and then, since church was starting, we parted ways with nods and hesitant half- waves.

On the plane ride back from Virginia, I replayed those fifteen minutes over and over in my mind. Every time, I got more frustrated with myself. Why wasn’t I able to hold down that conversation? I mean, I’ve heard of the God Divide before, in a thousand Newsweek articles and one-hour CNN specials. I’m aware that a tree-hugging Brown student isn’t supposed to be able to talk to a Bible-thumping Liberty student. But why not? Aren’t we all part of the Millennial generation? Don’t we all carry the same iPhones and suffer from the same entitlement complex?

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.

After my visit to Thomas Road, though, I was hooked. I started reading up on Liberty and other evangelical colleges, and the more I read, the more I began to realize the importance of knowing about my Christian peers. This isn’t a fringe culture, after all. According to the Barna Group, an evangelical polling firm, a full one-third of America’s teenagers self-identify as born-again Christians. Liberty has almost ten thousand students living on its campus, and it’s just one of hundreds of evangelical colleges across America. Alumni of evangelical colleges run blue-chip corporations, work in big media, and sit in elected office. If I ever get a real job, my cubicle might well be next to a Liberty graduate’s.

As a college student who doubles as a journalist, what fascinated me most about Liberty was its student culture. I still had so many unanswered questions. Like, what do Champions for Christ learn in class? Do they date? Do they use Facebook? What exactly do they believe? And are we really that different? I also felt intuitively that there was something limiting about being an outsider in the evangelical world. When I told the Liberty students at Thomas Road that I hadn’t accepted Christ as my savior, the entire dynamic of the conversation changed. It began to feel distant and rehearsed, like a pitch for Ginsu knives. So how could I, a curious non-evangelical, get the inside scoop?

Several months after my Thomas Road visit, while browsing Liberty’s website one morning, it clicked: What if I spent a semester at Liberty as a student? What if, instead of speculating about Christian college life from afar, I jumped over the God Divide and tried to experience it myself?

Meet the Author

Kevin Roose graduated from Brown University in 2009, where he studied English literature and wrote regular columns for the Brown Daily Herald. His work has been featured in Esquire, SPIN, mental_floss, and other publications. You can visit his Web site at www.kevinroose.com

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Unlikely Disciple 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 299 reviews.
YoyoMitch More than 1 year ago
What happens when an intelligent, interested, Ivy League student wants to study in a different culture for a semester? He (or she) studies "abroad," enrolling in a different college where that culture can be experienced first hand. For Kevin Roose, "abroad" was Lynchburg, VA. at one of the most (for him) alien cultures he could find, Liberty University. As a marginal Quaker, going to a Fundamentalist, Evangelical Christian school (described as a "Bible Boot Camp") was an experiment in: honesty, education, challenging himself and his beliefs. He entered Liberty for the Spring 2007 semester with expectations he had developed from secondary sources (media reports, unfounded opinions, etc.), his family and misconceptions of what L.U. really is. (This reader had many of those same ideas.) What he gained from his semester at Liberty , aside from a surprisingly rigorous academic course load, was the discovery that some of his presumptions were well-founded but many more were shattered by his experience. He found genuine humanity, intelligent people, a stifling administration, narrow-mindedness, a hunger for knowledge, typically bad cafeteria food, beautiful girls, deep friendships and one unanimously agreed upon "Christian Jerk." In attending L.U. he agreed to abide by "The Liberty Way ," a 46-page manual that outlines the code of conduct for all Liberty students and includes the consequences for infractions. Mr. Roose, a 19 y/o, second semester Freshman when he began his span "abroad," was surprised by how he was challenged in this term. He learned the benefits of prayer and of being prayed for, the power of community, of communal events and experienced the cleansing miracle of confession. He discovered how much effort is required to live a life of righteousness and how that life must be more about practice than orthodoxy. He saw the absurdity of "The Liberty Way" while noting its power in bonding people as a community. He tasted the depth of intimacy available in a romantic relationship when sex is out of the equation. His stint at L. U. was a busy one: six classes, singing in the Thomas Road Baptist Church choir (2 credit hours for that endeavor), played intramural softball and "went to every extracurricular activity I could find." He became so involved and connected in his life at Liberty that, when the semester ended, he was torn about returning to his "old life." The bitterness of his time at "Bible Boot Camp" was voiced in his experience of having to live a "shadow life" while there. He could not tell anyone (until eleven months after leaving L.U.) his real intentions of being at this school. This caused an inability to be as real with his new friends as they were being with him. It did help him to become far more open & real after he completed this experiment (he has become so earnest in his relationships that a friend has nicknamed him "Hallmark"). Mr. Roose is wonderfully honest in this work. He speaks clearly of what was gleaned from his time at Liberty , of his prejudices, choices and allows the reader to share many of his experiences seemingly without filters. He is likewise fair in his reporting of what he found Liberty University to be. When L.U. was found to be noteworthy, he named that moment in detail. When it was lacking, in his opinion, he was similarly forthcoming with his unvarnished assessment. I read this book with relish. It was well written, funny, insightful, painful, engaging & a
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If you're looking for a book that will ridicule the students and life at Liberty University, you will not get that here. If you're looking for a book that will show how a sinner and a skeptic was converted by the students and life at Liberty University, you won't get that either. Kevin Roose was a moderate, was from a Quaker family, and had openly gay friends while he was at Brown University in Providence. After visiting Liberty University with A.J. Jacobs (The Year of Living Biblically) he decided to spend a semester there. He intended to write about his experiences, but kept that concealed. Roose had some ideas about what the life might be like, but he wanted to see for himself: he has an open mind. He wanted to blend in reasonably, so gets a crash course from a friend. Roose is reticent to tell the other students in his dorm that he was at Brown, since in many ways Brown is almost the antithesis of Liberty University, but when he's finally asked directly ("A college in Rhode Island" is not a sufficient answer) he finds that it's not really a big deal. Many or most of the students went to high schools where plenty of hanky-panky was going on, and they're at Liberty in part for spiritual growth, in part to get away from the temptations of the outside world. Roose makes a quick adjustment to the praying schedules, the host of restrictions (e.g. viewing an R-rated movie, 12 reprimands and a $50 fine). Some of the courses he must take he enjoys, others, which stress young-earth fundamentalism, etc, he doesn't enjoy. Roose writes in a fine self-deprecating manner. There are matters he covers which may make you flinch, but there's always a sense of wry humor. Roose finds himself changing, particularly in his spiritual outlook: he is not becoming a fundamentalist evangelist, but he finds he has more inner peace in many ways. He wants to know how his friends feel about Liberty, about Falwell, about all the rules and regulations. He encounters students who are rabidly anti-gay, far on the extreme side of even the average Liberty student. Roose himself does not become more intolerant: quite the contrary. By the end of the semester Roose has learned what it's like to walk in the shoes of the Liberty Students--it's a good attitude on his part. What you also find, however, is that this seems to make Roose unique, or almost so, at Liberty. The other students seem to have little interest in walking in the shoes of your average Brown student: there often seems to be a worry, in fact, that exposing people to other viewpoints (other than criticizing them) can be harmful, can lead a Christian into temptation, onto evil paths. If you're sure that you are right, why look too closely at the other side? Why take a chance on fostering doubt? There's a lot of depth here--a well-told tale.
RonKoebbe More than 1 year ago
Im a local youth pastor in NC and I have a few students who attend Liberty so I was immediately interested in the book. Once I started reading my curiosity grew. I honestly feel that every campus/college pastor should read this book. It is very insightful, heartfelt and well written with authenticity, transparency and uniqueness.
Speechie59 More than 1 year ago
I read this book in three days. Behind the scenes expose of Liberty University is very interesting and hard to put down! The author's account of his time at the unversity is very revealing and honest. Kevin Roose shows a talent for storytelling and self reflection that makes the reader feel part of the process.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
As a current student at Liberty University (the college that Kevin spends a semester at in this great book) this book was on point and very accurate. I also transfered to LU from a very secular school myself and really agree with the image that Kevin paints of Liberty and some of the culture shock that is felt initially. This book is very thought provoking and does a great job to "blend" the line between the saved and unsaved. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and would recommend it to anyone and everyone; it will leave you with a new perspective on the "Bible Boot Camp"
BMM4 More than 1 year ago
I'm not normally a non-fiction reader, yet once I started this book, I couldn't put it down. I was intrigued by the premise of the book, a generally liberal, non-religious kid from Brown goes undercover at evangelical Liberty College. I wasn't sure what to expect, but what I got was more thoughtful and well-balanced than I could have imagined. I was impressed by the pragmatism and thoughtfulness of the author. Reese is a likable character who doesn't jump to conclusions. This book made me contemplate my own thoughts about Christianity and the interplay of society, politics and religion in general, all the while being a completely enjoyable read! Reese is obviously a bright kid and this is a remarkable product for his first book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I highly enjoyed Roose's book. His writing was entertaining, and always kept me wanting more! Roose had a unique but prevalent perspective; that must be shared with the evangelical culture (because they are often ignorant to how their ways are not attractive to the outside world). Roose did often hold a balanced view between the world and the so called 'evangelical view'. Roose is honest and real with his readers. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The only part of the book I saw as unbalanced, was when Roose speaks of the university as being biased with education; for the reason of, most public secondary schools only teach evolution and not creation. Furthermore if a student attends a University to get a balanced view of how the world was created, against what they have been taught their entire life, I find that balanced, not biased. In my opinion public schools that only teach evolution or that praise evolution and bash creationism is the same bias. Roose did fair job at balancing most of LU, and their students; the creationism/evolution ideas were the only part I felt were not seen in an even perspective. Roose is a very creative thinker, and an out of the box American. I appreciate his willingness, to go where not many people have gone. He was open, willing, and diligent. These are all qualities of a great writer. I hope he will take on more writing adventures that open communication for many subcultures in this world.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was fotunate enough to meet Kevin at a local bookstore recently. To look at him he looks as if he would fit more with the LU sterotype than a student a secular college. I will start off by saying Kevin is VERY smart and you can tell he did a lot of research for this book. As a former student a Liberty from the early 90's (lived off campus) and growing up in Lynchburg and presently attend TRBC I think he did an amazing job of capturing life at LU. I pray that Kevin does accept Christ as his savior. This would be a great bookclub read, because it would open up so many different views: religious, friendship, family and peers.
PastorJim More than 1 year ago
What would it be like for a Northeastern liberal to infiltrate America's largest Christian university? That is exactly what happened when Kevin Roose enrolled at Liberty University in 2007 as a second semester freshman. He writes about his experience in The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University. It is no exaggeration to label Roose as a Northeastern liberal, for that is how he would identify himself. During his freshman year at Brown University, rather than engage foreign cultures by studying abroad like most of his peers, Roose decided to engage a completely foreign culture closer to home. Early in the book, he cites the study indicating that 51% of Americans do not even casually know an evangelical Christian. He was one of the 51%. All he knew of evangelicals was the caricature portrayed by televangelists and politics-and what he saw was an ugly picture. His family's concern could not have been deeper if he were going to investigate prison life from the inside. When the author first stepped foot on campus, his preconceptions were not exactly unbiased. By his own testimony, the book he wrote is not the book he initially intended to write. The book he wrote is a wonderful snapshot of a small corner of Liberty University and an even smaller corner of evangelical Christianity.
BB61 More than 1 year ago
I am 48 years old, a Christian since childhood. I attended a very conservative Christian College for 1 year (Cedarville College) in 1979-80. At that time it was more conservative than Liberty University is today. I came from a conservative background, but not that conservative. In fact, I attended a Catholic High School in the Mormon Kingdom of Salt Lake City. I also lived in the Valley of Southern CA in 1975 in Encino, CA (90% Jewish at the time). So, you could say I've been exposed to the gammit! I really enjoyed Kevin's description of his time spent at Liberty University. I compared his stories to mine back in 1979. I could relate to his "shock and awe" with some people's conservative views, but most always found the good students at Cedarville College to be fun loving and caring people. I think Kevin's brutal honesty is refreshing, and right on the mark. "Does God really change His mind when I pray to him?" I love that question. I've never really thought of it that way!!. I believe this book is terrific reading and I'd recommend it to any Christian who wants on outsider's look into the Americanized society of Conservative Christianity. I've certainly liberalized my thinking as I've grown older and wiser, and really appreciated the fair look from his perspective. I'm recommending this book to my many Christian "straight" men! I think its good to stand back, take a look and contemplate what you think. If we didn't we might just become a bore! Way to go Kevin. Brian
aikicat More than 1 year ago
It is an interesting cross-cultural experience. The atuthor learned a lot about other views at Liberty. He did well for a college student.
LoriJenny More than 1 year ago
I had a hard time putting this book down, it opened up a part of history that I did not know about, and it kept my interest by weaving the past and the present in alternating chapters.
Slessman More than 1 year ago
THE UNLIKELY DISCIPLE A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University Kevin Roose Grand Central Publishing Hachette Book Group ISBN: 978-0-446-17842-6 $24.99 - Hardback 315 pages Reviewer: Annie Slessman Bringing to the forefront one of the most debatable subjects, i.e., religion, Kevin Roose, author of THE UNLIKELY DISCIPLE: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University, shares his experiences as a student of Liberty University, one of the largest Christian universities. As a student of Brown University, Kevin arranges to attend Liberty University for one semester so he can research a book on the Christian university culture. When he adjust to the "Liberty Way" some weeks into the semester he realizes that he is opening his mind to what some would deem "a cult environment." What Roose discovers both about himself and Liberty is that there is good and bad in most situations. Founder of Liberty University - Dr. Jerry Falwell - is well known worldwide. He made the statement during the building of Liberty that he wanted this university to be "as far right as Harvard is left." One brochure describes the university as having a "strong commitment to political conservatism, total rejection of socialism, and firm support of America's economic system of free enterprise." Not only does Falwell teach strong political views, he also condemns homosexuality and other social issues. At Liberty University there is only one way to think - the Jerry Falwell way. Roose has hurdles to jump due to his belief that, "I could never become an evangelical if it meant condemning homosexuals or proselytizing aggressively to non-Christians or believing that the Bible is infallible." The thing is Roose finds Liberty a supportive, warm environment and this causes some confusion in his attempt to remain neutral about the subject matter taught at this university. Roose ends up writing the last written personal interview with Dr. Falwell. He didn't intend to happen that way and found himself somewhat upset by the fact that this brought him so much notoriety after Dr. Falwell's death. So, does Roose convert to Liberty's description of a Christian? Does he find it difficult to fit into the strict belief system required to participate fully in the school's activities? Has his experience at Liberty University provided a life changing opportunity? Read the book and draw your own conclusions.
EricWithCheese More than 1 year ago
Kevin Roose decided to do an experiment on going from one of the most liberal universities in the country to one of the most conservative, and the results are stunning. The compartisons to the different walks of life is just the beginning as Roose experiences everything from shock, to the numbness of not belonging, to stunned disbelief, and quiet transformation. From his first steps onto Liberty University, to Roose's own unexpected spiritual journey, this book is a page turner and a unflinching look into a world in which few dare to go. Highly recommended!
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The Unlikely Best Read I recently read “The Unlikely Disciple” by  Kevin Roose, it may sound like a super christian love God and all his children book, but it’s not. This is a true story about a college sophomore that finds himself in an awkward situation with three Christian students. After being dumbfounded and majorly embarrassed, Kevin wonders why he was so different from the Christian students he had met.  After much thought Kevin decides to Enroll in one semester at Liberty University, the same college the Christian students attended. Liberty is a very conservative, Christian and strict school, they even have a 400 page rule book called The Liberty Way. At the time Kevin was attending Brown University, a liberal, loose and free spirited school. Kevin wants to live as a normal Christian Liberty student, which mean he will have to convince everyone around him that he is just like them and he’s doing this not to exploit or argue but just as a journalistic assignment for research and knowledge.  As the story continues we follow Kevin on his journey of friendship, investigation, and exploration. He learns about the lives of others and starts to understand the lies of the stereotypes put on them. Kevin founds out strange, scary and sometimes hilarious facts of the students and teachers of this legendary evangelical university. He makes friends and even has a cute love interest. Overall this book is funny, sweet, informational and fun. Kevin enters world that many people criticise and put down, he opens the door to what really happens and proves that you don't really know someone until you put yourself in someone elses shoes.
gclaheh More than 1 year ago
This book could bring an end to the culture war or at least a cease fire. This book is about a student Kevin Roose who I would say grew up in a sheltered liberal environment having little contact with conservative Christians. His opinions and ideas about conservative Evangelicals come from his left learning parents, his gay aunts, and perhaps even his time spent at a boarding school and at Brown University. I have found that most people who grew up that liberal usually are intolerant of people who have more conservative views and vice versa. Roose goes to Liberty University as a student to gain a perspective of a conservative Christian's worldview. Considering his background, he does a really excellent job being unbiased and judging conservative Christians as human beings rather than by their political beliefs. He found that he has more things in common with conservative Christians than he ever thought that he would. When he does disagree with their views in the book, they are fair disagreements. He mentions that there are a lack of differing viewpoints with the faculty. Ideas and research that prove a different theory that LU doesn't agree with are censored. He feels that LU students should interact with people who disagree with them. He doesn't feel that evangelizing people isn't effective to win converts. I used to be a conservative Christian when I was younger because that was the environment that I lived in. Now I don't go to those churches anymore, but I still have respect for conservative Christians. It always makes me mad when I see left leaning people insult them just because they had different political beliefs. In this book, Roose disagrees with their viewpoints, but he respects them. If both sides could respect the others' beliefs, it could create a bridge between the cultural divide. Yes I would recommend this book particularly to conservative Christians so they could see that not all liberals believe that they are subhuman because they don't agree with them. Liberals should read this too and learn to adopt Roose's attitude when they meet conservative Christians. They are not all like Ann Coulter and Bill O'Rielly.
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aimlyss More than 1 year ago
This is a book about a Brown sophomore (age 19) that decides to spend a semester at Liberty University 'undercover' to find out what it's really like. The author was raised a Quaker and his church attendance was rather low. Going into Liberty University was quite the culture shock to him, but I appreciate how he was willing to try things uncomfortable to him and really get involved in his new setting to give it a fair shake. I definitely enjoyed this book and highly recommend it. It was one of those books where I had trouble putting it down because I wanted to find out more. There were no dull moments, the author has an engaging style of writing. This is not a religious book, so don't be put off by the words disciple and holiest in the title.