The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University, by Kevin Roose, Grand Central Publishing, 336 pp., $24.99
In the Fall of 2007, Brown University sophomore Kevin Roose shocked friends and family by enrolling for the next semester at one of the nation’s best known Bible schools—the jewel of televangelist Jerry Falwell’s Christian empire, Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. A classmate asked him: “A semester with no sex? And this is different how?”
A jest. Roose would be dropping not just south of the country’s political fault line, but also into the bosom of fundamentalist dogma, where 10,000 undergraduate Christian soldiers in academic harness are marching as to war against the liberal foes and their sins of homosexuality, abortion, feminism, humanism, Hollywood smut, and general permissive decay. By comparison to Liberty’s parietal control, he says, Brown had been only “a notch or two above Sodom and Gomorrah.”
The author arrives in Lynchburg with a spirit of fellowship, seeking total immersion in his strict new world, willing to risk his own pliable belief system to Liberty’s apparent joyous faith. He joins the choir of Falwell’s campus adjunct, the Thomas Road Baptist megachurch. He attends every special Christian event on the community calendar. During his first week of living in the dorm, Roose finds himself on his knees praying for a hall mate who has strayed off campus to another school’s lingerie party, at risk of fine, demerits, and possible expulsion.
Roose can’t forget he’s at Liberty first as a journalist. He’s a very good one, too, streets ahead of others his age at observation, with an ear for the argot, a nose for irony, a full kit of descriptive tools, and wise to his millennial generation’s enthusiasms, its sense of entitlement, and MySpace self-involvement. Determined not to prejudge, he’s open to being changed himself. Taking notes surreptitiously, he guards his liberal roots as best he can without lying. His euphemism for Brown is “a school in Rhode Island.” But posing as an ordinary transfer student seeking spiritual sanctuary from the permissive world gives rise to a guilty conscience. How far can he go in deception without cracking his morning mirror? A claim to a personal relationship with Jesus, the ideal held out to him by new friends and faculty, would leave the glass in smithereens.
In midsemester Roose sheds a brief relationship with a most attractive girlfriend, a committed evangelical; it’s either that or be despised at denouement as a selfish cad. By the end of term, he’s convinced peers that he’s one of the faithful. He’s been not only exploring alien mores, but writing a spiritual autobiography.
Is he a victim of his method, like Heisenberg watching subatomic particles? Can he observe his experiment without taking part in it, without affecting the outcome? If he’s on the floor praying with hall mates, is he only rehearsing a part in his forthcoming book? How can he know? Not to doubt his honesty; his sincerity is transparent throughout.
At Liberty he’s discovering a fellowship he hadn’t known before: the earnest concern of peers for his salvation. Their prying into his faith is not so much a trial as a sign of their compassion. In prayer sessions he finds an uplifting brotherhood. At campus church assemblies he feels the “collective effervescence” described by sociologist Emile Durkheim, when one’s mind is swallowed by the group mind, awed by “ecstatic group cohesion.”
Roose is charmed by all this camaraderie, while dismayed by the instruction that informs it, the anti-intellectualism, the bald reliance of professors on received wisdom, never mind the observable world. He follows the core curriculum, all of it focused on rigid biblical authority, and finds his courses difficult as a memory challenge, though little or no imagination is asked of him. An instructor says, “My worry is you’ll become educated beyond your obedience.”
There is the maze of begets to master, a strain to fit the history of the world into a biblical 6,000 years, calculate a ship’s tonnage required to fit all animals into the ark (can do), with repair work to be done on apparent textual contradiction. The six-day creation is heavy lifting but found manageable. God needed rest on the seventh day? No, actually “refreshing himself,” a glitch in translation from the Hebrew. A top student and campus leader confesses: “What we’re learning is lifeless.”
These disappointments were predictable, but not the campus-wide homophobia; faggot and queer are preferred terms of disapproval and derision, no matter the offense. When Roose’s difficult roommate calls him a faggot, it’s not derisive, but a mean-spirited, determined evaluation. He finds no way past this antagonist’s spite to apology or mutual peace. This is a community where gayness is a curable disease, where a gay conversion program is working with 40 closeted homosexuals asking for help, where gayness is talked about at “near Tourettic frequency.”
At Liberty great store is put on sexual purity, and Roose’s spiritual counselor, Pastor Seth, is keen to know his weekly count of self-abuse. Somewhere between zero and his shoe size, he allows, a habit begging attendance at “Every Man’s Battle” self-help meetings. And Seth asks him to text message for support if he feels himself falling, night or day. There are stricter Christian schools, he learns, for example, a Florida academy where he’d be reprimanded for optical intercourse, “for making eye babies.”
Roose finds most of Liberty oddly apolitical. They’ll vote Republican of course, and most have Hillary phobia, but few have Potomac fever or any political ambition. It’s a strange twist that their political and spiritual father Falwell will die only days before the end of term, and that Roose, representing the school paper, will be given Falwell’s last print interview. While at Liberty he’s heard Falwell go off on “the myth of global warming.” His most notorious pronouncements lodged in intolerance, the invoking of chimerical enemies to enrich his ministry, his latter years as a bombastic and divisive social force; none of this makes sense to Roose as the university suffers an emotional upheaval of mourning.
The following spring, manuscript in hand, Roose returns to Lynchburg to confess his mission and clear his conscience. Expecting anger and hurt at his deception, he finds instead uniform warmth in a reunion with old friends. He’s “unsaved,” he tells them, though now in the habit of prayer; his semester has transformed him. “Not that you were right,” he says, “but that I was wrong.”