Kevin Roose’s The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University offers an intriguing premise. What if a student at a secular college like, say, Brown University, went to the ultra-conservative evangelical Liberty University? What new perspectives could be opened up by a liberal undergraduate actually attending Jerry Falwell’s “Bible boot camp” for a semester; living, eating, praying, playing and working alongside young people whose view of humanity divides everyone into the “saved” and the “unsaved”? Sending an articulate and thoughtful person across the “God divide” which allegedly polarises US culture sounds like a terrific notion.
Those are the positives in this book. Roose’s semester undercover at Liberty is carried out with a great deal of respect and generosity to his fellow students and the institution. He doesn’t set out to expose anyone, or peddle in inflammatory stereotypes. The Unlikely Disciple is strong on narrative, and has a sociologist’s concern to describe situations without detaching from them. When we’re told about singing in the church choir, or attending a course in Creationism, or going on a date in which the participants may hug for no more than three seconds, we don’t get a sneering dissection. We’re told about how Roose felt and how his friends interacted. It’s very interesting to see what parts of the university’s ethos made sense to him after living the life for a couple of months.
The project reminded me of the work done by scholars of contemporary religion who try to get beyond the idea that a faith is a set of intellectual propositions, and explore the habits of thought, the modes of life and the everyday practices which constitute lived religion. Roose is a lively writer, and the stories of softball practices, mass baptisms and late-night conversations about salvation make for engrossing reading. Under his friendly observation, the students at Liberty reveal quirks and group lore which one wouldn’t expect from the usual media portrayal of them. They’re more thoughtful, more diverse and much more engaged with popular culture. It was particularly interesting to hear one very Evangelical student railing against “MyPraise” and other Christian rip-offs of secular culture, on the grounds that you couldn’t just replicate a form without understanding what it meant.
This personal, engaged approach also supplies the book’s drawbacks. Everything we hear about Liberty University is heavily refracted through Roose’s own perceptions and personality. Whilst this is great for helping us understand how this lifestyle affects someone’s sense of their self and the world, it can also trap us into one very particular perspective. I don’t know whether it’s my greater comfort with a British style, but I found myself a bit bored by Roose’s reflections on whether he really thought about his parent’s religious beliefs whilst in high school five years before the book began, or his reflection that he is a busy person, who is always happiest when he has lots to do. The Unlikely Disciple is frustratingly vague on both the details of Liberty life and the wider picture at times, because if Roose didn’t experience it, we don’t hear about it. When Jerry Falwell died, we were given an introspective passage about how this might change the author’s feelings about him, and when a gay Brown student visited, there was much consideration of how Roose’s friends getting along made him feel. It’s a tricky balance, particularly for a first book, but in similar projects Barbara Ehrenreich and Polly Toynbee have both provided much more enlightening interweaving of personal experience and broader insight.
The author’s-eye-view also exacerbated some of the times at which Roose might have been unfair to the people around him. When almost no woman can enter the narrative without first being described with terms such as “attractive”, “moderately attractive”, “not unattractive”, “perky”, “blonde”, the perspective is seriously weakened. It is difficult to take seriously the reflections on the sexual ethics of Liberty Students and their approach to romance when the author finishes his commentary on “Purity Day” (the Liberty version of Valentine’s) by mockingly describing a young woman in a white t-shirt whose nipples are visible because of the cold weather. His fellow male students are pitied for having to share a campus with “world class women” who make their lives similar to “taking a trip around Willy Wonka’s factory with your jaw wired shut”. The dating sections of the book – an area where we might have hoped for some really thick description – are marred by the protagonist’s condescending attitude to all the woman at Liberty, whose virginity and lack of experience of secular culture seem queasily conflated at times in an assertion of the male gaze. Their desire for self-assertion and intellectual experiment were often presented as cutely rebellious and charmingly perky, rather than as evidence of another human being’s inner life.
In some ways the book unconsciously mirrors its subject. Conservative Evangelicalism presents Christianity as an all-or-nothing affair in which one either signs up to the fundamentals or cannot be called a Christian; Roose implicitly agrees by attending Liberty to “give Christianity a fair shake”. Student evangelicals are frequently accused of instrumentalizing human relationships, by making friends in order to convert people; Roose probes his dorm-mates’ home lives, sexual histories and spiritual journeys in order to reveal them to the reader. Perhaps most striking is the Calvinist intensity with which Roose examines his own inner life, looking intently inward to descry how an event or a person has altered his feelings. Perhaps The Unlikely Disciple might be shelved alongside Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners as a spiritual autobiography, an oddly Puritan document of the early twenty-first century.
 Indeed, this aspect of the book reminded me of Guest, Aune et al’s “Challenging ‘Belief’ and the Evangelical Bias”, which is well worth a read, as well as the upcoming volume on Christianity and the University Experience: Understanding Student Faith from the same research group.