While his peers at Brown University were experiencing other cultures by studying abroad, Kevin Roose opted to spend second semester of his sophomore year in Virginia at Jerry Falwell’s Libery University. His funny, insightful book The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University chronicles his encounter with conservative Christian culture.
At Liberty, Roose makes “funny, articulate, and decidedly noncrazy” friends who are a lot like his secular peers. They play intramural sports, waste time on Facebook (lampooning Liberty’s strict conduct code with groups like “I Hug For 3 Seconds, Sometimes 4”), and “deploy sarcasm just as well as your average secular nineteen-year-olds.” In one scene, an RA tells Luke, one of Roose’s hallmates, that he needs to cut his hair to comply with the dress code. Luke responds, “Hmm…you know, Stubbs, I seem to remember reading about a guy in the Bible who had long hair. What was his name again? Started with a J I think….”
Throughout the book, Roose pays more than mere lip service to approaching his semester at Liberty with an open mind. Even when the experience takes him places that could serve as easy punch lines–a spring break mission trip to Daytona Beach, the support group Every Man’s Battle (kind of a Masturbators Anonymous)–he avoids potshots, offering a more nuanced exploration of his new relationships, evangelical culture, and the shifting role of religion in his own life.
In the epilogue–which opens with him kneeling to pray in his Brown University dorm room–Roose concludes “Did my semester at Liberty bridge the God Divide? Of course not…At the end of the day, the two sides of this culture war still have glaring differences, and those differences are likely to continue to define the relationship between the evangelical community and America at large for decades to come…But judging from my post-Liberty experience, this particular religious conflict isn’t built around a hundred-foot brick wall. If anything, it’s built around a flimsy piece of cardboard, held in place on both sides by paranoia and lack of exposure. It’s there, no doubt, but it’s hardly forbidding. And more importantly, it’s hardly soundproof.”