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Literature

Wolf among the flock

Unlikely Disciple sheds light on Liberty

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Rick Lax

Kevin Roose was your typical Brown University sophomore. He studied, he partied, he protested, and he sang in an a cappella group. His social circle included atheists, Buddhists, Wiccans and non-practicing Jews, but no born-again Christians. And then, one weekend, Roose met a couple of students who went 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.”

Quick reminder: Rev. Jerry Falwell is the guy who organized the Moral Majority in the 1970s, outed Tinky Winky in the 1990s and blamed the September 11 terrorist attacks on gays and feminists on September 13, 2001. Despite controversial comments like these (or perhaps because of them), Falwell’s college, Liberty University, has grown from 154 students to nearly 25,000 over the past four decades.

After meeting with the Liberty students and talking about Rev. Falwell, Roose resolved to see what all the fuss was about. Over objections from his ultra-liberal extended family, he enrolled at Liberty, spent a full semester there and wrote about it in his new book, The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University.

Liberty University sticks Roose in a dorm room with an older, homophobic student named Eric (i.e., “I’m telling you, if a queer touched me, I would do what Samson did to the Philistines. Or what David did to Goliath. I would beat him with a baseball bat.”). Trouble comes when Eric decides that Roose is gay (i.e., “Put some clothes on, faggot.”).

The Details

The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University
Four stars
Kevin Roose
Grand Central Publishing, $25.
Beyond the Weekly
The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University

Luckily for Roose, Eric is the exception; most of the guys at Liberty (“there are lots of Lukes, Matthews and Pauls”) are nonjudgmental and more like the rest of us than you’d think (i.e., “Dude, Joey, tell me you didn’t have the biggest boner when you saw Topanga on [Boy Meets World].”).

And then there are the girls. “While Liberty isn’t a sexual place in the same way most college campuses are,” Roose explains, “it’s certainly sexualized. Liberty girls might be virgins, and they might not wear two-piece bathing suits to the pool, but they do wear thigh-hugging jeans, clingy blouses and dresses that leave some, but not all, to the imagination.”

Early on, Roose meets a fellow thought-criminal named Anna, who, like the author, has reservations about the school. “Liberty is a pretty ironic name for this place,” she comments. This romantic subplot is taken out of George Orwell’s 1984 playbook; just as Winston Smith meets Julia at a Two Minutes of Hate rally, Roose meets Anna at a Friday-night Bible-study group. And like Winston and Julia, Roose and Anna bond over their normalness and their humanity.

But Roose and Anna have to keep their emotions in check; at Liberty University, intercourse, oral sex, rubbing, kissing and prolonged hugging are strictly forbidden. If Roose and Anna were to stare at each other for too long, they might be accused of having “optical intercourse.”

While Roose and Anna aren’t “making eye babies”—another term for staring—the author joins a Masturbators Anonymous group, learns to evangelize like Kirk Cameron and attends a Christian hip-hop performance (i.e., “Tryin’ to find purpose in life without Christ/Is like findin’ Wesley Snipes in the dark with no flashlight.”).

Roose’s open-mindedness and writing style resemble those of his literary mentor, A.J. Jacobs. If you’ve read either of Jacobs’ books (The Know-It-All, The Year of Living Biblically), you know this isn’t a bad thing; it just means that Roose breezily combines high culture with low, integrates scholarly information into real-world situations and learns a couple of lessons along the way.

Roose succeeds by keeping the stakes grounded. He’s a college student, so he writes about college. He doesn’t try to unlock the mysteries of evangelical Christianity, just evangelical Christianity at the collegiate level. And by the grace of God, he succeeds.

Oh, and one last thing: The book has an incredible ending.

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