Review of Kevin Roose, The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University. Grand Central Publishing, 2009.
An undergraduate at Brown from a non-observant Quaker background, Roose undertook the ultimate study abroad. While his friends hopped the globe, he went South, transferring for one semester to “Jerry Falwell’s” University in Lynchburg, VA. His learning goals? To gain some understanding of religious conservatism and to write a book.
He accomplished both. By the end of the semester, Roose had enough material for over 300 pages. And he had come to appreciate this world, quite different from the one he left behind at Brown. He had found Liberty’s ban on dating a welcome escape from the pressure of the college hook-up scene and his professors’ earnest delineation of absolute truth more compelling than the relativism of the postmodern campus. Without alcohol, tobacco, dancing, or even cursing to take up the time, he had been able to spend quality time with new friends and at least once had been swept up in the emotion of singing in the Thomas Road Church choir.
After a one-on-one interview with Rev. Falwell , he had also come to see the likable side of a man who blamed the 9/11 attacks on gays and feminists such as Roose’s aunt and her partner (both of whom he calls aunts).
In some ways, Roose’s book is a welcome voice of calm amidst the shouting about religion. Here is someone who loves and supports his lesbian aunts but can still find the good in the most homophobic of Liberty students. In a culture where conversation has been drowned out by shouting, it would be nice to have more Kevin Rooses around.
And yet, there’s a naiveté here. Seeing the good in everyone is fine, but Roose doesn’t seem to know how to reconcile his ability to see the good in people with his own convictions. His hallmates wouldn’t just disapprove of his aunts; they would work tireless to deny them marriage rights. At the end of the day, with whom will Roose stand? It took me a long time to understand that people I respect can do inappropriate, even horrible things. Roose doesn’t seem quite there yet. I agree that we shouldn’t write off any human being, but I do believe that behaviors and attitudes can’t be overlooked just because we like the people expressing them. Sympathy for a person doesn’t require full acceptance of any behavior he or she exhibits. If Roose doesn’t support homophobia, why should he overlook the homophobia of his friends?
Whether Roose’s book ultimately benefits the religious cause is up for debate. He does humanize fundamentalists and helps explain why some college students would spend their spring break trying to save souls in Fort Lauderdale. But I’m not sure how seriously he ultimately takes religious conviction.
In fact, this book follows what’s becoming a standard motif: that of a non-religious person who experiments with a single religious practice and is pleasantly surprised that not all outcomes are disastrous. That’s the premise of Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous And InspiringThings I Learned When I Read Every Single Word Of The Bible by David Plotz who reads the Bible from cover to cover. It’s also the perspective of A. J. Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically, in which a non-observant Jew chronicles his attempts to live by all the rules of the Bible for a full year.
The similarities between Jacobs and Roose aren’t surprising, since Roose worked as an assistant on Jacob’s book and credits Jacobs for help in editing Unlikely Disciple. And yet, these books also share a broader cultural belief: that the practices of religion can make you a better person but religious claims to ultimate truth aren’t, in the end, compelling enough to base a life on. After his semester at Liberty, Roose is convinced of the power of prayer and truthfulness, but he takes those values back to his old life rather allow them to form the foundation for a new one. For both authors, religion is a nice place to visit but not a place to hang your hat. The concept of joining a religious community never seems a real option.
I did appreciate that Roose didn’t take a reality-show approach to Liberty students, carcicaturing them into types. He treated them like the multi-faceted human beings that they are. But, I found that his picture was often too fuzzy, blurring distinctions that might actually matter: between how nice people can be and the repercussions of their convictions; between religion as temporary self-help exercise and religion as something to which a person might commit her life.