An Unlikely Review of “The Unlikely Disciple”

Posted: 04/25/2011 in Book Reviews
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“I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say ‘you helped this happen.’”

– Jerry Falwell (referring to the 9/11 attacks)



“Billy Graham is the chief servant of Satan in America”

– Jerry Fallwell



“AIDS is not just God’s punishment for homosexuals; it is God’s punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals”

– Jerry Falwell



… Reading some of these quotes, I am shocked that Jerry Falwell was once the leader of a church of more than 30,000 people and a leading force in American religion and politics. I don’t know what is most shocking to me – his blatant prejudices? His extreme politics? His Billy Graham bashing?? Or maybe it’s the not-so-subtle mixture of it all.

Falwell was, in many ways, the founder of the “Moral Majority” in America (which has recently re-awakened post the Bush Era with the rise of the Tea Party).  To say that Falwell has had an impact on America is a vast understatement.  Not only was Falwell a politician, a pastor, and a television star, but he was also the founder and long-time president of Liberty University in Lynchburg, VA.

Yes, the man who once called textbooks “socialist propaganda” decided to start his own university.

Liberty University is a liberal arts Christian university of over 10,000 students designed as a training ground (and, as it’s a Christian college… a breeding ground) for fundamentalist Christianity including the explicit teachings of conservative Republican politics, young earth creationism, and avoidance of secular evils.  The goal of this university is to train up a generation of teachers, preachers, scientists, lawyers and politicians who will infest American culture with these ideals.

A few years ago, a sophomore who was studying Journalism at Brown University became fascinated by this vastly different culture than his own.  As a result, he decided to go undercover to learn for a semester as a student at Liberty.  After taking the same classes, living in the same quarters, and even singing in the choir of the same church as many of these students, Kevin Roose confronted our modern cultural/political/religious wars in a book called The Unlikely Disciple.  I’ll conduct this review much like my review of Love Wins, since that was really easy and I received a lot of positive feedback from that (thanks friends!).

What I Liked

  • Captivating Story – I think that Roose has a big future ahead of him in writing.  His ability to tell a story was riveting.  I am rarely so enthralled by a book that I dedicate so much time to reading it.  I devoured the pages in nearly a week, and every spare moment was spent in this book.  I laughed, got angry, saw beauty, mourned, and simply stood amazed at God and creation.  Also, for a book that is essentially a journal/research project, there are some real unexpected and epic twists and turns.
  • Sympathy for Characters – I don’t know how everyone else will find themselves reading this book, but I found a companion in Roose and in many of his conclusions.  I would recommend this to anyone who a) is familiar with the secular college environment b) is familiar with a religious college environment c) is troubled by the religious rhetoric in politics d) is positioned in or among a fundamentalist/conservative Christian environment or e) is curious about an honest perception of fundamentalist Christianity from an outsider.  I think there could be something in this book that connects with everyone, and you may be surprised by how you connect with characters who have very different viewpoints and lifestyles than yourself.
  • Fair and Balanced – Honesty can sometimes have two moving hands.  One can portray the honesty of reality, which shares the factual information of events/time/places/etc. One can also signify the honesty of emotion, which can either skew or highlight reality. The temptation of an author in a situation like Roose would be to simply play one or the other.  He could have either listed in great detail each experience, or he could have been swept up in the emotions of each experience.  However, a great author is able to use emotion to humanize both the heroes and the villains.  The whole adventure of this book felt very human to me, which is probably the greatest element lacking from the culture wars in America.  Understanding each other as people, not just political positions, might be the greatest gift of this book.

What I Didn’t Like

  • Secrets, Secrets Are No Fun – So a slight pet peeve of mine is when an author takes the liberty of posting some explicit and sometimes demeaning information about another person without their expressed consent.  Though names are changed to preserve anonymity, this type of stuff is littered throughout this book.  In fact, the whole story is based off of a covert operation in which the author lies to an entire community of people in order to study them.  The whole thing definitely is not enough to make me dislike the book, but it did make me uncomfortable at times.  
  •  Extremes as Representative – I understand that the goal of this was to find common ground among two extremes – the politically and socially conservative and the politically and socially liberal, and that was very well done in this book.  Though I found great comfort in acknowledging the two could coincide and function together as friends, I often found my own, more moderate, views somewhat absent from the conversation.  I wish that there was a representation of Christianity that wasn’t gay-bashing or Republican.  I believe that the message of Christ offers a third way beyond conservativism or liberalism, and I wish that Christianity was seen in that light rather than through the lens of a caricatured stereotype.  My beef is not so much with the author’s portrayal of the characters, which is often very gracious, but it is more the fact that Christianity has been stamped with a societal label and there are still Christians typecasting themselves into these roles.

The Result

The end of The Unlikely Disciple is sprinkled with a bit of hope.  It is a hope that transcends personal viewpoints and looks to the humanity in our greatest of adversaries.  Once we begin to look at our enemies and ask them about their family or their favorite cereal, our dialogue begins to seek our commonalities rather than our differences.  What really moves and shifts a culture and a people is not argumentation or even intellect; instead, it is relationship.  By Roose reaching across the aisle, he was forever changed, as was the campus of Liberty.  The question he leaves us with at the end is, “Will you be the one to cross that barrier now?”


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