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Book Review: The Unlikely Disciple By Kevin Roose

covertheunlikelydiscipleSummary:
The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University
chronicles Kevin Roose’s “take it to the streets” approach to the conservative/liberal culture divide in America.  At the time a student at Brown, Roose decided to spend his semester abroad at infamous Liberty University, one of the best-known Christian fundamentalist colleges in the United States.  He wanted an insider’s view, so for that semester he presented himself as a recent Sinner’s Prayer convert, and sought to blend in with Liberty students, doing what they would do.

Review:
You would expect a book like this to come from an Anthropology major, but Roose is actually a Journalism major, and it quite honestly shows.  Roose seeks to honestly present his experiences, peppered with periodic facts about the Bible, Christianity, and the history of Liberty.  While I didn’t need these explanations, I’m sure many readers would, so they are useful.  However, Roose repeatedly fails to truly analyze in any sort of a detached manner the fundamentalist community.  This causes the book to fall short of being academic and reading much more like a short memoir.

While Roose’s writing is surprisingly quite good, his experiment has a few fundamental flaws.  I get it that Roose had to seek to blend in in order to get an insider’s view of the fundamentalist community.  However, he repeatedly fails to encounter the very real experience of not fitting in among fundamentalists.  Kids who are raised in the community didn’t choose to embrace this way of living the way Roose did.  They are born into it; it’s drilled into their heads their whole lifetime; and they often must face the very real possibility that if they leave it they lose their families.  Roose wasn’t raised believing in hell as a a real place.  He never spent nights up worrying and crying over good family members who just aren’t “saved.”  It truly frustrated me when I saw three possibilities in the book for him to have investigated what it’s like for people raised in the faith.

First, he goes to a meeting of a support group for men struggling with homosexual tendencies, but he went once and he didn’t then seek out anybody from this group to talk to him about what it’s like to be gay and a fundamentalist.  What was he thinking?  This was the perfect opportunity!

Second, Roose dates a girl, Anna, who states to him that she’s a more liberal Christian than Liberty would want.  He never extensively talks with her what it’s like for women in fundamentalism.  In fact, he never really seeks out the women at Liberty much at all.  He goes on a few dates to help maintain his facade, but he doesn’t seem to have truly sought to befriend the women at all.

Third, he overhears some of his friends discussing how much it pains them to think of good unsaved people going to hell and worse saved people going to heaven.  This is a classic issue for people raised in fundamentalist Christianity, and Roose simply comments on it in about one paragraph.  You would think he would have sought to address the very real psychological pain contained in that conversation he overheard, yet he didn’t.

What bothered me most about Roose’s experience is he comes away saying that fundamentalist Christianity isn’t all that bad.  The people in it are by-and-large nice folk, and we shouldn’t let a little political disagreement interfere with more cross-cultural understanding.  Well, that’s easy enough for a straight, white male to say.  Of course he found it mostly tolerable!  His two greatest struggles were no sex for a semester and trying not to swear.  He isn’t a person who believes hell is a real place struggling to combat his homosexuality.  He isn’t a woman being repeatedly told she must submit to her husband and that it is unbiblical for her to teach men.  I know that Roose can’t help it that he isn’t any of those people, yet he could have sought to tell their stories too.  The fundamentalist kids at Liberty were nice to him because they thought he belonged, and after that because they knew about the book and wanted to look good.

In the end, The Unlikely Disciple grants the reader a view of what it’s like to be fundamentalist if you fit right in and believe it.  It fails to bring up the very real dangers for people raised in the faith who don’t just naturally fit right in.

I’m concerned that it will make fundamentalist Christianity look far too safe to those who don’t encounter it much in their day to day life.  Although the writing is good, this concern leads me to give it:

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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