I have been meaning to post my thoughts on The Unlikely Disciple for some time now, and since today is the official release date, it seemed like as good a time as any.
[Should I say spoiler alert? I mean, it’s not Harry Potter, so I don’t think you have to worry about me ruining the ending for you. But if you have some kind of issue, then consider yourself warned. I’m gonna be excerpting and commentating.]
The author, Kevin Roose, is a senior at Brown University, and the book recounts his experience as a “foreign exchange” student at Liberty University in the spring of 2007. Kevin’s reasoning was that he didn’t need to leave the country to experience another culture, and he wanted to find out first-hand what Evangelical Christians were all about.
So, Kevin packed his bags and headed to Liberty, where he lived in a dorm, attended class, and threw himself into as many aspects of Liberty as he could – all undercover, with the purpose of writing this book.
To his credit, he came to Liberty with an open mind. Not without pre-conceived notions or a deep-seated worldview, but with the intention of giving Liberty (and the people he met here) a fair shake.
The man himself stopped by my office several weeks back to drop off an advance copy of his book. I was eager to see what it was all about, so I read it straight through that night. It’s very well-written and vastly entertaining, and at the core, of course, it’s an insightful and interesting social experiment. (And I liked it.)
If you’re reading this and you know me at all, you know there are certain things I will defend to the death. Among them are Liberty University and anybody whose name happens to be Jerry Falwell.
So, frankly, I was prepared to be affronted. I expected good things from the book, too, but I prepared myself for the worst. Of course, all Kevin’s ideas about Dr. Falwell prior to his stint at Liberty came from the media, and Lord knows, when it comes to Dr. Falwell, the media never has had even a vague clue what they’re talking about. (I suppose it’s easier to vilify someone than to try to understand the truth.) So, I tried to shrug those things off rather than letting it bug me.
My defenses faltered, however, the first time Kevin described seeing Dr. Falwell in the book. Something about the description of him walking into the room was so spot-on that my emotions snuck up on me and tears started rolling down my face. Frankly, it was great to see him again, even if it was in the pages of a book.
There was no reclaiming my resolve at that point, so I just settled in and kept reading.
As pertains to Liberty, The Unlikely Disciple is fair, though not always flattering. However, most of the negative aspects of Liberty as portrayed in the book were actually not due to Kevin’s perspective as a non-believer (and I would say a bit of a cynic), but rather thanks to the behavior displayed by the other characters in the book – “real” Liberty students.
That came as a disappointment to me, but not as a total shock. In pure numbers, having a campus full of 10,000 students means you can count on a few bad apples – even at Liberty University. And while there were a couple characters in the book I would have liked to punch in the teeth (I have this repressed violent streak), most of the trouble-makers were just that – trouble-makers, but not too terribly out of hand.
The only part of the book where I felt like Liberty may have gotten an undeserved negative slant from Kevin is with regard to academics – at least in the realm of apologetics (and most Bible courses cover apologetics in some respect). I could tell that he was trying to remain impartial, but his religious skepticism still came through as a bit scoffing when he talked about young-earth creationism and reconciling seemingly-contradictory Scripture passages.
He did admit to finding the courses at Liberty challenging, which seemed to come as a surprise to him. He also signed up for a full load of religion courses, so he missed the opportunity to experience what it’s like to study economics, marketing, statistics or biology at Liberty. The Bible courses are key (that was my major, you know), but they’re not the full picture.
Even so, Kevin freely admitted a certain pull toward the Liberty way of thinking. Being immersed in the culture, it seems like he came out with more positives than negatives to share:
There’s a difference, it seems to me, between the form of religion and the content of religion. Right now, I’ve got all of the form and not much of the content. I pray like a Liberty student, I read the Bible like a Liberty student, and I sing in the choir like a Liberty student. I even go on dates like a Liberty student. And for the most part, I’ve enjoyed living this way. But I still don’t believe the same things Liberty students believe about God. I still don’t believe, as Dr. Falwell said during Easter services this morning, that “the resurrection of Christ is an indisputable fact.” And yet, the possibility is entering my mind.
Kevin even dated at Liberty, and managed to walk a fine line about it, too, which left me crediting him as a gentleman (instead of the jerk he could have easily been if he’d wanted to). He even found quite a bit of merit in dating without physical pressure. Sure, making out is fun, but what’s the point if you can’t even have a real conversation with the other person? Kevin’s experience, tainted by the guilt of not being able to show his true self (and thus blow his cover), brought to mind one of my all-time favorite Derek Webb songs, “I Just Don’t Want Coffee”:
Tonight as I was driving home I passed a coffee shop And you know I wrestled with the truth How I’d explain to you what you could never understand And how I keep my mind from you But that’s the price I pay Your way is not my way Today’s another day It’s OK
My favorite aspect of the book includes several passages where Kevin delineates the stark differences between his own contentment and that of the God-serving Liberty students around him:
It’s hard to watch Liberty students singing along to worship songs during convocation, raising their hands and smiling beatifically, and not wonder whether they’ve tapped into something that makes their lives happier, more meaningful, more consistently optimistic than mine….
Liberty students seem less cynical than the secular students I’ve known. They seem more optimistic, more emotionally fulfilled. And after two months of living with them, sharing in their moral victories, I think that optimism and fulfillment may be rubbing off on me….
When you’re at Liberty full-time, immersed in this spiritual environment, it’s impossible to keep your objective reference points intact. Everyone around you is talking about how God changes their lives, all the worship songs are about God “completing” and “filling” and “renewing,” and after a four-month fusillade of that stuff, it sinks in. You start to see your old, secular self as incomplete. You wonder if maybe accepting Christ would be worth it just so you could be as happy and bright eyed and earnest as everyone around you….
That’s when it happened. When I heard seven thousand Liberty students erupting in joy all around me, in a dark arena with a huge glowing cross, I got that same tingling sensation. This time, it began to feel like there was a string connected to the top of my head, and it was being pulled slowly upward, toward the ceiling. Pretty soon, I was joining the rest of my classmates in shouting and cheering—not out of any duty or desire to blend in, but because in that moment, I couldn’t restrain myself.
There are a lot of reasons I enjoyed this book. There are a lot more reasons that I recommend you go get yourself a copy and read it. I hope a lot of people who hate Liberty and everything we stand for will get a copy and see their misconceptions overturned. God can use anything to change a heart. He can use this book to change the hearts of people who read this book hoping it blasts Liberty. Kevin’s book could serve to open the eyes of many who have no idea what it means to follow Christ, or what Christianity is all about.
Professing Christians need to get a copy of this book, too. We also have cause to open our eyes. We are supposed to be people like Christ. That is a tall order, and no one is perfect, but we can do better. There were a lot of students represented in that book who can reflect back and be proud of their actions and their testimony. There are others who I’d imagine must think, “If I had known he wasn’t a Christian, I would never have said/done that.” That is a difficult realization. There can always be someone watching. There is always an opportunity to be a witness for Christ without even opening your mouth to rattle off the Romans road. It’s a lot about how you treat other people and how you act when you think no one is looking.
It should also be a wake-up call. Liberty University has 10,000 students on campus. This is and will always be a Christian university, but if you think that means that every person who sets foot on this campus or in these classrooms is a Christian, you are sorely mistaken. There is a certain comfort level that exists when you know you’re within a group of Christians, but it’s hard to know that for sure, and we shouldn’t take it for granted.
I think Kevin Roose’s The Unlikely Disciple stands to make a real difference on both sides of the culture war, which is exactly what Dr. Falwell prayed for him just two years ago:
“Father, I pray for Kevin. I pray that your annointing will be upon him in a very special way. And Lord, if you want him in journalism, I pray you’ll put him in key places where he can make a difference in the culture. God, give him a great family and children that he’ll raise up in the nurture and admonition of your Son. I put Kevin in your hands, that you’ll make him a special tool, a special instrument in your Kingdom. For Christ’s sake, Amen.”