The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University [Amazon]
It has been a few years since I read this and I am largely writing this review from memory, but I think this is an important book and it affected me enough that it deserves a review.
First things first: some background information for context. Liberty University you have probably heard of, the fundagelical* bible college founded by the late Jerry Falwell in Lynchburg, Virginia (lovely name; who said Meaningful Names were only for fiction?). In certain circles it’s rather infamous, along with several similar institutions including Patrick Henry College and Oral Roberts University. Richard Dawkins, in a 2006 talk at Randolph-Macon Women’s College in Lynchburg [youtube], upon being informed that nearby Liberty University teaches young-earth creationism, memorably said this: “I would advise any students of Liberty University currently here to leave and go to a proper university.” (I am aware Dawkins has made and, it seems, will inevitably continue to make many problematic remarks and seems incapable of understanding feminism among other things, so I hesitate in promoting him, but his books on biology are still quite good and I do still appreciate many of his remarks on religion).
The Unlikely Disciple is a memoir by up-and-coming investigative journalist Kevin Roose (for my word, definitely a career to watch – see also this recent article of his), who as an undergraduate at Brown University decided to take a semester off to attend Liberty University “undercover” and report on his experiences there (as far as I know he went into it knowing he was going to write this book). In the introduction, Roose describes his own religious background – he was raised a Quaker and attended Quaker schools prior to university, though (my words, not his) it was largely a wishy-washy agnosticism; religion did not play a large role in his life and he says he never really thought about the question of the existence of god(s). This is very familiar to me – I was raised Jewish but attended a Quaker school myself, and in both contexts religion was largely unconcerned with belief and focused instead on practice (and for what it’s worth I still genuinely love Quaker Meeting and go occasionally even though I do not identify as Quaker). Growing up I genuinely had no idea there were people who actually thought religious stories were true; I assumed they were a sort of collective-fiction (think Santa Claus) with which everyone played along for cultural solidarity. While I will not presume to speak for Roose, I think he may have come from a similar place (though I think Roose’s views on sociopolitical issues were much better formed by that age compared to me, while my views on religion had solidified by then and his seem to have remained nebulous).
Roose describes his initial idea for this endeavour as “a domestic study-abroad”, which I found to be a really interesting way of thinking about it – he rightly points out that the differences between the leftist culture he grew up in and the Christian-dominionist Religious Right are far greater than those between it and, say, Europe. He approached this very much with the goal of immersing himself in an unfamiliar and “foreign” culture to try to get a better understanding of them (in my opinion he did this a bit too well, honestly; I’ll get more into that later).
Roose also holds the dubious honour of having been the last person to interview Jerry Falwell before the latter’s death in 2007 (though it was a very softball interview for the Liberty University student paper and, therefore, very thin on content), an experience which he discusses in the book.
I found this book both deeply fascinating and deeply troubling. Roose writes well and does a very good job of letting the reader see inside his head, which is necessary to this sort of book. I doubt everyone experiences this book the same way I did, but for me it was very easy to project emotionally into Roose and get a visceral impression of what he had gone through (perhaps because, as I said earlier, of those similarities of background I share with him). That said, I know I could never have done what Roose has done. The sheer amount of effort he had to go to to maintain his façade as a conservative fundagelical* Christian (which included lots of study of the bible and attempts to inject it and various other Jesusy things into his everyday conversation), struggling to pass his creationism classes by regurgitating what he was taught even as he knew it was bullshit, being forced by necessity to be accepting of homophobia and to express homophobic views despite his closeness with a pair of lesbian aunts, and so on would have utterly broken me emotionally and I have no idea how he did it (though I won’t say he came out unscathed; more on that later).
What I found troubling (and I think Roose did as well) was watching the way this immersion in the culture of the Christian Right affected him. While reading through the book it was almost palpably visible how some of those ideas were seeping into him (most notably, his growing acceptance of homophobia; not that he became homophobic himself, but through increased exposure he found that hearing those sentiments expressed offended him less and less as time went on). Similarly, some of the religious ideas seem to have seeped in – he says he was thoroughly agnostic at the start, while at the end of the book he says he is now 70% convinced of god’s existence and continues the practice of praying (out of habit and because he found it a useful mental exercise, is my impression, but it’s unclear). Reading through the book was like watching this change happen in real time, and Roose seemed powerless to fight it even as he clearly wanted to (particularly on the homophobia issue). “Fake it until you make it” is an effective way to brainwash people, seems the core message (though it is not the one Roose took from it). And this was after a single semester; it is easy to see how this experience moulds people and why certain segments of the Religious Right are so fanatical about raising their children in a Christian bubble. Much as I don’t like to admit it, the people who set up and maintain these institutions know what they are doing and are very good at it (so I must reluctantly part ways with Hanlon’s razor here).
The book flowed easily and was a quick read (my hardcover edition is just over 300 pages and the font not particularly small), I think I finished it in only two or three sittings over a period of a few days, but I was left feeling incredibly drained emotionally at the end of it. I would not be exaggerating at all if I called it a depressing read – since I read it I have been diagnosed with clinical depression and was definitely in the midst of a depressive episode when I read it, and in retrospect it’s easy to see that it exacerbated my symptoms. Roose claimed that he set out on this project in an attempt to better understand the humanity of his political opponents, which is an admirable goal and one I think he accomplished well, but the predominant narrative I see in his book is not that but rather one of an intelligent and empathetic young man being reluctantly beaten down by a relentless mental onslaught (Nietzsche was right – if you gaze too long into the abyss, the abyss gazes back into you).
The Unlikely Disciple is a profoundly thought-provoking work and leaves me in awe of Roose’s journalistic integrity and courage. However, I do recommend some caution in reading it – at the very least, it isn’t pleasant. YMMV.
*I use the word fundagelical partly because the distinction between fundamentalist and evangelical has never been particularly clear to me. And also partly because it sounds funny.