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Bookish Thoughts

Book Review: The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University

By May 17, 20117 Comments

I remember hearing about the death of Reverend Jerry Falwell back in 2007. I can’t say I felt much sadness at his passing, but I don’t remember feeling much glee, either. Kevin Roose, the son of liberal, Quaker parents and nephew to a lesbian activist aunt, undergraduate at Brown University and aspiring journalist, finds himself staying an extra week at Liberty University, where he has gone undercover to see what life is like at one of America’s leading evangelical Christian colleges, in order to be there for Falwell’s funeral. His feelings about Falwell’s death are as complicated as his feelings about Liberty University and the people he meets there.

The Unlikely Disciple is Roose’s account of a semester spent at Liberty University pretending to be another evangelical Christian, lying about the fact that he has been saved and trying to pretend that he’s okay with the constant barrage of gay bashing and sexism that surround him on that campus. Ethically, I think what Roose did was pretty wrong. The book that resulted, though, is pretty interesting.

The ethical question

Is it interesting enough to justify the fact that Roose gained his information under false pretenses? As a social scientist trained at Indiana University, which at least according to those in my graduate program, had a rather rigorous institutional review board, I’ve come to internalize a high set of standards for what constitutes ethical research. When considering the use of deception in research, you have to weigh the benefits of that research against the costs of deception, and the extent to which you believe that there is no other way besides deception to get the information you want to obtain. Roose would have a hard time convincing me that the benefits of his semester spent at Liberty lying to his fellow students are of such great importance to humanity as to outweigh the costs of deception to the people with whom he interacted. This is certainly a book that might help people understand evangelical Christians, but it’s not as if Roose’s book is going to end the conflict in Israel or cure cancer.

But could Roose have gotten the information he obtains any way besides the use of deception? That’s a harder question for me. After being at Liberty for a while, Roose discovers that one of the men on his dorm is actually not an evangelical Christian, and he doesn’t seem to get treated any differently than the other Liberty students. Of course, Roose didn’t know that going in, and he would’ve had to concoct a story about what a non-evangelical was doing attending Liberty. Roose would not have been able to write the exact same book, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t have learned some important things about Liberty. In the world of sociology and anthropology, researchers rarely disguise the fact that they are there to learn about the group they’re studying; they reveal themselves as outsiders, and still gain a great deal of insight into the groups they study. Roose reads an anthropologist to prepare for his “field work,” but still decides that deception is the way to go. I can’t help but think that part of his decision had to be the shock appeal, the thrill involved in potentially being discovered, the marketability of a book that was written by someone going “undercover” at Bible Boot Camp, which is what Falwell himself calls Liberty.

I would not have made the decision Roose did to deceive the students and administration at Liberty. He finds living a lie stressful at first, but soon adjusts, and he suggests that his friends at Liberty are unphased when he reveals his deception. I’m skeptical. Really, they didn’t care that you lied to them, or are they just too polite (or too steeped in compassion and turning the other cheek) to tell you that you’re kind of a jerk? I will confess that I’m the kind of person who feels bad when I don’t tell my husband that I spent $50 on yarn for two days, despite the fact that he could care less what I spend or whether I tell him. I find small dishonesties intolerable. So Roose’s deception is for me, well, ick.

Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, I can say that I found Roose’s treatment of Liberty and its people to be deeply respectful. He’s not there to make fun of them or expose their absurdities to the outside world. He seems to truly have an ethnographers need to become an insider, to the extent of opening himself to all aspects of the Liberty Way and losing a bit of himself in the process. He falls short of conversion, but he is thoughtful enough to look for the positive aspects of prayer, even when he can’t quite bring himself to believe in a god who cares about how you do on your History of Life exam (History of Life is the title of the course Roose takes in Liberty’s Creation Studies department).

Roose looks hard for the commonalities between his friends at Brown and his friends at Liberty and he finds them. I greatly admire Roose’s ability to grapple with the complexities of understanding a way of life that can seem so good in moments, and so very objectionable in others. He sounds wise beyond his years when he describes the incredible compassion and concern demonstrated by Pastor Seth, but mourns the fact that that energy is directed towards helping Roose to stop masturbating rather than to, say, feeding the poor or ensuring that everyone has health care.

Liberty and the liberal arts

One of the aspects of this book that was most interesting to me as an educator was Roose’s account of his experiences in the classroom and with the Liberty curriculum. His tests consist of mostly multiple choice and fill in the blank assignments. There’s a great deal of memorization and regurgitation that he has to do, which he finds quite difficult, especially given his lack of much of a religious background and therefore of any Biblical knowledge. Here’s a test question from his Evangelism 101 class:

God wants to be your .

          A. Slave
          B. Best friend.
          C. Priest

The correct answer, incidentally, is B. A workbook from his GNED II class, a kind of introduction to liberal studies and college life, Liberty-style, contains fill in the blanks like this:
What are the consequences of immoral sex?

1. Physical.
          A. Unplanned pregnancy.
          B. Abortion.
          C. STDs

As a professor at a liberal arts college where we are as serious as we can possibly be about what a liberal arts education involves, I have to say I feel vindicated. This is, in fact, exactly what I might have envisaged if you had asked me to describe what teaching would be like at an anti-liberal arts college. At the kind of Superman, bizarro world liberal arts college. There would be a lot of fill-in-the-blank.

On the hillside above Liberty University

Fill-in-the-blanks are generally mindless. Which is not to say I have never given a test with fill-in-the-blank (mostly to make students feel there’s an easy part on the exam). But I have never given a test without an essay portion, either. In the whole of his semester at Liberty, Roose never once mentions writing an essay paper. Nor did he talk about other students writing papers. Did they write any papers? I don’t know. But essay papers would also be largely absent from the bizarro world liberal arts college I might imagine.

It sounds as if there is little discussion in his classes at Liberty, either. The professors lecture. The professors convince the students of the truth of, say, young-earth creationism, the particular verison of creationism which, unlike intelligent design, argues that the earth is young (six thousand years old, to be precise) and really was created in six, literal, twenty-four hour days. Mind you, as one astute Liberty student points out, the professors don’t teach the students how to make an argument in favor of young-earth creationism. Can you understand why they wouldn’t?

In order to make an argument in support of something, or at least a good argument in support of something, you have to put yourself inside the perspective of the opposing side. You have to imagine, this is how someone who doesn’t believe in young-earth creationism sees things. This is the argument they would make. Here’s how I can argue against them. This is a hard thing for young people to do. I know, because it’s a big part of what I try to get them to do in my classes. But if your job is indoctrination and not education, you can’t take the risk of allowing them to step into the opposing viewpoint. They might not come back to your side.

And so there’s little discussion. There appears to be little essay writing, because essays are written arguments. Writing is thinking. The process of writing a paper about a topic is the process of thinking through that topic. What it boils down to is an amazing quote from Roose on p. 248, from one of Liberty’s pastors and professors in Evangelism 101: “I just want to say this, Liberty students. My biggest worry about you, about all of you, is that you’ll become educated beyond your obedience.”

I have to say, who expected to find the exact purpose of a liberal arts college boiled down to one sentence in a book about Liberty University? But there it is. The purpose of a true liberal arts education is, in fact, to educate you beyond obedience. This doesn’t mean, despite what many conservatives might claim, to indoctrinate our students into being disobedient, or leftist, or communists, though, yes, many of us in academia are. I don’t care if my students “obey” in the end, whatever obeying or disobeying might mean to them in particular. I just want them to have made a conscious, informed, and reasoned decision about it. I want them to have stepped into some other positions, seen the world from different perspectives, and come away knowing that whatever they do is, in the end, a choice. I want them to be able to see their choices. To be able to see a choice, you have to be able to see the other possibilities. And this is just what the Liberty Roose attended largely did not want its students to see.

Roose is correct in saying that this does not have to be the case. Education and piety are not at cross purposes. I know a great many people who are educated, intellectual, deeply thoughtful people of faith. In our theology department, I believe our classes can help students to question their faith at times, but also to grow and develop in their beliefs. Education, intellectual curiosity, and scholarship have a long and compatible history with many religious traditions, including Christianity.

But the Liberty Roose describes is less interested in educating than in indoctrinating. And held up as a mirror to what my colleagues and I do at many colleges and universities across the country and the world, it is heartening to know that we might be on the right path. And also hopeful to hear the voices of many Liberty students Roose met who seem to want to be educated, and not indoctrinated. Though they are not particularly challenged inside their classrooms, they are like other college students in having those conversations among themselves, outside their classrooms. I know that secular colleges and universities can feel like hostile environments to evangelicals and other people of faith. But Roose himself, putting aside his particular method, is evidence of a true liberal arts education at its best. Rather than condemning what he doesn’t understand, he tries, in a truly radical way, to cross over that line. Stand on the other side. See the argument from their perspective. To do this is complex and painful and difficult. It meant that things are not always clear cut. You might have to live with some paradoxes. But those of us committed to a liberal arts education believe that in the end, it is one of the keys to a better world. Roose’s book confirms my own faith in that ideal.


  • Thanks for this thoughtful and thought-provoking post. I read The Unlikely Disciple last year and I really enjoyed it. I think you are correct that Roose treats his subjects with respect and tries to describe them honestly despite his differing religious and political opinions. He recognizes that a culture like this one, with its own language, history and customs, must be approached with openness and care.

    I grew up in an evangelical (though laid-back) household and attended a good liberal arts college. I agree that it is absolutely vital to examine and understand your beliefs, even if that means they must be challenged. I no longer consider myself evangelical, but I feel confident in that decision (rather than bitter) because I had the opportunity to put myself in different shoes and think critically about what I had been taught. A university is doing a disservice to its students if it does not encourage and teach them how to question.

  • BookBelle says:

    You did a great and thorough job of reviewing this book. I read it last year or so. I hadn't thought of a lot of what you mention here. I remember going away from the book thinking that the Liberty students were, at best, getting a bond with a group of like people for probably the rest of their lives, a.k.a. security. I found myself really liking the Liberty students and would like to have read more about them. It almost felt like Liberty was the place that southern evangelicals send their children as a finishing school. It felt like a few of those students were on the verge of self-awakening and it would be fun to follow their lives for a few more years.

  • Emily Fairchild says:

    Robyn: Thanks for this! I didn't know the book. As another IU trained researcher at a liberal arts college…:)…I think I can use it in class! Thanks!

  • Katie B. says:

    Great review! I really enjoyed your thoughts on the purpose of education. Well said!

  • Rachael says:

    A small group I'm in just picked this for our next book discussion. Sounds like it'll be worth our time.

  • Robyn says:

    Shannnon, glad you enjoyed the review. I hope we do a good job at my college teaching students how to question…sometimes we don't always seem to be on the same page (professors and students) about that being part of the purpose of an education. Questioning can, after all, be uncomfortable, even though sometimes uncomfortable is good. Love the new walking tour!

    Bookbelle, I agree with what Liberty students seem to get…some nice bonds with like-minded folks. Which can be important, especially for a group that might be outsiders to a lot of settings.

    Emily, I hadn't thought of using this in class until you said that, but you could certainly have some interesting conversations. I should warn you if this didn't come across strongly enough in the review–lots of homophobia and praying for gay people in the book. And a particularly virulent homophobic roommate. Roose does the best he can with this subject, but there were times when the level of comfort he developed with the homophobia at Liberty made me uncomfortable.

    Katie B., thanks. It's easier to be a bit reflective about the job when you're taking an extended break from it!

    Racheal, yes, we're talking about it in my book group this morning. Should be interesting!

  • D. Fuller says:

    I didn't attend Liberty, but I did attend a smaller liberal arts evangelical university, Cedarville. I find it amusing that you would assume that Liberty doesn't use essays for testing. There's at least one reference that I can think of in the book where Kevin took an essay exam. Liberty, like the university I attended, are accredited by their respective states. Yes, essay exams where very common and no, we weren't deducted points for disagreeing with our professors.

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