An Outsider’s View of Christianity: A Review of “The Unlikely Disciple”

“The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University” By Kevin Roose | Grand Central Publishing [Paperback] (June 3, 2010) | 336 pp. | List Price: $13.99

An emergency prayer meeting has been called. The guys on the hall at the dorm gather to support their friend and seek divine assistance. The emergency is that photographs that a student posted to his MySpace page may get him expelled from college. He attended a “lingerie party” and the photographs demonstrate that he broke just about every conduct rule of the college he chose to attend. What makes this prayer meeting even more interesting is that, unknown to the others, one of the intercessors does not believe in the power of prayer. He is a clandestine writer trying to blend in as a normal student at Liberty University. Thus opens “The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University.” The author, Kevin Roose, decided to transfer to Liberty University for a semester when he was a sophomore at Brown University.

The decision to spend a semester at Liberty began when Mr. Roose, working as an intern, was interviewing Liberty students at Jerry Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church. The frustration at his difficulties communicating with young adults who were demographically similar to him, with the exception that they were Christians, was confusing: “Aren’t we all part of the Millennial generation? Don’t we all carry the same iPhones and suffer from the same entitlement complex?”

Comparing his plan to study at Liberty to a study-abroad program, Mr. Roose decides he needs the experience for the sake of cultural diversity: “Here, right in my time zone, was a culture more foreign to me than any European capital, and these foreigners vote in my elections!” After getting a brief orientation to Christianity from a friend who grew up in a Christian home, despite the consternation and confusion of family and friends, Mr. Roose plunges in to “pray when they prayed, sing when they sang and take exams when they took exams.”

Mr. Roose’s cross-cultural experience provides an opportunity for Christians, and Christians involved in higher education in particular, to see our culture through the eyes of a foreigner. I found “The Unlikely Disciple” to provide a fair and insightful picture. I got to like Mr. Roose while reading his book and began thinking of him by the nickname his dorm-mates gave him, “Rooster.” In one semester, Mr. Roose takes in an amazing dose of the Liberty experience: singing in the Thomas Road choir, going on a Spring Break mission trip, and obtaining the last print interview with Rev. Jerry Falwell.

One of the author’s most surprising experiences is finding that for the most part he genuinely liked his fellow students. He had expected Christians to be angry rather than joyful. He came to appreciate the concern and support that students provided for each other, a sense of community that one does not find on secular campuses. Mr. Roose even came to appreciate the rule banning physical contact between males and females. When the physical was not the focus on a date, he found he actually got to know girls as people, which was refreshing.

Not everything about Liberty was to Mr. Roose’s liking, of course. Some of his courses seemed more like indoctrination than explorations of scholarship. Were the moral emphases for students the most important behaviors to monitor? He was repulsed by his hall-mates’ harsh views on homosexuality.

I regularly laughed out loud while reading “The Unlikely Disciple.” It is a most engaging book. (The college where I teach, Grove City College, gets a cameo, too.) I think I understand my students better, having read it. (There is, however, more male dorm-talk than some readers might appreciate.) Good questions are raised, such as whether those of us who believe in absolute truth are guiding students in the pursuit of truth or merely telling students what to believe.

Of course, the book is only one observer’s perspective, and his perspective is limited in part by the hall to which he was assigned. His experiences might have been different had he lived with a different group of students. Still, “The Unlikely Disciple” is excellent. It is a must read for anyone interested in the experience of Christian young adults or Christian culture.

About Joseph J. Horton

Dr. Joseph J. Horton is professor of psychology at Grove City College and the Working Group Coordinator for Marriage and Family with the Institute for Faith and Freedom. He is also a researcher on Positive Youth Development.

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