Sunday, March 29, 2009

Review: The Unlikely Disciple by Kevin Roose (and a giveaway)


I admit that when I first requested this book to review, I thought it looked like it had the potential to be interesting, but I wasn't really sure what I thought overall about the idea of it. In reality, it has turned out to be one of the best books I've read this year, I didn't want to put it down, and I've managed to find a way to bring it into most conversations this week.

I need to tell you a couple of things right off the bat, because there is no way I will be able to write this review without including a bunch of autobiographical information and analysis. The first is that I grew up in an evangelical Christian home, and the second is that I attended a Christian college.

Now...about the book. Kevin Roose is interning for A.J. Jacobs (The Year of Living Biblically) when they stop in at Thomas Road Baptist Church. While there, Kevin is a bit nervous at first about interacting with all of these evangelical Christians associated with Jerry Falwell. His knowledge of Jerry Falwell pretty much comes from the inflammatory things he said after 9/11. But while chatting with a few people from the church he learns about Liberty University, the country's largest evangelical Christian liberal arts university. When he can't stop thinking about it, he decides to go undercover for a semester at Liberty.

Now Kevin's own background is that of a Quaker, although he has never been able to fully believe in the concept of God. He was studying at Brown University before his semester at Liberty and is pretty liberal in idealogy.

He gets some crash course training in the life of an evangelical before going down to Liberty. He was warned of off cussing (which I found to be spot-on) as the sure-fire way people would know he wasn't who he said he was.

Now Liberty University is strict. Even stricter than the school I attended, which was also in the south and had some rules that other people can't believe. Some rules my school shared with Liberty include curfew, single gender dorms, room check (ours was every other week as opposed to three times a week, though), and mandatory chapel attendance. And of course no drinking or drugs.

When I want to my college, I went with the attitude that I wanted to be there and that I was going to submit to the rules and authority I was choosing to place myself under. I can still remember shortly after arriving, hearing some screaming in the hall. One of the girls on my hall had just been told she couldn't wear a certain pair of pants and she was MAD. Oh yeah, we had a fairly strict dress code. We would have fashion shows at the beginning of each semester to show us what was appropriate to wear. So clearly not everyone was happy with the rules. In fact, they were a subject of frequent discussion. My first roommate left after a semester because she couldn't take it.

I can imagine that to some of you, this sounds like the worst thing ever. But I don't think the rules were in place to punish, but rather because they were trying to educate and develop the whole person. I don't think all of them were necessary, but they had some unexpected side benefits. For example, curfew forced us to get to know our hallmates better and really bond. We had some very very sweet times after curfew.

Anyway, Kevin is at first exhausted after a few days at Liberty trying to fit in. One of the funniest parts of the book to me is when he tries to clean up his language and says things like "glory be!" He gets some strange looks, and soon realizes there are other substitutes for foul language!

One of the biggest things he seems to have trouble dealing with are the social values of a place like Liberty University. One of the biggest differences between Jerry Falwell's version of evangelical Christianity and my own is that politics plays a huge role. I'm not saying that a lot of evangelical Christians aren't Republicans....they are. But personally, I don't think that faith and politics should be that tied up in each other. While I think that faith informs politics, I don't think there are any cookie cutter answers. So it's sad to me that at a place like Liberty it's assumed that everyone is a Republican.

There's another part where he goes on a spring break trip of cold turkey evangelism. I cringed through the whole chapter. I just don't believe in that kind of evangelism at all and it was painful to read about.

So I am going to say this...if you are an evangelical Christian, there are portions of this book that will make you feel uncomfortable. If you are not an evangelical Christian, there are likely portions of this book that should make you feel uncomfortable, too.

Kevin's liberal family hates that he's there. But it's almost through some of the things they say that it's revealed how the deep the divide is in our country. For example, when his lesbian aunt says it's natural he'd connect with the people on a human level even if he disagrees with everything they believe, I couldn't help but think..."everything?" Some things yes, but everything? And when his family and friends send celebratory e-mails at the death of Jerry Falwell, it was hard not to think of them as being very cold. I wasn't a huge fan of Jerry Falwell, but I didn't even celebrate at the death of Sadaam Hussein...know what I mean? It seemed his family and friends could use some open-mindedness. Another little thing that bothered me was the frequent use of the word pious. Do they really use that word at Liberty a lot? I've never really heard any Christians use that word much!

But apart from that, this book is insightful, funny, interesting, and extremely well written. I didn't want to put it down at all. Kevin makes some good friends and comes away with some new perspectives even if he doesn't convert to evangelical Christianity. And reading the book reminded me of my own college experience and how wonderful it was...the depth of community we shared. When Kevin observes that people openly talk about their relationships with God, I felt a pang of longing. There was no place like college for that. Even in church, people are much more reserved. But when you're sharing so much of your lives together, there's no room for pretension.

I recommend this book to absolutely everyone. I do want to state again that it is not an example of all evangelical Christianity but really a more fundamental sort. Even so, the very best parts of what evangelical Christianity have to offer...mainly love, do come through.

Rating: 4.75/5
Things You Might Want to Know: There are some curse words.

Giveaway: Hachette has said that I can give away up to 5 copies so if you are interested in reading this book and have a United States or Canadian mailing address please leave a comment with a valid email address and tell me what interests you about this book. I hope to get a lot of entries! Giveaway is open until April 12.



Amy

46 comments:

lilly said...

Wow! I love the post, very thorough and interesting. I never went to any school that would be closely tied with Christianity. After reading your post, I kinda wish I had. I am Catholic and despite some major issues that I might have with this religion, I don't think I'll ever stop being one. However, I always explore and want to learn as much as possible about other branches of Christianity and this book seems like something I should read. As you mentioned politics, I will say that I do not like to mix the two. I am neither republican nor Democrat, but I do find myself leaning towards conservative ideas because as a Christian I just cannot accept or agree with a few moral issues liberal people stand for. But if religion taught me anything, it would be to try and live peacefully with others, repsect them no matter their "political orientation".

planetbooks said...

Please throw my name in the hat for your giveaway. This sounds interesting and thanks to your post, I put THE YEAR OF LIVING BIBLICALLY on my TBR/purchased list after forgetting about my interest in it over the last few months.

planetbooksworldwide @ g mail . com

Julie P. said...

Don't include me in the giveaway, but I'm really looking forward to reading this after your review.

Pissenlit said...

Huh. This isn't my usual kinda book but after reading your review, I'm curious and willing to give it a try. Enter me, please and thank you!

Debs Desk said...

I think your review of the book is great and would love a chance to read the book. Please include me in your giveaway.
Thanks
Debbie
debdesk9@verizon.net

Pissenlit said...

Oh whoops, I forgot to say what interests me about this book. I guess I'm intrigued that he went undercover, that is to say, not being evangelical, he sort of jumped in with two feet together and go to Liberty for a semester.

crittyjoy said...

I have been dying to read this book for a lot of the same reasons you liked it. Seeing as we have that one thing in common I really liked your take on the book.

I added it to my amazon wishlist a few weeks ago because I found the subject to be fascinating and the fact that because I am a evangelical Christian and went to a Christian school I thought it would be a great new perspective :)

I love that you have a new appreciation for the community that occurred at that lovely school of ours :) How neat that you came away with that from this book. Makes me even more interested in the book.

bermudaonion said...

I think I have this book coming, so don't enter me. My son goes to a school that is very close to Liberty, so they play them in several sports and we pass Liberty on occasion. I've always been curious about it because of that. I was afraid this book would belittle Christians and I'm glad to see that it doesn't.

Smilingsal said...

I had a copy of this book to read and review too, and by page 200, I could not continue reading it. I wrote to the publicist and pulled out. Every time the author fairly states a Christian belief, he counters it as unacceptable by a thinking person. I cannot swallow such slanted writing. So this time, I really disagree.

Amee said...

I heard about this book a couple weeks ago but didn't think it sounded that great. You've changed my mind! Please enter me. :)

booklineandsinker said...

religious books make me a bit nervous--especially when i don't realize they are religious going in. a few months ago i took a book out from the library (it had a cute cover!) and was enjoying it until the author started tossing religious references in all over the place. whoa! i am tolerant of religion...but books like this just aren't for me. that said, i enjoyed your review. this book sounds interesting even though i wouldn't read it myself.

Amy said...

Lilly...thanks for sharing! And I agree about living peacefully with others...it's even in the Bible. ;)

Sal...I thought it was very telling that Kevin didn't or couldn't even believe in the God (same God really) he was raised with. I think he's just naturally extremely skeptical. Or in other words...not a person of faith at all. I did think it was kind of patronizing when he said he believes in belief. I don't think faith and intellectualism are mutually exclusive at all and forgot to mention that at my school I even read all of the other major religious texts. (which was a great experience and highly recommended)

Crittyjoy...I think you'll really enjoy it and appreciate how not strict and more free thinking our school was!

booklineandsinker...well the author himself is not religious nor does he convert...I see this book as an attempt at understanding a different group of people than himself and working on breaking down stereotypes.

Lori L said...

I would love to read The Unlikely Disciple! It would be very interesting to read Kevin's take on attending Liberty for a semester. I am a Christian, but I didn't attend a Christian College. At that time I wanted to, but couldn't afford it, so instead I went to a large state university. Of the kids I knew who did go to this particular Christian college, 75% of them left after a semester or two for various reasons. My own kids, currently in college, also choose to not attend a Christian college.

olympianlady said...

Please enter me for this one. As someone with little to no religious background at all, I find the whole idea of this book very interesting. I think I would get a lot out of it, especially since it's by someone who was not really devoutly religious or conservative and decided to do this really brave experiment. Most of the time when you read books dealing with evangelical Christianity, they're either by evangelicals or by those firmly agaist the whole idea and what it stands for. Either way, they're quite difficult for an unbiased person to read, since both tend to assume you're already on the author's side. So, I'm interested in this book mainly because it approaches the topic from someone who went into it not really sharing their views, but with a mind open enough to want to learn more. Since that's the position I'm in, I really want to read this one. Thanks!

tiffanyak1986(at)hotmail(dot)com

Carole said...

Amy, I can't remember who, but someone else also recommended this book on their blog. It has really caught my interest and you gave a great, honest review. Thank you for the chance to win a copy.

cjarvis [at] bellsouth [dot] net

Jennifer @ Quiverfull Family said...

Sounds funny! I'm loosely evangelical, but a-political. Sounds interesting in any case!

Stephen said...

I'd love to read this one. I remember when I was thinking about where I'd go to school, Liberty wasn't really considered because it is so "liberal." Just goes to show how relative those terms are.

"God's Harvard" is another book I have in my to-read pile that sounds similar.

What school did you go to, if you don't mind saying?

Tempest52 said...

An interesting plotline...going undercover into a Christian college! Sounds like a good read...one that I could pass on to my older daughter.

dlcwin AT gmail DOT com

Rebecca @ The Book Lady's Blog said...

Thanks for a great review, Amy! I picked this up at work the other day and thought it looked very interesting. I love walking-in-someone-else's-shoes stories, and I'm fascinated by different religions, particularly this group. I read God's Harvard last year, which is about Patrick Henry College, but it was poorly written and not at all what I'd hoped. This looks much better, and I'd love to win it.

Annie said...

This book sounds fascinating; loved your review! I would love to read this book as a person who does not go to church, yet has unending faith; but also believe that God doesn't have an issue with gay marriage etc.

I'd love to win! Thanks very much!

nancyrobster@gmail.com

Becky said...

It sounds interesting. I didn't go to a Christian college, but I did go to a Christian school k-12. I think my faith actually *grew* more when I was at college--a state university. Then again there's a big leap--in some ways--from the high school crowd to college. At some point people just have to grow up...I found there to be a lot of mean people in my "Christian" school.

Flora said...

Funny story - I was getting a movie at the local video rental while a senior at a Christian college. Someone said something that made me say, "Oh my gosh!" The clerk looked right at me and sneered, "Well now I know where YOU'RE from." I'll never forget that. Anyway, this book sounds amusing so feel free to throw my name in the hat!

Marie Burton said...

hmmmm interesting debate (don't enter me) I have just received this and I wonder how I'll feel about it! I had read about it in a woman's magazine about a month ago, and I was very intrigued, & I don't have any of the similarities like you have personally.

deb said...

Thanks for the chance to win this very interesting book.

RAnn said...

I'd like a copy. Ruthjoec at aoldotcom

Jonathan said...

Thanks for the review Amy. This looks like a great personal growth story. I have Hanna Rosin's God's Harvard sitting on my night stand. I read the first few pages and put it down. I'm now reading Chris Hedges "I don't believe in Atheists" and Lauren Sandler's "Righteous" which I find both intriguing and frightening.

I love Christianity (I'm a messianic Jew) and have been working for years to separate the faith (universal/positive) from the religion (partisan/negative). A Patrick Henry College student peaked my interest in Christianity when, like Kevin's aunt, she said some pretty insensitive things about *all* LGBT people. I've had many interactions (mainly negative) with PHC student leaders, faculty and staff (see our photos and articles from the Soulforce Equality Ride), and also some positive (see letters of support from individual students).

I've attended Alpha training at the Grace Community Church, as an open-minded married - to a man - Christian and met a good group of people. I attend a UCC church (www.stjamesucc-love.org) and find it to be a true Bible believing church, in spite of what others in the evangelical community would say.

I'd love a copy of the book and will buy one if I'm not graced with one from My Friend Amy.

If you'd like to contact me, you can reach me through Equality Loudoun. See contact page.

Jen - devourer of books said...

This book just sounds plain interesting. I'd love to see how Kevin grows and what he comes to think of faith and life after this experience.

Kacie said...

Funny, you know what your review reminded me of? How I felt about YOUR book! :) It was good, spot-on, and made me uncomfortable by how honest it is about the ugly things in the churches I grew up in.

This might just inspire me to write about the rules at my own college.

bigguysmama said...

Hi Amy. This book sounds like a great read! I read a review of it on another blog as well. I'd love to be in the running for this book for several reasons, but the biggest being my daughter was accepted into the college for her 1st year next fall. It's not the only college she's been accepted to, but it's one that she's interested in. My liberal family lives in VA. When my brother heard she might attend there I was shocked at his response because I didn't know at the time this was Jerry Falwell's college.

So, please enter me (and my 17 yr old daughter) in the running for this book.

Blessings,
Mimi
mnjesusfreak at gmail dot com

Mollie said...

This sounds like an interesting book. I have many friends that went to a similar college. I, however, went to a huge Big Ten school with absolutely NO rule and I wouldn't have changed my experience for anything. While I made many a bad decision I wouldn't be the person I am today or have grown in my faith had I not learned the hard way. I like the premise that he went in "undercover". Please enter me in the drawing.

breakingmyfall05 @ gmail dot com

Melissa - Shhh I'm Reading said...

Please enter me! I hadn't heard of this one before, but your review was great and it sounds really interesting.

Tarasview said...

Your review totally makes me want to read this book!!

Jennie said...

Hmmm... I just won something from you, but I do really want to read this. Growing up as a non-Christian, I was subjected to a lot of hate in the name of Jesus. I went to a really liberal liberal arts college, and met some amazing Evangelicals. They were constantly belittled for their beliefs, but they really showed me what the love of Jesus could do. I would love to read this.
kidsilkhaze at yahoo dot come

Tanya said...

I'm definitely interested! I love post-modern discussions of Christianity vs. culture. It's so interesting! This book, in particular, interests me because I have several friends who have gone to Liberty. I attended a conservative christian college, as well, so I'd love to read the thoughts of one who has entered that culture from the outside. We all think our lives are "normal" until we leave them or meet someone who wasn't raised quite the same. It's fascinating!

Tanya Dennis -- tanyasue (at) gmail.com
www.TanyaDennisBooks.com

Heather J. said...

I visited a VERY strict Christian college with my own college roommate during a roadtrip. Despite growing up in a Christian home and being a Christian myself, I was horrified at the rules and restrictions. So I’d love to read this book to get a semi-insider’s perspective. And I love that this guy WANTED to be there, even if it was to “scope the place out”.

Anonymous said...

Hi, my name is Julie and I graduated from Liberty in 1992.....seems like a long time ago. I knew Liberty was strict when I went and, like you, knew I needed that that time in my life and submitted to them. Not to say that I didn't break a rule now and again. In fact, I was the reason movies became legal. I was caught going to see "Hook" with Robin Williams over J-term. Some one saw me and reported me. My RA came and informed me that I couldn't be a prayer leader. I was devastated. I called my dad, ashamed. He was more mad and called the Dean up and spoke with him about how we are adults and should be able to decide about movies. About a month later, in chapel, they announced that movies (except for R rated ones) were legal now. I attributed that to my dad. :-)
I would love to receive a free copy of the book, but understand if you can't. I see alot of entries already. Thank you for the review!
Julie from NJ

ikkinlala said...

I'd be interested in reading this because I'm not Christian and I think it might give me a better understanding of evangelical Christianity.

a real librarian said...

Great review!! Thanks for the chance to win!

areallibrarian[at]gmail[dot]com

Thomas said...

The book sounds like a good read. Can you please enter me into the drawing.

TLB68 at aol dot com

Thomas

Betty and Boo's Mommy said...

This sounds interesting - all of it. Would love to read this.

Elizabeth said...

This sounds so interesting! I almost went to a conservative bible college, so this perspective sounds quite fascinating!

rachel said...

This looks quite interesting. I am fascinated by books like this.... especially by someone who has worked with AJ Jacobs.

It's nice that something edgy is thrown into the Christianity General section of my bookstore sometimes!

Sherrylinn said...

Your is the second great review I've read for this book. It's definitely on my must read list! As a person who's fairly new to Christianity, I love reading other's stories.


slcremer at gmail dot com

Tammy said...

I'm Catholic but feel that it's important to understand where others are coming from. Living in the Deep South, I'm especially intrigued by evangelical Christianity.

Please enter me, missporkchop AT yahoo DOT com

Bingo said...

Please enter me. This is a book that might explain some of the things I don't know about evangelical Christianity since I know nothing and my religion is so far removed. My email is kdhaney (at) gmail (dot)com thank you!

Carol said...

Sounds like a very interesting read. Please enter me in the drawing.
Thanks

lwileyfamily(at)wildblue(dot)net

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