Review: The Unlikely Disciple

Kevin Roose’s The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University has a great hook: Brown Student spends a semester at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University and lives to tell.  It was certainly good enough to get me to pick it up.  The danger with a hook book is that it never becomes more than its gimmick. Disciple is so good that by the middle I’d forgotten that there was a hook at all.

Roose has many great qualities as a writer.  He’s inquisitive, intelligent, fair, and he writes clearly and with a sharp eye for the details that bring scenes alive.  Better than all of those things, though, he is fearlessly honest.  He puts himself into a situation where he keenly feels the prejudices of himself, his friends, and his family and works his way through it with us.

That sounds like Disciple is some Hallmark Channel journey of self discovery, but it’s more like a Bill Bryson travelogue.  There are interesting things to see, new people to meet, and moments that change one’s life.  Roose greets the points of interest with enthusiasm and wonder, sketches the people with lively economy, and earns the deep moments with great pacing and structured writing.  He hides all that structure behind an adventurous tone and brisk narrative.

Those kind of skills will serve a journalist well in any environment, but Roose has bitten off a big hunk of  discomfort and portent.  Liberty is uncomfortable to him because he, like many of his readers, believes that he’s heading into a world of hidebound intolerance. It is important because the group represented at Liberty is a significant segment of our society.  And the preconceptions matter because any time we demonize a group – and those preconceptions are demonization – we forget that these people are people.  Many excellent writers and good journalists would not be able to keep their integrity when confronting their own prejudices.  Roose acquits himself exceptionally.

He conveys the dogmatic blinders in place at Liberty that lead to real world intolerance and violence, and he describes the unexpected openness and fellowship that draws the students there together just as clearly.  It is here that his skills as a writer and fairness as a journalist shine.  The transcendent surprising beauty of this world and its insular biases both come out as the natural constructions of human beings and human communities.  Through his prose we feel the tug of a community on his heart that he disagrees with in his soul.  Everything in his experience at Liberty is personal and human – the very antithesis of demonized.  One may still come away believing that the Liberty teachings are wrong, but not that the people are inhuman.

It is a remarkable book.

A must.

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