The Unlikely Disciple

Kevin Roose’s unholy semester at Liberty University.

Unlikely Disciple Cover
Photo by Jeremiah Guelzo.

Before Kevin Roose enrolled at the world’s largest evangelical university he didn’t know any evangelical Christians, save for one. He didn’t even really know God. But that didn’t stop the “practically religion free” Brown University sophomore from taking a semester’s leave to subject himself to Bible Boot Camp at Liberty University, the bastion of higher education founded by the late Reverend Jerry Falwell. On campus in Lynchburg, Virginia, Roose engrossed himself in classes like Evangelism 101, History of Life, and Old Testament Survey, at the same time acclimating to a social scene regulated by “The Liberty Way,” a forty-six-page code of conduct. 

While Roose expected to meet a student body dominated by angry, intolerant zealots, he discovered that the Lukes, Matthews, and Pauls he encountered were—more or less—like any other 21st century college students. In other words, in between prayer groups and Bible study they gossiped, complained about exams, and whiled away the hours on Facebook and MySpace. But what really surprised Roose is that after a few months of palling around with his spiritually intense classmates and “experimenting” with prayer, he began to enjoy—or at least appreciate—living a Christ-centered university life. 

These days Roose, 21, is back at Brown, but Liberty is never far from his mind. Last month Grand Central Publishing released his book “The Unlikely Disciple,” which chronicles his 13-week immersion experience—a journey highlighted by his interview with Rev. Falwell for the campus newspaper The Liberty Champion.

Failure interviewed Roose to get his impressions of Falwell, to find out why he crossed the so-called God Divide, and to see if he made it back to the other side.

Why did you go to Liberty?
I wanted to explore the world of Christian college students because I had the ultimate secular upbringing and had no exposure to my Christian peers. I grew up in a liberal college town [Oberlin, Ohio], my parents once worked for Ralph Nader, and I chose to attend Brown University, which is known as a liberal enclave. I had read somewhere that 51 percent of non-evangelical Americans don’t know any evangelical Christians, and that one out of three American teenagers considers themselves a born-again Christian. So it really is our biggest cultural divide. I wanted to see how the other half lives, and to see if I could bring those two worlds closer together.

What did you do to prepare for the experience? 
A friend of mine [Roose’s lone evangelical friend] drilled me on Bible knowledge and the Christian facts I would need to know. She would say things like, “Who was the first martyr?” And “What did God create on the Third day?” And for a couple of hours I shouted answers back at her. 

I had to adjust my behavior as well. I bought a Christian self-help book called “30 Days to Taming Your Tongue,” which advises readers to take curse words and replace them with words like “Glory!” and “Mercy!” For the first couple weeks at Liberty I went around sounding a little like Kenneth the page from 30 Rock. I got some strange looks … but no reprimands.

Can you name a few substitute swear words one might overhear at Liberty?
They would say things like “darn” and “crap” and “heck.” They call them Nerf curses. And sometimes they would just say the first letter [of a curse word], like “F that!” But saying it without saying it … it seems like you may as well go the whole nine yards.

What was the toughest adjustment you had to make? 
The toughest adjustment was with my classes because I had no Bible training. I entered into a world where everyone had gone to Sunday school their whole lives. And I barely knew my Job from my Jehosaphat. 

I remember one New Testament exam where the professor said, “Come in tomorrow and be able to write the names of all 27 books of the New Testament, in order, from Matthew to Revelation.” For a typical evangelical college student this is the easiest assignment ever, but I was up half the night studying. I finally went to one of my hall mates and said, “I’m dying here.” 

And he said, “Dude, just sing the song. It’s so easy.” 

I said, “What song?” 

Then he started singing this song [begins singing] “Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, Acts and the letter to the Romans….” And so on, all the way through the New Testament. 

But the classes were a good challenge. We should all know more about the Bible, even atheists.

How many reprimands did you accumulate over the course of the semester? 
[Laughs]. Well, I was a goody two shoes. I was so worried about blending in that I really tried to stay on the straight and narrow. I did get four reprimands for sleeping during convocation. But I wear that as a badge of honor.

How many reprimands would a typical Liberty student accumulate?
There were some students who never got a reprimand and there were some who had twenty-five. And there were definitely some rebels. They would paste their reprimand slips on the wall above their desks, as if they were taking pride in how many they received. But most students tried to avoid conduct violations because there are fines that go along with them and it’s annoying having to cough up ten dollars every time you utter a curse word.

Was it difficult to fit in at Liberty? 
It was tremendously difficult because it really is an entirely different culture. But I had a great time getting to know the guys on my hall, and I found out that most of the time they weren’t even thinking about religion or Jerry Falwell or politics. They were worrying about homework or gossiping about girls in the sister dorm or wondering what they would be doing after graduation. It was an intensely humanizing experience to discover the amount I had in common with the people I met there.

What was your most enlightening class? 
I enjoyed the Bible classes, and I think it’s important for Americans to be Biblically literate. I had been through 19 years of secular schooling in which I wasn’t taught about the Bible, and I think that’s a shame. 

And although I struggled with it, I enjoyed my Creationist biology course. It was the most foreign thing to me because I’m a firm believer in evolution. Getting a test that would ask: True or false … Noah’s Ark was large enough to accommodate various types of dinosaurs … that was a little bit jarring for me. But as the semester went on, I learned that there is a coherent world view there, and even if I don’t agree with it, I think we need to understand the Creationist world view, because there are a lot of young Creationists out there. We have to understand why they believe what they believe and be able to engage them in an educated way.

What was your most challenging class? 
My Old Testament class. The Old Testament is the most complex and arcane book. It’s got all these prophets with unpronounceable 16 letter names, and they only pop up once and then disappear. Some of the Old Testament exams were excruciatingly difficult.

Did Brown accept your credits from Liberty?
[Laughs]. I tried. I went to the dean and showed him my transcript and he took one look and said, “I don’t think so.”

What was it like interviewing Jerry Falwell?
It was mind-bending because growing up in my house Falwell was the ultimate villain. It was one of those things where you didn’t say his name if you didn’t have to—like Voldemort or something. My impression [beforehand] was that he was totally unredeemable. He blamed the September 11 terrorist attacks on gays and lesbians and the ALCU and abortionists. And he had a history of flagrant intolerance. 

I went in to see him thinking that all my preconceptions would be confirmed. People have a tendency to demonize those whose views we disagree with, and I really disagree with a lot of what Falwell believed. But I found that he was a nice, friendly guy. He talked about his grandkids and practical jokes. Not many people know this, but he was the consummate prankster. When he died [two weeks after Roose’s interview] they found three boxes of stink bombs in his desk. So this was a man who had other sides that people didn’t know about. I think it’s important to recognize that even our ideological opponents have good sides, and it’s up to us to find those and round out our portraits of people.

In hindsight, is there any question you wished you had asked? 
I think I had a great interview with him, but I wish I had asked him something more consequential. My goal was to keep it light. I already knew his views on religion and politics. But I didn’t know if he had an iPod or where he liked to take his wife out to dinner. 

I’d like to have asked him about the situation the religious right finds itself in now, because the movement that Dr. Falwell helped pioneer is crumbling. I think that near the end of his life he was coming to grips with that.

What kind of feedback have you received about the book at Brown? 
People are digging it. But I don’t fit the stereotype of the typical Brown student anymore. Brown students are supposed to be cynical and sarcastic, while the stereotypical Liberty student is very earnest. When I returned to Brown I told one of my friends, “I really appreciate your friendship.” And he looked at me and said, “Okay, Hallmark.”

My Liberty semester changed me, not in ways that made me unrecognizable, but my friends think I’m a little more earnest now.

How has the book been received at Liberty? 
The official reaction [from the school] has been partial acceptance. They are now stocking the book in Liberty’s campus bookstore after having a faculty committee meeting to decide whether it was appropriate. They decided to stock it, but there’s a page-long disclaimer in every copy about how it’s not all accurate and that it’s not appropriate reading material for some Liberty students. 

At the same time, I have received a ton of emails from students, faculty and alumni, and they have been very supportive. I went back to Lynchburg for a book signing and everyone was so friendly and excited. Even the woman who followed me into the bathroom at the Barnes & Noble to tell me I was going to hell had a smile on her face.

How do you think a Liberty student would fare if he or she enrolled at Brown for a semester?
It would depend on the student. There are a lot of Liberty students who went to secular high schools and have been around non-Christians their whole lives. For them I suspect it would be a little bit of a culture shock and they would feel discombobulated. But some of the kids would genuinely struggle with it. 

There are conservative Christians at Brown, by the way. I’ve talked to a lot of them since the book came out, and they report feeling similarly out of place. Brown and other secular schools could do a better job of creating a comfortable atmosphere for those students.

Have you seen the documentary Lord Save Us From Your Followers? In the movie, filmmaker Dan Merchant pits teams of religious conservatives against secular liberals in a re-creation of the television game show Family Feud. All the questions he poses are culture-oriented and the liberals win by a combined score of 575-27, which prompts Merchant to infer that the culture wars are going to go on for a very long time if evangelical Christians don’t do a better job of understanding secular America. 
I think there is some truth to that. There are people at Liberty who think that anyone who is not a Christian is amoral and unpatriotic. When I would talk about Brown, people gave me looks that said, “How did you ever survive among all the immoral, baby-killing heathens?” 

But both sides have mythology that lets them demonize people outside the fold. And the culture wars will go on because there are legitimate issues of disagreement. But we don’t have to hold the same tone when talking about these issues. That can change.

Can your book help bridge the so-called God Divide?
I hope so, and I think people are ready for that. We have been fighting the culture wars—this divisive Moral Majority culture war—for 35 years, but people are now recognizing that this is destructive and that we need to find common ground. People are tired of demonizing. I think we’re ready to move past that and go forward.

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