Saturday, October 03, 2009

The Unlikely Disciple by Kevin Roose

The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University by Kevin Roose
Copyright 2009
Grand Central Publishing - Nonfiction/Memoir
324 pages, incl. selected bibliography
Kevin Roose's Website

You know what happens when Bookfool closes a book and says to herself, "This was a fascinating book but I'm not sure how exactly to go about expressing my thoughts," right? Self-interview, of course! I hear all those adorable mental head slaps. This time, it seems like a good idea to let someone else interview me and I was considering the cat, but she left the room so we'll go with a can of Tab. Yes, it's true. The Coca-Cola Company still manufactures and sells Tab. Ignore the rumors about it being a dead product of our humble past.

Tab: Drink me! Drink me!

Bookfool: This is supposed to be an interview about a book.

Tab: It's in my nature. Okay, first things first. How did you acquire your copy of The Unlikely Disciple and why?

Bookfool: I read whopping fine review written by Alyce of At Home With Books. Then, I read several more reviews that made me think I would surely die if I couldn't get my mitts on a copy. And, since I just happened to be in contact with the publicist for this particular book, I asked her if it would be possible to acquire a copy for review. I don't do that often, but it usually turns out well because I only specifically request books that sound so fabulous I can hardly bear the thought of missing out.

Tab: From my understanding, every book you look at makes you feel that way.

Bookfool: Oh, go recycle yourself. Also, if that was a question, the answer is, "Not true." I'm definitely swayed by a great cover and a positive review, but there are plenty of books that don't interest me.

Tab: Tell us a little bit about The Unlikely Disciple and its author.

Bookfool: The Unlikely Disciple is the memoir of a Brown University student who decided to spend a semester at "America's Holiest University", aka Liberty University -- the university founded by Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell (who was still alive at the time). Roose got a little advice and tutoring from a Christian friend who suggested it would be best if he began his research at a more liberal Christian university. Roose rejected the idea; he wanted to dive into an extremely conservative atmosphere and find a way to humanize the people who embrace the radical views espoused by their founder.

Tab: What did he find when he arrived?

Bookfool: Roose was, at first, a little astounded by the strict atmosphere. No smoking, no drinking, no cursing, no dancing, no R-rated movies. Here's a little bit of the publisher's summary:

Liberty is the late Jerry Falwell's "Bible Boot Camp" for young evangelicals, his training ground for the next generation of America's Religious Right. Liberty's ten thousand undergraduates take courses like Evangelism 101, hear from guest speakers like Sean Hannity and Karl Rove, and follow a forty-six page code of conduct that regulates every aspect of their social lives. Hoping to connect with his evangelical peers, Roose decides to enroll at Liberty as a new transfer student, leaping across the God Divide and chronicling his adventures in this daring report from the front lines of America's culture war.

Tab: Why do they use the word "daring" to describe Kevin Roose's time at Liberty?

Bookfool: Primarily because Roose came from such a dramatically different atmosphere and background. He moved from an Ivy League university where people partied, sex and drinking were not taboo, he was friends (and relatives) with gays and the obvious emphasis was academics, not beliefs. His new home was one in which homosexuality was openly, verbally slammed, partying was supplanted by prayer sessions, dating involved nothing beyond holding hands and the first thing people asked him was often where he stood with God.

Roose's religious background was Quaker, but he had not attended a service of any kind in many years. For the most part, he'd had little exposure to religion in his home, was not knowledgeable about the Bible and his parents fell to the far left, politically. Walking into a place where he had so little understanding was, in fact, pretty daring. He was unfamiliar even with the order of the books of the Bible (something regular churchgoers memorize at elementary-school level) and had to fake his way through prayer sessions.

Tab: Did you mark any quotes that would illuminate us a bit?

Bookfool: No, unfortunately, I only marked a couple of passages that stood out to me because of his writing style. For a guy who was a mere 19 when he switched schools (and has yet to graduate from Brown, although he will officially graduate in December), he has a startling combination of skill and natural ability. I found his writing impressive. I've got him mentally marked for a long, productive writing life. Alyce used the word "riveting" and I must agree. Although the book stayed in my sidebar for about two weeks, that's only because I was so immersed in the Swim Mom thing that I wasn't reading much of anything. When I finally did pick it up, again, I finished the book in nothing flat.

Tab: You're a Christian. How did you feel about the subject matter Roose said he was taught at Liberty University?

Bookfool: A great deal of it made me cringe. I should mention that I fall on the liberal side of the Christian spectrum. At Liberty University, Roose was taught that the earth is a mere 6,000 years old, the "young earth" theory of creationism. I'm open to the idea that evolution is just a part of the creation process and the idea that the earth is only 6,000 years old is kind of bizarre to me. There's too much scientific evidence to dispute an earth so young.

I was particularly horrified, though, by the same things I believe occasionally paralyzed Kevin Roose, which can be described using a single word: "intolerance". One thing I would have liked to hear more about was the concept of euthanisia and the Liberty/Falwell viewpoint, since it was merely mentioned in passing and I have extremely strong views about euthanasia - that dying humans should be given the same "humane" option we offer to dogs and cats. I'll bet I'd get a bashing about that from the Falwell camp, but that was not elaborated upon.

Tab: Name a few positives to Kevin Roose's experience at Liberty University.

Bookfool: Actually, there were quite a few. He made friends easily and found that not everyone believed absolutely everything they were taught, nor followed the rules to extremes. Roose enjoyed singing in the church choir, discovered that not having the pressure of having to decide whether or when a girl would be interested in sex made dating more fun because he and his dates spent time actually getting to know one another, and he enjoyed praying and being prayed for. Roose was able to interview Jerry Falwell -- in fact, his interview was the last "print interview" with Falwell -- and found him a rather warm, charming individual. Whether or not he agreed with Falwell, Roose thought he was genuine.

Tab: What did you like most about the book? Take a drink before answering.

Bookfool: (gulp) I loved the fact that the author went into his research with an open mind. His intent was to humanize the far right. In the process, he did find areas of intolerance that shocked him, but he also discovered that the students at Liberty were intelligent, questioning individuals in many ways and that they didn't always espouse the radical viewpoints of their founders and teachers. The book is also immensely entertaining and thought-provoking.

Like Alyce, I've seen both sides of the coin. I grew up in a Baptist church and I know the lingo. But, I have atheist, Jewish, agnostic and Catholic friends. I attended a secular university but was involved in church and a Bible Study group in my dorm. I don't remember why I visited Oral Roberts University (which is described, at one point, as one of the few similar institutions that are even more radical than Liberty), but I'm an Oklahoman and ORU was a place we laughed about but where most of us had friends in attendance; I've visited and what stood out most to me was the way people dressed. They had a pretty strict dress code.

Tab: Rating?

Bookfool: 5/5 - An absorbing, thought-provoking, exceptionally well-written memoir in which the author described both sides of the cultural coin in an even-handed manner. The author could easily have been judgmental and provided a totally skewed viewpoint, but he refrained from that; his viewpoints were both fair and thoughtful. The Christian in me was pleased to note that he's carried a few habits he learned from his time at Liberty into his everyday life and I was thrilled that he was able to keep in touch with many of his Liberty friends.

Tab: I'm losing my fizz, but you didn't have to shove me off the thirsty stone! Betrayal!!! Mountain Dew???

Bookfool: Yes, see, the fizz thing is important and I needed a sugar/caffeine infusion, so Mountain Dew gets the place of honor. I'm sorry to say you will be moving to the recycle bin, soon.

Tab: Sigh. It was fun while it lasted. I am caffeinated, by the way.

Bookfool: Yes, yes. Thank you for interviewing me. And, many thanks to Valerie and Grand Central Publishing for providing my review copy of The Unlikely Disciple.

In other news:

Bookfool is a naughty book glutton. Received this week:

Four of the five books in Hatchette's Celebrating Hispanic Month giveaway (the other is back-ordered): Zumba (a fitness program with enclosed DVD); Mamas, Damas & Ana Ruiz, Amigoland, and Evenings at the Argentine Club - from Hatchette

I Sold Andy Warhol (too soon) by Richard Polsky - from Tony Viardo of Other Press

Confessions of a Trauma Junkie by Sherry Jones Mayo - won at 2 Kids and Tired Book Reviews (just walked in - thanks, Holly!)

Breaking the Bank by Yona Zeldis McDonough (which seems to have a slight paranormal aspect . . . maybe) and Day By Day Armageddon by J. L. Bourne (zombies!!) - both from Sarah Reidy of Pocket Books

I am currently behind . . .

. . . on posting giveaways. I've actually got a couple more to post about; I just haven't gotten to them, yet. I don't, however, want this blog to become nothing more than Giveaway Central. I'm just in a mood to pass on some book joy, lately. Since last month was kind of a bad reading month, I dove into giveaways head-first. It's something to do (shrug).

Is Banned Books Week over?

I have so much to say about banned/challenged books, but I just didn't have the time, this week, so I'll just say a few words. Up until the last few years, when I began blogging, I had no idea there were so many challenges, bans and attempts at banning books. Nor did I realize that I'd not only read quite a few of those that have been on challenged/banned lists but have actually handed quite a few of them to my kids, particularly banned or challenged classics. 1984, The Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies and Fahrenheit 451 are all books I recall handing to my eldest when he was in junior high.

Both of my children were reading at adult level by the age of 10; I had to work hard at keeping them occupied and I often did so by pulling classics off our personal shelves. Fahrenheit 451 is still one of my eldest son's favorite books. And, of course, my youngest was a follower of Harry Potter; I still have to snicker about the reasoning for the movement to ban those books. They are wildly imaginative and escapist; my son never had any trouble drawing the line between reality and imagination, recognized the traditional good versus evil theme and appreciated Harry's struggles to overcome his own fears and to deal with hardship. There is much to love about Harry Potter and my personal opinion is that a book that contains themes or acts that a parent considers objectionable is, in general, a good book to read with your child and discuss. I've found my youngest absolutely loves discussing books with me -- and that includes the discussion of morals and ethics.

Gotta go! The guys are home from the swim meet and I need to check on the laundry (then, if possible, try to sneak in some reading time).

Happy Saturday!

Bookfool with Tab and Mt. Dew (going, going . . . )


  1. I haven't read a bad review of this book. I hope to read it soon.

  2. Kathy,

    Same here. After Alyce's review, I read several more -- all positive. I'm sure you'll enjoy it. It's well-written enough that it's jarring to look at his photos and realize just how young the author is.

  3. Although I'm sure Mountain Dew was soon recycled as well, something about him (her?) left a classier impression on me than Tab. What's with the complaining, huh, Mr. Tab? Oh, sorry, should that have been Ms. Tab?

  4. What I wouldn't give for an ice cold Mountain Dew right now. Dare I go to the store and get one? I may have to.

    Ohhh, book review. As one who grew up in a pretty strict religion, I think I could probably relate pretty well to this book. Not to make myself sound like a heathen, but I was kindofsortofnotreally forced to attend a church school my freshman year of college. A small one. In the middle of nowhere. Hows about I just be candid. We're talking about BYU Idaho (then Ricks). Most of the girls that I became friends with had all grown up in Utah and thus were pretty immersed in the Mormon culture. I was not. It's an understatement to say I was in completely culture shock that entire year. Went a little crazy--cut all my hair off, got several holes in my ears (both no nos), lost my endorsement (for not attending church at least 80% of the time) and transfered to Texas A&M. Still a pretty conservative school but sometimes its good to have a little freedom to be able to make the right choice or heaven forbid the wrong one. For me, having that freedom allowed me to make the right choices on my own.

    Why do I always ramble on your blog? Anyway, I'm definitely putting this on the list.

  5. Bonnie,

    Mt. Dew didn't say anything at all, but we all know how classy it is -- especially those of us who remember the hillbilly ads. ;)

    Tab is a little downtrodden. I mean who admits they like the stuff?


    Sorry. You must be like me. Mention Mt. Dew and I have to go get some. It's my weakness.

    It must be my own chattiness that inspires you to ramble, you think? I love your comments. I would never have guessed that you went to a strict Mormon college. I wonder how I would have reacted to that kind of environment. University life was, for me, incredibly freeing. I had control-freak parents and it was quite a liberating sensation to actually pay my own bills, manage my time, etc., without anyone standing over my shoulder to tell me do this, do that. Yeah, I can see why you rebelled and actually I think you hit on part of the point of college -- it's a place where you should have enough freedom to make decisions and learn from them, for better or worse.

  6. I'm so glad to read that you loved the book too! I just know one of these days someone's going to buy a book after reading one of my five-star reviews and then write up their own post and wonder (aloud for all to hear) what in the world I was thinking when I wrote my review. I'm so glad that hasn't happened yet! :)

  7. I am so swamped with books to read that I totally missed Banned Books Week, plus I learned a bit too late. *sigh* I will know better next year. These events spring at the most unpleasant times.

    Anyway interesting interview. I would have liked you being questioned by a cherry pie, but that is just personal taste. I can't say I would read this one, but it sounds interesting.

  8. Tab gives good interview! This sounds like an interesting book. I'm impressed that the author went into the experience with an open mind rather than an agenda...that would have been boring.

    I'm done with Divisadero. Email me your address and I'll send it to you. It's a small book, so postage won't be bad at all.

  9. You always write the most entertaining book reviews!! I haven't thought about TAB in years! Maybe decades. It's all we drank in high school. That and Fresca.

    I read my first ever "Religious Fiction" book last month. Just posted a review this morning. Check it out. :)

  10. Alyce,

    I've come across reviews by people who bought books based on my recommendation and didn't love them as much as I did. It's disappointing, but when you write a review you have to realize that as bloggers we're heavily opinion-based and there will be people for whom a book you love isn't a perfect choice.

    Thanks for your wonderful review! It was definitely your review that convinced me The Unlikely Disciple was a must-read!


    I know! I didn't even see it coming! I'm not particularly tuned into outside events, though; really, I just want to get as many books read as possible. I'm not sure where people even hear about such things as Banned Books Week. It always seems like they're just suddenly upon us. Maybe if I went to my library more often, I'd know.

    Hahaha! Cherry pie! I don't like cherry pie, but we do have a strawberry-rhubarb hanging about. I'm sure there will be other unique objects that get a turn interviewing me. Hopefully, soon the cat will have a chance. She's not well, though, this week. Her eye has been bloody for some unknown reason and she keeps hiding, poor thing.

  11. Bybee,

    My Tab would thank you if it hadn't gone the way of the recycling bin, I'm sure. :)

    You put it so well -- that's exactly what the auther did: went into the experience with an open mind rather than agenda. Actually, you could say his agenda was to approach a different culture with an open mind. Anyway, it worked.

    Oh, boy! Thanks! I'll email you post haste. Thanks for the reassurance about postage. I owe you one.


    Why, thank you! Tab and I go way back. I just read a comment about it Tab in a book, not long ago, and the author did think it no longer exists. Not the first time I've heard that. I wonder if Fresca is still around.

    I'll come check out your review. I'm patching the holes in our den floor, today, and the mud is drying. What a nuisance job, but we have to do it before our carpet shows up.

  12. Wow, this is so interesting to me. Because I graduated from a Baptist high school in Virginia, Liberty was the natural place everyone went. I fought against it hard (even though it wasn't my parents who were pressuring me.) So this hits kinda close to home because I had so many good friends go to Liberty and even visited there myself.

    I am a "left wing" Christian as well and consider myself very strong in my faith. I should get my hands on this book.

  13. Nikki,

    I didn't even know there's such a thing as a Baptist high school! Interesting. I think you'd really enjoy The Unlikely Disciple, especially given the fact that you had friends who attended Liberty.

  14. The reading goal applies to me as well, but I can never react on time as I am a slow reader and book supply is tricky. I hope the cat gets its turn. Seriously. What a shame and I hope she gets better.

  15. Harry,

    I'm a slow reader, too. I have trouble just keeping up with myself, much less events like Banned Books Week, although I mean well. :)

    The cat is looking much better. She just has a small spot remaining in her eye. Hopefully, she'll be in interviewing form, soon.

  16. What a great review! It made me laugh and think. A coworker is reading this book now and I'd seen it in the bookstore as well - your review just clinched that I have to read it.

  17. I also loved this book! I am probably more conservative than you (I have no dedicated opinion on old earth/young earth) and I went to a small Christian college in the South. The book reminded me of everything I loved about it and the stuff I didn't like as well. :)

  18. Amy,

    I'm still conservative in many ways, but there are areas in which I could probably considered pretty radically liberal. Where did you go to school?


Thank you for visiting my blog! I use comment moderation because apparently my blog is a spam magnet. Don't worry. If you're not a robot, your comment will eventually show up and I will respond, with a few exceptions. If a comment smacks of advertising, contains a dubious link or is offensive, it will be deleted. I love to hear from real people! I'm a really chatty gal and I love your comments!