February Book of the Month: The Unlikely Disciple

Recently a friend lent me her copy of The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University. Written by Kevin Roose, the book highlights his experiences as a secular college kid from Brown University who spent a semester amidst the evangelical Christian culture of Liberty University.

The premise of the book immediately piqued my interest both personally and professionally. I grew up in an evangelical home not far from Liberty University (LU), some of my closest friends studied there, and I went to an evangelical university that has many similarities with LU. How would Kevin respond to and evaluate the culture I’ve always known?

As an apologist I wanted to see how Kevin would deal with the claims of Christianity. What challenges and objections to Christianity would he face? So I joined Kevin on his journey of a semester at LU, looking for answers from him just as he was looking for answers from my culture.

Let me first say that I really enjoyed this book. I found it an easy and likeable read. Kevin invites you into his thought process and experiences with transparency, charm, and a graciousness that is refreshing. I appreciated his honesty in sharing lessons learned, misconceptions, heartfelt convictions, and even his moral struggles. He’s the kind of guy I’d like to have as a friend.

Kevin’s main goal in going to LU was to learn through experience what the evangelical Christian culture was like, specifically among college students. He recognized he had been given a perception of evangelical culture, but had never looked into it himself. “The evangelical world, in my mind, was a cloistered, slightly frightening community whose values and customs I wasn’t supposed to understand. So I ignored it.”

Being a journalist, Kevin wanted to get the inside scoop on the evangelical culture for himself. Rather than speculate about it, he decided to transfer to LU for a semester, acting and living as an evangelical Christian to experience what it was really like.  The journalist in him led him to ask hard questions of himself, his perceptions, and the Christian culture in which he lived. I greatly respect and admire this about the book. He asked good questions that we all need to face, and he was willing to change his views as he learned.

The cultural aspect of living at LU is the heart of Kevin’s observations and reactions. Through his writing I experienced a full range of emotions. I laughed reading about the rules he faced, rules that I didn’t care for during my years at a Christian university. What exactly is a “white glove inspection” and why is it necessary? I groaned with disappointment when students like his roommate spoke of others in ways that were hateful and not according to the commands of the Bible. The legitimate doubts and struggles he saw in various students who wanted to live for God, yet faced confusion about what that meant, moved my heart. And I cheered when friends like Zipper or mentor Pastor Seth demonstrated true and genuine Christian living.

I also found it telling that most of Kevin’s reaction to the evangelical culture at LU centered on rules, regulations and the “culture wars” (specifically homosexuality, evolution, and abortion). He struggled with the legalism of the rules and intolerance in evangelical beliefs. Yet while he wrestled with these in a gracious way, the morality he did not want imposed upon him he was willing to impose on others. For example, he believed it was wrong and intolerant for evangelicals to believe homosexuality is a sin. Granted, some of the ways he experienced this belief lived out were flat-out sinful. But he also struggled with evangelicals who held homosexuality was sin in a gracious and loving way. At the same time he did not find it wrong and intolerant that he believed the evangelical stance is wrong, and he was fine with expressing this throughout his book.

Over all, viewing the evangelical Christian culture through Kevin’s eyes was enlightening. His perceptions varied from being uncomfortably correct, encouragingly uplifting, or understandably misguided (how much can you really learn about any culture in a few short months in one place?).  Right or wrong, he has presented me with an outside lens through which I can view evangelicalism. It’s a lens I can use as a tool to test the effectiveness of how and why I communicate my beliefs.

The area of the book that left me wanting more was Kevin’s interaction with the specific claims of the Bible. He tended to avoid those areas in the book, unless it was to emphasize his incredulity that anyone would or could teach creationism. He based his observations on what evangelicals were like and not what the Bible teaches. This is both interesting and dangerous. It’s interesting because it shows me that people tend to watch how I behave before they pay attention to what I believe. But it’s also dangerous because my actions may not line up with what the Bible actually says; I may live in a way that does not accurately reflect biblical teaching. So before anyone dismisses the Bible based on the behavior of others they need to see if those people are accurately reflecting the Bible’s message. The same truth applies to people group, culture, and belief system.

Kevin met many genuinely kind and caring Christians during his time at LU. He grew to love and respect them. Yet because he did not deal with the actual teachings of biblical Christianity I was left with the impression that he believed Christianity at its best is sincerely misguided and at its worst is bigoted and closed-minded. If my impression is correct, then Kevin has completely missed the message and purpose of God.

This misunderstanding came out in two key points Kevin made. At one point he acknowledged that he focused on the form of religion and not its content. He emphasized that he was going through the motions of living like a Christian while not believing in the resurrection of Christ. “And yet,” he states, “the possibility is entering my mind.” In contrast, when his LU friends finally found out he was not an evangelical he says, “For a Liberty student, an unsaved person is someone who doesn’t get it, who doesn’t know how to quote C.S. Lewis or sing ‘Jesus Paid It All” without looking at the words. And for them, the fact that I did know these things, that I had gone through the same Christian gauntlet as them, made my story all the more confusing and all the more heartbreaking.”

I cannot say if this is the understanding of “saved” and “unsaved” for an LU student (probably some, though most certainly not all). What I can say is that this is NOT what it means to be saved. Quoting C.S. Lewis, knowing the words to a hymn or two, labeling yourself as evangelical, or going through the Christian gauntlet does nothing to save or un-save a person. The message of biblical Christianity is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and that by believing in his name our sins are forgiven and we are restored to a right relationship with God.

As I reached the last page of The Unlikely Disciple I knew I had spent my time wisely. Kevin allowed me into his world to catch a glimpse of the culture I grew up in from the outside.  I was left feeling thankful for the friends he made and hopeful that one day he will actually “get it.” I was also left questioning how I can best communicate what I believe and why, as well as how to better prepare college students to do the same. No matter where students go, they are facing the hardships and challenges of what they believe and why they believe. They face all the pressures of sexuality, rules, the good life, freedom, religion, and relationships. What can I do, what can we do, to help them safely work through these things?

In conclusion, I would recommend The Unlikely Disciple to anyone who wants an honest and insightful glimpse into the evangelical Christian culture from the “outside.” The book has much to say about how and why we live out our beliefs.  Hopefully you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.

Thoughts or comments? I'd love to hear them!

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