Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Book Review – The Unlikely Disciple

Over my vacation, I read The Unlikely Disciple by Kevin Roose upon a recommendation by the FriendlyAtheist. Some lighter, enjoyable reading.

First the Book Reviewy Part:

It is a story of a secular student, raised in a Quaker, liberal household with an extremely “general” view of God (what I would call typical Americana) who decides to join Liberty University for one semester and write about his experiences amongst the conservative, fundamentalist Christian crowd.

He begins his tale with how he was accepted in the University, what preparations he did to “bone up” on what he should know, and his family’s initial reactions. He then spends the remainder of the book detailing his adventures, including his internal reactions to people and their statements, his own developing indoctrination into the system, and describing those he met. Including Jerry Falwell himself.

It was easy-reading; the author did a good job keeping the reader interested in what happened next, whether he would be found out as a non-Christian, and what would happen to the students he met. He described the classes he attended, and the social life of the campus.

I would recommend you get the first few chapters to review, or glance through it at a bookstore before buying. The tone and message stays consistent throughout, so if you like portions of it, you would probably like the whole thing. For me—this was a library-loan worthy book, but not something I see reading again.

Now, my individual impression:

First, I was surprised at the lack of educational depth at Liberty University. I understand the author deliberately took introductory Christian-focused classes—but some of his tales were downright surprising. For example, he indicated his difficulties in learning the names of the New Testament books in order.

This is college? I might expect these fundamentalists not knowing Greek—but not even knowing the books of the Bible? I’ve probably had to know that since 3rd grade!

Or he talked about having fill-in-the-blank notes. Where the teacher hands out copies with most of the notes filled in, and the student just fills in the blanks. “Jesus was the _____ of the world” and you write in “light.” I never remember a fill-in-the-blank note in college. I am scratching my head trying to remember one in high school. And apparently this was in more than one class!

Secondly, I laughed as the author was surprised at meeting the variety within Christian fundamentalists. Just as non-theists are lumped together in one concept by Christians—the author commits the same error by assuming fundamentalists would all look and act the same. There were all the familiar characters from my history.

The Rule Enforcer: the Guy (it was always a guy) who insisted on following every single letter of the law, and inevitably reached a point of authority to impose it on others. Mr. Roose wrote on the RA who sat out at the Movie Theater to catch people going into R-Rated Movies. I know him.

The Rebel: the people who watched the R-rated Movies and were considered the “bad crowd.” The author discussed a certain “room” that everyone wanted to be at, because they were the rebels. In my first college—that was our room. Yet underneath, the Rebel was no more rebellious than your average teenager.

The Rule discriminatory. The person who felt some rules were important until it applied to them. The person who never liked others sneaking kisses (apparently kissing was rule violation at Liberty) until they got a girlfriend/boyfriend. Then it became “O.K.”

The homophobe, the prayer, the “Let’s talk,” the sex-obsessed. All from my past; all here.

Thirdly, I was not surprised at how much the author enjoyed the relationship and camaraderie with Christians. When they thought he was a Christian—he enjoyed how supportive and encouraging and communal the society was. When they discovered he was not a Christian, because they already knew him, he became a “potential Christian” and maintained some of the companionship.

Unfortunately, this often ends when the Christian feels like you are no longer one of them, or a potential. Not just in becoming a heretic (like me), but in church meetings when another Christian trounces your idea, or at Church softball games. Its all fun and games until the Christian perceives they are crossed.

Finally, it was a bit scary how easily Average Theist could assimilate into the community. Mr. Roose talked about how it was initially shocking to hear so much “You are gay” and “Faggot” and “Homosexual” all as derogatory talk. Yet after a time, hearing it over and over, it became less so. Soon you could see in the tenor of the book, it became de rigor--accepted for what it was.

In the end, I forget how odd fundamentalism must be to others completely unaccustomed to it. Being raised and living in it for so long, this all seemed like a trip down memory lane.


  1. Thanks for the book review. However, I don't think I'll read the book because I lived it for two years when I attended a Baptist college in the late 70s. Since I was not a Baptist, I was immediately labeled a heretic.

    That said, I got along fine with the more pious students as long as we stayed away from the topics of politics and religion!! :)

  2. Oh man, DagoodS, memories, memories, memories…

    I received my high school education at Liberty Baptist Christian School – located in the basement of the local church. That school unfortunately used the ACE (Accelerated Christian Education) curriculum, which was nothing but a series of workbooks that needed to be filled out at the student’s own pace (each workbook was called a PACE). All students read their lessens straight out of the books, and the teachers were only there to answer student’s questions. For instance, Sister Butterfield got very uncomfortable when I found a word I did not understand in my New Testament Survey lesson.

    ‘Yes HeIsSailing?’
    ‘Sister Butterfield, what does fornication mean?’
    ‘well.. er… um…’

    I remember the algebra PACEs being quite good, but everything else was just dreadful. The quizzes were fill-in-the-blank answers, just as you described. I guess they make for easy grading.

    I don’t think I will never forget a test question in my world history PACE. Mao TseDong had recently died, so the test question was: Chairman Moa is now in _____________. The correct answer was of course Hell.

    We also had the room for the rebels and troublemakers. We called it The de-merit room’. We had Brother Dave, the cool teacher that everyone liked who eventually got fired for taking the older students to the lake for some beers and pot. The were Brother Ed, the school principle who generally did the best he could, but had a strange habit of only spanking girls in his office. Then there was the church pastor, Brother Burt, who thought my brother’s Ku Klux Klan Halloween hood and robe costume was about the funniest and coolest thing he had ever seen.

    So I guess we can include Closet Pervert and Racist in with your token Rule Enforcer and Homophobe. I bet every Christian school has them too.

    I loved that school, simply because it was so much fun trying to figure out new ways to break the rules. I listened to Rush and Yes while my brother listened to AC/DC and Aerosmith. Therefore - we were the ‘bad’ kids. Ha – hilarious thinking back on that now..!!

    As far as learning the Bible books in order? I remember memorizing them at a very young age – at least before I was 10. I also knew how many chapters were in each book. That info came in handy at Bible camp where one of our favorite contests was Speed Bible. The camp leader would yell out a Bible verse – the first person to find it and read it aloud won a prize. I too find it surprising that base knowledge like that would be college level material.

    Speaking of Bible Camp – whoa – there is another whole sub-culture from my youth that I could write a few words about… Anyway – thanks for the memories, DagoodS..!!

  3. I don't know about the book, but the review was certainly enjoyable.

    I memorized the books of the Bible in order when I was, perhaps, 8 or 9. So to hear that he found it difficult to memorize them was kind of strange to me.

    In my childhood cultish church we had contests of who could find verses faster, so we knew exactly where Jonas, Malachi, Titus, and all the obscure ones were.

    When I became a Baptist in my early 20's, I couldn't believe that even small-group leaders didn't know where to find the obscure books.

  4. DaGoodS,

    I have this book on my read list.

    You are right about fundamentalism.

    It all seems quite normal when you are immersed in it.

    Now that I am away (hopefully FAR FAR away)from it....I see now how bizarre it must have looked like to others.

    My wife never wore a pair of pants until she was almost 40 years old. She wore long hair, I wore short hair. We dressed the part, acted the part. We took it as a badge of honor that we looked and acted different. Now I see it as an arrogant, smug "I know more than you, I am better than you" lifestyle.

    While I still have an affinity for aspects of Christianity, I have no love left for fundamentalism. I see it as a perverse, wicked destroyer of people. No soul touched by fundamentalism walks away unscathed.