I should begin my comments on this unique memoir with a personal note. In the early 70s, just after completing my undergraduate studies at a secular university, I found myself attending one of Jerry Falwell’s services at Thomas Road Church in Lynchburg, Virginia. My aunt, who was visiting from California, belonged to Falwell’s extended congregation and was actually leaving with him the next day on a tour of the Holy Land. I think this was before Falwell emerged on the cultural scene in a big way. I hadn’t heard of him before she got the family down there that day, and much of what I saw remains in my memory (such as the full-immersion baptisms of several folks who ran down the aisles in response to his altar call).
So when Kevin Roose describes the scene there in early 2007, at the end of Falwell’s career, I found it very easy to picture.
Roose is a student who gave himself the project of venturing into alien terrain in order to write about it. I think it’s safe to say that virtually everyone associated with ivy-league universities such as his would prefer to have no contact with the alternate world Falwell had established in Lynchburg. When Roose proposes to transfer into Liberty University for one semester, the idea seems akin to anthropological research in some distasteful third-world outpost. He went as a liberal agnostic knowing he would be living among Bible-thumpers and probably racists, homophobes, and misogynists as well. His father warns that the place has “a distinct totalitarian feel.”
Here’s what he finds: Yes, there is no avoiding the Bible, but the numerous students and faculty members he meets turn out to be as varied, complicated, and as interesting as those he knew back at Brown. Surprise! People on the other side of the cultural divide are people, too! They play basketball, they get horny, they tell racy jokes, they break rules, they wrestle with doubt. Consequently, Roose begins to feel somewhat ambivalent about his project. Although his friends at Liberty think he’s a born-again Christian like them, he’s not. He’s a spy. As much as he wants to be honest with them (and he really does, especially when he meets a girl he likes), he has to keep his guard up. The tone in the last third of the book feels openly apologetic, since he dreads their response when they inevitably discover the truth.
He reports at the very end that everyone is perfectly cool about the idea when he finally spills the beans–although they’re disappointed to learn that he hasn’t accepted Jesus. He acknowledges, however, that he is now much closer to conversion. Obviously, he’s also closer to an appreciation for red-state Americans.
The narrative is in present tense and is divided into discrete vignettes in which he repeatedly tries to come to terms with his experience. I’d say that aspect is a fair depiction of the way people think (or at least of the way I think), but there’s a sense of plowing the same field over and over again, for example as he tries to reconcile the admirable and less-than-admirable aspects of what he sees. At times, the confident, larger-than-life figure of Jerry Falwell reminded me of Glenn Doman’s role in my own memoir (not that Falwell and Doman would have had any use for each other). But Roose scores an interview with Falwell (just a couple weeks before the man’s death), and glimpses his personal side. When Falwell dies at the end of the semester, Roose is as distressed as everyone else.
There are also a few laugh-out-loud funny passages that work very well, such as this meeting with a pastor:
“So tell me about yourself,” he says.
“Well, my name is Kevin, and I . . .”
“Wait, I know,” he says. “Have you ever heard of the naked method of getting to know someone. Like, getting naked?”
Hold the goddamned phone. Did he say getting naked? Am I locked in?
“Ha!” he says, laughing and slapping his thigh. “Don’t worry. It’s an acronym. You ask a person in order: name, address, kin, experiences, dreams. The N.A.K.E.D. method. I use it all the time.”
The color returns to my face, and I remove my fingernails from my knee. Wow. What an awful name for an icebreaker.
The Unlikely Disciple is an important book, mainly because so much of what we read and hear these days seems designed to push us into opposing camps, and to caricature if not to hate those on the other side. While Roose’s project does still feel somewhat dishonest (to him too, I daresay) the result is a breath of fresh air and a hint of what education ought to involve for more of us.
Stephen Gallup is the author of a memoir, What About the Boy: A Father’s Pledge to His Disabled Son. He has an eclectic interest in books and authors, and reviews books as part of his passion for the written word. He blogs at fatherspledge.com.