Sunday, January 24, 2010

#4: The Unlikely Disciple

As someone quite familiar with American evangelical culture -- encompassing a smattering of endearing qualities and a host of ugly ones -- I had already formed some preconceived notions before embarking on my latest read, The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University. The book chronicles the journey of Kevin Roose, the youthful author and aspiring guerrilla journalist, as he transitions into a semester at Liberty University, the late Reverend Jerry Falwell's brainchild and a "conservative Christian utopia," from an undergraduate program at Brown University ("a notch or two above Sodom and Gomorrah"). Warily, I predicted that Roose's reflections would fit neatly into one of two know-thy-enemy categories. Either he would feign empathy with his new classmates and faculty while cloaking all observations in a thinly veiled stream of sarcasm and condescension, or he would overly humanize them, anthropologist-style, like one might see in a probing wildebeest documentary on the Discovery Channel. Even the cover art and various other promotional photographs -- the author in a Liberty University t-shirt with Falwell's books scattered around, sitting alone in a large grassy area directly in front of a spotless white church, etc. -- hinted strongly at satire.

In the end -- spoiler alert -- neither prediction was entirely accurate. Roose's memoir lacked a fatal flaw; perhaps his greatest sin was engaging in a bit of self-indulgent melodrama, but -- and unlike the denizens of Sodom and Gomorrah -- his iniquities are easily forgivable. In fact, if Roose weren't so unnervingly honest in his evaluations of both the school and his own shifting perspectives, his brief jabs of alarmism could easily come off as irony. True, he has a slightly grating tendency to close chapters with sentences like "All semester, I've been worried about getting in over my head at Liberty, but what if it's too late?" And true, it is these passages that ring the least authentically -- a lifelong secular student from an Ivy League school stands on the precipice of conversion while studying at the epicenter of American religious anti-intellectualism? -- but it seems that Roose nevertheless wrote them out of a sincere desire to express his rapidly expanding gray areas.

On the other hand, the author's continuing revulsion with the institutionalized homophobia that he finds at Liberty provides a periodic gut check, both for himself and his readers, against growing too comfortable with the notion of right-wing fundamentalism as warm and fuzzy. This book is thus potent because it illustrates the fragile disconnect between abstract disgust and visceral, well, something approaching fraternité. No, it is not a call to ecumenism. It is also not primarily a repudiation of some of the more disturbing facets of the evangelical lifestyle or, more specifically, of Falwell's most appalling public statements. What this book undoubtedly is, however, is a gentle nudge away from demonization and towards, if not empathy, at least toleration. And although conservative Christian readers may be unlikely to agree, Roose's message applies to their anachronistic edicts on the "outside world" as much as it does to the ill-informed heathens who mock them.

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