Bible? Christian lingo? Explanation for liberal friends and family? Modified background story?
Check, check, check and check.
Kevin Roose had a very different checklist than most students who are starting their first semester at a new college. While other new or transfer students are picking out their collegiate bedding, Roose was packing a notebook, brushing up on his books of the Bible and modifying his swearing habits. An undercover journalist who transfers to a Baptist university from a liberal Ivy League school for a semester is kind of required to do those kinds of things.
Roose, currently a senior English major at Brown University, is a self-described freelance journalist who decided to study abroad at Liberty University, the polar opposite of Brown and “the world’s most exciting university,” according to its late founder, Dr. Jerry Falwell. The purpose of the switch, which only lasted for a semester, was to “(learn) about his conservative Christian peers by living among them,” according to Roose’s author biography. The compilation of Roose’s observations is a 366-page book entitled, “The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University,” which was officially released on March 26.Roose returned to Lynchburg on April 9 and 10 to conduct two book signings at Barnes and Noble on Wards Road and at Givens Bookstore.
Roose did as many Liberty-esque things as possible to obtain the Liberty experience. He enrolled in GNED, Creation Studies, Old Testament, New Testament and theology classes. He sang in the Thomas Road Baptist Church choir. He took a Liberty girl out on a proper Christian date. Whatever Liberty kids did, Roose was right there with them, all the while keeping his true intentions a secret.
“It wasn’t easy (keeping the book a secret), either logistically or emotionally. As the semester wore on, and I got to know a whole bunch of Liberty students and faculty members, it became harder to live with the fact that I was only telling a partial truth to everyone I met, even though my intentions were never to mock or belittle anyone in the book,” Roose said. “The way I represented myself weighed on my conscience throughout my semester, especially as I got to know and love my Liberty friends. I came back to Lynchburg several months after leaving to tell them about the book, and to my surprise, everyone was totally cool with it and seemed to understand why I’d done it. It reaffirmed my faith in Liberty students and in the power of forgiveness.”
Roose was influenced by many different sources during his investigative semester, including Dr. Elmer Towns, and the guys on his hall.
“The guys on my hall were hugely influential. They made me feel welcome immediately upon arriving at Liberty, and they never ceased to amaze me with their humor … and their compassion for one another,” Roose said. “I (also) enjoyed Dr. Towns’ New Testament class. Even though I had qualms with his interpretive style, the class was pretty fun.”
Even though Roose was attending Liberty for journalistic purposes, he still found himself getting homesick for his old life back at Brown. At the end of his Liberty semester, there was no doubt in his mind that he wanted go back.
“It was hard to pack up my life there and leave it behind for a semester. But my friends there supported me in all kinds of ways – one of them even came to visit me at LU – and I think that helped me get through the tough times,” Roose said. “I … wanted to get back to my old life. I have great friends at Brown, and I missed them while I was away.”
Roose’s liberal family and friends found it hard to understand his motivation for studying abroad at Liberty, but they supported him the entire time, he noted in the first chapter of his book. However, the support would only last for one semester.
“I didn’t really consider staying longer, most of all because I think my parents would have come down to Lynchburg and dragged me away themselves. Part of my agreement with them was that I’d stay for a semester, and then go back to Brown to finish my degree there,” Roose said.
When Roose returned to Brown at the beginning of his junior year, he found that some of the habits he had established at Liberty were not going away anytime soon. Other habits, however, were easy to let go of.
“I still try to pray every morning, both because I got accustomed to praying at Liberty and because I think it really does have a positive impact on my life. As for dating, I think some of the lessons I learned at Liberty, like the fact that emotional intimacy can be more satisfying than physical intimacy in the early stages of a relationship, have definitely stayed with me. Other aspects of Liberty life haven’t stayed with me nearly as well, simply because I don’t think avoiding dances and R-rated movies at Brown would improve my well-being or my social life,” Roose said.
The Liberty community seemed to be split over the book and its contents. Many students were willing to be open-minded about the book, but the general attitude was one of wariness. However, when “The Unlikely Disciple” was released, faculty and students alike bought it, read it and updated their Facebook statuses periodically with their thoughts on it.
One of Roose’s former hall mates, who is identified in the book as Zipper, had positive things to say about “The Unlikely Disciple.”
“My overall impression of Kevin’s book was a good one. It was an easy read, and it was very well written. It was like reliving my second semester freshman year again,” Zipper said. “I think that my character in the book was displayed pretty accurately. He did purposely change physical features for privacy’s sake, but other than that, I would say that it was a fairly accurate portrayal of me.”
Chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr. and his wife, Becky, also read the book, and their feelings on the piece are mixed.
“(Roose did a) fair job of reporting what he observed, (but he) still doesn’t completely understand what Liberty is all about,” Falwell said, according to the News and Advance.
Falwell released a statement saying that he will neither endorse nor promote the book, even though it is being sold in the Liberty University Bookstore located on campus. However, a disclaimer issued by the university is inserted in every copy of Roose’s book, warning students of “inaccuracies” concerning some of Roose’s comments about the late Dr. Jerry Falwell Sr., as well as many sexual references.
“I’m … glad that the bookstore advisory committee voted to stock the book in the campus bookstore, although I disagree strongly with the disclaimer. I think my story can be a valuable tool for members of the Liberty community, and I hope most students will see in my Liberty experience elements of their own experiences, so it’s great that they’ll have easier access to the book,” Roose said.
“If there’s one thing I learned during my semester, it’s that Liberty isn’t ‘all about’ anything in particular – it’s a complex, diverse place, and the students who attend have wildly different experiences. I never claimed that my story represented the lives of all Liberty students – just mine.”
The release of Roose’s book definitely stirred up controversy, but it was also eye-opening to the Liberty community, which is none too familiar with the verse that Roose quoted at the beginning of his book: “Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2). While Roose is more than likely not a celestial being, “The Unlikely Disciple” is a good reminder to Liberty students that, even on a Christian campus among Christians, the world is still watching.
Who knows how many other unlikely disciples are in our midst.