Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Unlikely Disciple

The Unlikely Disciple (Kevin Roose, 2009) is yet another entry in that currently popular memoir subgenre, Person X Does Uncharacteristic Activity Y for Z Time Period. This one is even a direct descendant of a previous work: Roose got interested in his topic while working as a research assistant for A.J. Jacobs, author of The Year of Living Biblically. But it's also the best outsider view of the evangelical subculture I've read yet.

As a 19-year-old Brown undergraduate, Roose decided to study abroad without leaving the country by spending a semester at Liberty University, having discovered he knew so little about evangelical Christians that he didn't even know how to talk to them. After a crash course in the lingo from a high school friend, he plunges into the Liberty life, taking 6 credits in the core curriculum and joining the Thomas Road Baptist Church choir. (At Brown he sang in an a capella group.) He goes undercover, posing as a relatively new Christian so he doesn't seem too suspicious for such errors as pronouncing Paul's Epistle to the Philippians as "fil-ip-PYE-ans." (It's "fil-IP-ee-ans.")

Though he never stops being appalled by his classmates' homophobia or the political and creationist indoctrination in his classes, he also can't help seeing his classmates and the faculty as human beings, many of whom he forms lasting friendships with. It's a useful reminder for me. As someone who's either evangelical left or slightly on the conservative side of mainline Protestantism, I don't like being lumped in with the Falwell brand of Christianity. I kept getting annoyed when Roose mentioned songs he sang at Thomas Road that we also sing at my church because how dare they sing what we sing when we have so little in common? But if Roose can befriend them, I can at least admit we're co-religionists.

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