Most college seniors have mastered the art of the last minute research paper, getting out of bed one minute before class and dry heaving at the question: “What are your plans after graduation?” Kevin Roose was a student journalist who published his first book.
Roose, an alumnus of Brown University, spent a semester undercover at one of the nation’s largest and most notorious Christian universities – Liberty University – to discover how the “other” lives. The result was the book The Unlikely Disciple which was chosen for the Malone Reads program for The College Experience classes. Roose came to campus November 5th to speak with students about his journey at Liberty.
The book details his experience in the spring of 2007 as an outsider trying to fit in with a thousand evangelical Christian students without getting caught.
“I was basically a secular agnostic and it made me scared that there was this segment of the population that was politically powerful, culturally powerful and huge that I had no understanding of,” Roose said. “I wanted to cross over that divide and see what I could learn by putting myself in the shoes of the people who scared me the most.”
Roose said he expected thousands of “crazy Bible-thumping student obsessed with culture wars”; however what he found were average college students.
“Learning that about them changed the goal of the project. I was no longer trying to expose them, I was just trying to understand,” he said.
During his speech with students, Roose extended this point by challenging students to think about our cultural divides and how we express those disagreements. He warned about the danger of polarization in our society and encouraged what he called “deliberative democracy,” where people engage with those of different beliefs and work on issues together rather than argue over them.
By opening his mind to a worldview opposite of his own, Roose said he had the most transforming experience of his life.
The greatest challenge of being undercover at an Evangelical Christian school was pretending to have knowledge about the Bible and Christian theology, Roose said. As someone who never attended a single Sunday school lesson, he muttered his way through hymns and faked it until he got a grasp on it. His book tells how he once pronounced Philippians as “Phillip-pie-uhns.”
Probably one of the most complex characters from his journey at Liberty was the late Jerry Falwell, who founded Liberty and who Roose thought was the “villain of all villains.”
“I thought he was a dogmatic attack dog who thrived on insulting people he didn’t agree with,” Roose said. While many of his views opposed Roose’s, he said he understood why people liked him, describing him as charismatic and the grandfather of the campus.
Roose saw a transformation in his Christian outlook though he never had a grand conversion as some might think.
“I used to think that Christian was a dirty word, it was not how I ever would have identified myself; but Quakers are Christians and I now feel comfortable identifying with that word even though my faith isn’t…an evangelical Christian faith, but it’s a Christian outlook and I think it came to be that way because I realized that Christianity is very diverse,” he said. “I often have to explain, ‘well yes I’m a Christian, but no, I’m not saved and no, I’m not in lockstep with Jerry Falwell.’”
After his semester at Liberty, he spent a year and half working on The Unlikely Disciple and working with publishers to tell the story that would take readers on a journey from being skeptical about Liberty to feeling intrigued and sympathetic at the end.
After writing the book, Roose went back to Liberty to inform his friends about his undercover activities and the book he was publishing; surprisingly, they enjoyed the book.
“I expected anger and it was really remarkable, everyone forgave me. They were confused and they were worried because I wasn’t saved but they weren’t angry,” Roose said.
Roose said people on both sides – evangelical and secular – found something to identify with in the book and even joked about how atheists would thank him for making conservative Christians look stupid and conservative Christians would thank him for making atheists look stupid.
“I wanted to write a book that would appeal to both sides of the aisle and you can’t please everyone but in this instance, I was able to be honest enough about what I saw so people on both sides could agree,” he said.
Senior communication arts major Kayleigh Hartman is a CA this year and read this book with her freshman students.
“I was doing a lot of personal evaluation about how I come across as a Christian and not compromise what I believe but also not alienate people,” Hartman said.
She also said this book challenged her College Experience class to think about what it means to have an open dialogue with people who have different opinions than their own.
Director of the college experience, Marcia Everett, chose the book because of the similar themes between his book and the gen 100 class. She said students’ first year experience might be similar to or different from Roose’s in trying to learn the culture. Everett also said that his book fit with the educational goals of learning to listen to and engage others with different ideas and experiences.
Roose said his goal for the book was to show that the Liberty stereotype is just that and in reality it is diverse and complex.
“I want to keep doing the work of erasing stereotypes and bringing people together and that’s not something I ever thought I would be interested in before Liberty,” he said.
After graduating from Brown and publishing his book, Roose has went on to write for The New York Times for a year and has been featured in publications like Esquire, New York and GQ. He is currently working on his second book about twenty-somethings working on Wall Street.