The concept behind The Unlikely Disciple—an undercover secular young man attends Reverend Jerry Falwell's evangelical-Christian Liberty University for a semester—smacks of one of A. J. Jacobs's smarmy little stunt books. Jacobs is the magazine writer who tried to read the Encyclopaedia Britannica over the course of a year for a book titled The Know-It-All, and then half-assedly lived by Talmudic law in The Year of Living Biblically. And this semester-for-a-book-deal shtick sounds familiar for a good reason: Kevin Roose is Jacobs's assistant, and he stumbled upon this Liberty University premise while helping Jacobs research Biblically. This does not bode well for the quality of the book.
But the student, here, has surpassed the teacher. The early part of the book is taken up with lame, religious-themed wisecracks—"I'll hunker down on my studies and let he who is without Cs cast the first stone"—but soon enough, Roose actually begins to feel friendship and kinship with his religious schoolmates, and ironic detachment gives way to actual observational reportage. Roose doesn't feel the need to construct an artificial climax for his memoir, fabricating some sort of bullshit dramatic moment where he actually considers becoming a Christian. Instead he feels overwhelmed and out of his league as he learns that evangelicals are more than just caricatures.
Which is not to say that Roose is protecting his subjects from their own stupidity and hypocrisy. He pulls no punches while describing a homoerotic initiation into a Christian gang:
For the next thirty seconds, the rebels of Dorm 22 give me a dry-humping initiation, their version of a peace pipe. They're really thrusting, frankly, and it would be sort of painful if everyone weren't laughing so hard. When they've had enough, they roll off of me, wiping the tears from their eyes.
"You're cool with us, Rooster," says Joey. "Ya big queer.
But the Liberty University rules and regulations—nothing beyond hand-holding between couples, and no R-rated movies for anyone—are dumb enough to serve as punch lines without any of Roose's forced wit. And Liberty's classes, which often teach the exact opposite of actual scientific thought, can be hilarious—until you remember that they're real classes full of real students who take the curriculum completely seriously. But Roose never forgets that the horror of evangelicals isn't that they want to do evil in the world, it's that they earnestly believe they are doing good.