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Getting to know you better: 'Unlikely Disciple' a can't-put-down read across the God Divide for evangelicals and theological liberals alike

We don't exactly get stacks of books for review here, but as the newspapers of record for Northern Manitoba, the Thompson Citizen and Nickel Belt News do see more than a few come in. Some we seek out from publishers, thinking they may be of interest to our readers, some come in over the transom, meaning unsolicited, often from a self-published author or so-called vanity press where having the money to print the prose is more of a determinant sometimes than its literary merit.

At least that used to the case. Not so much anymore. Some pretty respectable titles have started out in recent years with self-published authors or very small presses and gone on to big things. First-time author William P. Young's book The Shack, a very dark but ultimately redemptive tale, was published two years later by two former pastors at Windblown Media in Newbury Park, California with a $300 marketing budget, after being written by Young, a Oregon manufacturer's representative for a technology company by day, who did some website design work on the side. And writing apparently. It's now going into something like week number 37 on the New York Times paperback trade fiction bestsellers list in the Number 2 spot.

The Christian book genre, if indeed that's the right term, is notoriously difficult to get a handle on in term of sales at the best of times. Things get murky beyond acknowledging the Bible, since it started getting widespread distribution off of Johannes Gutenberg's press in 1450, and is now up to more than six billon copies sold (followed at distant second by Quotations from Chairman Mao, the so-called little red book of Mao Tse-Tung, published in 1966 with more than 900 million copes sold) is the best-selling book of all time. No Christian book publishing slouch is Hal Lindsey, whose prophecy-predicting, The Late Great Planet Earth, first published by Zondervan in 1970, has rung up sales of more than 35 million copies.

A couple of months ago Nick Small, an associate publicist with Grand Central Publishing's Hachette Book Group in New York City, sent along a couple of copies of Kevin Roose's just published first book, The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University. The premise is simple and compelling: Roose, a 19-year-old Quaker-raised undergraduate at Baptist-founded, but now secular uber liberal Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, goes undercover as it were and transfers for a semester in 2007 to Liberty University, nicknamed Jerry Falwell's "Bible Boot Camp" in Lynchburg, Virginia. Call it the real-deal Baptist school.

Aside from being an apparently naturally gifted writer with keen observations skills, the remarkable thing about Roose is he never takes the easy way out with cheap humour - mocking, caricaturing, parodying or otherwise ridiculing his Liberty University classmates or their beliefs. It would be easy enough to do at times in the book perhaps, but Roose resists any such temptation. The book is all the richer for his self-discipline and full of insights for what many, including Liberal Christians, must seem like a foreign land much of the time.

The students, especially,of Liberty University, and to a lesser degree the faculty, come across as a diverse group of believers, who are far from monolithic in their monotheism, and as generationally savvy in many ways as their peers on any university campus in North America.

Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University also offers one of the greatest gifts a book can to its readers: It is laugh-out-loud funny in many, many places.

Rob Bell, founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Michigan wrote, " This is a brilliant book. Absolutely brilliant. Roose's wisdom, humanity, and love kept me going. And I laughed. A lot."

Or, as the long lapsed Roman Catholic writer Tom Perrotta asks? "What happens when a Brown undergrad goes undercover at Liberty University? If he's a writer as insightful and open-minded as Kevin Roose, he ends up learning as much about himself as he does about the evangelical Christians he lives with. The Unlikely Disciple provides a funny, compassionate, and revealing look at Jerry Falwell's 'Bible Boot Camp,' and the surprisingly diverse band of true believers who make it their home."

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