The setup for this book sounds like a joke. A young journalist at Brown University decides that he wants to spend a semester in a different culture. Not in Europe, but undercover, in a sense, at the Rev. Jerry Falwell's Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va.

Imagine the punch lines.

But Kevin Roose, a strong and thoughtful writer, pulls it off without caricatures or condescension, and with a whole lot of humor and soul-searching. The result is "The Unlikely Disciple" (Grand Central Publishing, 324 pages, $24.99).

Two disclaimers:

1) Roose acknowledges that his foray into evangelicalism involves an extreme example. He didn't choose Wheaton College in Illinois, or Bethel University, here in Minnesota. He chose "Bible Boot Camp," where the social rules are monastery-like and students are encouraged to toe the "Liberty Way" line, without asking big questions, where even bathroom graffiti is Bible-based. His family fears for his life.

2) Roose struggles with the decision to write secretly. He enrolls as a transfer student under his real name but is evasive when a few students wonder about his question-asking streaks. (He takes notes clandestinely, and he masks his teachers' and friends' identities in the book.) He explains his reasons for the ethical leap, but his anxiety doesn't fade. Some of his blunders nearly give him away. He is so worried about not swearing that he sounds like a character from "Leave It to Beaver" at first. Golly.

Roose finds himself connecting in the close-knit community of a Christian college and tearing down some of his stereotypes. He finds out that not everyone is in lock step with Falwell. He wonders whether it's OK to date under false pretenses. (He's a Quaker, not a born-again.) He fights fear and a sense of fraud as he participates in spring break evangelism on the beach.

He meets people all over the Liberty spectrum of faith and doubt, all the while grappling with his own spirituality.

Roose (his Liberty friends call him Rooster) is at school when a gunman tears through nearby Virginia Tech. He is moved by Liberty's prayer response but troubled and then angered by some of the theology he hears.

In a flukey coup, Roose winds up interviewing Falwell; his musings on the man are some of the most interesting parts of the book. Suddenly, Falwell dies. The campus erupts in grief. And Roose's print interview stands as Falwell's last.

Roose's big, honest questions remind us that he's not at Liberty writing a nasty rant. He's trying to bridge the gap and sort out his own creeds -- with humor and respect that would benefit believers and unbelievers alike.

Holly Collier is a night news editor at the Star Tribune.