book review: “in the land of believers” by gina welch
About a month back, the folks over at Henry Holt and Co. publishers contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in reviewing a new book of theirs that came out this month. The deal: they send me the book for free and I share my review with all of you. I’ve never done anything like this before and was excited to be asked. So here it goes:
Shotgun summary of the author:
- Gina Welch.
- Grew up as a secular Jew in Berkley.
- Moves to Virginia for grad school.
- Comes up with the idea to go “undercover” in the Evangelical church to try and understand the group of people she identifies as the most different from herself as possible.
- Isn’t shy of extremes.
- Decides upon the Thomas Road Baptist Church, at the time headed up by right wing Evangelical bigwig Dr. Jerry Falwell.
I admit, as soon as I saw the word “Evangelical” stamped on the cover of this book, I inwardly groaned, cringed and sighed. (If it is remotely, physiologically possible to do all three things at once…I did.)
I had just read a book not so different from this about a year ago– The Unlikely Disciple by Kevin Roose, a Brown student who went undercover for a year at Liberty University, another of the many arms of Falwell’s ultra-conservative ministry. [Interesting fact! Both Welch and Roose were at their respective places during the same time period, without knowing it, and both were there when Falwell died.] I had loved Roose’s book but felt like it basically covered that entire subject market: what else could be said about conservative Evangelicals? Did I really want to hear more? I was hesitant. Being a different sort of Christian myself, I am not usually overly keen to align myself with that particular branch on the Church’s family tree. Most of the time, frankly, that movement makes me want to bang my head repeatedly against a wall. However, that solves nothing and gives me a headache. So I thought about it this way: perhaps this isn’t only a story about Gina getting past her prejudices, but also about me getting past mine.
So I opened the book and began to read page one.
The author’s tone reminds me of a combination of Kevin Roose (aforementioned author of The Unlikely Disciple) and Lauren F. Winner (Orthodox Jew-turned-Christian, author of Girl Meets God). Gina shares the characteristics of being highly educated, intelligent and writing with a very discerning and curious eye. She’s a good writer with a keenness for the detailed brushstrokes that paint a wider picture. That being said, the picture that was painted – well, I still can’t decide how I feel about that.
The friction I found in this text and couldn’t seem to shake was that the term “Evangelical” was used interchangeably with the word “Christian.” As the author is coming in with no previous experience of Christianity before Thomas Road, I can understand the lack of clarity between the two terms. But as a Christian (I suppose from the heartily sniffed at “emergent church” that is mentioned in this book), I would argue that the type of Christian described here (Republican, homophobic, salvation-oriented, believes global warming to be liberal propaganda, etc.) is certainly not my experience of following Jesus nor typical of the people I know.
While this book examines the Evangelical portion of Christians and does so well, it tends to, in the process, throw a blanket over the whole of Christianity that, while written with compassion, still feels very stereotypical and assuming. Yes, in the end, Gina has a crisis of conscience as she gets to know these very loving, albeit rather peculiar, people as earnest and sincere. However, in the end, Christians still end up sounding like a culturally-removed, staunchly right-wing bunch that much more interested in “the next life” than they are in this one. In one part of the book, when Gina goes on a mission trip to Alaska, the whole goal of the trip is to “save 100 souls.” As someone who believes God to be more relationally-centered and less concerned about slapping a number of salvation on peoples’ foreheads, I can understand why Gina came out the other end of this experiment still decidedly atheist.
So with that, I found the book to be reasonably interesting and probing, but not a good slice of Christianity as a whole. Of course, any and all churches can never be entirely objective; each place injects their own slant or flavor into how they approach following Jesus. Perhaps that was Gina’s intention — simply to examine the Evangelical church and their approach, not necessarily looking at Christians as a whole. I’m still not sure.
So, in the end, after my fair share of sighs and forehead slaps, here is where I found myself with my prejudices: despite the wacky and frustrating practices of these people, whether or not I like or agree with them, these are my brothers and sisters. These are your brothers and sisters. When Jesus told us to love our neighbors, He didn’t give us any selection privileges or easy outs. Our neighbors are hard to love on purpose – that is the nature of this radical love that Jesus preached. They are often people who offer friction instead of friendship and who we’d sometimes rather avert our eyes from because they are embarrassing and strange and difficult. The radical part is this – we don’t try to change them or prove ourselves right. We simply love them. And through that love, we become living testaments to God’s grace.
I look at the people in that sector of the church like my kooky backwoods brethren: I don’t understand them and I’m sure there are many things we don’t agree on (on both sides). But in the end, like it or not, we’re still family.