Sunday, August 28, 2011

In The Land of Believers

by Gina Welch
New York, Metropolitan Books, 2010
333 pages     Religion

Unlike Gina Welch, I consider myself a Christian. But like her, I have had my doubts and questions about evangelical Christianity. How can they be so certain in a world of uncertainty? So, I read her book In the Land of Believers with great interest. 

For two years, Gina Welch posed as a new Christian as she attended Truman Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg Virginia, Jerry Falwell’s church. She was there when the congregation moved into larger facilities and she was there when Jerry Falwell died. For two years, she attended Sunday services, participated in a singles ministry called EPIC, learned about evangelism in an evening class, and went on a mission trip to Alaska—a mission trip to save Alaskan souls.

She first thought that her sojourn would be as an anthropologist, trying to understand a culture she didn’t understand. She said that it was a while before she realized that there was “meaning behind the music and minds behind the slogans.” Welch felt that because she had very little understanding of Christianity, she would have to immerse herself in this new culture, and she would have to be saved and baptized in order to have some credibility in her new community. As the weeks became months, she gained friends and a new appreciation for religion, particularly religious music. She found that she loved to sing gospel songs at the top of her voice. The services made her feel good—she called it Feeling X, a feeling of "connection without comprehension."

As in most congregations, there are a myriad of personalities with varying levels of education and religious commitment. Welch discusses the people she meets, the services she attends, and the peculiarity of the religion she experiences. Most of it is done without sarcasm or condescension. What she discovers over and over is that there is true sincerity, generosity, and piety among the believers at the Thomas Road church. One of the things I found most interesting was that she developed true affection for Rev. Jerry Falwell and his message. While critics would scorn his grandstanding and fundraising, she saw the purity of his intent and the truth of his calling. 

What she didn’t expect to find was people with whom she could identify, people for whom she would develop genuine affection—particularly a woman she calls “Alice” and the pastor to the singles group, “Ray.” The friendships are cemented in the mission trip the group takes to Alaska, where they endeavor to bring 100 people to Jesus. When she preached the words of salvation to the people of Alaska, she felt hypocritical, but she began to understand “how the structure of religion could correct personal chaos. Did it matter that the message was a placebo if the curative properties were real?” In this way, she was able to tap down her feelings of guilt and betrayal that were starting to overwhelm her. In the words of the reviewer in the LA Times: “That, in the end, provides the queasy fascination and suspense of this Judas kiss of a book: not Welch's unsurprising discoveries about evangelicals (it turns out they're human, even lovable) but the awareness that eventually someone -- she or one of the people she's fooled -- will unmask her, and heartbreak will follow.”

I am enough of a believer to feel uncomfortable about the deception, particularly her baptism at the Truman Road church. But I am realistic enough to know that I have participated in communion when I was feeling less that godly, and I have said words and prayed prayers that I didn’t quite believe. I appreciated her insight into evangelism, when she notes: “I finally understood what it felt like to believe you knew something that had the power to improve the lives of others. You felt compelled to share it.” In the Land of Believers is a clear-eyed look at evangelical Christianity through the eyes of a young, but intelligent, non-believer. I felt her sincerity even as I was feeling critical of her methods. I am not sure that an older person could have carried it off without exposing themselves or their life experiences. I would have tired of the whole thing much earlier than Welch did. 

I worked for a while with two young evangelical women, naïve and idealistic. They believed that they were working with a bunch of sinners who needed to be redeemed. One day, a co-worker came into my office with a face full of incredulity: “They’re down on their knees in there, praying for us! They don’t need to be praying for us—they need to be praying that they can get all this backlogged work done!” I had to go into their office, thank them for their prayers, assure them that we knew that they cared about us, but that I wasn’t sure that this was the appropriate time or place for a prayer meeting. I didn’t want to dampen their enthusiasm, but really…!

I would draw your attention to two other books—Jesus Freak by Sara Miles, which discusses a whole different type of Christian evangelism and True When Whispered by Paul Escamilla which preaches a more mystical, quieter faith. I would also suggest that you read The Year of Living Biblically, in which A J. Jacobs tries to follow biblical mandates for an entire year. 

Here is the review of In the Land of Believers in the Los Angeles Times:
  An interview in Time Magazine:,8599,1977701,00.html

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