Disclosure: I received an Advance Reader’s Copy (ARC) of this book via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers Program. The book is now available for purchase. *Purchasing links in this review generate referrals through my Amazon Affiliates account.
In the Land of Believers: An Outsider’s Extraordinary Journey into the Heart of the Evangelical Church
Metropolitan Books (2010), Hardcover (ISBN 0805083375 / 9780805083378)
Nonfiction/memoir, 352 pages
Opening Lines: “When I began at Thomas Road (Baptist Church) in the fall of 2005, I was more worried about telegraphing a plausibly conservative image than I was about the scruples of telegraphing at all. It wasn’t that I had zero misgivings about going undercover—I did meditate on the wrongness of lying and the string of betrayals my project would likely leave behind—it was that I sort of managed to balance the whole messy moral equation on an unsteady ball bearing of cliché: You have to break some eggs to make an omelette.”
Book Description: Ever since evangelical Christians rose to national prominence, mainstream America has tracked their every move with a nervous eye. But in spite of this vigilance, our understanding hasn’t gone beyond the caricatures. Who are evangelicals, really? What are they like in private, and what do they want? Is it possible that beneath the differences in culture and language, church and party, we might share with them some common purpose?
Comments: The ideas Gina Welch brings up in In the Land of Believers have given me a lot to think about, but I’m going to do something different: I’m taking them to a separate post. This is a review of the book itself, and Gina Welch’s story.
Trying to get a grasp of the forces driving much public opinion and political action during the last decade, Gina Welch decides to go to one of their sources: Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia, founded by Rev. Jerry Falwell. Welch understands that she won’t learn much approaching as a reporter or an outsider, so she decides to go within, presenting her secular-Jewish self as a prospective church member. It’s a little dicey at first, but as Gina becomes part of the church’s young-adult ministry, she begins to learn Evangelical religious teachings and how they inform the worldview of their followers – and over time, is surprised to discover that some of it makes sense to her. And as she develops more connections within the TRBC community, she grows more anxious that they’ll discover she isn’t truly one of them. When she returns from a mission trip to Alaska with some members of the ministry, it all comes to a head.
I was fascinated by this memoir. The “will she be unmasked?” element added a bit of suspense, but I was absorbed by Gina’s undercover journey, particularly as her ambivalence grew. I was interested in the information she conveyed about the workings of TRBC in particular and Evangelicals and their practices in general; as a former Southerner, I’ve known a few, and I feel that I have a little better understanding of them now – which isn’t the same thing as agreeing with them (and is what I’ll visit in my follow-up post). I think Welch reached similar conclusions. While she is honest about her skepticism, which doesn’t ever really go away, her portrayal of the people she gets to know at TRBC is pretty even-handed, and at times even compassionate. She acknowledges the elements that provoke snark about Evangelicals among the less-reverent – including her non-church grad-school friends in Charlottesville – but rarely engages in it herself. Welch’s writing doesn’t call a lot of attention to itself, and my only real issue with it is that some of the church members she talked about didn’t make individual impressions on me; I suspect that those were people she didn’t get as close to in real life, though, and therefore wasn’t as capable of differentiating them for the reader.
This could be seen as a “stunt” memoir – a project undertaken just to produce a book – but I don’t think that’s entirely correct or fair. Gina Welch’s investigation was motivated by her own desire to learn and understand, although she did land a book contract after it was in progress. Her personal growth over the course of her two years in TRBC comes across in her story, and the perspective she gains is enlightening to both herself and her reader.
This book counts for the Memorable Memoirs Challenge.