Published March 2, 2010 by Metropolitan Books
When Gina Welch, a lifelong atheist from Berkeley, California, moved to Charlottesville, Virginia for graduate school, she began encountering evangelical Christians on a regular basis for the first time in her life, and for the first time in her life, she found herself dealing with deep feelings of intolerance. Welch was so struck by her reactions to the Christians that she couldn’t help but try to make sense of them and their significance in American culture. Who were these people who believed so passionately that their beliefs were the only way? What really lay beneath the surface of their polished, pious, always-smiling countenances? Why did they hold so much power in American culture, and who, really, was their leader Jerry Falwell?
Welch realized that she, a secular Jew who knew virtually nothing about Christian practices and theology, couldn’t just walk into an evangelical church and expect to get answers. She would be seen as an outsider, a project, a potential convert, a soul who needed saving, and she would only get to see what they wanted to show her until she was willing and ready to make a decision for Christ. So she made an entirely different bold decision and, rather than dismissing a group she found indescribably unbelievable, went undercover at Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia.
In the Land of Believers is Welch’s chronicle of the almost two years she spent attending services, participating in the EPIC young adult ministry, socializing, traveling, and building relationships with TRBC members. It is neither an exposé of nor an attack on evangelicals, and Welch’s intent is far from malicious. In the Land of Believers is essentially an ethnology, an exploration of the social and cultural underpinnings of a group one can only truly understand by becoming a part of it, and Welch is a sort of embedded reporter cum anthropologist. She learns the language, sings the songs, gets “saved” and baptized (though in action only—there’s no change of heart happening here), and even goes on an evangelism mission trip to Alaska.
Welch embarks on her journey into the heart of evangelical Christianity with the intent to create understanding and the hope of promoting tolerance. She wants to know what makes evangelicals tick, to find common ground, and to use her experiences to help others bridge the cultural gap and get along with this outspoken group that clearly isn’t going anywhere. While she does criticize some evangelical practices and positions (including rampant homophobia, regressive ideas about the role of women, suspicion of the educated, and the use of the threat of hell to scare children into getting saved), she also emphasizes the common humanity, the strong, supportive communities, and the good intentions that drive their seemingly strange and divisive behaviors.
While Welch is certainly not the first writer to take this approach to understanding evangelical Christians (in fact, Kevin Roose was undercover at Falwell’s Liberty University writing The Unlikely Disciple at the same time that she was at TRBC), her version of it is the most successful one I’ve found because she really does enter the experience as a true outsider with fresh eyes, and she stays long enough to form lasting relationships (Roose was only at Liberty for a semester). The ethnological aspects of In the Land of Believers are intelligent and insightful, and Welch’s reflections on her struggle to understand how she could come to feel deeply attached to a group of people whose fundamental tenets she finds unbelievable and occasionally frightening are fascinating.
In the Land of Believers is a book for anyone looking for a deeper understanding of evangelical Christians (or just a really great read). It is a portrait of a community that is at once unique in its position atop the evangelical movement and stereotypical in its practices and beliefs, and it is a call for greater tolerance from both sides of the line. As a reader who grew up in mainline Protestant churches but who hasn’t practiced for some time and now find myself living in the south and surrounded by people who regularly inquire as to whether I’ve found Jesus, I saw bits of my own experiences within the pages of this book. But I think there’s something here for everyone, religious or not, and even evangelicals would do well to read this book, see themselves from the outside, and gain an understanding of how secular people experience them.
This is a remarkable, informative, fresh perspective on a topic that is familiar and a cultural movement that is undeniable and unavoidable. Welch is fair, kind, and balanced (perhaps I should say “fair and balanced?”) in both her presentation of TRBC’s members and her exploration of what it means for her own identity that she comes to love many of them, to mourn Dr. Falwell’s death, and to continue singing church songs long after she leaves. In the Land of Believers will probably land Gina Welch on many a prayer list, but I’m hopeful that it will put her on many “to-be-read” and “best of” lists as well. 4.5 out of 5.
Learn more about Gina Welch and In the Land of Believers by visiting her website and blog, following her on Twitter (she’s friendly and gives great book recommendations!), and checking out her column The Moral Story at True/Slant.