Last year I read and really enjoyed The Unlikely Disciple by Kevin Roose, the story of a young college student who went undercover at Liberty University to "learn" evangelical Christian culture. So naturally, I was interested in reading In the Land of Believers: An Outsider's Extraordinary Journey into the Heart of the Evangelical Church, the story of Gina Welch going undercover at Thomas Road Baptist Church. What amuses me about these two stories is that they were both undercover at the same time in the same area. They may have even been at church services together! So there is some overlap in how they dealt with certain events, such as the shooting at Virginia Tech, the death of Jerry Falwell, and the Blasphemy Project.
Before I go any further, it's important to relate that I come from an evangelical Christian background and still consider myself to be one in many ways. But what these books help illuminate to me and what I hope to share in this review is that the term evangelical is an umbrella term--Gina experienced one segment of this part of the Church and I think it's a good representation of many but absolutely not all evangelicals. So while this book can hopefully help you understand evangelicals better if you have no prior experience, the most important thing I think one can take away from books like this is that we are all human and that shared experience of humanity is the best thing we have going for us. It's not an authoritative guide on the evangelical church. I may sound a bit defensive, but I do think it's worth being said. Also, I will interject lots of my own personal experience into this review.
Gina Welch is a young secular Jew from Berkley who decides to go undercover as a sort of anthropological experiment and to learn about the evangelical church. She thinks she first needs a conversion experience so she goes to a hell house sponsored by the church. I went to a few of these in my day, too, as a sort of alternative to Halloween's haunted houses which for some reason were HUGE in St. Louis. (are they as popular everywhere else?) I also went to one in Georgia. Both I went to seemed a bit more cohesive in purpose than the one Gina attended, though. It sounds like it was a total mess! She doesn't quite get the experience she expected, so she eventually decides to start attending the church. She starts out by going to a new members class where she gets a bit of an overview of being a Christian as well as all of the language and expectations of church life. She eventually joins a singles class, where she begins to make some friends she really cares about. She even goes on a missions trip to Alaska with them.
I have to admit to feeling a little bit conflicted by some of the things Gina was willing to do have the whole experience. Generally, I really believe in the idea that everything is open to exploration. But going so far as to be baptized unsettled me a little bit. In evangelical Christianity, we have few "religious" traditions. I see communion and baptism as both being very special and my gut reaction to this was that it wasn't necessary and kind of disrespectful. But that's my human reaction, and the truth is that these acts aren't sacred in and of themselves but because I believe God is present in them.
Many of her observations are also worth noting. The strong reaction of Thomas Road Baptist Church against the concept of global warming being one of them. This is very frustrating to me as well and goes back to the argument of a literal six day creation. For some reason, everyone gets so hung up on this. For an excellent explanation on how you can believe in an old earth and also believe the Bible is true, I recommend this essay. There's also the issue of women in leadership in the church and of course homosexuality.
But homophobia was one feature of the evangelical mind I was unable to tolerate. It was sanctioned hate, the thick-skinned blister bubbling up from ignorance and prudishness, a failure to comprehend human sexuality, all slathered with a transparent biblical gloss. Ridicule and animosity were weapons I almost never saw Christians wield. But with homosexuals, it was different. "Love the sinner, hate the sin" only went an inch deep if the sinner was gay.
I cannot tell you how much I agree with this. I am constantly saddened by the attitude I see Christians (not just evangelicals actually) display towards the GLBT community and it was especially apparent last week when popular singer Jennifer Knapp came out. I think in some ways it's sheer laziness not to try to understand that yes, God created people differently. I think they use Scripture as an excuse for homophobia and fail to realize there are other ways to interpret it (like the young earth thing) Gina suggests that it's a lack of exposure and I think in many ways she's right. My heart breaks over this constantly. I am saddened by the way the GLBT community is demonized, by the fact that they know many Christians only for their hatred, that many young GLBT evangelical Christians will live with self-loathing before finding freedom. Change in thinking is possible, though, and I think with each new generation we get closer to those changes being reality. Until then, though, I can tell you that since I've started becoming more vocal about my own desire to see this change, I've lost long time followers, and had numerous email conversations on this subject. (Two good blog posts to represent how differently we think about this can be found here and here)
Also, it's important to note that Republican/Southern culture and evangelical culture are not ALWAYS the same. I think at times, since she's from California, Gina confuses these. For example, when she's in Alaska she says that opening up her herself to an evangelical thought and culture made it possible for her to become fascinated with hunting and things like wall-mounted antlers. This kind of cracked me up because that has absolutely nothing to do with God or my faith and probably a lot more to do with the people she was spending time with. I have yet to be interested in those things!
What I always find fascinating, though, is belief. While Gina experiences some feelings, (she calls it Feeling X) and appreciated aspects of church, such as community and the general positive attitude most of the Christians had, she can't bring herself to believe. Of course, she says it's because she values intellect too much, but I think it's possible to be a person of faith and intelligence. I think the question of where faith comes from and at times where it goes will forever be one of the most interesting life questions to me.
For the most part the book is very respectful of the people Gina knew. I think she genuinely cared for many of the people she met, despite having very different world views. The book is also written in a very engaging way and I flew through it one day while waiting for my car to get repaired. It also made me think a lot and to be honest was kind of depressing. Even though my current church isn't like Thomas Road Baptist Church, it does open my eyes to how others see this community of believers. For someone like myself who is constantly analyzing things, this can make going to church hard for a little while.
I do recommend the book, though, to anyone interested in learning about the common ground we all share in spite of our differences.
Source of Book: Received from Publisher for Review
Publisher: Metropolitan Books
Since my review came from the perspective of being an evangelical Christian, you might also enjoy checking out Florinda's review.