In the Land of Believers: An Outsider’s Extraordinary Journey into the Heart of the Evangelical Church by Gina Welch
Published by Metropolitan Books
Gina Welch, who grew up without serious religion of any kind but technically considered herself Jewish, decided to spend two years immersing herself in Evangelical Christianity. She chose to spend that time at Thomas Road Baptist Church (Jerry Falwell’s church) and did everything from regular Sunday service to joining the singles groups to going on a mission trip and everything in between. What she found was both surprising and enlightening.
Before I talk about my thoughts on this book, let me explain my own personal beliefs and where I was coming from when I decided to read it. You all know I’m Christian, right? But I’m not Baptist, nor am I a huge fan (or any kind of fan actually) of Jerry Falwell and his hateful ways. I think Christianity – and religion in general – should be a way to bring people together and show love, not tear people apart and preach hate at anyone who doesn’t agree or share the same “lifestyle”. I’ve been interested in this book for quite some time, mostly because I so fundamentally disagree with the kind of Christianity that Falwell represented that I was interested in seeing what his church was truly like, from an outsider coming into it.
Overall I found almost exactly what I expected in this book. Welch surprises herself by learning that most of the Christians she met and became quite close friends with are actually incredibly wonderful, kind, caring people. This was probably the aspect of the book I enjoyed the most – the fact that she was going into this expecting the people of this church to be some “other” that she couldn’t understand or relate to, but in fact she mostly found the opposite. She found evangelicals to be fun, interesting, basically normal people who also happened to have a relationship with God – which is of course what I hoped she would find! But I found it so refreshing that she was able to sit back and examine how her expectations of what these people would be like turned out to be wrong (in most cases).
What made me sad was when she found some things that weren’t so good about the people of the church – judgment of those different from themselves, older men insinuating that the only way Welch could be happy was to land a husband, evangelicals shoving Christianity down strangers’ throats in rude and hateful ways, Falwell using his sermons as opportunities to be political and say that those who disagree with him will go to hell, etc. This stuff made me sad, although it seemed to be more of a generational thing than anything else – the younger crowd almost never fell into any of these patterns, but the older members of the church almost always did. So that made me hopeful that as time goes on, some of this negative stuff will change. Either way, it was somewhat eye-opening to see how some of the craziest things that have been said about this church and its leader were actually true!
In the Land of Believers is an extremely well-written novel and I really admired Welch for doing what she did in order to bring the reader this piece of investigative literature. While I really enjoyed the book overall, I couldn’t help but question what Welch’s point really was. I was left, in the end, feeling a bit disappointed that she draws no real conclusions or ties things together in any kind of way. I get that she’s basically reporting to the reader what she witnessed and learned while spending two years in this church, but I am left asking “why?” Why did she spend two years of her life doing this, what did she get out of it, what does it really mean? I guess there’s no real answers to these questions but I think I’m just looking for some way for her to pull all of her experiences together and show the reader something new.
Again, I really liked this book. For a thorough examination of this particular church, it’s a fantastic choice (perhaps the only choice). And for those of you who enjoy books about different religions and these investigative memoir type reads, this is a great choice.