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.
5 thoughts on “In the Land of Believers: An Outsider’s Extraordinary Journey into the Heart of the Evangelical Church by Gina Welch”
This is exactly the kind of nonfiction book I really enjoy, but I couldn’t get more than a few chapters into it. I was so annoyed with Gina Welch’s feeling of superiority about the South that I couldn’t keep reading — she tells one anecdote about how she used to put on a fake Southern accent that she thought was hilarious until a Southern girl said “You make us sound really stupid when you do that.” Blech. It made me mad. I know that she was writing about it from a distance, and that she had come to realize her earlier close-mindedness, but it still made her too unpleasant a narrator for me to want to stick with.
I listened to this and liked it but not as much as you did. I thought Welch was judgmental herself. I thought Kevin Roose’s An Unlikely Disciple was a better book on the same subject.
I’m afraid I’d be too angry to read this book. I get so upset with people using religion as a way to judge and place themselves above others. Like you I prefer to see faith/church as bringing people together.
Great review, but probably not for me.
I enjoyed this book a lot, but I do agree with Kathy that I preferred An Unlikely Disciple. I found it so interesting they were doing their undercover work around the same time!
Hm. An interesting premise, but if she draws no conclusions what are you left with? I am a Christian, but no fan of the political hate that comes from some of the big churches. Not sure this is a book for me but maybe I’ll take a look at what a few others recommended!