Gina Welch | In the Land of Believers (Picador)

It’s a well-written account that shows us the humanity of an often-vilified section of the population. It also doesn’t shy away from revealing the ugly side of that group.



 My family is in the middle of a fairly big move. At the end of this month, we will be heading to frozen Nebraska, where we don’t really know anyone or anything, and making a go of it. I was fretting about this to my mother-in-law, who came up with a solution that has made her social life blossom—join a church. Of course, we probably won’t do that; it’s just not our thing.

Author Gina Welch, who grew up in sunny, secular California, never thought it would be her thing, either. Raised by parents who never told her all the little lies we hear as children, she was once sent home from school for her own safety because she had informed her young classmates that there was no God, or Santa, for that matter. Eventually Welch grew up, graduated from Yale, and went on to get her MFA in creative writing from the University of Virginia. It was here she that first encountered evangelical Christians and was inspired to write In the Land of Believers: An Outsider’s Extraordinary Journey Into the Heart of the Evangelical Church.
Welch begins the book as a transplant to the South and is appalled by evangelical Christians, but she also sees glimmers indicating that maybe, just maybe, there’s something more to them. And so she goes undercover. She goes really deep undercover, actually, joining Jerry Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church. Welch skillfully characterizes the actual people (real names changed, etc.) with broad strokes at first and then colors them in with details as she goes. Although it sometimes seems like she might be succumbing to Stockholm syndrome, she ultimately retains a healthy skepticism about what’s going on around her. Written much like a diary, In the Land of Believers is in turns funny, horrifying, and informative.
Welch maintains a strange morality throughout the whole experience, which happened over a period of a few years. When the singles’ worship group she is part of goes on a mission trip to Alaska, she insists on paying her own way instead of being sponsored. When she disappears from the church, she feels guilty and eventually comes back to tell those to whom she was close that she is fine and is writing a book. She points out as many good points as flaws in her new peers and is careful not to give the game away by snarking at them.
In the Land of Believers is not an easy book to read. It’s a well-written account that shows us the humanity of an often-vilified section of the population—one that is slowly forming a large power base in America. It also doesn’t shy away from revealing the ugly side of that group, be it their insistence that everyone end up in a virginal wedding bed or their wisecracks about gay people and Californians. I was physically uncomfortable at points while reading it, squirming in my seat and wanting nothing more than to find a sin to wallow in. Welch, however, never lets us forget that while these aren’t her people, aren’t my people, they are still people, nonetheless. | Erin Jameson

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