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Book Review: In the Land of Believers by Gina Welch

jcobleigh and I read a fascinating book recently that we'd heard about on NPR, Gina Welch's In the Land of Believers: An Outsider's Extraordinary Journey Into the Heart of the Evangelical Church (she's a Jewish atheist, Berkeley graduate, didn't end up converting to Christianity and she did an excellent job writing about her experiences).

Welch's writing is skillful, compelling, immediately engaging, and authentic. Her perspective surprised me several times because she provided an outsider's view on aspects of evangelical Christian culture that I take for granted. For example:

  • She didn't know she could just walk into a church service. She thought that she had to be invited, or that she had to take a class first or something.
  • At one point, she observes that she's enjoying singing the music during the church services "even though it had no artistic merit". The observation threw me for a loop, because the concept of artistic merit seemed entirely orthogonal to the concept of music that's intended to get people into worshipping God. It had never even occurred to me before to evaluate contemporary evangelical music in that light, and I realized that Welch is right: it doesn't have any artistic merit. Usually, it's not very challenging to sing so there's not a lot of scope for artists' interpretations, the melodies are predictable, the themes are endlessly repeated, most of the poetry gets the job done but isn't going to wow anyone with its sophisticated allusions, etc. I realized that since the whole goal of modern church music is to get the focus off the creature (i.e., the artist) and on the Creator, I'm okay with the lack of artistic merit...because I also agreed with Welch's observation that's fun to sing.
  • She was frustrated with the way that Christians responded to her prayer requests for friends and family who were struggling with something. Whenever she asked for prayer for someone, the Christians would always ask whether the person was saved and then the prayer would be along the lines of, "Lord, please use these difficult circumstances in this person's life to draw them salvation," instead of just hearing the request and asking for the person's struggle to be relieved. She felt like the Christians had a conversion agenda instead of a genuine care for meeting people where they were at.
  • She went on a short-term mission trip with a church group and one of the Christians on the trip brought a concealed handgun went they went out to share the gospel with people on the street. (Okay, note: I don't take this last one for granted! I was utterly shocked that someone would do that!)

Welch was brutally honest about her own struggles with belief. At one key point in the penultimate chapter, when she's out on the mission trip, she witnesses what she perceives to be a genuine conversion--or at least, a life-transforming moment of some kind. She stumbles away from that encounter a bit stunned, not sure what she saw or felt in the presence of that conversion, and she tries to explain it away, to tie it up neatly in a box that is consistent with the rest of her secular belief system, but she can't quite. At one point she comes out and explicitly states that she doesn't want to be awed. She's fighting a sense of awe at the encounter and she purposely turns away from it, although not without some effort.

I found the honesty refreshing and I'm grateful that Welch wrote this book. I hope I get to meet her someday; I bet her conversation would be fascinating.

Comments

This sounds like a really enlightening book. I love looking at things from the "outside", whether it's other countries' travel warnings about the US or things like this.

Your second bullet point is why I struggle so much with contemporary services. Part of the huge tradition of the Lutheran Church is over four centuries of glorious music, and in the space of 20 years it's been superseded by Amy Grant syntho-pop repeated over and over, like a rosary of musically simple chori.

That brings up another thing, which is the tendency of born-again Christians to lift their hands during praise song. If one person did it in a moment of pure ecstasy, or two, I could see it, but when I see entire megachurches doing it, it seems false, rehearsed and not really inspired by the Holy Spirit.

The third thing I think may be church-specific. We have a prayer chain via e-mail and the requests are always concrete and tied to the trouble, sometimes approaching pettiness ("please help Mary find her lost earring" is the one that sticks out most). I've only actually been asked if I'm saved a couple of times; much more common is the question, "Do you accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Saviour?" as though he's some sort of metaphysical wingman, or as though I'm perfectly willing to bestow Him on others as long as He leaves me alone.

Your last point surprised me, but only for a minute; this has nothing to do with religion, but there's this idea out there that's disturbing to me that a conflict involving guns will result in anything except death or attempted death.
Another good book that jcobleigh and I have been reading is Stephen Prothero's Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know--And Doesn't. It's a fascinating read on the history of religious education in America. Prothero's focus is not on proselytizing, but on building enough cross-cultural touch-points so that we can all communicate (at least at a bare minimum) about all the major religions of the world. He argues that being educated about the key things (like the names of holy books and the core concepts) in each religion is essential to being an effective citizen of not only our country, but the world. If we don't know such things, we're easily swayed by the extremist talking heads who make wild claims for and against particular religious groups, and if we're so easily swayed, how can we be responsible voters, how can we really appreciate art, music, etc.? It's a fascinating book. jcobleigh is now reading Prothero's sequel, God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World--and Why Their Differences Matter, which he wrote for all the people who read his first book and then asked him for a resource to become more religiously literate. Great stuff, really thought-provoking.

Edited at 2010-07-18 11:36 pm (UTC)