In the Land of Believers Virtual Book Discussion

In the Land of Believers: An Outsider’s Extraordinary Journey into the Heart of the Evangelical Church by Gina Welch. Published in 2010.

Synopsis: Gina Welch grew up a secular Jew in Berkley, California. After moving to Virginia for graduate school, Welch joins Jerry Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church as part of an experiment to learn more about evangelical Christians. While many recent books on evangelical Christians expose them in negative ways, Welch’s book serves as an anthropological study, seeking to show evangelicals in a more positive light. Along her journey, she gets baptized, fills out the necessary paperwork to get saved, makes friends through the church’s singles ministry, endures Jerry Fawell’s death, and goes on a mission trip to Alaska with the goal of saving 100 souls.

About the Author: A graduate of Yale University, Gina Welch teaches English at George Washington University. This is her first book.

Becky’s Initial Reactions:

In, general I appreciated Welch’s style of writing and handling the subject matter. As an anthropologist who also studies religion, I found the book to be an educational study about some of the United States’ most conservative Christians. After reading this book, I am left with so many questions.

Why do you think Welch had a hard time connecting with Thomas Road members in the beginning? Do you think it was necessary for her to go through baptism and pretend to be saved for her to get the full story?

As a woman of faith, I found it hard to believe that the way to salvation is through saying a prayer and then filling out an index card, as if God has nothing to do with it. Sometimes I also feel slighted that evangelical Christians get all the press, while more mainline Christians and other religions are not as much in the limelight, perhaps because their belief systems are more mainstream (even mainline Muslims are slighted by the media) and fundamentalist religions can be considered by many to be outrageous. What did people in the book club from religious backgrounds think about Welch’s story and experiences at one of the most conservative churches in the United States? What did people  from secular backgrounds think?

I found it interesting that Welch’s analysis even shows a split between evangelicals when she talks about California Christians from Rick Warren’s mega-church, which seemed to be scorned by members of Jerry Falwell’s church in Virginia (pages 108-109). I remember the controversy surrounding Rick Warren leading the invocation at Barack Obama’s inauguration because of evangelical Christians’ scorn of gays and lesbians, but it’s interesting that “days after Rick Warren agreed to step onto Obama’s stage, the anti-gay language disappeared from his church’s website” (page 109). Welch really shows the connections between religion, politics and culture. Do you think that in order for one to become part of a religious community, one needs to also subscribe to certain political and cultural beliefs?

Lastly, I found it interesting that during the Alaska mission trip, to meet their 100 souls quota, the group seemed to focus on converting homeless people and children, while seemingly avoiding the general population. Do you think the message of evangelical Christianity is more appealing to certain groups of people?

So what did you all think of the book? You don’t necessarily have to answer my questions, but please post your comments here.

Next Up : Spooky Little Girl: A Novel by Laurie Notaro. Discussion begins August 12th, 2010.

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2 Responses to In the Land of Believers Virtual Book Discussion

  1. jennyjohnsonriley says:

    I was impressed with Welch’s ability to bond with the members of Thomas Road. It seems clear from the epilogue that she really developed a strong connection with the people she met while she was undercover. I don’t want to say that I think the church members are bad people, but I think I would have a hard time relating to them.

    The part I found most disturbing was the Salt and Light’s interaction with the homeless in Alaska. As a social worker, I always cringe when I encounter what I like to call “volunteer tourists.” I see a lot of them around the holidays when community members want bring their kids to shelters, so their kids can “really understand” the less fortunate. When I try to direct these folks to tasks that really need to be done, I usually get a response like “that’s not what we want to do, we want x.” I have to restrain myself from saying things like, “this is a shelter, not a zoo.”

    Like Becky, I did find it interesting that the mission trip focused a lot on homeless folks. It seemed like the missionaries were almost preying on the vulnerable, although I don’t think the missionaries see it this way.

    Although I found it difficult to relate to the Thomas Road members, on a personal note, I think it is possible for people to have close relationships with people with varying religious perspectives. I’m Becky’s sister, and while she identifies herself as a woman of faith, I am definitely not one. Our mother is very religious, and while I’m pretty sure she thinks I’m going to hell, she doesn’t talk to me about it all the time. I guess my point is if Thomas Road members want me to be tolerant, they have to meet me half way.

  2. becky sorensen says:

    I was really excited to read this book after reading the description of it. My religious background is Lutheran, and I consider myself to be on the liberal end of things. I will admit that religious fundamentalists have always made me a little (ok, a lot) nervous, so I thought this book would really help me to understand better where they are coming from, as Welch suggested I would.

    I don’t think any of my opinions or views on religious fundamentalists changed as a result of this book. If anything, it made me even more concerned about this type of evangelizing and “winning” souls, and I was uncomfortable often as I read the book. I had to force myself to finish it, as I had a hard time staying interested.

    I commend Welch for her courage and openness to take on such an endeavor…however, I wonder how appropriate it was to go through the baptism and ongoing lies that she had to keep up to be part of the church…Overall, this book just didn’t do it for me.

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