Thursday, February 28, 2013

This is Not About Believers; This is About Gina Welch

A Review for Gina Welch's In the Land of Believers, written on LibraryThing and Amazon

If I were to rate this book by its stated intention, I would have given it two stars. As an attempt to bridge the gap between the secular world and the Evangelical world, the book contributes precious little of substance. Instead I rated this book on its value as a means to draw someone into an experience that is created through words: most of the book was about as interesting as any other well-written book detailing someone's investigation into some part of the world, but the ending actually gave me the nausea that I imagine she must have felt and made my skin crawl the way I assume her skin crawled before making the big reveal.

But again, I'm judging the book based on how well it told the story of Gina Welch, its author; as an investigation into the 'Land of the Believers,' it offers little. The book begins with Welch's preconceptions of who Evangelicals are - the book then proceeds to confirm most of those preconceptions, but with affection. That is to say, Welch confirms that Evangelicals are every bit as homophobic and ignorant as she initially believes, but now they are taking up prime real estate of her Dunbar Number. She loves them, but yeah they are what you think they are.

The book details the adventure of Californian Gina Welch discovering that her liberal worldview does not exclude her from the kind of prejudice she (prejudicially) assumes to be the domain of the Evangelical Christians surrounding her in the state of Virginia. She decides to take an anthropological journey into Jerry Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist Church, going so far as to try to have an experience she can point to as her conversion moment and joining certain smaller groups within the larger church, predominantly a singles ministry. Her heart is progressively won over; her mind remains steadfastly secular. Her journey reaches its zenith in a missions trip to Alaska where she participates in leading 101 people to accept Christ as their Lord and Savior, after which she decides that she can no longer continue lying to the people who have become dear friends to her and consequently bows out of their lives without explanation.

The story as a whole tends to drag. Welch adds a lot of details that I believe were included to add flavor and to make subtle suggestions to lead the reader to certain conclusions (X Woman wore too much Y kind of makeup, implying vanity; I painted my nails in good girl pink before heading to church, implying scrutiny; his chivalry was reaching performance art levels, implying chauvinism), which is perfectly acceptable, reasonable, and desirable in a book like this, but after a while the details just feel like they are mucking up the pace. Then there are times when Welch discards the notion that the story is about the church and just begins talking about her day-to-day existence, which leads me to believe that Welch was aware that the fact that she made this journey was more interesting than anything she might have discovered in the course of it. Ideally I think the book could have shaved off a third of its length and been more effective, but that could just be my attention span talking (I would say the same about this review I'm writing, so, hypocrisy).

By the third portion of the book, which details Welch's trip to Alaska, you become certain that this is no longer about Evangelical culture. She tries to keep the spotlight focused: she throws out general observations about Evangelicals based on particular occurrences with varying degrees of shoehorning, but they cease to feel organic at that point. Soon you realize that this is a story  about the lengths this woman will go to to write a book. It's a story about someone feeling so little about an entire people group that rampant deception in the course of developing intimate relationships seemed perfectly acceptable to her, and then falling in love with those people while still holding onto this devastating deception.

I quickly became bored reading about Alaska, but I didn't stop. The mundane events of the Alaskan mission trip are not interesting, but you feel the tension building because you know she has to reveal what she has done to her friends. The spotlight shifts from the group to Gina herself - who is becoming progressively more aware of the gravity of her deception.

Approach it based on what it advertises and you will be disappointed. Approach it as what it is - a story of the depths one will go to in order to tell a story - and you might find yourself intrigued. Further, and perhaps this is the books greatest contribution, it is a cautionary tale about failing to see those who are different from you as still being people. This seemed to have been one of the goals of the book and this goal the book fulfills by virtue of existing. The book itself is the warning.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

An Evangelical World

Currently I have been reading In the Land of Believers by Gina Welch, a book that I deem fully worth every cent of the dollar I paid for it at the Dollar Tree. The book details the adventure of an atheist woman who joins Jerry Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist Church and goes undercover as a Christian to immerse herself in Evangelical culture in hopes of understanding the culture and consequently writing a book about said culture that would help bridge the divide between Evangelical America and secular America. Hitherto I see no evidence to suggest that this book will bridge any divides apart from the divides in Welch's own character (divides that seem to have been created by the experiment rather than preceding it), but the book is certainly interesting and promising to the strange breed of atheist like myself.

However, the book did stir one thing in me that I am not sure if it intended to stir, and that I find I need to be reminded of on occasion: that I would not do well in an Evangelical world, that I do not want to see or live in an Evangelical world.

Knowing that skepticism and doubt are integral to my worldview, that I find value in the emotional shades of happiness, despair, pain, and pleasure rather than believing that a sunny disposition rooted in the confidence that in all things God works for those who love him should be maintained and sought at all times, and that I just plain can not imagine seeing the world in that monolithic way that identifies goodness with Godliness and sees all goodness as being derived from the extent to which God's will is fulfilled, assures me that I just could not breathe that air. This last point, goodness being identical with godliness, may have been one of the things that most drove my heart away from Christianity even while my mind retained loyalties; to me it made the world so tiny, although I am certain that there are many who would insist, citing personal experience, that it makes the world more vast.

To be sure, I imagine that most in the Evangelical world are not eager to breathe my air either. I chalk it up to a difference of natures and a difference of what experiences one finds livable. All the same, though faith and religion are of the utmost importance to me (strange breed of atheist that I am), I don't ever want to interact with that faith wrapped in the body of Evangelical Christianity.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Ambition Tempered by Apathy

Let apathy encompass your life and you will be a nihilist, everything will be equally worthless as everything else and it will be impossible to love or pursue anything in life. On the other hand, let ambition encompass your life and you may find that there is so much that is worthwhile and so much that is lovely that it will likewise be impossible to pursue anything because your love is spread so thin. If no roads are worth walking or if many roads are worth walking, you remain standing still staring at the landscape.

So you let your ambition run wild; you wander around collecting things to care about, ensuring that you stave off nihilism with will and desire. Then you look at your mere twenty-four hour day coupled with an anemic seven day week and your growing collection of fetal projects that just lack the nourishment to make it to term. Then you've got to turn around and go in the other direction: pruning, burning, chiseling. You are going to have to drop some hopes and smother some ambitions so that the others have enough resources to survive.

Remember: You are mortal, therefore finite, therefore particular. You can't be everything; every moment you spend carries a cost.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Repetition Repeated

Because even leaving the whole concept of writing behind, we have to repeat ourselves to maintain any kind of stability in ourselves. We need rituals, we need habits, we need traditions that bring us back to our past. Without this kind of repetition, our present self lacks ties to our past selves and will be equally alien to our future selves. We will constantly spin off in whatever direction seems most lovely at any given time, we will lack anchors to ground ourselves and bring us back to familiar points of view. It is in this way that we have something like a persistent self.

That is why we should not fear redundancy. This is why we should be okay with repetition. This is why we should embrace covering old ground. This is why it is desirable that we should do the same thing again and again.

You cannot always control the course, and sometimes you veer off in a direction you did not expect. Not necessarily in a dramatic sense, sometimes it is just an arrangement that keeps you from doing what you think you ought to be doing, and in all cases one must work with what is in front of you.

But when the environment is conducive to being rebuilt the way you like it, though, you've got to look back and start repeating yourself lest you lose that past. Go back to what has already been built; return to your past territory. Then go on building and expanding again.