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.

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