I tend to be somewhat of a generalist nonfiction reader; I am not so much interested in specific subjects* as I am in well-written and interesting nonfiction titles. This is why I am such a huge fan of William Langewiesche; he writes about a ton of disparate subjects in his magazine articles and books, and no matter what he's writing about, it's always a pleasure to read.
But sometimes even I get suckered in by subjects I find fascinating. This week's case in point is Gina Welch's immersion journalism title In the Land of Believers: An Outsider's Extraordinary Journey into the Heart of the Evangelical Church. I really didn't enjoy it (although parts were very interesting, and I don't think Welch is an unskilled writer), but I'll be damned if I didn't end up reading the whole thing anyway, for one reason and one reason alone:
I am fascinated by Evangelicals, and Evangelical churches. I mean, really, I can't look away.
I don't really know why this is, although I have always tended to find all things religious, even books about atheism, vaguely interesting. And I don't even mean it in a bad way. I have known and loved many people who are members of more evangelical churches. And, as I am Catholic and very well aware of the disorder and problems in my church's house, I want to emphatically state that I don't really care much one way or the other what religion people choose to practice. But there is something I so deeply don't understand about the Evangelical experience that I just had to finish this book.
Welch, a young writer and atheist who grew up in Berkeley, also seems fascinated by Evangelicals, and she doesn't fool around in her choice of churches to infiltrate: she goes right for Jerry Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist congregation in Lynchburg, Virginia. For two years she attended the church, joined some of its classes and ministries, befriended many of its members, and even joined a mission trip to Alaska to "save souls."
As previously noted, the writing here is just fine. It was just more that I couldn't figure out Welch's tone--she seemed committed to staying an atheist, yet she also enjoyed the feeling of warmth and community and the stirring nature of the church music. She was conflicted about lying to people she was befriending, but still became quite close to some of them. She seemed genuinely very sad when Falwell died, but throughout, it quite simply seemed like she was focusing more on the church practices and trappings than on the religion behind it. I'm explaining it badly. But when I read a work of immersion journalism, I just like to have a little better idea of where the author is coming from; in Barbara Ehrenreich's classic in the genre, Nickel and Dimed, the reader is never left in any doubt that she thinks paying people non-living wages to work as maids, waitresses, and at Wal-Mart is complete bullshit. But I could never get a read on this author.
She still provided some interesting information, which showed she really did start to understand the mindset. I liked this paragraph: "Considering the Evangelicals' inclination to trust and support their Christian brethren, it makes sense that there's a strong desire to work primarily with Christian businesses...One directory, Ohio's Blue Pages, polled its users and found that the top two reasons people used it were a 'higher trust level' in Christian businesses and a desire to 'be good stewards of their finances'; payments to Christian businesses, the users assumed, circulated back to the church through tithes and offerings, keeping the money within the fold." (p. 104.)
I just chuckled at that. I typically throw away any business ads with prominent Christian symbols on them, even though I am a Christian, because I always figure if you're low enough to try and exploit God for business, where else will you be cutting corners? But, obviously, the thought process can go a different way. I was also shocked at Welch's many stories of how welcoming and accepting many strangers were of her church groups' proselytizing. Again, something I'll never understand, as my first reaction when anyone knocks on my door or talks to me about being saved is, "I'm Catholic and I LOVE being Catholic," at which point they usually can't get far enough away from me.
So, yeah. I think I'm still waiting for a slightly better or less uneven book on this subject, but if learning more about the Evangelical Christian lifestyle holds any interest for you, I'd still consider picking this one up. And I did like one of Welch's stated reasons for undertaking this project: she considers it more important to understand this lifestyle than to dismiss it. I can't really argue with that--it's as good a reason as any to write, not to mention read, nonfiction in general.
*British history, and, well, all things Brit notwithstanding.