A writer with a secular Jewish background attends Jerry Falwell’s evangelical church undercover with an exposé in mind, and comes away surprised. The [church]members come across as spiritually sincere but deeply flawed women and men, not all that different in many ways from non-Christians. The author’s mother, determinedly non-Christian, worried about whether her daughter would become trapped in a cult-like atmosphere. Eventually, her mother traveled to Virginia to accompany the author to Thomas Road, giving birth to one of the many memorable extended scenes in the book. A genuinely inquisitive memoir about the complicated nature of religious belief.
Gina Welch's book about her year with the Falwell church is riveting. She is a very smart, fair and compassionate writer--and one of the most charming narrators I've encountered in a half-century of reading. She chose, with some difficulties to overcome, a way of seeing [Evangelicals] that changed her from an antagonist to a blank-slate anthropologist to someone who cared for them. And her book will get others to see them differently and care for them. And yet another thing: the book disquieted me in several good ways. Stirred up misgivings about my own prickly dismissals of others' misguidednesses; DISMISSAL not good, dismissal on aesthetic grounds worse. Don't have to give in, but for God's sake, be kinder.
I conceived of the book in 2005, when I was living in Charlottesville, VA, where I had moved for grad school. Having grown up in Berkeley I always thought of myself as pretty open-minded about other lifestyles, approving of whatever personally-designed patchwork of identity a person dreamed up. But when I moved to Virginia I found a huge blind spot in my tolerance: evangelical Christians. They embodied everything I proudly did not: their political views on all the issues I cared about were anathema to me, their cheerfulness seemed somehow calculated, and they organized their lives around a God I felt very sure did not exist. The only thing we seemed to have in common was our certainty that we were right about everything.
Before I moved to Virginia I had no reason to think I was wrong about Christians. Among secular progressives like me, Christians were the only demographic it was still okay to openly mock or fear.
But I started to meet Christians in Virginia who didn’t fit the stereotype. My network in Charlottesville included perfectly smart, pleasant graduates of Liberty University, and my boyfriend’s evangelical parents didn’t push their morals on us any harder than to ask that we consider getting married before moving in together.
Still, I couldn’t dismiss the reports about their extreme views. I had never met Christians on their own territory. I didn’t know what they were like in their churches or their hearts. And I wanted to understand them. I didn’t enjoy being intolerant. I wanted to take them on their own terms and see whether we could find common ground.
In order to know Evangelicals—to learn who they are when they don’t think they are being watched by a cynical eye—I decided to masquerade as one, and I went undercover at Jerry Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, VA.
When I started undercover, I sort of thought I could automatically fit in by showing up to services in a sweater set. Joining an orientation class and attending sermons I quickly discovered that fitting in had very little to do with how I looked: Evangelicals communicate in an entirely different language, and until I knew the mothertongue, I wasn’t going to get an intimate understanding of anyone. And I had begun by devoting my attention to the megachurch rituals instead of to the people. I was going to have to go deeper—to commit myself to attending church as the worshippers did. So I joined a ministry for singles and started coming to church two and three times a week. Incrementally, I got the kind of unguarded access that allowed me to see the complicated personalities beneath the evangelical gloss.
I began to see how the fact that they prayed more than almost any other religious people was related to their relentless self-examination. I saw the longwave point of view that made them so resiliently, authentically cheerful. And when Jerry Falwell, their pastor of 50 years, passed away unexpectedly, I found out for certain whether their program for managing grief and despair was as foolproof as they claimed.
But the most salient question I faced was the question about evangelism, of why evangelicals cared so much about getting other people to believe in their particular narrative of the universe. For one, evangelism was at the center of church life: it was the “Great Commission,” the most important work a Christian could do on earth. But it was also the main reason I’d come into their lives in the first place—their desire to spread the good news had brought them into mine first. So what was it that made them so determined to win the lost, to constantly scan for opportunities to witness to the unsaved?
It wasn’t until I joined a mission trip to Alaska, commissioned to save one hundred souls, with an emphasis on homeless people and children, that I began to understand their drive to evangelize as a kind of powerful empathy, a type of social responsibility. With other singles, I conducted street evangelism and impromptu, back alley sermons; preached about sin and salvation to children at Anchorage Baptist Temple, and talked to homeless people about Jesus Christ over beef stroganoff. And as we drove through the forest looking for moose and ate salmon dinners in North Pole, I began to understand and relate to the currents that carried them to their vantage point on the world, and in time I found myself on a plateau I never thought I’d reach with Christians: friendship.
My hope for this book is that it will provide readers with a vivid portrait of evangelical hearts and minds to eclipse the old, broad caricatures; that people like me—people who bristle at public prayer or roll their eyes when someone asks if they’ve heard the good news—might find in my book ways of accepting and connecting to evangelicals. I hope that the book creates the possibility of common ground between the religious and the secular, a notion that once seemed very far out of reach.