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In the Land of Believers

June 26, 2010

A few months back I received the first freebie I’ve gotten as a blogger: a copy of Gina Welch’s In the Land of Believers: An Outsider’s Extraordinary Journey into the Heart of the Evangelical Church (Metropolitan Books, 2010). I promised I would review it, although I’ve been slow to follow through.

The book is written by a young woman, recently graduated from Yale U, who decides to go “undercover” at Jerry Falwell’s church. She begins attending, pretends to convert (she’s actually an atheist), becomes involved in the church programs, and writes a tell-all book about what takes place on the “inside.” Here’s some of the blurb from the publisher’s website:

Who are evangelicals, really? What are they like in private, and what do they want? Is it possible that beneath the differences in culture and language, church and party, we might share with them some common purpose?

To find out, Gina Welch, a young secular Jew from Berkeley, joined Jerry Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church. Over the course of nearly two years, Welch immersed herself in the life and language of the devout: she learned to interpret the world like an evangelical, weathered the death of Falwell, and embarked on a mission trip to Alaska intended to save one hundred souls. Alive to the meaning behind the music and the mind behind the slogans, Welch recognized the allure of evangelicalism, even for the godless, realizing that the congregation met needs and answered questions she didn’t know she had.

What emerges is a riveting account of a skeptic’s transformation from uninformed cynicism to compassionate understanding, and a rare view of how evangelicals see themselves.

I’m only about halfway through, but here are my thoughts so far:

  1. Anthropologists will likely have serious ethical problems with her method; doing fieldwork without letting one’s subjects know one is studying them is a serious academic offense. Of course, she’s writing as a journalist rather than a scholar, but still. I’m not an anthropologist, and I don’t do fieldwork or ethnography, so I’ll leave this matter to others. I just thought I’d raise the issue.
  2. Although I’m reading it like she’s an anthropologist, that’s sort of stupid for me to do. She talks a lot about her own feelings along the way—both feelings about what she’s doing and her feelings that the people at Falwell’s church provoke in her—which is not very scholarly. But of course she’s not trying to be a scholar, so duh. There’s a mismatch between my expectations as a reader and what Welch is delivering, but that’s due primarily to my own misguided expectations.
  3. She offers a relatively sympathetic view of evangelicals, which is nice. Of course this is to be expected—it’s hard to demonize people one gets to know personally. She paints a picture of them where they appear as nice, caring, actual human beings.
  4. Also, her picture fits well with my experience. As a former evangelical, I had a lot of “oh yeah, I remember that!” moments.
  5. Although I’ve found the book to be entertaining, it is unscholarly in its evaluation of what’s going on in the community. It’s exactly the sort of take on evangelicals one would expect from a fan of Richard Dawkins who is simultaneously trying to be sympathetic toward evangelicals. Her interpretive framework is similar to the one employed by many of my undergraduate students. Welch would have been served by internalizing some sociological or anthropological theories of religion prior to writing the book; had she done so she might not have been so confused by some of what she saw. (I’ll provide an example in my next post.)
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4 Comments leave one →
  1. June 27, 2010 5:04 pm

    Just on points 1. and 2. Talking about “feelings” is integral to contemporary social scientific research like this. Less so in the very quantitative stuff that dominates sociology of religion in North America, but a qualitative project like this one that lacked critical reflection would be seen as, at best, very old fashioned.

    Also, it’s not necessarily out of the question for social scientists to engage in covert observations. I’ve not read the book – no one never sends me free stuff – but the issue would be the extent of the relationships she develops, if she does develop relationships at all. It’s one thing to sit in the back of the church observing what goes on and then nip off to the shitter to write some field notes, but deliberately lying to people’s faces for extended periods of time is a different matter. There’s a name for that sort of experiment. Marriage.

    Thank you! I’ll be here all week…

  2. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    June 27, 2010 5:15 pm

    Talking about feelings is not all bad—what I should say is that it almost turns into a soap opera: will she “out” herself or not? will she feel better or worse when she does? how will they respond? is Alice gonna be mad?!

  3. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    June 27, 2010 5:16 pm

    She does develop very close personal relationships with people, lying to them all the while …

  4. June 28, 2010 3:57 am

    Yeah see that sort of situation wouldn’t make it past any half-awake ethics board; for the emotional health of the researcher as much as anything.

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