In the Land of Believers
In the Land of Believers was written around the same time as The Unlikely Disciple and I couldn’t help but wonder if Gina Welch was a little pissed off when she saw that book released 🙂
Anyway, In the Land of Believers by Gina Welch is such a great story and is incredibly well written (more on that later). Gina, an atheist Yale grad from California, is intrigued by evangelicals and quite curious about their beliefs, way of life and commitment to the church. She decides to go undercover at Jerry Falwell’s Thomas Road Church in Virginia, where she joins a singles group called EPIC and goes on a missionary trip to Alaska. At first, she is confused and disoriented, unfamiliar with the bible stories everyone else has had memorized since childhood and uncomfortable with her new squeaky clean persona.
She has created a convincing tale to explain who she is and how she got to Thomas Road. Along the way she makes wonderful, thoughtful and caring friends, begins to love “Feeling X” (more on that later) and sees constant acts of kindness and love. Of course, on the other hand, she also sees prejudice and meets close-minded people, but not nearly as much as she, or the reader, anticipated. After a few initial missteps, Gina begins to fit in quite well.
Early on, while singing in church, Gina becomes overcome with emotion, a feeling she describes as “Feeling X.” For me, this was a really interesting piece of the book. I have never been able to put my finger on this feeling but as soon as I read Gina’s words describing it, I knew exactly what she meant: “It wasn’t happiness or sorrow, adrenaline or peace; it wasn’t love or lust or misery or hate. It felt like the awakening of a new organ.” She notes that music will often “stir something inside” and I immediately thought of the movie Lean On Me when Morgan Freeman has his entire high school singing, “I’ll be your friend; I’ll help you carry on.” It’s Feeling X and it’s pretty darn powerful. For me, its not God or Church, but an overwhelming sense of belonging and comradery with others.
As part of the church group EPIC, Gina travels to Alaska, where she is tasked with “witnessing” and “evangelizing” and “saving” folks. Gina’s description of the landscape, the love-hate relationship with friends you’re traveling with and her reluctance to “save” children was so well done. While Gina sees beauty and peace in the wilderness of Alaska, her Thomas Road companions see God. Gina feels constricted by the close proximity of the group (she swears each morning under the running water of the shower) and is guilt-ridden by her encounter with a little girl who wants to be “saved,” although she can’t possibly understand the implications of her words.
I loved the story of Gina going undercover at Thomas Road, making friends, and seeing both the wonderful and alarming aspects of the evangelical church. But what made this novel so much more wonderful was the writing. Gina is an entertaining story teller (“No letter or brochure came in the mail, and no one called to welcome me to the flock. Where was my hand-delivered loaf of whole grain bread? Wasn’t I anyone’s friend in Jesus? I was a little annoyed.”), paints the most amazing pictures with her words (“Portage Glacier was a vertical white dash punctuated by the slate gray dot of the cold lake grown fat on its runoff.”) and finds unique ways to say things that ring so true (“I was exhausted by the realization that I was going to have to brush my teeth twice a day for the rest of my life.”) Reading her words made me feel so connected to the story, and to Gina herself.
I really loved this book. It’s an excellent story of how although there are “different strokes for different folks,” we’re all in this world together. Understanding and working with one another, despite our differences, would make the world a whole lot more “Feeling X”-like.
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher.