In the Land of Believers: An Outsider's Extraordinary Journey into the Heart of the Evangelical Churchby Gina Welch
Ever since evangelical Christians rose to national prominence, mainstream America has tracked their every move with a nervous eye. But in spite of this vigilance, our understanding hasn't gone beyond the caricatures. Aiming to find out more, Gina Welch, a young secular Jew from Berkeley, joined Jerry Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist Church. Over the course of nearly
Ever since evangelical Christians rose to national prominence, mainstream America has tracked their every move with a nervous eye. But in spite of this vigilance, our understanding hasn't gone beyond the caricatures. Aiming to find out more, 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. 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.
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THE PART OF YOU THAT’S YOU FOREVER
WHEN I BEGAN AT THOMAS ROAD IN THE FALL OF 2005, I WAS more worried about telegraphing a plausibly conservative image than I was about the scruples of telegraphing at all. It wasn’t that I had zero misgivings about going undercover—I did meditate on the wrongness of lying and the string of betrayals my project would likely leave behind—it was that I sort of managed to balance the whole messy moral equation on an unsteady ball bearing of cliché: You have to break some eggs to make an omelette. The collateral damage of going undercover, I thought, was mitigated by the possibility that the enterprise would open channels of understanding writ large between Evangelicals and the rest of us. I saw myself as an armchair anthropologist, mapping the evangelical culture; as reality TV troublemakers put it, I hadn’t come to make friends.
I defended this blithe attitude vigorously to myself, and it hardened into the carapace that allowed me to arrive in Lynchburg with confidence. I never expected to outgrow it.
INITIALLY, IT DIDN’T OCCUR to me that to become a member of Thomas Road I could just start showing up at church on Sunday, get talking to people and listen to the sermons. I didn’t know that no one needed to invite me and I didn’t have to be a Christian. In fact, this is the way many people eventually become Christians: you go and you go and you go and then one day a new panel in your brain illuminates, lighting up the once-inscrutable Gospel message, making it gleam with instant, permanent truth. I had no idea that this is part of the purpose of Sunday morning: win the lost.
I thought I had to be the subject of some kind of targeted evangelism effort to plausibly appear at church. So after doing a little research on the Thomas Road Baptist Church website, I decided to attend an evangelism event called Scaremare. It was several steps short of full-fledged church attendance, and here, I figured, I could force the epiphany that would lead me to Sunday ser vices.
Scaremare is a "hell house," a haunted house run by Christians capitalizing on Halloween’s spook appeal to draw in secular audiences, terrorize them with slasher scenes and then offer them the opportunity to repent and get saved. There are other, more notorious Christian hell houses, designed to erase the visitor’s perceived line between horror and hell, between fear and godlessness. These hell houses stage actual sin and damnation—dramatizing botched abortions using meat from butcher shops. Hell itself is often dramatized, evoked by foul odors, a heated room, and an encore performance by sinners now suffering under the cloven hooves of demons. One of the most prominent hell houses is run by Bloomfield, Colorado, pastor Keenan Roberts, who justifies the extremity this way: "Sometimes you have got to shake ’em to wake ’em."
Scaremare is the original hell house, started at Liberty University in 1972. Though it too is intended to "shake ’em awake," the enormity of its popularity in central Virginia is due to the fact that it can be enjoyed on a more basic level: the simple plea sure of being scared witless. The house opens at dusk for six nights in October, and Liberty reports around 20,000 visitors pass through each year.
I had read that in past years Liberty had staged Scaremare at horror-friendly locations like abandoned orphanages and hospitals. This year Scaremare was being held in a boarded-up brick building at the wooded edge of a soccer field. It was rumored to have been some kind of spooky abandoned tobacco storage house where someone may or may not have died at some point.
My visit to Scaremare was my second trip ever to Lynchburg. I was living two hours away, in Richmond, but before that I had lived an hour to the north in Charlottesville for three years as a graduate student and teacher. For most of that time all I knew of Lynchburg was what I had heard: it was a place with good thrift stores and lots of Jesus people. I had the opportunity to see for myself in November 2004, during the run-up to the presidential election, when I signed on to canvass for John Kerry in Lynchburg. On that trip I learned there was a dilapidated corner of town where demented-looking mutts prowled the streets uncollared and eviction notices stickered doors and windows. Almost everyone I met was going for Kerry.
This second trip was to be very different. To prepare to meet the Jesus people, I felt I had to forgo my usual tight jeans and T-shirt-with-the-neck-slashed-out and dress like somebody else. I put on boot-cut jeans and pearl earrings, a bulky sweater and a khaki jacket. I told myself I would fake it if I must, but that I would try very hard to be open to changing my life, believe the Gospel message, to be struck by the truth that Jesus died for my sins. A Charlottesville friend marveled that this was like "forcing yourself to go insane," which should have clued me in to the impossibility of plotting to believe in something I distinctly did not. But by showing up in a sort of costume—stuffing another layer of distance between myself and Christians—I was preventing the likelihood of a real awakening. I was eavesdropping, not listening.
THE NIGHT I WENT the line for Scaremare was a hardship line, the kind people wait in for something they can’t live without—three and four abreast, leading away from the house under a series of canopies and through switchbacks up a hill, and then all around the soccer field. I got there at 11 p.m. and was one of the last to enter—a police officer closed the entrance gate shortly after I passed through.
A small movie screen stood in one corner of the soccer field to distract the crowd from the long wait. They were showing M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village, to set a spooky mood, I guess. The movie was about a community of settlers living in a clearing, surrounded by a forest infested with dangerous beasts. The perimeter of their settlement is complexly booby-trapped so that any intruders will be instantly discovered. The settlers’ peasant rags and stilted diction suggest that the movie is set sometime in the eighteenth century. But at the film’s end, we find out that these pioneers are actually plain old late-twentieth-century Americans, so alienated by the lawlessness and vulgarity of modern life that they decide to wind back the clock, exiling themselves on a wild slab of private property, reinventing life without trade, without technology, and—most curious—without people of color.
I thought the movie was a pretty nifty metaphor for the self-segregation of evangelical Christians. I had read a theory that the modern evangelical mega church was meant to serve as an alternative to traditional secular communities, and that the desire for such an alternative had its genesis in the legacy of the Scopes trial, which opened up a chasm between creationists and evolutionists. After Scopes, Christians began to perceive they were being ridiculed as Philistines; add to that shame confrontation with a culture increasingly permissive of the Seven Deadlies, the theory went, and it was easy to see why Evangelicals found it necessary to build higher walls.
As I fell in line behind three sweatshirted Liberty boys, the leading lady in The Village—on a mission through the woods to get medicine for her fiancé—was shoving a beast into a ditch.
"See, that’s why I love this movie," one of the boys ahead of me in line said. "She’s so dedicated. She’s doing all this for her dude."
His friend, features shadowed under a white Liberty cap, noticed me smiling at this observation and asked if I was a Liberty student. I told him no, that I had gone to UVA for graduate school but now lived in Ri
Meet the Author
Gina Welch, a 2001 graduate of Yale University, teaches English at George Washington University. Her writing has previously appeared in Meridian, Time Out New York, and Playboy. In the Land of Believers is her first book.
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I thoroughly enjoyed Ms. Welch's personal account of her undercover journey at the Thomas Road Baptist Church. Like Ms. Welch, I have a suspicion of both organized religion as a whole and especially of persons belonging to organized religion. I particularly have a fascination for Evangelical churches. I was very keen to understand what makes Evangelical's tick. Ms. Welch's account is detailed, entertaining, reflective, and mostly fair. This is not a muckraking expose. Even though Ms. Welch was not open about her intentions, she treated the subjects of her investigation with respect and dignity, rather than caricatures of Evangelicals. While her book has not inspired me to become a member of an Evangelical church or convert to Christianity, it has definitely inspired me to be less suspicious of Evangelical Christians and more open in general to other's beliefs.