I enjoy a good going-undercover book now and then. I’ve read a few stories by former FBI agents who posed as various bad guys in order to infiltrate certain groups, and I definitely enjoyed Kevin Roose’s book about his stint at Liberty University, The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University (Metropolitan Books, 2010). So when I learned about Gina Welch’s book, In the Land of Believers: An Outsider’s Extraordinary Journey into the Heart of the Evangelical Church (Metropolitan Books, 2010), it went directly onto my TBR. Unfortunately, while being well-written, I ended up having a lot of issues with the book.
Gina Welch, a young secular atheist Jew, was curious about Evangelical Christians, so she decided to throw herself headfirst into the deep end of life as one. Posing as someone interested in Christianity, she showed up at Jerry Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church in Virginia. She began attending church services and group meetings, then was baptized as a member. She was a church member when Jerry Falwell died; she signed up to attend a mission trip to Alaska with the sole purpose of converting people (mostly homeless people) and converted one nine-year-old girl herself. Throughout the narrative, Ms. Welch shares her insights that posing as an Evangelical Christian brought her.
I have zero problems with the writing in this book. Whatever else I thought of what happened, Ms. Welch is a talented writer who understands well how to craft a compelling narrative out of her personal lived experiences. The book as a whole is interesting and well-written and I enjoyed the experience of reading her words.
I have a lot, a LOT of issues with the ethics of this entire experiment. I’m not Christian and I have plenty of issues with a lot of Evangelical Christianity that I won’t go into, but this book really bothered me. Going undercover and showing up as someone already Christian would have been one thing and I would have had zero issues with that, but as someone who repeatedly stated that she was not able to change her views on God but yet still participated in rituals that are sacred to many, many people felt seriously icky to me. I wouldn’t be okay with someone doing this with my religion; I’m not okay with someone doing it with someone else’s. To be fair, Ms. Welch was completely respectful about everything and in all her actions, but simply participating fully in something you know isn’t meant for you, in which you don’t believe, doesn’t sit right with me. At all.
Her whole reasoning of taking on this project at all was to get to know the people behind the labels, and she did. I have no doubt that many of the people she got to know were kind and generous and friendly…especially to someone they thought was just like them, or had the potential to be just like them. Even when they learned the truth about who she was and why she was there, they were still kind to her (having been blindsided by learning that the person they’d spent the last two years getting to know, traveling with, and participating in religious activities with was writing a book in which they would feature heavily, including their reactions to this news…). She’s easily able to write off their more abhorrent views, which deeply rubbed me the wrong way; the homophobia and Islamaphobia, among other vile things, that have come out of this particular church are absolutely glossed over like they’re no big deal and haven’t ruined lives. Ms. Welch’s participation in the missionary trip to Alaska was also incredibly problematic. Personally converting a child to a religion you’ve repeatedly stated you don’t believe in is unethical, and was for me one of the worst scenes in this book. She shouldn’t have been on that trip and shouldn’t have participated in these kinds of activities. I’m frankly a bit appalled that she did.
At times, it felt like she wanted to believe, wanted to be a part of that, and if that was truly the case, then that’s perfectly fine and that could have been an entirely different book. But participating in rituals and conversion (yours and that of others) under the guise of someone who was sincere in her beliefs (while purporting not to be) is wrong, no matter what side you’re coming from. The book itself was well-written, but the activities Ms. Welch wrote about are something I can’t condone.