In keeping with our recent discussion of Imaginary Jesus and its look into the world of American evangelicalism, I thought it would be fitting to note Andy Holt’s review of In the Land of Believers: An Outsider’s Extraordinary Journey into the Heart of the Evangelical Church. In this book, the author, Gina Welch, pretends to become a Christian so that she can explore and experience what it’s like to be an evangelical Christian in Virginia. In the process she comes to appreciate the sincerity and strength of conviction evidenced by these believers, while remaining spiritually uncommitted.
Andy summarizes what he likes about the book as follows:
The most rewarding development of her journey was her newfound understanding of evangelism. She had always thought of evangelism as an exercise of religious imperialism designed to subdue every soul in the world and force them to believe precisely the way the evangelist believes. For her, and for many liberals, it is solely about power. But she came to understand that evangelism is rooted in empathy. Because evangelicals sincerely believe people are lost and doomed to hell without Jesus, evangelism is an exercise of love and hopeful rescue from the worst fate that could befall a person. After watching her friend Alice led a couple to the Lord in Alaska, Gina writes, “Giddy tears were filling my eyes. …I was wired with delight, and I wasn’t even a believer. But one didn’t have to believe to see that this was indeed the birthing room, and if it wasn’t the birthing room of God in that moment, it seemed to be the birthing room of fresh possibility.” (244)
The review concludes by asking the obvious questions about the ethics involved in deceiving people like this just so you can get an apparently unaffected view of their spiritual lives. I also found myself wondering about the issue of accuracy and bias in a work like this. In some ways, I sure that the author managed to present a more “accurate” picture than a committed evangelical would have. Being an “outsider” like this would have allowed Welch to see things from a fresh perspective, uncolored by her earlier experiences with similar people/churches.
But, I also believe that many aspects of the church simply cannot be objectively observed like this. Insofar as we see the church as living a graced existence grounded in its union with Christ through the power of the Spirit, there will always be more about the church than can be captured through sociological analyses like this.
So, in many ways, books like this help demonstrate the complicated nature of the church. As a creaturely entity, the church can and should be observed and assessed through sociological analysis. But, as a divine reality, there must always be more to the story. Sociology cannot have the last, or even the first, word on the subject.