When Gina Welch, a writer with a secular Jewish background, decided to attend Jerry Falwell's evangelical Christian church undercover with an expose in mind, she came away surprised.
Welch, an English instructor at George Washington University, relates how her cheeky book plan began soon after she relocated to the University of Virginia from California to attend graduate school. Fascinated and somewhat repulsed by the evangelical nature of so many Virginians, Welch began visiting Thomas Road Baptist Church, the base for famed preacher Falwell. (Falwell was in control at the massive church when Welch began attending during 2005. He died, unexpectedly, in 2007.)
Welch thought through the implications of going undercover, of lying to almost everybody about her background and motives. Then she forged ahead, like a hardened investigative reporter, using the oft-stated rationale, "You have to break some eggs to make an omelette... I saw myself as an armchair anthropologist, mapping the evangelical culture; as reality TV troublemakers put it, I hadn't come to make friends."
Expecting to encounter insincerity and perhaps the corruption that seems common among celebrity evangelists, Welch quickly realized her experience would be more complicated than she anticipated. She discerned that the evangelicals she met seemed happier than so many of her secular friends and relatives.
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Before she could steel herself, Welch realized friendships of a sort had begun to blossom with church members, especially with Alice (like many individuals in the book, not her real name), another member of the church singles group that Welch attended.
Furthermore, Welch found herself actually moved by some of the sermons and hymns. During the singing of "Have Thine Own Way," "emotion began to surge inside me. It was the first instance in which I was overcome by what I eventually came to think of as Feeling X."
Welch did not know precisely how to put Feeling X into words. "The closest thing to it I'd felt was vertigo...a kind of limitlessness, a sudden permeability, a sense of connectedness with all the living things around me, with all of time and space. It was a kind of instant corporeal understanding of infinity, and if a little unsettling, it still felt good."
When the singles group traveled to Alaska hoping to convert at least 100 faraway residents to Christianity, Welch made the journey, calculating she would obtain special insights during such an intense time with the Falwell evangelists. The members of the singles group come across as spiritually sincere but deeply flawed women and men, not all that different in many ways from non-Christians, but definitely living in a world of faith that condemns homosexuality, consumption of alcohol, premarital sex, abortion and, it appears, too much schooling. (Welch feels disapproval when her undergraduate education at Yale University, graduating class of 2001, becomes known.)
Welch's mother, determinedly non-Christian, worried about whether her daughter would become trapped in a cult-like atmosphere. Eventually, Welch's mother traveled to Virginia to accompany the author to Thomas Road Baptist Church, giving birth to one of the many memorable extended scenes in the book. Welch separates from the church while staying home to write the book, then travels back to Lynchburg to reveal her undercover mission face to face, a mission that understandably made her feel queasy.
The book is a sometimes glib, sometimes searching memoir about the complicated nature of religious belief. Welch is a combination of thoughtful, funny, self-deprecating and skilled stylist. As an evangelical agnostic who sometimes attends mainstream churches, I am pleased I accompanied her on her journey - as a reader.