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How it feels to be the most popular attraction at the zoo

  • Dec 5, 2009
Kevin Roose's The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University has apparently started a sub-genre of "Ivy League impostors infiltrating Jerry Falwell." As you will know if you read my review of Roose's interesting book, I have a vested interest in Liberty University, so when this became available for review through Amazon Vine I jumped at the chance.

These journeys through Liberty University and Thomas Road Baptist Church (both undertaken explicitly for publication in each case and overlapping in time; perhaps Roose and Welch should meet and compare notes) prove the point Christians have been making the last couple of decades that America is in every way now a secular, post-Christian nation. While founded explicitly on Christian principles, and populated for most of its history by an overwhelming majority who either identified themselves as Christian or understood and accepted Christian tenants of political, social, and familial organization, clearly America is no longer as it was. It is only in this context that these undercover field trips into the wilds of Christianity by the Ivy League make sense, much like the first Westerners to make the Haj to Mecca in the 18th and 19th centuries or tourists today visiting the Amish country in Lancaster, PA. The minority culture doesn't need to infiltrate the majority culture, it is surrounded and immersed in it and in fact draws some of its strength from its reasoned and explicit separatism. Not only has Christianity become a minority, it is now as much an oddity to mainstream America as the horse-and-buggy Amish.

There is one key difference between Roose and Welch: while not an active believer, Roose came to Liberty from a Quaker background so had some conversation with Christian texts and viewpoints, while Welch is a nonpracticing Jew and avowed and practicing atheist of the God-delusion denomination since childhood. She is not only uneducated about Christian texts, principles, and beliefs, but actively opposed to anything attributed to Christians.

How does it feel to be the most popular attraction at the zoo? This is the emotion I struggled with as I read Welch (and Roose's) book. At times I teetered between anger and incredulity, especially when Welch states, with apparent sincerity, after a year of misrepresentation, dissembling, and outright lies in her closest personal relationships:

"If we don't love Evangelicals, if we don't make an effort to understand and accept them, to eat the fish even as it wriggles in our hands, we'll always be each others' nemeses. We'll always be trying to drown each other out. Threaten them, ridicule them, celebrate their humiliations, and you create a toxic dump, fertile ground for a ferocious adversary to rise, again and again. But listen to them, include them in the public conversation, understand the sentiments behind their convictions, and you invent the possibility of kinship."

Misrepresentation, dissembling, and outright lies hardly seem a solid foundation for understanding, acceptance, and kinship.

And these were Welch's closest personal relationships, as she admits after she broke away from Thomas Road after her year in Darkest Evangelicalism, suffering a temporary crisis of conscience and periodic nightmares over her lost friendships and mentors. Perhaps this is a fundamental difference between Christians and atheists--atheists are apparently able to base personal relationships on despicable lies, while the Christians who were most hurt by her lies responded with love and forgiveness when they learned the truth.

There is another essential difference between Roose's semester at Liberty, and Welch's year at Thomas Road that puts Welch's effort in a less favorable light--the relationship of a student with a university, while it may have personal, cultural, political, and spiritual components (one's deepest emotional allegiances in these areas are often formed during the college years) is at core an economic one--it is an exchange of money for education. While he wasn't honest with himself, Roose obtained the education he paid for and hurt himself more than anyone else with his false pretenses.

On the other hand, the relationship of a member to a church is a personal relationship, an exchange of personal, cultural, political, and spiritual valued in honesty, integrity and trust--the standard rate of exchange of personal relationships. Welch's kinship was a false relationship paid for with counterfeit money that hurt not only herself but those she spent a year befriending with actively and intentionally misleading lies. As Welch's best friend at church said, when told by Welch in preparation for publication of this book that Welch tried to lie as little as possible, "you lied about the most important stuff." But she forgave and remained Welch's friend, a testimony to the power of forgiveness and Christian principles in action.

In all this unburdening about the problem with the premise at the core of Welch's book, I have said little about the quality of the book itself. It is well written, interesting to read, and often paints Christians in flattering terms, much like Roose's book (we are, after all, the most popular attraction at the zoo for a reason). Welch makes the people we meet interesting and three dimensional and makes no attempt to whitewash her own thought processes as she finds herself enjoying the "feeling X" of Christianity while still disbelieving the theology and truth of it.

But, like a long calculation that is wrong because all the inputs except the first is correct, I can applaud the effort but ultimately I cannot rate it more than three stars. Welch's willingness to lie and defraud so many people for so long displays a disrespect for her subjects such as that that is now widely recognized and excoriated in those earlier Westerrn accounts of the Haj and in boorish tourists trampling the Amish tradition in Lancaster, PA. Until Christians are accorded this respect by Welch and others of her faith, I cannot endorse this book.

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A secular Jew raised by a single mother in Berkeley, Welch became an outsider in a strange land when in 2002 she moved for graduate school to the heart of the Bible Belt near Jerry Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia. She saw everything around her ironically, treated the South “as a joke” and her time there “as a kind of elaborate performance art project.” Then something miraculous happened. The jaded Californian began to like Virginia. She’d arrived to a Virginia on the verge of a demographic shift as a new, progressive population burgeoned. But she also grew to like the Old South—its manners, easygoing nature, and friendliness. She got serious, cast aside her cynicism, and sought to know her evangelical neighbors “as people.” Why did they think as they did? Why were they so determined “to convert non-Christian America?” She went “undercover” to attend Falwell’s church. The resultant portrayal of evangelicals as she sees them and of how she transcended the popular media caricatures of them constitute an insightful, frequently funny book. --June Sawyers
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ISBN-10: 0805083375
ISBN-13: 978-0805083378
Author: Gina Welch
Genre: Religion & Spirituality
Publisher: Metropolitan Books
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