The Story of an Atheist at Thomas Road Baptist Church
Have you ever given thought to how evangelicals are viewed by those outside the church?
How many of your friends disagree with you politically? Theologically?
In the Land of Believers: An Outsider’s Extraordinary Journey into the Heart of the Evangelical Church (Metropolitan, 2010) tells the story of Gina Welch. The book gives readers a fascinating glimpse into the inner workings of Thomas Road Baptist Church (the church Jerry Falwell pastored) through the eyes of an atheistic, secularist, liberal young woman.
Welch faked a conversion experience, got baptized, and spent two years at Thomas Road. (She even participated in evangelism on a mission trip.) During this time, she kept a detailed journal of her experience, which she has now turned into a book that chronicles her journey into evangelical America.
If you’re like me, your first reaction upon hearing about a book like this is to roll your eyes and think, Oh great! An exposé of evangelicals from someone who deliberately engaged in deceptive practices in order to show up evangelical hypocrisy. That was my initial reaction. But after reading a number of reviews, I was intrigued enough to pick up the book. I was pleasantly surprised by Welch’s portrayal of evangelicals, and I was riveted by her account. While I abhor the deceit that grounds this book, I recommend that evangelicals read it for a number of reasons.
1. Unmasking Intolerant Tolerance
First, Welch clearly understands that “intolerance” is not a label that sticks only to the Religious Right. Coming from a liberal, secular background, Welch saw people within her circles speaking intolerantly of evangelicals. She realized that relying on the common stereotypes of evangelicals was leading her to an inaccurate picture:
I vacuumed up information about evangelicals, feeling it was necessary to educate myself… And yet the more I learned, the less I understood. My anthropological inquiries lit up only the most alarming fragments of the evangelical picture, turning up the contrast and blacking out the relatable qualities. They were shrill and prudish, they loved bad music and guns and NASCAR, told corny jokes and spoke in sound bites, were unshakably loyal to exposed liars, and their children were going to bully our children into prayer. They were scary, all right, but they didn’t seem quite real… I wanted to try to take them on their own terms. Who, exactly, did they think they were?” (4-5)
Welch helpfully demonstrates that ignorance, intolerance and insularity can be just as much a characteristic of the Left as it can be of the Right. I appreciate the fact that Welch recognizes this inconsistency that is common in her circles.
2. Pointing Out Evangelical Inconsistencies
Another reason why this book is helpful is because Welch has no qualms about pointing out things she didn’t quite understand. She is remarkably fair-minded in her portrayal of evangelicals, but she doesn’t shy away from pointing out our inconsistencies. Some of these are big blind spots that we ought to consider.
Here are some examples:
Is getting saved to avoid hell a good motivation for becoming a Christian or not? Thomas Road gave her a conflicting answer. Welch’s first encounter with this church was through “Scaremare” – a sort of “hell house” intended to scare you into the kingdom. But later she recalled a testimony that contradicted this sort of evangelism:
“Woody accepted the Lord when he was nine years old, but he only did it because he was afraid of going to hell. He said this mockingly, as if it was a cowardly reason, which I thought was a little odd considering the whole shake-’em-to-wake-’em conceit of Scaremare.“ (57)
Is quick conversion an evidence of success, or faithful discipleship? Listen to how she questions the “easy-believism” she sees at the church:
“How can you know if you’ve saved someone if there’s never follow-up, never counseling, never a progress report? How can you be sure the person hasn’t instantly reverted to his old ways? In other words, aren’t you simply counting the people who prayed the prayer in that instant rather than counting new Christians?… If you’re a sincere Christian you believe all it takes is that instant, as long as you’re sincere. Once you’ve prayed the sinner’s prayer, you’re good to go. God is supposed to abide in you and guide you, but really your ‘ways’ don’t matter. Your name is written forever in the Lamb’s book of life.’ It seemed evident that evangelicals were padding their rosters.” (254)
Is tithing motivated by gratitude or by a desire for financial reward? Welch writes that teaching on stewardship seemed like a way to get more from God, a sort of “card game strategy” (38).
Is there any distinction between giving to God and giving to the Church? Welch writes:
“I had always wondered how evangelicals regarded the gap between church and God. The answer, apparently, was that they didn’t worry about it. When they gave, it wasn’t that they implicitly trusted the church. They trusted God, who would see their offering and furnish their reward in heaven.” (149)
If salvation is about making a conscious choice to believe the gospel, why the emphasis on baptizing small kids? Here Welch puts her finger on an issue I have posted about before. Two hundred years ago, most Baptists didn’t baptize children under 18. Today, most Baptist congregations outside the U.S. still refrain from baptizing small children. Welch describes children’s baptism in a way that should stir up numerous discussions about the nature of true faith:
“Here at Thomas Road, they baptize a lot of children who grow up in the church. When this happens, the child is often so small that he can’t walk down into the pool – one pastor floats the child off into the arms of the baptizing pastor like a paper boat. When the child is immersed, sometimes he’s so light that he has to be pushed under. And sometimes his legs fly up out of the water. This seemed strange to me: Woody had told me they didn’t baptize babies at the church because they believed a person had to choose to get saved, had to understand what it meant to be a sinner and to have Jesus sacrifice on your behalf. How could a little child apprehend these concepts?” (82)
3. An Outsider’s View of the Evangelical Church
Here’s one more reason why you should read this book: Welch alerts us to the kind of vocabulary we employ, including the use of some words which seem to have no meaning. For example, what exactly is a “personal relationship with Jesus”? Welch writes:
“You often hear evangelicals use an inscrutable expression to describe their faith. They call it ‘a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.’ For a literal thinker like me, those words had a corporate-speak detachment from content.” (91)
“I still had a hard time holding on to an understanding of these words – a personal relationship with God. As in you and God stay up late talking? As in you and God are secret shares? I mean, I knew the rhetoric – an intimate relationship with God and a willingness to put Jesus first was the outward manifestation of real Christianity…”
“Evangelical language was a language of its own, where the rhetoric often didn’t mean what the words seemed to signify in English. Words were encoded symbols used to describe feelings evangelicals understood. Sometimes I was able to understand these feelings and crack the code on a turn of the phrase. But not so with the personal relationship with God. With this I scraped and scraped for a more direct meaning, but each layer I revealed was just another picture of a picture.” (236)
Welch also points out the subordination of the mind to the heart as a common theme in her evangelical journey:
“Brains could rationalize sin; hearts would hold us accountable. And so evangelicals acted according to what God told their spiritual organ, following whatever feelings were glowing inside them.” (123)
This anti-intellectualism is certainly a problem in many evangelical circles, although not in all.
Reading through this book, I sometimes cringed at the portrayal of evangelicals here – not because Welch’s picture was inaccurate, but because it was so on target. But I fear that my embarrassment at some of the expressions of low-culture evangelicalism is rooted in pride. So… despite my distaste for some of the typical expressions of evangelical faith, I must remember that these people are my brothers and sisters. Part of Christian maturity is recognizing that we are all a bunch of bungling believers. I’m often just as inconsistent and embarrassing as they seem to be.
I also felt torn between my distaste for Welch’s journalistic tactics and a sincere desire for her to see beyond some of the evangelical silliness to the glory of Jesus Christ. I found myself hoping for a different ending, that she might recognize her sin and her need for a Savior. I still hope and pray that may be the case.
I wonder how her story would have been altered had she chosen a different church. Evangelicals are a diverse bunch of people. What if she had gone to Redeemer Presbyterian in New York? Or Saddleback Church? Or First Baptist Dallas? How would her story have changed?
In the end, get this book. It’s well worth your time. Read it. Learn from it. Pass it on to others.