A writer with a secular Jewish background attends Jerry Falwell’s evangelical church undercover with an exposé in mind, and comes away surprised.
In her first book, Welch (English/George Washington Univ.) relates how she moved from California to Virginia to attend graduate school. Fascinated and somewhat repulsed by the evangelical nature of so many Virginians, the author began visiting Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, the base for famed preacher Falwell. (Falwell was in control at the massive church when Welch began attending. He died in 2007.) Expecting to encounter insincerity and perhaps the corruption seemingly common among celebrity evangelists, Welch quickly realized her experience would be more complicated than anticipated. She discerned that the evangelicals she met seemed happier than her secular friends and relatives. Friendships of a sort blossomed, especially with Alice (like many individuals in the book, not her real name), a member of the church singles group that Welch attended. When the singles group traveled to Alaska hoping to convert at least 100 residents to Christianity, Welch made the journey, calculating she would obtain special insights during such an intense time. The members of the 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 felt disapproval when her undergraduate education at Yale became known. The author’s mother, determinedly non-Christian, worried about whether her daughter would become trapped in a cult-like atmosphere. Eventually, her mother traveled to Virginia to accompany the author to Thomas Road, giving birth to one of the many memorable extended scenes in the book. Welch separated from the church while writing the book, then traveled back to Lynchburg to reveal her undercover mission face to face.
A sometimes glib but genuinely inquisitive memoir about the complicated nature of religious belief.