Susan Wise Bauer

Undercover Among the Evangelicals

They're nice, but they don't know how to think.

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The answer, predictably, is no. "I preferred analysis, reason, and the satisfying realism of hard truths," she concludes, heading back towards her secular life. But she's fairly sure that, one day, her evangelical friends will wipe the grease off their fingers and follow her. Chronicling a heated discussion about the emergent church among her Thomas Road friends, she predicts that resistance to the movement will inevitably crumble in time: "The emerging church was the future for born-agains, as it acknowledged that Christians needed to mold to the shape of the world--not the other way around. Signs of hope were everywhere."

That's a staggeringly stupid thing for anyone who claims to understand evangelicalism to write, but Welch is unable to believe that people she likes could really hold well-thought-out, strongly held beliefs that she finds repellent. ("If somehow Evangelicals were forced to co-exist with gay people," she suggests brightly, "Evangelicals would eventually learn that their ideas about gayness were wrong.") Ultimately, Welch is able to love evangelicals because she finds their identity in their culture, which spares her from having to cope with stubborn things like belief.

At the end of In the Land of Believers, Welch quotes a commencement address by David Foster Wallace, in which Wallace recommends that his listeners cultivate peace with others by choosing to see "the mystical oneness of all things deep down …. Not that the mystical stuff is true. The only thing that's capital-T true is that you get to decide how you're gonna try to see it." This, Welch explains, became "the basis of my love for Evangelicals: I was going to choose to see the mystical oneness. And once I started to see it that way, loving them wasn't very hard to do." Loving them while grappling with the reality of their beliefs might be a little bit harder.

Despite its many failings, In the Land of Believers demonstrates just how illusory our peace with the secular world can be. I don't wear my pants too low (in part because I give the bottomless fries a miss) or speak with a banjo twang; I rack up my share of frequent-flyer miles, wear black when I'm in New York, and leave decent tips. In my professional world, I go undercover just as effectively as Welch did at Thomas Road. The people I work with know I'm a Christian, but I don't look blue-collar Virginia.

Welch's book reminds me that this probably allows my colleagues to forget about the awkward beliefs I hold. If I spoke of the Trinity, of Christ, of sin and atonement—and if they listened—I suspect that the result would not be love and mystical acceptance. It would be appalled surprise, followed by rapid retreat.

Susan Wise Bauer is the author most recently of The History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade(Norton), the second installment in a projected four-volume history of the world.

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