Book Review: ‘God Land: A Story of Faith, Loss, and Renewal in Middle America’ by Lyz Lenz

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Reading: Lyz Lenz, God Land

Prairie Lights — Friday, Sept. 6 at 7 p.m.

Reading: Lyz Lenz, God Land

Next Page Books — Thursday, Aug. 8 at 7 p.m.

God Land: A Story of Faith, Loss, and Renewal in Middle America

Lyz Lenz — Indiana University Press

I heard about Lyz Lenz’s newest book, God Land: A Story of Faith, Loss, and Renewal in Middle America (out Aug. 1), a few months ago and had been eager to read it, as it brought together almost all of my personal and professional interests: art, religion, community, Iowa, theology, space, place, stories. It is an audacious attempt to synthesize and personalize the range of issues confronting 21st-century Americans, and Lenz does this with humor, honesty and aplomb.

The book is a nonfiction account of the fragmentation of her personal and the country’s political lives, investigated through and situated on the fault line of American Christianity — especially in its white, often upper-middle class manifestations. Throughout, Lenz — perhaps best known through her work on the Rumpus, although a longtime journalist beyond that — provides readers with hefty doses of wit and insight that allow the experience of the book to be both meaningful and pleasurable.

Lenz’s approach is masterful. She provides an understanding of Midwestern culture throughout the book, whether documenting her experience of game day at Kinnick, starting a church, visiting a dead church or finding a moment of resurrection in a local congregation. Two things serve as throughlines that connect these disparate accounts: One is a diagnosis of how much privilege blinds people from asking questions anchored in the Christianity that American churches still claim to represent. The other is an appreciation of Midwestern cuisine and décor.

God Land offers a wise perspective on a demographic that continues to expand: those raised in Christian churches, those going through divorce — and especially those who live between them. It works as, perhaps because it is, a biography: a singular, nonfiction account of one human life. But it definitely helps that this particular human life has an incredible mind and aptitude for description — one that clearly and concisely describes the failings of the world around her from the perspective of one coming to recognize that the structures that she had wanted to be true were ones that she not only had long ago outgrown, but also were responsible for much of the ongoing social injustice.

That said, the account is balanced — she is as quick to point out her own complicit silences as those of others, and to praise the compassion of those whose politics and practices she may otherwise find problematic.

I’ve reviewed plenty contemporary accounts of the “nones” (the religiously unaffiliated) in my capacity as an agnostic theologian. God Land holds its own as a theological criticism of “traditional” Christianity and as a sociological analysis of the rise of the “nones” that has been a growing part of academic research in religious studies. I also have spent a substantial amount of time studying the relationship of space and story as they provide the backdrop for the practice of politics and religion: Lenz’s account puts such ideas into practice.

The ethnographic approach that Lenz uses, building on her background as a journalist, provides far more life and actuality than the statistics and top-down approach. While one can read and forget any number of scholarly works, Lenz’s informed and informative account of the tensions at the heart of the “values” of Middle America can be remembered and lived.

It also works experientially, from a reader’s point of view. I can identify with Lenz’s evangelical upbringing, with her longing for community, with her need to run, with her search for an authentic Christianity, with her divorce, with her distrust of power structures. I cannot identify with the danger of occupying marginalized positions unlike my own. But I can believe her, and I can accept the lesson of my ignorance with gratitude. My exclusion from the book based on my body is a gracious invitation to enter a community of those who have suffered far more grievous harms at the hands of men like myself.

If God Land is unafraid and unflinching in its portrayal of the problematic ways that Middle America combines religion, politics, economics, race and misogyny, then it is equally bold in suggesting an alternative. Throughout, Lenz shows the fearlessness of faith: wishing to believe that others will mean what they say, that perhaps there is a point in religion, that she can find a community that avoids the twin perils of nostalgia and utopia. She shares a space with elderly women and farming men, with Muslim friends and conservative family.

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If the end of the book is not quite as clever as the beginning, this is a strength, as Lenz’s passionate compassion becomes clarified. And if you are not as compelled by the whole as I was, there’s a decent chance that, like any good church potluck, you will find something within it to enjoy. I hope that the book gains the audience that it deserves, and that the audiences who need to read it — those who are comfortable with the unthinking privilege that fueled the problems plaguing the status quo — find it to be a worthy mirror on which to reflect.

A shorter version of this article was originally published in Little Village issue 267.

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