Not long after the 2016 presidential election, when America’s divides felt more gaping than ever, writer Lyz Lenz, a mother of two living in Iowa, was experiencing a more intimate division: she had just divorced her Trump-voting husband and was living with the fallout of that decision among her Christian family and friends. That separation, as well as the election, left her questioning many things, including her Christian faith and the influence of churches on the lives and politics of Midwestern America.
In her latest book, God Land: A Story of Faith, Loss, and Renewal in Middle America, Lenz seeks to answer those questions. She travels across the heartland to witness firsthand how people integrate worship into their lives, and how their spiritual practice shapes their relationships, ideologies, and basic social structures. God Land is a wonder of a book, in turns funny and heartbreaking, and gleaming with intelligent and compassionate observations. I spoke with Lenz about the communities she visited, her experience starting her own church, and how writing this book affected her own faith.
What do non-Midwesterners fundamentally misunderstand about the region, especially when it comes to its Christian communities?
The misunderstanding about faith in America is how important it is to the very fabric of our society. It informs how we build our towns and organize our lives. It also deeply impacts how we vote and how we act. Even people who are not religious are still impacted by the pull and forces and dynamics of faith in America. All too often, faith is understood as that thing some people do on Sunday, when in reality it’s a driving force of culture and community and politics.
In your book you quote Martin Luther King Jr., who said that “the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.” You go on to show, however, that for many people of color, including immigrants, that segregation is a welcome reprieve. Why is this?
Right now the default in America is white. When we use the words “normal” and “American” we specifically mean white, heteronormative, cis-gendered Christians. For immigrants, queer people, and people of color, they spend their lives everyday bending and breaking and forcing themselves into assimilating into white spaces and white ideas. This is actually what white supremacy is. So, often, Sunday, can be a reprieve. If you are a Korean immigrant and go to a Korean church, that might be the only time in the week when you are not the only Korean in the spaces you occupy. The only time you hear your language. I think, what the church needs to understand is how our ideas of normal are based on white cultural biases, so when we try to integrate, when we decolonize we do so with a better understanding of what that means.
For the book, I went to a faith conference for queer people and people of color. There were prayers and singing and liturgy, but how that manifested in the space was truly radical. The chairs were arranged differently, the podium was arranged differently. It was a complete overhaul of space and bodies and it was truly radical.
Your book is deeply researched, but also part memoir. The chapters on how and why you started your own church were fascinating–and ultimately heartbreaking. Would you share some of what you learned from this experience?
I learned that often powerful male leaders are said to have charisma, but what that means is they are just sociopaths. I learned that it’s very hard to rethink and recreate institutions of faith and that people in America have been doing it for a long time to no avail. I also learned that it’s okay to leave toxic places. And I learned that leaving is never the easy way out. I also learned that the loss of faith is truly a gaping wound and we, as a country, don’t have a good language to talk about that loss and what it means.
I loved your writing on meeting with women pastors. What challenges do they face that perhaps their male counterparts don’t?
What challenges don’t they face? Truly. Women who are pastors face issues of legitimacy. So many female pastors told me they had the congregant who will call them with a complaint and ask to talk to their husbands. Often female pastors, who are single, are sent out to ministry in rural areas, where being a single woman isn’t a marker of social status. Their lives, bodies, and legitimacy of their role are often in question. It’s a hard place to be. Religious institutions in America are one of the few places where it’s okay to discriminate based upon gender and sexuality, because it’s part of the religion. But representation is necessary and vital.
Did writing this book affect your faith?
During much of writing the book I was not attending church. And I did not know if I ever would. Maybe, I’d just be one of those people who finds their faith in the trees and some yoga and be done with it. But the research gave me so much hope. I found so many people like me who were hurting and searching and desperately using their faith as a force of good in the world. So many scrappy ministers standing up to their congregations and calling out issues like Charlottesville or the crisis at the border. So many women fighting back. So much history of people of color and queer people pushing against the strangling force of patriarchal religion. Maybe in another year or two, I’ll be balls to the wall Wiccan. But for now, the people on the margins give me so much faith.
What’s next for you?
Funny you should ask, I have a SECOND book coming out in the spring. It’s called Belabored and it’s a collection of essays about motherhood and mythology and medicine. It’s a book for all the angry uteruses out there. I’m also writing columns for my local paper and will be continuing to write profiles and other journalism for the Columbia Journalism Review and many other places. I’m a monster, but there it is.
God Land: A Story of Faith, Loss, and Renewal in Middle America
By Lyz Lenz
Indiana University Press
Published July 19, 2019
Lyz Lenz is a contributing writer for the Columbia Journalism Review. Her essays and journalism have been published in the New York Times, Buzzfeed, Washington Post, The Guardian, ESPN, Marie Claire, Mashable, Salon, and more. Her book Belabored: Tales of Myth, Medicine, and Motherhood is forthcoming from Bold Type books. She also has an essay in the anthology Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture edited by Roxane Gay. Lenz holds an MFA in creative writing from Lesley University.
Amy Brady is the Editor-in-Chief of the Chicago Review of Books and Deputy Publisher of Guernica Magazine. Her writing has appeared in Oprah, The Village Voice, Pacific Standard, The New Republic, McSweeney's, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x.