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March 2, 2010

Book Notes - Gina Welch ("In the Land of Believers")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

In the Land of Believers chronicles Gina Welch's immersion in Jerry Falwell's evangelical Christian church. Welch's journey over two years as an atheist secular Jew living the life of a Christian is filled with self-deprecating humor, compassion, and a compelling amount of insight into this much-maligned subculture as well as the nature of personal faith itself.

The Charlotte Observer wrote of the book:

"The book is a sometimes glib, sometimes searching memoir about the complicated nature of religious belief. Welch is a combination of thoughtful, funny, self-deprecating and a skilled stylist. As an evangelical agnostic who sometimes attends mainstream churches, I am pleased I accompanied her on her journey - as a reader."

In her own words, here is Gina Welch's Book Notes music playlist for her book, In the Land of Believers: An Outsider's Extraordinary Journey into the Heart of the Evangelical Church:

Seven Stages of Deep Cover – My Playlist for In the Land of Believers

In conversation with another writer who went undercover for his story, it occurred to me that lying to people to gain their trust so that you can write about them launches you on a specific emotional arc, not unlike grief. So here, for you, I pulled songs I was listening to while writing In the Land of Believers to soundtrack the Seven Stages of Deep Cover.

Stage One

Fail to understand anything, even basic stuff, like where you should go and when, or how to arrange your face. Fearing uncertainty hints at your true identity, speak seldom. Secrete sour panic smell.

Belle and Sebastian - "Your Cover's Blown"

Paranoia speaks in a million lightspeed voices. Have I been writing notes on this toilet for a suspiciously long time? Is that a knowing smile that dog is giving me? Does the way I'm positioning my hand on this table make me look like a liar? The disco-spy tone of this song is a perfect accompaniment to the first sneaky, shallow days undercover. Plus it's just sexy-ass entrance music

Stage Two

Make friends, who, by sculpting a human face in a foreign abstraction, make its mysteries relatable.

The Magnetic Fields - "Strange Powers"

The jangly off-beat quality of this song really suits the feeling I got once I began to follow friends into sensing the pleasures of church and unpacking the thought behind the rhetoric. It's cheerfully freaked, music for surrendering to something that works on magic you don't understand. Although Stephin Merritt might puke if he knew I was applying it here.

Stage Three

Blend in so successfully you lose track of yourself.

Kurt Carr - "Something Happens"

The Christian music I originally abhorred for its saccharine gloss began to taste delicious once I started fitting in at church. It no longer mattered whether or not something was good, art-wise, only that it moved me. Music, actually, became a big part of my guessing at the God-feeling, because when it works it gives you the sense of euphoric limitlessness.

I learned the lyrics to "Have Thine Own Way" and "Days of Elijah" and sang them as I gassed the car and paired socks. I learned it feels good to sing among thousands of people having a transcendent experience. I heard "Something Happens" in church one day and cried, like, exulting tears. That day there was this cascading harmony part that still gives me shivers when I recall it. That part's not in the Kurt Carr version, but this one's pretty good, and there's a fun call and response in it. The song is weirdly a great pair with "Strange Powers"—we don't know why it feels good, but it does, so let's just let it work!

You can find my much-beloved version of "Something Happens" on the Thomas Road Baptist Church sermon podcast from May 6, 2007, the second-to-last sermon Jerry Falwell preached before he died.

Stage Four

Feverish bouts of self-loathing set in. You wish to be exposed, if only because it means you won't be able to lie anymore.

Junior Boys - "Double Shadow"

I started to feel split in two—I was terrible for what I'd done, but there must have been good in me because I had the judgment to see what a shitty person I was. I understood why people believe we're born sinners, that we need to be rescued from ourselves. The whispery bitterness of this song really captures the scalding revulsion I felt for myself toward the end of my experience undercover.

Stage Five

Haunted by memories of lies you've told, try blowing them out of your brain with loud dance music.

LCD Soundsystem - "Time to Get Away"

Unable to keep lying, I left church and started bartending at a raunchy dance club. I made flights of Jagerbombs and something called "The Red-Headed Slut." I reflected very little. Our club once put on an amateur but totally earnest S+M night, for which the staff received lessons in dominant walking. Bumping LCD Soundsystem, UGK, The Faint, and, let's be honest, Britney Spears, quieted my conscience for a short time. It also gave me tinnitus.

Stage Six

Decide the only redemption for what you've done is in finishing the work in whose name you lied.

Dmitri Shostakovich, Symphony No. 5

Having quit bartending to get serious about my book, I searched for suitably epic orchestral music to soundtrack my bleak new life as a pariah. A respected friend, who I once horrified by admitting I didn't like classical music, recommended I look into Shostakovich and Rachmaninoff. Purists, I've read, object to Leonard Bernstein's version of this symphony, but it's the one I know and love. In the third part, the violins sweep at your heart, and the whole thing trembles just on the edge of despair. It makes darkness feel like a fine, important place to reside.

Stage Seven

Finding only partial redemption in the work, decide to come clean.

Solomon Burke - "If You Need Me"

Don't seek forgiveness, but accountability. I love the no-pressure availability of this song, and the sense Solomon Burke's just tipping his head back and singing straight up. I listened to it over and over as I finished the book, put it on repeat on my drive back down to Lynchburg to reveal the truth of what I'd done, feeling cleansed and prepared by the happy openness of it.

Bonus Tracks

Oh dear, seven's not nearly enough. Here are some other songs I was listening to during the period I was working on In the Land of Believers. Just as when you're heartbroken some songs seem to transmute your precise pain, while I was undercover these songs seemed to elevate my troubles and ecstasies to the shared experience of art.

Fugazi - "Full Disclosure"

This song oscillates between anxiety attack and refreshment, which is a neat summary of how I spent two years of my life.

TV on the Radio - "Wolf Like Me"

My heartbeat turns subordinate to the drumbeat whenever I hear this song.

Sam Cooke - "Touch the Hem of His Garment"

The story in this song makes me want to participate in the simple humility of belief.

Bruce Springsteen - "Reason to Believe"

Like he does in so many other songs, Bruce takes something twisted up in doubt and complexity and makes it seem straightforward and true.

Bettye Lavette – "You'll Never Change"

It's a kiss-off song, but I used it on myself in moments of deep self-hatred. I first heard Bettye Lavette on Fresh Air in December 2007 and the nasty, sore throat grit of her voice grew new hairs to raise on my neck. I love the new version of this song, but the 1963 version they play on the show, lordy. I'm still hunting for that.

Broken Social Scene - "Superconnected"

This is one of my favorite dance-don't-think songs.

The Notwist - "Consequence"

Wistful music for revisiting photographs from an era you'll never get back.

Bad Veins - "The Lie"

There's the impression in this song the singer's walking alone in darkness, and turns on burning lights with the building power of his bad-assness.

Leonard Cohen - "Hey That's No Way to Say Goodbye"

Edward P. Jones told a fiction class I taught last year that he listens to the Judy Collins version of this song every day. Judy Collins' voice is sort of too lovely for my ear, but when I'm troubled I listen to Leonard Cohen sing it like a chant and it brings on a trance-like calm.

The Zombies - "Hung Up On a Dream"

The sun-dappled side of nostalgia. There's the feeling Colin Blunstone is unearthing in increments what Harold Brodkey called "those astonishing chambers of lost realities"—memory.

The Clientele - "I Had to Say This"

Another song that transmits the lidless joy of confession.

Gina Welch and In the Land of Believers: An Outsider's Extraordinary Journey into the Heart of the Evangelical Church links:

the author's website
the author's blog
the author's Twitter
the book's website
excerpt from the book

Charlotte Observer review

Author Interviews with the author
Killing the Buddha interview with the author
True/Slant posts by the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (highlights of the week's comics & graphic novel releases)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (highlights of the week's book releases)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from this week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists

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