Good God, What Happened to the Heartland?: Laughing and Lamenting with Lyz Lenz

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Photo by Ahna Ziegler on Unsplash

Lyz Lenz is so funny sometimes that you can forget that she has written a hard book. As, for instance, when she’s surveying the physical layout of cookie-cutter megachurches and says that “the decor looks like a Hobby Lobby vomited all over the place.” (115) That’s the vibrant Lyz that you want giving you the tour. But there’s a whole lot more going on in God Land: A Story of Faith, Loss, and Renewal in Middle America and the angry, grieving, defiant Lyz needs to tell the rest of this story. You’ll want to hear it.

Lenz has some East Coast bona fides, having been published in the New York Times, Washington Post, and the Columbia Journalism Review, but her home is in the Midwest. In 2016 she was a married, church-going, mother of two living in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Though she lamented the dearth of Starbucks outlets, pre-Trump Lyz might have bought in to the prevailing notion that she lived in a place that embodied the wholesomeness of the American ideal. 

In our resistance to representation we are believed to be so basically normal. So overwhelmingly America. That’s what you are told when you ask a person in Middle America to describe it here—once you get past the clichés of good schools and “it’s a good place to live,” Middle America’s most notable quality is its presumed normality. (3)

Then came the election and nothing seemed normal anymore. Lenz looked around at her home with new eyes. She felt invisible in her own church. Her marriage fell apart. God? Land? What were these things now?

In some ways, Lenz’s book fits into the emerging genre that might be titled Good God, What Happened to Rural America? J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy got the early attention in this mini-boom, but we have chronicled other stellar contributions here on Heartlands from the sociological (Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land & Robert Wuthnow’s The Left Behind) to the personal (Sarah Smarsh’s Heartland & Scott McClanahan’s Crapalachia).

God Land does go after the broad portrait of contemporary rural America, though with a decidedly faith-oriented bent. Sitting in a class run by the Rural Home Missionary Association (RHMA), Lenz reflects on the definition of rural. “The US government defines rural as anything ‘not urban.’ It’s a definition already in a negative, a delineation inside of an absence.” (97)

The RHMA leaders define it more broadly as “any place with low population volume, low population density, extractive industry, and removal from goods and services…Rural is not just a census definition, it’s a way of life. It’s a mind-set that arises from the land. It’s a way of thinking that is catalyzed by isolation and open spaces, by want, scarcity, nature, and family.” (98)

But Lenz doesn’t find herself described by the monolithic, conservative picture described by the RHMA. She’s a feminist and a Christian progressive who is shocked by the idea that preachers might pack a gun while preaching in order to fit in with the prevailing “gun culture,” as Barney Wells, one of the leaders, suggests.

Earlier in the day, Barney Wells had told us all that we needed to give up to blend in with rural America. We must die to our sinful selves, was the message. We must assimilate to the culture. (105)

But Lyz knows that the culture is not uniform. Rural is plural, after all. And the myth of Heartlands homogeneity, fed by the cult of nostalgia, “is a comfort only for those for whom it is built. For the rest of us,” fiery Lyz says, “it is destabilizing, not unlike trying to hide a beach ball under the water with your body…How good is a place, how big are its horizons, if there isn’t room for everyone?” (106)

So it’s no surprise when the book ends up on the most liturgically-appropriate day of the Christian year—the vigil of Holy Saturday. In the dark of an evening church service with her children awaiting the word of Easter resurrection, spiritually-hungering Lyz joins a Lutheran Church. 

By the time we get here she has spent time with pastors, particularly women pastors, who have lived with the dissonance of representing and holding values that are often despised by the communities they serve. “They are outsiders…and as such they are treated with an ambivalent mix of hospitality and isolation.” (50) Lenz feels that pain, too.

Lyz Lenz
Lyz Lenz

Before the night of waiting, she has tried to start a church with her then-husband and some friends. She has shared stories with diminished congregations in small frame churches eating jello salads and Special K bars (SO many Special K bars) as they recall what they once were. She has attended the secular manifestations of a masculine religion at an Iowa football tailgate. She has chronicled new church expressions, like a church of immigrants in Minnesota, a conference of spiritual wanderers in Chicago, and an online gathering of Christian Women called ‘Broken, Beautiful and Bold.’ She has seen church leaders glorify conservative politics, demonize Muslims, and marginalize LGBTQ members. She has spoken up for what she needs and gleaned silence, anger, and divorce.

What I’m saying is, Lyz has known a lot of loss. And she sees it in the land and the church as well.

“Holy Saturday forces us to sit with a corpse,” she says. “When something is dying, often it’s better just to guide its passage. As people of faith, we don’t believe that death is an end. Death just means we return to what we are meant to be.” (139, 142)

There’s a lot of grieving going on in the Heartlands today. Here among the darkened Holy Saturday pews of the rural church, it’s good to know that there are other smart, savvy seekers like Lenz waiting faithfully, if impatiently, for the new word to arise. 

“I don’t believe in bridges anymore,” Lenz says. “I don’t even believe in fixing all broken things. Instead, what I believe is that we need to stare deep into the darkness of loss and see the divine.” (5)

Amen.

Indiana University Press provided me with an advance reading copy of this book.

—Alex Joyner

3 Comments

  1. A thought-provoking look at more than just the traditional “heartland,” this book and your analysis depict a real crisis in faith and traditional–“ole-time”– religion. The modern political and ecological landscape has accelerated the change people have often decried–but often longed for. Thanks!

    Steve Doan

    Liked by 1 person

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