Lyz Lenz’s evangelical family moved around a lot when she was a kid, from California to Texas to Iowa to South Dakota to Minnesota. They joined a new church in each place, and Lenz and her eight siblings were homeschooled; her first experience with public education was in high school. After that, Lenz went to a Christian college, got married right after graduation, and began to feel increasingly estranged from the faith in which she had been raised. By the 2016 election—in which Lenz supported Hillary Clinton and her husband voted for Donald Trump—the gulf between Lenz, her husband, and her church seemed to echo the larger divisions in the country.
Lenz’s book God Land: A Story of Faith, Loss, and Renewal in Middle America (Indiana University Press, 2019) traces her attempts to understand how evangelical faith shapes American culture. Traveling through the Midwest, she visited congregations where appeals to “good values” obscure racism, homophobia, and xenophobia. She attended workshops where assumptions about “pastors” and “pastors’ wives” make it difficult for female clergy to define their own roles within the church. She met church leaders welcoming new immigrants into their communities. And she attended a conference devoted to “centering the voices, teaching, practices, and wisdom of people of color at the intersections of mysticism, activism, and healing.” In the following conversation, Lenz discusses the role of normative bodies in evangelical Christianity, the difficulty of shutting up, and the impossible ideal of being okay.
A theme that runs through God Land, and through your encounters with Midwestern evangelical Christianity, is that of “deviant bodies,” bodies that exist in faith but aren’t always welcome in church spaces. Bodies like yours.
I am a white heterosexual woman, [so] I think it’s important to say that in many ways my body is allowed to exist in these spaces. And yet it’s true: I’ve always been aware of how I don’t fit. When I was younger, I [got] lectured all the time by my parents and Sunday-school teachers. My parents had a pastor talk with me about my mouth, about the way that I spoke. There were Bible verses that I was made to memorize so that I could learn that the tongue is a tool of evil.
I didn’t understand what was wrong with me. I would think a thing and then I would say it, [but] then people would get upset at me and I would be so confused. I look back [at] my journals and it’s like: I’m trying so hard to be good, but every time I open my mouth people get mad. I was just…objectionable. And I couldn’t fit no matter how hard I tried. And I did try! I’m a type-A people pleaser. I want to succeed. I want people to love me and like me. I’m working on it in therapy. [Laughs.]
So, deviant bodies. There are bodies that fit the system and are rewarded, and there are bodies that don’t and [that] are shut out or made to feel inadequate. I’ve always felt empathy for people who don’t belong because of how long I’ve spent trying to bend my body and my mind to make myself more pleasing. And then finally I realized it doesn’t matter what you do; you’re objectionable because of who you are. It doesn’t matter what outfit you put on or how nicely you sit in church.
In the spaces where you grew up and those you visited while researching this book, there are standards that are supposed to be timelessly perfect. But really, they’re specific to a small culture and a brief historical moment.
There’s a difference between faith and what I call cultural Christianity, [and the latter is] influential in society in ways we still haven’t fully parsed. Cultural Christianity’s power as moral currency is something society [still uses] to define who’s good and who’s bad. For women, for people of color especially, how you look, how you dress, how you act shapes how we interpret who’s in and who’s out.
A few years ago, my deeply conservative evangelical neighbor was telling me she had gone to her pastor for help with her marriage, and he gave her this checklist for wives who wanted to stop trouble in their marriage, [with] questions like, “Are you tidying the house? Are you thanking him for working hard all day?” But also “Are you putting on makeup every day? Are you fixing your hair?” It was all these things that women are expected to grow up knowing—and if they don’t know or don’t do these things, they’re punished. It was amazing to me to see all this printed out. I actually asked her if I could keep it, but she [said], “No, I don’t want you making fun of my pastor.” And here we are anyway.
But to your point: Yes, evangelical Christianity is practiced by a relatively small number of people in America, and statistics show the numbers are dwindling. But [its] influence is huge. We see it in conversations about transgender people and public bathrooms. We see it in debates about what is acceptable for a Black football player to do as protest. We’re always trying to find ways to bend [people] to these cultural norms. The church is a very powerful tool for doing this because in the church it’s not just about people—it’s about God.
Let’s talk more about that checklist, because it’s interesting to me that things like hair and makeup, nice clothes, etc. are things women do to be pleasing to men, right? None of it is about self-expression or possessing a body that desires. But you also [have] to be pleasing without being too pleasing, right?
Isn’t that just the fucking rock and the fucking hard place? I felt this a lot in my marriage, that I was supposed to be desirable and pleasing. But not too desirable or too pleasing, because if another man notices me, [I’ve] gone too far.
The point is not finding a balance: The point is that you can never find a balance. You’re supposed to put all your time and effort and energy into meeting these impossible standards, and when you fail—and you will fail—it’s your fault and you have to try all over again. You’re so busy trying to achieve this impossible goal you don’t have time to…I don’t know, write a book, or have a career, or just sit down for a minute and rest. Anything that gets in the way of the role you’re supposed to play, you cut it out. That was definitely the case in my marriage. When we were struggling, I was saying, “Let’s figure this out,” and my husband’s solutions were, “Focus more on the relationship. Focus more on the children.”
The fundamental solution is just to let your husband be right.
A writing career, literary readings, friendships…these were scandalous desires. This is based in theology: I’ve sat through sermons where pastors have said that the whole point of Christianity is that you’re supposed to try to be like Christ, but you can’t be like Christ. You’re always striving, and you’re always failing. That was the version of faith I grew up with, [so] models of womanhood that told me the exact same thing—that I would always be failing as a wife [and] as a mom—made sense to me.
I can’t tell you how hard I cry when I’m sitting in my current church, my little ELCA [Evangelical Lutheran Church in America] church and I hear my pastor—this woman who is so smart—just calmly say something like “You don’t have to try to attain perfection; you’re already there.” And I’m like, What? I could have been listening to this my whole life?
That is one theologically legit interpretation of grace by the way. Your pastor’s theology checks out.
Right? I’ve had this conversation with so many people who grew up evangelical. They have the same experience [of realizing]: Oh wait, there are interpretations beyond “be miserable and try harder?”
What? It’s so silly and yet it’s so real. And it goes beyond evangelical culture [and becomes] American culture.
Cultural Christianity’s power as moral currency is something society [still uses] to define who’s good and who’s bad. For women, for people of color especially, how you look, how you dress, how you act shapes how we interpret who’s in and who’s out.
One of the things you address in your book is how issues we think of as personal are often systemic.
Part of our founding mythology as a nation is that the individual prevails over all. I grew up practicing a version of Christianity that’s deeply rooted in that idea. You’re failing? Try harder! It’s this closed system in which everything you do and say is about you because you—the individual—are so important. But the reality is that there are systems that are bigger than us, that use our labor to keep us occupied and keep us from looking outside ourselves.
This is one way that we isolate women and people of color especially. The way we make women and people of color do emotional labor is a way of making them keep their heads down, focused on the individual rather than looking up and seeing the systems that are keeping them trapped. That was something that I was mindful of in writing this book. It’s about me, but it’s about more than me.
In the United States, evangelical history is typically presented as white evangelical history, and you describe visiting white churches that are making space for people of color. But you also talk about decolonizing Christianity—pushing back against the idea that Christianity is inherently white.
When I was at the Mystic Soul Conference, I decided that I had to stop being a journalist [and say], “I’m going to be a person in this space and honor it through my participation rather than my observations.” I was in a body workshop where we were supposed to, like, get up and move our bodies, and I just felt silly. And the workshop leader said something like, “Your body is given to you by a creator. Connecting to your body is an act of worship.” That was something I’d never heard before, and it just floored me.
Acknowledging that idea feels like kind of stitching yourself back together, because what white supremacist, patriarchal Christianity says is, “You are objectionable. Divide yourself up and cast off the parts we don’t like.” So if your butt’s too big, hide it. If you talk too much, shut up and sit quietly. Oh also, by the way, we don’t see color, so…If you’re not white, your skin—we don’t like it, and we don’t see it. And we don’t wanna see it.
So the idea that you are created to be exactly who you are, the idea that faith means being a whole person—and that means all your loudmouthness, all your skin, all your desire—is probably the most powerful thing I could have heard. And it came at a time when I was connecting with my body and my desire in ways that I had been previously told never to do.
You’re dating now, for the first time in your adult life, and experiencing things that a lot of us went through in our teens and 20s.
[Laughs.] This is something else I talk about with my therapist. I’m 36, and I’m doing what everybody else did when they were kids. I mean, I’m not sneaking into anybody’s basement or anything. Not that I’m opposed to that! And I am struggling right now with being a whole person, being an alive human being and not having shame about it. But I got married right out of college, so I’m doing things a little ass-backward. I guess this is just the journey.
I suspect that you have a better sense of what you want—and what you don’t want—than a lot of teenagers, though.
I wish that that [were] true, but…isn’t that one of the great secrets of adulthood, that you don’t really have [things] more figured out than you did when you were young, you just care less about it all? When you’re in your 20s you’re like, “I’m so screwed up, I should figure it all out.” And then in your 30s and 40s you’re like, “I’m so screwed up, but who the fuck cares? I’m too tired to figure it out.” So I wouldn’t say that I’m some sort of wholesome connected human who’s having nothing but positive experiences now.
But that’s the flip side of the argument your pastor makes about perfection, right? She says, “Don’t worry about not being perfect, because you’re perfect just as you are.” I say, “Don’t worry about being perfect, because nobody is.”
Yes! Either way, the thing is just learning to exist as you are right now. That constant pressure to improve [is] such a big part of our society as a whole, the Protestant work ethic and all that. To just sit and say, “I’m okay,” is the most powerful thing we never let ourselves do.
What if we just let people be okay? If we let transgender people be okay, without having to justify their bodies all the time? If we let people of color be okay and not have to defend every action and every move? If we let women be okay in the way that men are allowed to be okay? Can you imagine the good sleep we would all be getting if we just let everybody be okay? It’s such a utopian idea that I can hardly get my head around it.