You Already Live in God Land—Lyz Lenz Helps You Understand It

Lenz's book of reported essay asks the hard questions about rural life and Christianity in America

Photo by James L.W.

In her book, God Land, published by the Indiana University Press, Lyz Lenz asks the hard questions about rural life and Christianity in America. Combining personal essay with interviews, Lenz explores dying small towns, booming megachurches, and experiences of people shoved out of faith communities. She maps death and revitalization not only of the faith communities she explores, but within her own search for a church (including starting one in her own house), and the end of her marriage. At times both raw and hilarious, Lenz doesn’t shy away from speaking about privilege and the often unspoken topics of gender, sexuality, and race with her interview subjects. 

Lyz Lenz and I met via video chat for a conversation about faith, the current political environment, potluck recipes, and writing a book in a month (!).

Rachel Mans McKenny: How did you know God Land would be a book, not just an essay?

Buy the book

Lyz Lenz: In the book, I talk about a church [that I had started] that had ended in July 2015. In October or November, I pitched a story to Pacific Standard and I said, “Something is happening with faith in the Midwest. Here are some political implications. Here is how it seems to be changing.” I went overboard on the research. So often I emphasize stories that take place not where I am, but this was one of the few times where I could access it. It was published right before the caucuses and it ended up getting a good response. It wasn’t until March where I got an email from Indiana University Press and they said, “We think this could be a book.” I was really lucky that when we sketched out the outline it was really vague, because my life fell apart and that got incorporated into the book. 

RMM: Talk about the structure of this book. It’s not a long book, but it arcs beautifully. How did the essays come together? 

LL: I didn’t have a lot of time to write this book, and then when I did have a moment to myself I just cried a lot. I basically had a month to write this book.

RMM: Oh my gosh!

LL: Yeah. So when I sat down to write this book, I looked at the outline that I had and wrote, wrote, wrote. I was at this residency at St. John’s, and what I did was stacked my printed material and books by chapter in the outline. Then write, then next stack and next stack. But after I got it written, it occurred to me that there was a different sort of structure, and I could see in my mind that narrative arc. Someone called them episodic chapters. Someone called them essays, but I do think they flow into each other with the rising narrative of events, and I think they came to me in that way because of the way the personal narrative was intertwined. So thematically and research wise, things are definitely out of order. I’m working on my second book now, and I need to think about how it structures together. 

RMM: You talk often about the dichotomy of the open palm and closed fist, in the weather, churches, marriages, and the Midwest in general. Do you think these opposing forces exist simultaneously or switch off?

I didn’t have a lot of time to write this book, and then when I did have a moment to myself I just cried a lot.

LL: I think they exist at the same time. It’s something that’s very much felt. Especially here, people can be very warm and inviting, but still closed off. My mother grew up in the South and still has that Southern ethos around hospitality, how you dress—a very high feminine ideal of what the world should be. I remember her frustration with moving to Minnesota because she would say, “Everyone is so nice, but nobody wants to eat dinner with you.” I remember her saying that. I think they exist together. A kindness and a closed-off-ness. Charity, but also reserve. It’s a hard tension, but it happens all the time. I think it’s a very middle-of-the-country thing. This is my theory, that the openness of the land—this might be the stupidest thing I’ve ever said—in a land that’s really open you’re always exposed, so you develop a reticence. I do often think that geography and destiny are so often intertwined. That’s why I kept coming back to that image. It’s frustrating, but it’s all around. 

RMM: I absolutely get that. Much of your writing in CJR and elsewhere holds powerful men in media accountable. Was it different discussing the men whose power was more personally tied to your life: your father, former pastors, the men who started the church with you, and your husband? Did you have to approach that differently?

LL: I didn’t start profiling men in the media until I was writing this book. I had written an article about Chris Cillizza and then I got assigned the Tucker Carlson article, and there was a moment in editing it and I had felt it doing the research for the chapter on the Baptist Minister Rural Life training that was like, no matter how good you are and no matter how well behaved you are within the system created, you’re still going to lose. 

And so I was thinking about that as I was writing the Tucker Carlson article because I didn’t want to get personal in it. In my life and in my writing, when I started being honest and raw about things, when I started writing this book, something just broke. A friend told me that, “The lesson of your life is that you can do everything right and still get it all wrong.” and I was like “Oh shit.” All of these reckonings in me started happening all around the same time.  Up until very recently I had tried to operate well within the confines that I was given. “I will be Dad’s girl and impress him, and I will be a good wife, and I will make male editors happy.” Then I realized I’d been doing this for so long and not getting anywhere and I was just angry. Fuck it.

RMM: Building on that, in your essay for Not That Bad, edited by Roxane Gay, you talk about the idea of women’s anger not finding a home and flooding the streets. Do you find yourself more comfortable in homing that anger now?

When I started being honest and raw about things, when I started writing this book, something just broke.

LL: Yeah, I do. There’s this whole narrative that’s culturally getting pushed back against that anger is bad. Like “30 Days of Facebook Thanksgiving!” It’s that wide-eyed, gritted teeth, “Everything’s Fine and Everything’s Blessed!” And you’re like, “Girl, just punch a window.” Of course, culturally there is pushback against that, but I think that people individually aren’t comfortable with being angry.

In that essay, I talk about a women’s shelter that I work for. Its founding director and I were having coffee recently and she was like, “I don’t like to get angry but I know that’s your thing.” And I said, “Shouldn’t that always be our thing if we see justice and unfairness?” If you see something sad happen, you’re allowed to be sad. I also think that creating space for anger also lessens its power over you. Anger is a great motivator to get shit done.  

RMM: Much of this book tracks your personal faith journey. You talk openly about your homeschooled, deeply conservative background and your more current struggles against institutions as you tried to find a church home. You talk about it as being in a “womb of faith,” which I like. Many women with more politically liberal views don’t often openly discuss their faith (Nicole Cliffe being a notable exception). Are you met with surprise when you discuss religion with people?

LL: More than other people being surprised, I’m always surprised by how deeply these conversations resonate with people. I was joking with a friend recently who was raised Episcopalian, and I asked, “What is that culture, healthy sex talks and your parents smoking pot with you behind the bleachers?” And she was like, “Kind of!” (laughs) 

But even these conversations resonated with her. We’re a country where 80% of people still believe in a god, and so much of our cultural narrative is, “Faith is on the decline! Nobody cares about faith anymore!” But if you look at the statistics, the overwhelming majority of Americans still think about faith, still consider themselves spiritual, and are still struggling with it on a deeply personal level. 

RMM: Which interview experiences from the book stand out the most to you today?

The overwhelming majority of Americans still think about faith, and are still struggling with it on a deeply personal level. 

LL: Angela Harrington, from the “Church in the Air” chapter. I think about what a wonderful experience it was to sit down with this woman and have her open her whole life for me and see her struggle. 

And the week with the Baptist ministers was deeply impactful, and it’s a week I think about a lot.

RMM: That chapter. I was riveted. I was so glad you got your own hotel room, because I could not imagine not having my own space to retire to.

LL: I needed a place to recover! I knew the Baptist ministers were not going to be happy with the chapter. I knew while I was there they wouldn’t be happy with the chapter, because they weren’t happy with me while I was there. I started to do extra-fact checking, and so I emailed them. I sent them sections of the chapter, and the email I got in response was very long and very detailed about all the ways I had erred. They ended by saying, “You’re the reason America is divided.” And I felt very bad until I told one of my writer friends, and she said, “Don’t flatter yourself and congratulations. Now you know you did it right.”

RMM: One thing I really appreciated that you addressed was the “pink ghetto” in church communities, which isolate women into nursery positions rather than leadership. In your new church, how do they foster women’s leadership?

LL: Women are leaders. That’s the thing. Less than 1% of head pastors across America are women. Our head pastor is a woman, Pastor Ritva, who has all the best lines in the book. You only have to foster women’s leadership if men are at the head pushing down. Let women be leaders. They already know how to do it. It shouldn’t be so radical.

RMM: No, you’re talking to a Catholic, so I get it. 

Let women be leaders. They already know how to do it. It shouldn’t be so radical.

LL: But then the nuns are great, and there’s that whole radical arm of the Catholic faith that I love. Talk about interviews, this didn’t make it into the book but I went to a rural Catholic life retreat training Catholic ministers. I went in expecting it to be the Catholic version of the Baptist retreat. It wasn’t. They kind of just chilled and talked about Catholicism and we had wine and cheese every night. It was the greatest thing, but then it didn’t give me material. They were just Catholics. “I guess we’ll start some more Bible studies! More wine?”

RMM: What influences do you see in your writing lately, from other journalists, fiction writers, or poets?

LL: I don’t think it’s a surprise that I read Taffy Akner a lot. Fleishman is in Trouble. I’ve been reading her for a long time. She got started writing just a lot of personal essays. I think the way her pieces are structured deeply influences me. I’ve sat down and drawn maps of how she structures her articles. Her writing is a masterclass in how to intertwine research and the persona.

I love Jia Tolentino. She was an early editor of mine and she writes for the New Yorker. She has a book coming out. Her sentence structure is something I think about a lot. How she manages to be deeply funny and thoughtful at the same time. 

I read Kerry Howley a lot. It’s amazing what she does with non-fiction. She does a lot of fiction moves with nonfiction and uses structure to break open narrative.

Dumbest thing: I read Milan Kundera all the goddamn time. I used to be like, “I want to write fiction like Kundera.” I had a writing teacher one time who told me, “You know, sometimes the problem is if you love somebody too much then all of your writing ends up being a cheap imitation of them.” Which was not a very nice way to tell me to knock my shit off. 

RMM: In context of the 2020 Elections, do you think candidates have their own version of “rural education” that they try to do on the campaign trail? 

LL: Yeah, like eating an ear of corn at the State Fair.

RMM: Right? Does our political system uphold some of the fallacy of rural-morality, or as you put it, “the power of the Midwest is the sanctifying myth of America”?

‘The struggle of rural America’ gets deified in the political process.

LL: You can just see them feeding into it. You come to Iowa, you roll up your sleeves, you eat some corn, you talk about Casey’s Pizza. The word “folks.” It’s this superficial pandering which lacks an in-depth understanding. If you had a deep understanding of what’s going on with, like, ethanol subsidies, you would say stuff that would piss people off here. “The struggle of rural America” gets deified in the political process. We get talked at the time, but I wish they would just listen. I also do like it that people come here and that they have to pay attention. 

RMM: What would you have the candidates take from your book in thinking about their approaches to religious communities in the Midwest?

LL: The biggest picture of the book is: how do you come together? Is it possible? Sometimes it’s not, at all, and that’s okay. Sometimes it is and it’s beautiful. If, God bless, they read the book, I would want them to understand the difference between actual religion and cultural Christianity. That understanding, and the power of moral capital. Democrats will run on policies and positions that would make rural life better, but they fail to understand the pull of moral capital that makes some of their positions completely untenable. And that moral capital explains why a farmer that had his best years under Obama would willingly vote for Donald Trump, knowing that it would probably fuck him over. And it did fuck him over, and it’s only going to get worse and they know it. But they voted for him, and the reason why is the power of moral capital. What is seen as good and bad. I hope there is a vision of community in my book, but I don’t have practical how-to steps. It is possible to be a radically inclusive place and what that means, and politicians need that just as much as churches.

RMM: Last question. In your piece for Glamour, which I love, you talk about never cooking for a man again. But as one Midwestern lady to another, I have to ask, what is your go-to potluck recipe?

LL: I love cheesy potatoes, but with potato chips on top so they become party potatoes. My ex-mother-in-law gave me the blandest recipe and then I slut it up. It’s sour cream, cream of chicken soup mixed with hashbrowns and cheddar cheese. That’s the basic level. I put bacon in them, green onions or chives, top it off with sour cream and onion potato chips on top. Mix up the cheeses and play around with it so that it’s that molten pool of cheesy-potato goodness. It’s standard. Everybody loves it.

When I first moved to Iowa, I would try these crazy recipes from Ina Garten. “I made this tuna ahi whatever” and people wouldn’t even try it. I remember this watermelon, feta, and mint salad at a church potluck and literally nobody would touch it. Then I learned you can’t do that. Cheesy potatoes. I do a good deviled egg. Mac and cheese. Bring it, and nobody gets hurt.

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