The book is an examination of changes in religion and politics and the way these changes have played out in towns and cities across the Midwest in the wake of the 2016 election. It is at once a deeply personal account of Lenz’s own journey as well as a broader commentary on religion and politics in the United States as a whole.
I enjoyed the book tremendously, especially as someone who grew up in the Midwest and has since moved away. So much of the world she describes is achingly familiar, even though I haven’t lived in the Midwest in nearly a decade. For a book so brief, there are many poignant moments. Lenz uses her experience living and traveling in the Midwest to dig into deeper issues like immigration, gender, the urban/rural divide, and the intersections of these issues with religion.
To examine the impact of immigration, for example, Lenz visited a church in Minnesota, shaped by an influx of Asian and Hispanic immigrants since the 1970s. In the chapter, Lenz traces the ways the community navigated these demographic shifts, and challenges notions that the Midwest is a culturally and ethnically homogenous place. This congregation began as a Dutch Reformed Church, slowly changing over time as more and more immigrants arrived in the surrounding areas. Now it is home to a thriving church community with services each Sunday in multiple languages. Most of the white families have left, though a few have remained committed members of the congregation. As Lenz describes in the chapter, these changes haven’t always been easy but the church community has adapted. It’s in this act that Lenz finds hope–or at least, she says, “a desire to be better, to do better.”
Lenz paints a less rosy picture of other aspects of the Midwest. One of my favorite chapters featured the story of Lenz’s attendance at a training seminar for pastors preparing to work in rural areas. The program was meant to familiarize them with rural life and the unique problems facing people living in these areas. For Lenz, however, the program highlighted more problematic aspects of life in the Midwest. While the program emphasized rural values, it seemed to do so by demeaning urban values, reinforcing stereotypes, and ostracizing the “others” who lived in urban areas.
The question Lenz kept returning to in the chapter was “Can this class be taught in reverse?” Could there be a course where rural people learned about urban life and the people who lived in urban areas? From what Lenz described, her question was generally either rebuffed or ignored. One pastor’s wife even responded by informing Lenz that “City values are sinful.” It’s a stark contrast to the thriving and welcoming church community Lenz had visited in Minnesota. Lenz uses this episode to confront the complexities and contradictions of Middle America.
Lenz follows these threads and others wherever they take her in what turns out to be a fascinating survey of the religious and political landscape of the Midwest in the last few years. And in traversing this landscape, Lenz digs in to the deeper issues facing many Americans today. Her overarching message is that the Midwest defies easy characterization and that, like many other parts of the country, it is becoming increasingly diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, politics, and religion.
One of my biggest takeaways was that people confront change in myriad and complicated ways. We’re currently seeing these complex responses to change play out in the Midwest as in other parts of the country. Some are good and healthy, others dysfunctional–but all tell us a little something about the ways politics and religion are shaping people’s lives. And, in Lenz’s estimation, at least some of them point to hope for the future.