Georgia Sparling: This is Why We Write, a podcast of Lesley University. Each week, we bring you conversations with authors from the Lesley community to talk about books, writing, and the writing life. My name is Georgia Sparling, and today I'm talking with alumna and journalist Lyz Lenz whose debut book is titled God Land: A story of Faith, Loss, and Renewal in Middle America. Lyz, thanks so much for joining the show.
Lyz Lenz: Thank you for having me.
Georgia: Your book came out in August and it's already gotten a ton of buzz. You write about the state of Christianity in the heartland in the wake of the Donald Trump election. Also, just how there's parallels to your own relationship and the end of your marriage. I think this is a really important book. It was an important one for me to read but also really hard at times. I'm wondering like what compelled you to take on this topic because you're in Iowa. You're very much in the center of Middle America.
Lyz: Well I was going to take up this topic even before the election happened as it did. I had written an article for a magazine called Pacific Standard about the way faith was changing in Middle America because I was raised in Texas then South Dakota, then Minnesota, now Iowa. I've gone straight up the middle of the country. It felt like something was changing, and it felt like the conversation was changing. I had written this article for Pacific Standard. Indiana University Press approached me about doing a book, and I was like, "I'm not an academic," and they were like, "We know, we can read."
This was all in the spring and summer of 2016 where we worked on a proposal together. We went back and forth on what it would look like. I had always been interested in the way that the role of faith was changing in our country and how it impacted our culture and our politics. I was not expecting Donald Trump to get elected, and I definitely wasn't expecting my marriage to fall apart. Both of those things ended up happening right around the same time I was signing the book contract. Because in the book world everything goes slow. I had seen the final contract probably sometime in September/October, and then I had signed it in December.
In between the time I saw a final contract and signed it, it felt like the world had changed. Even though I don't think it had, I just saw it differently. Then I had to set out to write this book, and it was really hard because I wasn't intending to write through a personal crisis. Usually, the advice is if you're going through a tough time, don't write about it immediately. Wait on it.
I didn't feel like I could write in an authentic way if I wasn't combining the personal and the political because I think one of the realities is that the personal is deeply political, and you cannot separate the two. That kind of all happened in what felt like one long tumble where I feel like maybe I've finally landed because the book started.
Georgia: In writing while you're going through all that, did that give you a much different perspective I think than like if you had written the book- like if started writing it today versus 2016 or around then?
Lyz: Yeah, definitely. Of course it would be a different book now. I had the chance to sit with people, a lot of ministers, and a lot of laypeople too who were really trying to grapple with the role that faith played in the election. While I was feeling really raw, they were feeling really raw too. I think there are a lot of raw moments in that book because it was happening as I was reporting it. Of course, definitely, the interviews were different. I was feeling very- I went to a week-long retreat with Baptist ministers in Morton, Illinois.
That ended up being like a really hard week for me because I was sitting and having to report out a lot of the theologies and the ideas that I felt like had brought not only America to this moment of crisis but my own life to this moment of crisis. I was having like a lot of going for a lot of long runs and drinking whiskey and watching Dateline in the hotel room. Just trying to like grapple with it all. Yeah, it was tough, but I think that it's also real.
A book about religion in America can-- often I feel those books are either proselytize or they are just like really dry, boring history, and I wanted to make a book that was more a book of searching and honesty rather than either of those two because I think that's more authentic to how faith works in our culture.
Georgia: Yeah, yeah. Everything is focused on Middle America, and you say in the introduction, "To believe so fully in the bland passivity and unity of Middle America is to miss a more complex reality. Contradictions, opposites, dissonance, that pulls, screams, and threatens to break this united middle space for our country. We ignore it at our own peril." So, what is Middle America? And what isn't it, at least at this time, from an insider?
Lyz: You talk about like focusing on Middle America. One of the things is I definitely would have focused perhaps on the south as well, I just didn't have the money.
Georgia: That's volume two.
Lyz: So I don't want a lot of people to feel left out. Because a lot of people have been like, "Wow, this could really resonate with the American South." My mom grew up in the south. I have a lot of relatives there, and so like I'm like, "Yeah, great. I didn't get a lot of money for this book." So I really wanted it to be narrow-focused, and I do think, one of the things is, we don't write a lot about Middle America. Or if we do, it's that farmer drinking coffee in the cafeteria or the café in like every single New York Times article or something like that.
And it's really interesting that we're talking right now. I don't know when this podcast will come out, but we're talking right now right during the State Fair and all these journalists have their hot takes about how crazy it is at the State Fair and how rural folks are just normal folks. You are asking what it's not. I think what Middle America is not, like a simple place of land and good values. That's really condescending. We're a very complicated place and the people here are very complicated.
I just had a conversation last night with a farmer who did vote for Donald Trump, but before that, he had voted for Obama and been an Al Gore supporter. It's not like he doesn't believe in climate change. Do you know what I mean? It's not like he doesn't think that Donald Trump is wrecking our country. There's a lot of complexity and a lot of nuance. I mean Middle America is the place where in Minneapolis, they elect Ilhan Omar, and in Iowa, we have Steve King, right? Like, there's a lot happening here. It's really hard to reduce a place to stereotypes.
But, this is a place where people are quiet rather than outspoken, you know where we kinda keep it to ourselves like in the Dar Williams song, "We don't like to make our passions other people's concerns." And so it's easy to project an ideal onto Middle America, and I think it's easier to project an ideal onto Middle America more than any other place. We become this like tabula rasa- whatever you see here really says more about you than it does about this place itself.
I'm not from Iowa, but now it's the place that I've lived the longest in my life. And I love it here. It's so beautiful and so wonderful, and I really wanted to listen rather than project. It's a deeply complicated place, but it's also a really beautiful place, and the people who remain here are really committed to it and committed to the land in a way that I think is different than other places.
Georgia: That's so interesting. You read a lot, you read books, or just hear people talk about the Midwest, and it is always people projecting an idea whereas I feel like-- I'm in New England right now. New England, kind of like storms through and it's like, this is who we are-- it's very like in your face.
Lyz: Right. You can't tell Boston shit about who they are, right? They'll tell you who they are. Same with New York. You can't go into New York and be like, "This is what New York is," without like 15 New Yorkers like punching you in the face, right? Which isn't the great ethos, but you can come here and people will be like, "Oh, the Midwest is this, this, this and this and this." And one, the people here aren't going to read your takes because they're busy, and they don't have the time. And two, they're just going to be like, "Oh, you think that? Oh, that's nice. Okay."
And I think especially if you come from another place, you're like, "Oh, well, I must be right," because they didn't disagree with you. No, they disagree with you, and they hate you. They're just going to still feed you and let you stay in their house.
Georgia: Their hospitality is just different than yours.
Lyz: Right, Right. I do feel it's more the southern, "Bless your heart," which is really just like an FU.
Lyz: People don't always get that.
Georgia: Even in the south, they'll push back more. They're like, "Well, this is the southern way."
Lyz: Oh for sure. Yeah, you'll get poisoned in the south, for sure.
Georgia: Poisoned with kindness. So obviously, this book talks a lot about faith, and you grew up in the church, and a pretty conservative church from what it sounds like. When did you start to feel like your ideas of faith were not aligning with the churches that you were a part of?
Lyz: Oh, always. Like, I always felt that. I mean, I was a weirdo child who was really into like reading every single book and asking every single question. I would like carry dictionaries with me and look up words and ask adults for big words so I could look them up. Like, I was a very weird child and being home-schooled didn't help, just compounded the weirdness, and I wouldn't say it's gotten better. Although I dress a little better now but not that much. But I do think that I didn't always fit in because I always had a lot of questions. And I think especially when I was younger, my questions weren't threatening, they were interpreted by a lot of the adults around me, especially ministers, especially pastors in like a really threatening kind of a way. I can remember being seven and asking some weird question about like light and dark, and you know if "Okay, if God's all light, then how did he create dark?" And like some sort of-
Georgia: Yeah, totally a valid question.
Lyz: Yeah, but also yeah, valid, and the pastor just patting me on the head and being like, "Oh, you shouldn't ask questions like that." And then just walking away. So I think I had always felt like there was something you know, very wrong with me. Lots of Sunday school teachers telling me my tongue was a sin and I was using words in a sinful way, and I think after like a whole life of just trying to be something that I wasn't, I got really tired of it. I think a lot of people will identify with the idea of like you can try and try and try to fit and make it work and then one day, you just wake up and you're tired and you're like, "Oh maybe I'm not the problem. Maybe they're the problem." And then all of a sudden, the nightmares go away. You can sleep a little bit better.
So I had a couple of those moments, a couple of those awakenings, I mean, like getting free is a long, hard road. But yeah, I'd always felt like that for sure.
Georgia: You talk about this in the book that you and your husband or ex-husband now and a few other couples even tried to start your own church and that still kind of devolved into the same things where there was a lot of sexism and secrecy and generally not everything.
Lyz: One of the things is I didn't want to quit on it, on faith. Well, no, I did. I actually did want to quit on faith, I was very tired, but I was in a relationship where faith was very, very important. I felt like, well what if we could create a space where everyone fit? And I mean, honestly, isn't that like the founding idea of America? Besides like genocide and no taxation. Beyond those things, I think it's a really like American impulse to try to create a utopia. We have like Fruitlands, Oneida Community, and here in Iowa, we have the Amanas, and we have the Fairfield yoga place. We have like a lot of kind of like quasi-utopias that people try to create those beautiful spaces where everybody can fit, and some places work, and some places don't.
And ours definitely didn't work, to the point where I couldn't be part of it anymore. It's really hard. I think it's a really beautiful thing to try to like create a world based around an ideal, but it is also a deeply troubling thing. And goes so wrong so quickly.
Georgia: Best laid plans.
Lyz: Yes. Exactly, exactly, yeah.
Georgia: And so in the book, so each chapter is kind of its own essay, where you explore a different aspect of Christianity or the church in the Midwest. So one thing you went to that- the conference for rural ministers, which I thought was really interesting- and also to this Asian American Reformed Church in this tiny, tiny town, that almost got shut down even though it was actually maybe like the only tiny church in the area that was growing. So how did you determine what places and topics needed to be in God Land? And like how did you even find some of these communities?
Lyz: Well, I hadn't done a lot of research for that initial article in Pacific Standard. Then that summer, when we were talking about what the book would look like, I went back to everybody I knew and just said, "Okay, I think I'm going to turn this into a book- what things should I look at and what things should I understand?" And so there were a lot of wonderful people who said, "You need to know this. You need to go to this place" That Asian American Reformed Church in Bigelow, Minnesota, that was one of them. That conference for rural ministers, that one I just found online. I was just like Google, Google.
It's interesting because there aren't a lot of seminaries in America with a focus on rural ministry, but a lot of them have kind of closed up. While agriculture is still big and important, farmers represent less than 1% of Americans and so we're a very industrial society so a lot of seminaries that used to have these big outreaches don't have those anymore. Another beautiful person who helped me was this woman named Evelyn Birkby. She's a little bit of a legend here in Iowa.
And when I was thinking about the topic, I had heard her on the radio on my local Iowa public radio station, and so I reached out to her, and she was like, "Well, honey, if you're going to talk to me, I'm 97. You better get out here soon. I could die at any minute." And she just turned 100-
Georgia: Oh wow. That's amazing.
Lyz: -a couple of days ago. It was amazing, and she was incredible because she would be like, "This is my friend Lyz and she's going to talk about this, and you should talk to her." And people do not say no to Evelyn. I mean it's hard to look at a 97-year-old woman and say, "No, thanks." She's also just like this powerful force in the state and in her town, and she's so wonderful. So yeah, it was a lot of these personal connections and it was asking people-- The sports chapter came about because every minister I went to and asked "What's your biggest challenge?" They said, "Sports." And so I was like, "Oh, man. I got to write about sports? Fine."
Georgia: Sports thing. [laughs]
Lyz: [unintelligible 00:20:07].
Georgia: Well yeah, I mean growing up like in Mississippi, we didn't-- church was on Sunday and Wednesday, so there were not games on Sunday and Wednesday or practice for about anything else.
Lyz: There is a lot of places still like that. I remember living in South Dakota and hearing so many sermons like, "If you're choosing to go to your kid's softball game on Sunday instead of church, what kind of values are you teaching them?" And now that I'm a parent, I'm like oh the value you are teaching them is like "sometimes you just don't go to church." [laughs] But it is like it's a big-- It's a big, big thing.
But, I don't think the two compete. The two might compete for like butts in the seats perhaps, but I don't think the two compete for like the hearts of Americans. I do think, like especially football in America is very closely entwined with our conceptions of faith. You know this living in the south. There is prayers before football games, people kneel in the end zone, right? They point out to Jesus when they get a touchdown. There's Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Sports culture is highly, highly influenced by religious culture. The two walk hand in hand. So that's why I had to write about it.
Georgia: They do compete though. I mean, if people aren't engaged-- if like you have to go to the football game for your community and then the church seats are kinda empty. I don't know, that says something about where the God is- I think.
Lyz: Well, I don't know. It might compete with church, but I don't think it competes with religion. Like, sports and religion have been a part of the other since ancient Rome decided to convert, right? And then there were these ideas about like purity and bodies are a temple. I mean, that's why Paul wrote that. That's why Paul wrote things like, "Let us run the race with patience, the race that is set before us." I'm not going to quote scripture at you, but you know it. It's there. It's not like an accident that this happened. Our bodies, our physicality, and our spirituality are so deeply entwined. While people might express their faith in a different way, I don't see it as a decline of faith. I just see it as a different expression of it.
Georgia: Yeah, interesting. So you talk a lot about, well not a lot, but you talk some about nostalgia and tradition in the book. I know in churches I've been a part of, sometimes holding on to the past is a death sentence. In other ways like with liturgy or a church calendar, it kind of reminds you of the important things that are part of the faith. You wrote, "Nostalgia can be a toxic force that erases all history in nuance, but it can also be a call to become better versions of ourselves, just like the faith that informs it." So in your reporting, where did you see the two sides of this nostalgia/tradition like at play? Where did you see positives and where did you see negatives?
Lyz: I think a lot of the positives I saw were people who were living in or are still living in these very small towns. You might say they are declining. Another way of saying it would be changing, and they love their place. They love their place, they are not there because they have to be there. They are there because they love it and they want to be. A lot of the nostalgia feeds into our love of place, our love of family, and our need for home and that's a really beautiful thing. And I think it's an important thing too because it helps us keep memories and keep stories alive. But what's toxic, is when it erases the nuance, when it makes you refuse to talk about anything bad.
And like, I get it, people don't want to like shit talk their hometown to a reporter who's just gonna like, "Oh, now she's just going to write bad things about us." Especially if you are from a place where like reporters only come for like politics or meth basically. Like there is that intentional closing of ranks, we don't say bad things to outsiders. And fine, I get it but it can be where you miss the nuance. A lot of farmers especially now, talk about when it was so much easier to do farming. And I think what they mean is maybe 40 years ago, a farmer could farm 1,000 acres. Now it's like 50 million acres that they have to farm to make less money and it still has to be subsidized by the government, so it sucks.
There is that truth but there's also the truth of the 1980s had a huge farm crisis and farmers were deeply depressed and committing suicide, and towns were closing up. So it's like, okay, when was there ever an easy time? You want to go back to the pioneers, or be a boar like freezing to death out on the prairie. The reality is living off the land has never been easy, but it's easy to mythologize it because we want to mythologize it because we want to make our pain have meaning.
If you go through all this pain, if you can't create meaning out of it, then what's the point? Because you're definitely not making money out of it. I think writers do this too. We mythologize our like pain and suffering for our art. Which really is just kind of ridiculous. Truly if farmers and writers have way more in common than they ought to.
Georgia: That's great, [laughs] but that concept, that's kind of the, "Make America Great Again" thing. Even that, I often think of it as looking at the past as great from a racial standpoint, it's very problematic. But even this, like, it was never easy to be a farmer. [laughs] Let's just face it.
Lyz: It was never easy to be a farmer, and there was never a time in America where like everybody went to church and was a good, happy family. The time when church attendance peaked in America was the 1960s and that was because of the cold war, and the Christian nationalist rhetoric that was coming out of the white house and coming out of revivalists and ministers. But like think about what else was happening in 1960s America? It was lots of drugs. There was a lot of upheaval in that time too. A lot of problematic race stuff, which we still have now.
Even then, you're like, okay, sure, let's go back to the time when everybody went to church. Do you want to go back to 1960? Because I sure as heck don't. The call to be better is always a good call, but the call to be something that you once were, clings to a past that never existed and prevents you from moving forward. I read so many masters theses and books about church revival and how to make the church great. And to me, I got really upset with them. I read a lot of them. Not a lot of them made it into the book, but because I think they kept doing that thing where it's like, "Oh, we have to do this and become great again," or, "This is how we need to get young people on."
I'm like maybe just like let it go. If we're dying stop. Take a break, try a new thing. My minister says in the book, she's like, "If something's dying, let it die."
Lyz: And as hard as that is, as hard as that is, I think that is a thing people need to do. And I get it. I mean, I got a divorce. I get it, you can't say that I'm telling people to do something I didn't do myself.
Georgia: You talk a little bit about anger in the book.
Lyz: A little bit.
Georgia: Yes, it was just a little bit. You say, "Fire preserves and fire destroys. So does anger." I wonder if you could unpack that statement? What does that mean to you?
Lyz: Well, there's a couple of things going on with anger is I think a lot about who's allowed to be angry in America and who isn't. So much of the 2016 election was filled with angry men. Bernie Sanders is an angry man, Donald Trump was an angry man. All of the reporting coming out of 2016 was like, "Look at all these angry men at the Trump rallies."
Right? But then like the moment Hillary Clinton kind of raises her voice and says, "This sucks." People are like, "Whoa, Whoa, calm down. Everybody just calm down." Me along with literally every other woman in the nation was like, "Hey, we're allowed to be angry too." And I think especially after the election, it was like, "Hey, we need to be angry." I think anger is a normal emotion and we should have it. Recently, somebody who was in the book said to me, she's like, "I know you do that anger thing. It's just not my thing." I was like--
Georgia: [laughs] Hey, what does that mean?
Lyz: No, I was like, "Well I think we should always be angry at injustice." I was like, "If you're looking at something that's bad and you're not getting angry about it, go and do a little soul searching." Anger is like a very normal thing, but I often think it gives you the strength to propel you through really hard things. I mean, it can also be bitter and toxic. Fine, so can sadness, so can happiness. Happiness can be bitter and toxic too. We don't talk a lot about that, do we?
I think a lot about how powerful anger can be as a motivating force. I think especially women, I think especially people of color need to allow themselves-- No, I think our culture needs to allow them to be angry because that's how movements and moments happen and gain momentum when people are fed up. Jesus kicked over tables but like you're mad when a woman says, "Hey, please stop legislating my uterus." [unintelligible 00:32:15] figure it out.
Georgia: In light of your book and we're now hurdling towards another election which is just scary. Even just in light of like all of the shootings that have taken place since 2016, the rise of the Me Too Movement and the Church Too Movement, where is the Midwest now as--? You mentioned that you're in the middle of that, the Iowa State Fair. Where is it now and where do you think you'll be by 2020?
Lyz: Gosh, that's really hard to say. I would like to think that we've learned things. I don't know if we have. Right now, I think there's a real battle for Iowa's soul, even the soul of the nation too, who are we and who do we want to be? I do see conversations changing especially around guns and mass shootings. I see more gun owners taking part in some of those conversations where they're saying, "Okay, what can we do as responsible gun owners to be part of a solution rather than just digging our heels in the rhetoric?"
There does seem to be a little bit more discussion and nuance where perhaps there wasn't before. Right now, farmers are getting ready to have another crisis just as bad as the '80s, if not worse, and that is because of Trump's trade policies and his trade war with China. It's going to hurt, and it's going to hurt America. There's talk about a recession. We're on the precipice. If it felt like we were falling before, I do feel like we're going to fall even more. I want to say that these things are enough to change my state and this place that I love but I don't know if they are. I do think there are different conversations happening, and I hope that that's enough to change but it's hard for me to predict and say it will.
Georgia: In the subtitle for God Land, you say it's a story of faith, loss and renewal. What are some of those areas of renewal that even with the really tough political climate we're in, and maybe economic soon, where is that renewal happening?
Lyz: I see a lot of movements. Recently, there were ELCA congregations that declared themselves sanctuary conversation.
Georgia: Can you say what ELCA is for folks?
Lyz: ELC, that's Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, I think I messed that up. They're the super-liberal Lutherans. They just had a big convention that reaffirmed their commitment to LGBTQ issues, pro-choice issues, and immigration issues. That was like really encouraging to see. There are a lot of faith leaders who are tired of having the conversation be dominated by white evangelical men who are speaking up and speaking out. And to be fair, these people have always spoken up and spoken out, but I think people are listening to them more.
There are those things I hear from so many people who also feel tired, also feel frustrated and are trying to create their own spaces and their own communities that are focused on making this world a better place. I think that's a renewal and that's the hope is that--yeah.
Georgia: I want to ask, hopefully it's not too presumptuous but where is your faith today? Because you do talk about in the book how after all this stuff kind of imploded with your ex-husband, with the church you guys had been working on, you didn't really want to keep going to church and yet you still find yourself with butts in the seats. What drives that--your belief and your continued involvement in the church?
Lyz: I'm very much committed to like being a good person in the world. I'm not always a good person in the world, but I always want to try to be. I grew up in the church, church is home to me. As much as it had a toxic effect, these are also the people who brought me casseroles when I had my babies. They're the people who are going to be showing up in a couple of weeks to help me move. It's home.
I think that church is also an intentional space where we try to strive to understand mystery, and I don't think there are a lot of places like that. I don't go to churches often anymore. Sometimes I sleep in and go to brunch and that's really nice. I think that's a [unintelligible 00:37:48] too and that's a community too but yeah, it's changing and evolving. I keep saying, "Ask me in the two more years, maybe I'll be [unintelligible 00:38:00]." I think in the end, I'm a deeply spiritual person and I really think a lot about our connections to land and ourselves and the physicality of the world. And right now, the way I access that mystery is through church and maybe it will change. But yeah, life's a journey, Georgia.
Georgia: Just along for the ride. That's good.
Lyz: On that note.
Georgia: All right, well, thanks for coming--no.
Lyz: Oh, well you just said the dumbest thing, so wrap it up.
Georgia: No, this has been great. And so where can people find you online? What's the best way for people to kind of follow what you're up to?
Lyz: I do have a website for people who are not on the social media is where I try to lead out to my articles. I should probably update that. Twitter is probably the best place. I'm @lyzl, L-Y-Z-L on Twitter. My website is Lyzlenz, L-Y-Z-L-E N-Z.com. Oh, I also have a newsletter, sign up for my newsletter. That's linked on my website. If you want me in your ear-holes or your email box, get that, get that situation going, so yeah.
Georgia: Great. Well thank you so much. I really appreciate your talking with me. Yeah, the book has been everywhere so I hope lots of people read it and look forward to all the other things you're going to be up to. Thanks so much for speaking with me.
Lyz: Thank you so much. [music]
Georgia: Thank you for listening to the first episode in the second season of Why We Write. We've got lots of great conversations coming your way this year, so I hope you will join us each Tuesday when the new episodes drop. You can subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or the app of your choice. For more information on Lyz Lenz and to see photos from her travels in the mid-west, visit lesley.edu/podcast. The link is in the show notes. You can also go there to catch-up on our past interviews and learn more about our creative writing program. We'll see you next week.