Lyz Lenz’s debut God Land: A Story of Faith, Loss, and Renewal in Middle America, just released last week from Indiana University Press, is a unique approach to the many stories of people leaving the church in the last decade or so—Lyz isn’t writing strictly memoir here; she primarily uses journalism and research, dovetailing them with her own experiences to paint a portrait in essays of the state of the church in Middle America. It’s a familial portrait, full of the kind of intimate criticisms, loving exasperation, and faithful documentation that can only be levied by one family member on another. God Land is also a meditation on community—the necessity of it, where it fails and where it succeeds—and how church helps and hinders people in search of connection.
Formerly the managing editor of The Rumpus and now on its Advisory Board, Lenz’s writing has appeared in the Huffington Post, the New York Times, Pacific Standard, and others. Her essay “All the Angry Women” was included in the anthology Not That Bad, edited by Roxane Gay. She currently lives in Iowa with her two kids and is a contributing writer to the Columbia Journalism Review.
I’ve been a fan of Lyz’s work for years and jumped at the opportunity to interview her. We spoke while she was en route to Book Expo and (after some technical difficulties with a recorder) again via email. Our discussion covered building community with and without church, her evolution from “mommy blogger” to “serious journalist,” and a whole lot of book recommendations.
The Rumpus: So everyone here at The Rumpus already knows you—but for those who don’t, how did you get from “mommy blogger” to the Columbia Journalism Review?
Lyz Lenz: That is a long story, but it happened a lot of ways. When I moved to Iowa in 2005, I wanted to be a writer. I was pitching and my pitches weren’t getting accepted. I was working a lot of marketing and copywriting jobs and just pitching and pitching. I finally went and got my MFA, and I got a job working at a love and relationships website—and that’s when I started getting work published: listicles, reviews, hot takes, and the like. But it wasn’t what I wanted to be writing. And then in 2011, I had my first child and got tired and fed up. I figured, I am not writing the things that I want to write because people aren’t paying me to write them, so I’ll just write them for free for myself. So I started this blog and some of the posts got popular, and I began to build an audience. Using that audience I was able to approach other editors and say, “I did this. And people like it, can I write for you?”
I think my first big break was when the New York Times parenting section published an essay of mine—and that was one of those things where it was like okay, I’ve gotten to a different level. I can do this. There wasn’t one moment when someone discovered me. I’ve just been pitching and pitching and pitching and writing and trying to do better since 2005. It’s great people are paying attention and paying me now though. But it’s been a slog. In 2017, I ended up at the Columbia Journalism Review because I had a friend who said “you should write this profile of Pamela Colloff.” She is a writing HERO of mine and I was like, Oh yeaahhh.
What ended up happening with that story was there was a lot of stuff going on at Texas Monthly, which ended up making the profile really relevant and interesting and got me yelled at by the now-former editor-in-chief of Texas Monthly. When I turned in my first draft of the story, the editor who I was working with at the time—he doesn’t work there anymore but we still keep in touch—called me and gave me very smart, in-depth edits. But I basically had to write the whole thing over again. I said, “Okay” like I was very chill. But then I hung up the phone and just cried. I was like [fakes a sob] “I AM NOT UP TO THE STANDARD OF THE COLUMBIA JOURNALISM REVIEW!” But once I stopped crying, I completely rewrote it and it turned out great, so they started giving me more profiles. I just kept trying to level up. And I still am.
Rumpus: It’s amazing when an editor will take a chance on you.
Lenz: It is! And I think what happens is, you develop relationships with people. A friend of mine, Elon Green, had been reading my writing since I had been writing for The Toast in 2013 and he has always been suggesting stories and connecting me with editors. I think that’s one of the things that we don’t talk about enough, how writing is community. People loving each other and taking chances on each other and sharing opportunities and hyping each other. And that has meant the world to me and my career.
Working for The Rumpus was another amazing opportunity. I remember emailing Marisa when I used to be a blogger, and she was like, “why do you want to be a blogger for us?” and I said, “I have two kids, nobody will give me a job. I wanna put something on my resume. Also, I love The Rumpus.” I told her, “Look I don’t volunteer at church anymore, so I want to volunteer for something I believe in and I believe in words, so let me work for you!” And then, I blogged for a while, moved up to assistant books editor, and then to managing editor.
Rumpus: You talk a lot about community building in your book. I found it really interesting that your discussions in the book seem to indicate you believe more in church than you believe in God, in a way.
Lenz: I think of myself as a person of faith. I don’t know who or what God is, but I believe in something outside of myself. I believe in something bigger than me. Maybe one day, I will stop thinking it’s a God. But for now, that’s what I call it. And I believe in something bigger than me because I think this life we live is weird and strange and big and beautiful and terrible. We all seek mystery, through science or math or faith. For now, faith is my way of discussing the mystery of life. It’s my way of accessing beauty and participating in community that’s pieced together of a messy struggle to make sense of it all.
Rumpus: Can you talk a little more about community?
Lenz: Community is necessary. We can’t live alone; we can’t do any of this life alone. In the past few years I’ve walked through some really, really hard things and I have had so many friends and communities come through for me in these real and beautiful ways. You know, sending me mugs, or cards, buying me ridiculous leather chairs, answering my text messages, pulling me out from under tables when I slide under there drunk and embarrassed, coming to visit me when I’m heartbroken in a strange city, giving me love and acceptance and jokes when I need it most. I don’t know how anybody gets through life without other people.
Once, I was talking to this woman, who was self-identified as an atheist. I was telling her about my book, but I didn’t want to be weird about religion, so I said, [self-deprecating tone] “Yeah my book’s about religion, you know, but IT’S COOL, and I’m CHILL.” And she was like, “You know I work for a nonprofit and I’ll tell you what, religion can be toxic, but I’ve never seen a community of people more intentionally set on making the world a better place.” And that’s what I think church should be! I think of church just like, a community of people who want to make the world a better place. And however you do that, that’s what church is.
Rumpus: Your discussion of community made the book as a whole feel like a journalist’s wake for the church. You’re holding a memorial service for the white Evangelical church as it used to be, and you’re trying to cast a positive vision for what it can be, based on these other experiences you’ve had with other communities.
Lenz: What I think is so interesting is that people talk—especially in churchy Christian communities—about “living intentionally” and “living together” in these faith-based communities. But the thing about them is that it’s all still so self-selective and so closed off. So the language and the vision seems to be there, but there’s this inability to connect with the people around you. And I think that’s one of the things that I really wanted when I started my church. I want a space where I could invite people, where we could really be a community—and it didn’t work. But there are churches who are doing it—and it doesn’t have to be faith-based; there are non-religious communities that are inclusive and beautiful and powerful. But as my new pastor repeatedly says, “If something’s dead, let it die.” And so if something isn’t working, if it’s dead, we need to let it die, let it go, and open ourselves up to possibility.
Rumpus: That’s why I was using the term “wake,” because the book reads as a celebration of the good things that were and also a recognition of the aspects that haven’t worked, aspects that need to be let go.
Lenz: There was this one story I wasn’t able to make work for the book—somebody had told me about a nun who goes around and closes up Catholic churches in rural areas and she has this ritual for holding a funeral for a church and prayers for sacred objects. I called her and emailed her and never heard back. Older nuns are not very online and don’t have cell phones. I would still like to go with her on one of these trips, because, I think we need a better discussion about how to move on in our country. How do we hold a funeral for the ideas and places and heterodoxies that failed us? How do we learn to fully grieve and mourn so we can let go and embrace the rebirth and the renewal? So much of the problem with America is people cannot let go of the systems that destroy them. How do we teach people to let go?
Rumpus: How did you describe this project to the people you interviewed?
Lenz: I told them I was working on a book about religion and then I made a lot of jokes about how boring it was, so they wouldn’t ask me any more questions. It usually worked.
Rumpus: Talk to me some more about the concept of moral capital—it seems to be key in your process of understanding your place in the communities you’ve left behind and also seems key to how these church communities you investigated tend to reinforce their systemic racism and classism.
Lenz: Moral capital is the leverage and standing a person has in the community that’s based not on their money, but their ability to adhere to cultural norms. Often communities in the Midwest define these norms as “Christian values,” but so often they have little to do with Christian theology and more to do with a cultural faith that is based on nationalism and capitalism. I think separating cultural Christianity from Christian theology is key to understanding what’s happening in America right now.
Rumpus: What was your personal journey to becoming aware of the systemic racism and revisionist history in the Evangelical church in America?
Lenz: When I was thirteen I read Soul Survivor by Phillip Yancey. The book is about how Yancey, as a teen, was turned off to faith in America by the rampant racism he saw. The book then profiles thirteen people of faith who “do it right” in Yancey’s estimation. And the book has some ideological problems, to put it mildly, but it was the first time I had heard someone talk about race and racism in the church. It truly forced me to start asking questions. From there I read Frank Schaeffer’s books and then found Rachel Held Evans. Each book, while not perfect, held open the door to more understanding and more learning, and I hope my writing does the same for others.
Rumpus: How can the church do better about teaching its community to value the humanity of the Other? Is that possible with the current state of evangelical theology?
Lenz: Fortunately, the church is bigger than evangelicalism. There are so many amazing writers and pastors out there creating community and asking hard questions. And they’ve always been there, people like Dorothy Day, Nyasha Junior, Michelle Higgins, and so many more are or have been out there fighting and writing and working to make faith inclusive. I think it’s unfortunate that white evangelicalism dominates the conversation about religion, but it’s important to remember they aren’t the whole conversation. There are so many other people of faith working on the margins to make this country better. Let’s listen to them, not to the white men.
Rumpus: Can you tell us about your next book, Belabored, which you wrote at the same time as God Land?
Lenz: I’m actually finishing up Belabored now! It’s a series of essays that explore the cultural myths and medicine that surround the nine months of pregnancy. It’s a personal and political examination of women’s labor (their work and the birthing process) and their bodies and I’m very excited for it. I think of it as an angry manifesto for the uterus.
Rumpus: If you were to hand out book recommendations for the 2020 presidential front-runners, what would you recommend and why?
Lenz: I think everyone in America needs to read Heavy by Kiese Laymon. He’s an incredible writer who interrogates race and what it means to be a black man in America in a way that is smart, funny, and heartfelt, and he is a master of his craft. Laymon is one of the best writers in America at the moment. I also think we should all read Tressie McMillan Cottom’s Thick: And Other Essays. Whether it’s about maternal care or academia, Dr. Cottom’s work is incisive, well-written and deeply illuminating. And, Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi and White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo—both books are illuminating works about race in America. And finally, Those Who Work, Those Who Don’t by Jennifer Sherman, which is an academic look at loss and poverty in white America that is truly one of the smartest books I’ve read.
Photograph of Lyz Lenz by Eve Ettinger.