This is the publisher’s description of the book:
Megabelt is a fictional account of the South and its preoccupations with modern Christianity told from the point of view of a boy named Gil growing up in what is otherwise known as the “Bible Belt.”
The readers will find themselves steeped in the world of Gil whose experiences and questions lead him to unravel some of the Bible Belt’s many dominant and passively adopted messages as well as its numerous types of characters.
Gil is the quintessential mind of most inhabitants of the Belt. He is you. He is I. While his experiences greatly reflect those of the author, his encounters will never go unidentified with by the reader.
Now, you must understand, I grew up in the same Bible belt culture as Gil, the books main character. Because of my background, I readily identified with Gil and his friends and their lives. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.
Megabelt is a short book – barely over 100 pages. And, it is a quick read. As far as I can tell, the author’s purpose is simply to tell a story of a boy who grew up in the church culture of the southern United States. For the most part, the author does not comment on that culture; instead, he describes it.
As I said previously, I readily identified with the character and the background. I’ve been part of the small southern church (although Gil was part of a Methodist church and I was part of a Baptist church) and the large megachurch. I’m familiar with dinner-on-the-grounds, and gospel-sings, and church camps (and especially that desire to have some kind of God experience at church camp), and the myriad of characters who make up small southern churches and megachurches.
Because of my identification with the character and familiarity with the culture, I probably enjoyed the book more than some readers will. Why? Because the author does not always provide a great amount of detail when describing various events and persons. I understand what he means when he names one of the church attenders as “Everyman,” but will everyone understand that?
So, my own imagination (fueled by years of living in that culture) filled in many of the blanks left by the sparse style of the author. In fact, I think the fact that I often saw myself and people that I know in the story helped me enjoy the book even more.
This was one of the author’s desire. As he writes in the introduction:
You will never truly understand Gil’s personality, stance, or emotion – nor will you put this book down without identifying with him in one way or another. (XI)
I think the author accomplishes this goal through this writing style and sparse descriptions, as long as the audience is familiar with the background of southern church culture. Otherwise, the reader may have a hard time identifying with Gil or the other characters.
One of the most beneficial aspects of this novel to me was in examining southern church culture. As much as possible, the author provides a neutral description on that culture, although, for those outside the culture, the commentary may seem less than neutral at times. For example, consider this section about “backsliding”:
There was a popular term amongst Gil’s peers; one that had found its way into the pop-Belter vocabulary during the mid 90′s – “Backslider.” …
It was the kind of phrase that just rolled off the tongue like a slimy eel. The first time Gil heard it was at a revival. The evangelist (who is the person who delivers the revival in a tweed picnic basket from across the country) was referring to individuals who have not appeared in church for a long time.
“Friend, if you’re away from the family of believers, and you’re off doing your own thing – then you are backslidden and in need of repentance!” he would say with a sweating forehead and bulging eyes. If it isn’t clear by now, backsliding has to do with an individual falling away from grace, which Gil later determined to be the grace of the church rather than the grace of God. (25)
“Backslider” was a term used by any good church-going southerner to describe those who no longer attended their church. While this may seem like a negative portrayal of southern culture to those who are unfamiliar with it, his description is quite accurate.
I also enjoyed the interaction between Gil and the fundamentalists. In fact, in the southern church culture, every church can point to both “liberals” and “fundamentalists” who take things too far one way or the other. There is a comfort in pointing our fingers at others and proclaiming proudly, “We’re not like them or them.” (I think this is one aspect of church culture that goes beyond the Bible belt.)
While I wish I had been drawn into the story more by the story itself than by my familiarity with southern Bible belt church culture, I still enjoyed the book. (As a warning, for those who enjoy their stories to be nice, neat, and tidy with everything pulled together at the end, this book may frustrate you.)
The only thing remaining after reading this book is to honestly examine Bible belt culture (or whatever culture you may be living in) and recognize that “church culture” is not the same thing as church.