How Writing a Novel About the Evangelical Church Helped Me Grieve the Loss of My Religion
Kelsey McKinney on the Complex Feelings of Leaving the Faith
I was such a pious child. I don’t remember saying the prayer to accept Christ, but my parents have told the story enough that it feels like I do. I can create the image of myself, five years old, hair as white and bright as the sun, demanding my dad let me become a Christian, him brushing it off until my mom in the doorway said, “you better listen to her. She seems serious.” We prayed together and that was that. I was a Christian. Depending on your theology, I might still be.
Being a Christian wasn’t a religion for us; it was a culture. I was raised by a community of believers who loved me almost as much as they loved God. I spent Sundays at the church, and Wednesday nights memorizing songs that taught me the books of the Bible. We weren’t the kind of family that prayed at a Chili’s or had crosses hanging on our living room walls, but we were surrounded by that kind of faith, that outward exuberance for the Lord.
What’s hard to understand now is how much I believed it. When I first started trying to explore my experience as an adult, the only way I could find to really process was through fiction. I needed to create a separate but similar environment to the one I’d grown up in to really see it. I needed to create someone else to be able to see myself. That work of processing became my debut novel God Spare the Girls.
Like the sisters in my book, at one time I saw God’s hand in everything that happened to me. I went to church three days a week and read my Bible almost every day. I loved that it was God’s Word, but I also loved that the stories were so good. There were beheadings and betrayals, redemption and salvation, murders and sacrifices. There were things I didn’t agree with the church about, certainly. I was young and artsy and secretly queer, after all. None of those questions, though, could usurp the absolute conviction I felt at my core.
But in college I lost that certainty. Far from home and attending a church that upset and offended me more often that it comforted me, I let myself ask questions I’d buried. Why did a loving God need to punish people? Why did the Bible say so many things that felt so natural to me were sins? Why weren’t women pastors? The answers were the same answers that had always been there but I could no longer swallow them, felt my mouth becoming acidic and bitter.I went to church three days a week and read my Bible almost every day. I loved that it was God’s Word, but I also loved that the stories were so good.
There is a verse in the Bible about how we as mere mortals cannot see truth on our own. God has to lift a veil from our eyes (sometimes literally, like in the case of the Apostle Paul) so we can see. A few steps outside the doors of my church-based life and the curtain rose. I saw the ways my abstinence-only education had failed me; how deep the scars were left by homophobic rhetoric; how much money these churches raised and how little of it they gave away; how many of the men leading these congregations used the power they had secured for their own gain above all else.
But it wasn’t so simple. For every way in which the church hurt me, there is another memory: one where a dozen women hug me tight, proud of me for something. Like the protagonist of my book, I had been taught to believe that there was a Christ shaped hole in my body that would feel vacant without my faith. And that felt true after I left the church, but it wasn’t the faith I missed, it was the community: the feeling of belonging, the mutual support and care that makes a church feel like a home.
The problem with losing your religion is that you are left adrift in a world that used to have clear rules and guidelines for how to exist in it. Leaving evangelical Christianity is even more stark: there is no liturgy or culture without belief. I knew how to handle stress or disappointment or frustration as a Christian: to pray, to seek counsel, and to read my Bible. But if your only method of processing is prayer, what do you do when you aren’t sure if there is a God anymore to hear you?
For me, fiction became a space where it was safe to ask the questions, I was afraid to look at. Initially, I worked on this story just for me. I was writing for an audience of one, writing to understand where I came from and to appreciate the culture that had both built and harmed me. In this story, I found the solace I could no longer find in my faith. Through these fictional girls, I learned how much the church gave me, and not just how much it took. I remembered everything: the youth group and the women who supported me, the hurtful beliefs I held and that were held against me. It was a painful and terrible to dredge up the pain of both my experience in the church. But it also gave me the space to recognize another feeling: that though leaving the church was the right decision for me, the decision itself was painful on its own. Writing gave me the ability to grieve that loss at the same time it gave me the tools to recognize just what I had lost.
That was the feeling I wanted to tackle when I started this book. I wanted to write a book for people like me: people who grew up with a faith wrapped around them until they were mummified inside of it, and who one day were cut out of it and left standing, free but insecure, unable to feel so snug and safe again. I wanted to write a book that acknowledges what a beautiful, cathartic, and communal thing a faith community could be while refusing to ignore the problems that can grow in those communities.
God Spare the Girls is a story about two sisters who know the evangelical church for all of its failures and triumphs and who are disproportionately affected by them. It is a story about sisterhood, and trying to figure out who you are, and sexuality. But at its core it is a story about the pain of questioning where you come from. It’s a book I wish I had been able to read, and that I hope can be a balm or at least a reassuring shoulder squeeze for others.
Kelsey McKinney’s God Spare the Girls is available now via William Morrow.