‘Empty the Pews’ Gives Voice to Those Who’ve Escaped Toxic Christianity

Image credit: Robert Powell [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

What inspired you to put together Empty the Pews: Stories of Leaving the Church?

Chrissy Stroop: When I first approached Lauren with the idea, it seemed to me that capturing this moment of major generational conflict and shift around religion and identity would be a valuable thing to do. We began working on the project in the summer of 2016, and by fall the religiously unaffiliated, or “nones,” had exceeded a fifth of the U.S. population, with sociologists having linked the rapid growth of this demographic to the Christian Right’s culture wars.

Empty the Pews: Stories of Leaving the Church
Chrissy Stroop and Lauren O’Neal
Epiphany Publishing
November 29, 2019

Lauren and I both believed that it would be good for the “chattering classes” not just to be talking about the nones, but to give us a seat at the table. And we believed that having a talented and diverse group of writers craft powerful personal essays about surviving authoritarian and abusive Christian Right upbringings could be a way to tell the world that we are not just statistics, that we have voices that deserve to be heard.

Lauren O’Neal: I would say the genesis of the project goes back even further than that. When Chrissy and I first met, one of the first things we bonded over was having left the faiths we grew up in (although we were probably both at pretty different points in that process than we are now, over ten years later). I think we were both struck by how our stories were completely different yet were similar in so many ways, which of course makes you think about what you’d find if you juxtaposed a whole bunch more stories with each other. We started saying, “One day we should do an anthology on this” in, like, 2012! And it took this long to actually make it happen.

Chrissy: Ha, yeah, back in grad school I used to tell people that my “hobby” was having existential crises.

What’s the most important take-home message for readers at this cultural moment?

Chrissy: The way I see it, there are two major take-home messages of the collection apart from its strictly artistic merits, of which, if I do say so myself, there are many, thanks to the incredible pool of talent we ultimately drew on and also to Lauren’s excellent editorial skills. Firstly, we want people who grew up or are growing up in right-wing Christian environments to understand that it’s okay to trust their doubts, to break away and move toward healing, that there are other possibilities out there. They’re not alone.

Secondly, there’s still a pretty strong taboo in the American public sphere against criticizing any large Christian group that we hope this book will help smash. The press tends to coddle conservative, mostly white evangelicals, and to some extent radical traditionalist Catholics and Mormons, much to the detriment of our democracy. The Christian Right is, after all, Trump’s base, and as a bloc they represent the single greatest threat to democracy and human rights in the United States.

Lauren: I second all that and would just add that I want readers to know that all different kinds of experiences and stories are valid. It’s great that people have beautiful experiences with religion, but stories like ours are valid too.

I mostly had in mind fellow leavers of toxic Christianity and American liberals who need to get a clue about how serious a threat authoritarian Christians represent to democracy.

Is there anything you had to leave out?

Chrissy: By and large, not really. We passed on some strong essays in order to focus primarily on leavers who ended up as atheists or agnostics, rather than [on those who chose] a healthier spiritual or religious path.

Lauren: Similarly, to keep the scope of the book manageable, we focused on American stories, which meant we couldn’t include as many international perspectives as we wanted.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?

Lauren: I think one of the biggest misconceptions is that people who leave the church are just angry and bitter, and that any critiques of Christianity are just kind of sour grapes. I think you’ll find justified anger in some of these essays, but I think you’ll also find they’re written not from a place of bitterness but from some measure of peace. You can’t write a good essay about something in your life until you’ve had time to come to terms with it and move on from it. Even the contributors that experienced the worst forms of trauma and abuse have come far enough to share something really vulnerable about themselves with the whole world. That’s strength and courage, not bitterness.

Chrissy: I absolutely agree with Lauren here; the late Rachel Held Evans, who did so much to shake up conservative Christian subculture and who left us too soon, also emphasized writing from our scars rather than our wounds. It’s an important insight, and it took me twenty years to write a confessional essay about my experiences on short-term mission trips in Russia and how they contributed to my loss of faith.

In terms of misconceptions, one that’s related to Lauren’s comments about “bitterness” is the widespread notion that Christianity, and maybe all “real” religion, is inherently benign. The truth is that some religion wounds. Some religion kills. Some religion absolutely destroys people who cannot be accommodated or contained within a rigid fundamentalist, and frankly white supremacist patriarchal, ideologically driven community.

It is absolutely inaccurate and unhelpful to sweep this problem away by calling toxic Christians “fake Christians,” which is unfortunately a popular take among liberals. In fact, it’s not just inaccurate and unhelpful; it’s also an insult to survivors of toxic religion. On the whole, despite the powerful and important interventions of #MeToo and #ChurchToo, our culture still accommodates abusers more than it does victims and survivors. I hope this books helps to change that.

Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?

Lauren: I cohost a podcast called Sunday School Dropouts in which I (an ex-Christian) and my husband (a nonbelieving sort of Jew) read through the Bible. Over time, that podcast has grown a much bigger and more diverse audience than I expected. There are people like me who have left their faith, people who don’t really know anything about religion and want to learn, and—most surprising to me—people who follow more progressive forms of Christianity. I had all those audiences in mind while working on this book, plus, perhaps above all, people who are currently questioning or deconstructing their faith; I want them to know that other paths are possible.

Chrissy: When I started out working on this book with Lauren, I mostly had in mind fellow leavers of toxic Christianity and American liberals who need to get a clue about how serious a threat authoritarian Christians represent to democracy. I will be glad if we do reach a wider audience than that, and the book should also appeal to those who are curious about current social dynamics. I could see the collection being assigned as a primary source in a religious studies course.

Are you hoping to just inform readers? Entertain them? Piss them off?

Chrissy: Um, all of the above? I’m really good at pissing off Christians in particular; just check out my Twitter. On a more serious note, much of the book is heavy, but there are lighter and humorous moments.

I think the final product is a profoundly human sort of impressionistic generational portrait that is by turns informative, artistic, and likely to induce anger. We should be angry, after all, about the oppression and abuses that right-wing Christians inflict on their children and, when they can, the rest of American society. And you can be sure some Christians will be pissed off by the book’s mere existence.

Lauren: Hahaha, I would say more like none of the above! To me, the primary purpose is just to offer a connection with another human’s story. I see the point of a personal essay as something like getting to see the inside of another person’s head for a while, and the emotional and intellectual experience that entails. If it’s informative and entertaining on top of that, all the better. (This is why I needed Chrissy as a coeditor!  Otherwise I would just be like, “Isn’t the literary power of a well-crafted essay the main thing people are looking for in a book?”)

Chrissy: Heh, we needed each other! I have a Ph.D. in history and have been learning to write in non-academic genres over the last five years or so, but if I’d done this book without Lauren, I’d have gotten bogged down in statistics, context, and the academic-ish apparatus. Lauren helped me considerably in crafting my contribution so that the final version was a true personal essay, written in the appropriate style, even if it is one informed by history and sociology. We were also able to reach out to overlapping but distinct networks to bring particular people on to the project. It is what it is because of the ways in which we happen to complement each other. Thanks, Lauren, for being the Laverne to my Shirley, or something.

Lauren: We’re actually Thelma and Louise, and this book is us driving off a cliff together.

What alternative title would you give the book?

Lauren: Actually, this book did have a different title for multiple years! It was originally called By the Rivers of Babylon: Apostates Remember Believing, a reference to Psalm 137:1: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.” The idea was that people who have left the church are experiencing a kind of exile like the Israelites did in Babylon. But it’s already been the title of various songs, books, and movies, so we ultimately decided to come up with something more unique. We were cycling through all these soggy, un-catchy Bible references when suddenly I realized: Chrissy had already created a hashtag with the perfect title.

Chrissy: When Lauren suggested that we might name the book after the #EmptyThePews hashtag and the loose community and movement around it that had formed on Twitter, I was immediately on board. I coined the hashtag in August 2017 to protest white evangelical leaders’ responses to Charlottesville and Trump’s “very fine people on both sides” comments, figuring that a hashtag that pointed to evangelicals losing numbers and losing the youth would be a good way to make waves. And it was.

I have clarified multiple times that I never intended it to be anti-religious as such, but only to be a call to leave toxic churches for better religion or no religion, as conscience dictates, and to publicly declare our reasons for doing so or for having done so in the past. The radical phrasing is necessary, I think, to convey a proper intensity to the protest, and the hashtag remains an active community hashtag, used daily on Twitter. I like that we used it for the title of this book, which I absolutely see as a continuation of the impulse behind the hashtag.

How do you feel about the cover?

Lauren: We both loved it as soon as the publisher suggested it! It’s been so exciting seeing people tweet pictures of it! 

Is there a book out there you wish you had written? Which one? Why?

Lauren: Well, when I read Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli earlier this year, I despaired of ever writing anything as good; so, that I guess!

Chrissy: This is a tough question for me. I draw inspiration from many writers and intellectuals, but I don’t think it’s possible to write any book you haven’t lived into, as it were. I could say I wish I’d written Barbara Kingsolver’s moving The Poisonwood Bible, but I know I never could have without living her life. I do hope, however, that someday I might also write fiction, and that I might be able to write something similarly compelling that touches on similar broad themes. I have no idea if I’ll even get close.

What’s your next book?

Chrissy: I’m in the very early stages of working toward my first single-author book, the working title for which is Generation Culture Wars. Building on my previous work including Empty the Pews and the shorter stuff, I want to write essentially an autoethnographic history of the last 50 years or so of the Christian Right and its culture wars, framed through the eyes of survivors who have rejected the Christian Right. Much as Linda Kay Klein did for Pure, I’ll be conducting a lot of interviews and using those to frame the narrative.

Lauren: I’m (deep sigh) working on a novel.

Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know about your book?

Lauren: We’re very grateful to all the contributors who shared their stories with us and waited very, very patiently over the years it took to bring this project to fruition.

Chrissy: Thanks also to Frank Schaeffer, an older and earlier renegade from the Christian Right, for providing a foreword that I think grants the book a little more gravitas and situates it in an ongoing trend in which survivors of the culture wars are trying to undo the damage. And to Epiphany Publishers, for taking a chance on the project, and for treating it, and us, very well along the way.