In “Empty the Pews: Stories of Leaving the Church,” mostly Gen X and millennial writers describe their disillusionment with the faith of their youth and their departure from their religious communities. In a foreword, Frank Schaeffer, who in 2007 published a memoir of leaving evangelicalism, calls the thinning of the ranks “a generational exodus from toxic Christianity.” The essayists in the book — who include Carmen Maria Machado, (“Her Body and Other Parties,” “In the Dream House”), Garrard Conley (“Boy Erased”) and Linda Tirado (“Hand to Mouth”) — come from a variety of Christian backgrounds: Mormon, Catholic, mainline Protestant and evangelical. All grew up in schools, social circles, families or churches where religion took a conservative, if not an authoritarian, form. Some faced rejection because of their sexual orientation; some were abused; at least one was taught that black people and white people belonged to different species, and that the Earth was 6,000 years old.
Most of them had multiple reasons for giving up on the church. Conley’s parents’ efforts to turn him straight were not only traumatic for him (he had thoughts of suicide) but also faith-destroying: “It became impossible to take seriously the notion that I could continue communicating with a God who seemed to prefer me dead to gay.” In an essay about growing up in Singapore’s Americanized megachurch culture, Ruby Thiagarajan recalls the two phases of her departure. She initially had trouble reconciling her beliefs with church teachings. After a church corruption scandal, her belief that church was simply not for her transformed into sadness for those who put their faith in undeserving leaders. Many essays in the collection highlight the spiritual stakes of social relationships. In these cases, crises of religious faith stem from disappointment or disillusionment not so much with God but with other people.
A pattern emerges in the narrative arcs of the essays: Childhood faith falters and then dissolves in the face of corruption, hypocrisy, rejection, abuse or beliefs that do not align with reality. While many of the essayists testify to having felt isolated, this collection makes clear that — to paraphrase editor Lauren O’Neal — they were part of a community they did not know existed. Each time I read a piece in which the writer had no one to talk to about their dissipating faith, or the abuse they were enduring, I wished they could reach through the pages and into another essay, where they might find relief or solidarity. Of course, that’s exactly what this collection enables them, and their readers, to do. Though most of the essays are decidedly personal, rarely (and only briefly) veering away from individuals’ stories to describe their social or political context, O’Neal and editor Chrissy Stroop have transformed them here into a document of collective pain and loss. Whereas Tara Westover’s “Educated” and Megan Phelps-Roper’s “Unfollow” — two recent memoirs of leaving Christian extremism — recount exceptional individual experiences, “Empty the Pews” traces a broader social phenomenon.
As in any successful collective project, the weaker entries feel less so, since they are contributions to a valuable whole. And the stronger entries do not stand out as much as they might if you read them alone. The thematic repetition — and the sincere, direct tone in which most are written — can make the essays blur together, through no fault of their own, despite the particularities of each story. Topher Lin’s excellent piece titled “Selling Out,” for example, is distinct in its moral complexity. His church was homophobic and regressive, yes; but while his beliefs have diverged, he suspects that his split was driven as much by his desire to seem cool as by his moral qualms. Lyz Lenz, in her essay “Cottonwood Creek,” displays a unique gift for evoking place. By linking her loss of faith to the loss of her beloved childhood home, “where the greenbrier curled around trees and scratched our legs and the water oak tipped lazily over the stream as if in a constant half-state between dreaming and awake,” she makes the pain of her loss sharper and more tangible. But the essays’ shared trajectory of exodus leaves such a strong impression that these distinctions might fade into the background for those who read the book quickly.
At times, this trajectory even steamrolls Christianity and, by extension, religious belief into a one-dimensional phenomenon. There are exceptions, such as Rooney Wynn’s moving essay about coming to embrace a faith less doctrinaire than the one she grew up with. But the collection’s overall framing seems to equate the bigotry and ignorance of some Christians with Christianity itself. As Schaeffer writes in his foreword, “The grim ‘witness’ of how Christians have behaved and voted is too heavy a blow for faith in magical thinking to survive.” Here his critique of the Christian right slides into an implied critique of belief (“magical thinking”). In the book’s final essay, Isaac Marion is even more explicit: “All religious belief is a game of pretend.”
One possible explanation for such categorical dismissal appears in Mel Wells’s essay about Mormonism: “I . . . struggle to accept that other people’s experiences being raised Mormon were different, milder, even positive. My own was such a potent, violent version, delivered through the knuckles and barbed words of my stepdad, heavy on Patriarchy, Obedience, and Ways You Are Doing It Wrong.”
This passage is one of many reminders that the equation of Christianity with homophobic, racist, misogynist and false beliefs did not originate with any of these writers. It’s an equation that some parents, teachers and church leaders make again and again: To be a good Christian you must not be gay. To be a good Christian you must submit to your husband. To be a good Christian you must believe that the Earth is 6,000 years old. To be a good Christian you must vote Republican. Their children have simply taken them at their word.
Empty the Pews
Stories of Leaving the Church
Edited by Chrissy Stroop and Lauren O’Neal
Epiphany. 274 pp.