Twenty-one timely, affecting essays by those who survived hardline, authoritarian religious ideology and uprooted themselves from the reality-averse churches that ultimately failed to contain their spirits
In this necessary and revealing anthology, Chrissy Stroop and Lauren O’Neal collect original and previously published pieces about leaving Christianity. Examining the intersections of queerness, spiritual abuse, loss of faith, and the courage needed to leave one’s religious community, these two social critics use a diverse collection of personal essays by apostates and survivors of religious trauma to boldly address the individual experiences and systemic dysfunction so common in conservative churches.
Following the 2016 election of President Trump, Stroop coined the hashtag #EmptyThePews on Twitter as a call to take a moral stance against the kind of fundamentalist, authoritarian, or otherwise conservative churches that helped bring about the current political situation and all its cruelty, division, and hate. The hashtag continues to circulate with the eye-opening and often heartbreaking stories of those who found the resolve to leave evangelical, Mormon, Catholic, and other religious communities. Empty the Pews continues this campaign by sharing the unflinchingly honest stories of those who escaped hardline religious ideology—and how it failed to crush their spirits.
Contributions include essays from a diverse group of established and up-and-coming writers, including Garrard Conley, Lyz Lenz, Juliana Delgado Lopera, Carmen Maria Machado, Isaac Marion, Maud Newton, Julia Scheeres, Linda Tirado, and more, as well as a foreword by Frank Schaeffer, the former Christian Right leader turned trenchant critic.
A provocative anthology of undeniable importance and power, Empty the Pews reflects upon the disoriented worldview of harmful, narrow-minded religious ideologies and also offers a clear call to action: to those who refuse to be complicit in the bigotry and abuse present in so many churches, now is the time to empty the pews.
Foreword and Introduction
Chrissy Stroop and Lauren O’Neal
I – Purity Culture, Sexuality, and Queerness
Land of Plenty
A Girl’s Guide to Sexual Purity
Carmen Maria Machado
A Softer Answer
II – Focusing on the Family
Matthew Clark Davison
My Son Went to Heaven, and All I Got Was a No. 1 Best Seller
A Glutton and a Drunkard
III – Trauma and Abuse in Christian Contexts
Burden of Proof
IV – American Christianity, Diasporas, and Missions
Gentrify My Heart
Juliana Delgado Lopera
Now Defunct: Confessions of a Former Short-Term Youth Missionary to Russia
Running from the Monster of the Deep
J. L. Powers
God the Investment Banker
V – Intellectual Odysseys
Denmark is a Country in Europe
A Better Dream
About the Contributors
Garrard Conley is the author of the New York Times best-selling memoir Boy Erased, which has been translated into over a dozen languages and is now a major motion picture. He is also a creator and producer of the podcast UnErased, which explores the history of conversion therapy in America through interviews, historical documents, and archival materials provided by the Mattachine Society of Washington, DC. His work can be found in the New York Times, Time, Vice, CNN, BuzzFeed, Them, Virginia Quarterly Review, and the Huffington Post, among other places. Conley lives in New York City with his husband, and is currently at work on a novel about queer eighteenth-century lives. He can be found online at @gayrodcon and garrardconley.com.
Peter Counter is a freelance technology and culture writer living in Halifax, Nova Scotia. His writing has appeared on numerous websites including Motherboard, Art of the Title, and That Shelf. His horror blog, Everything is Scary, is where he funnels all the energy he used to spend praying.
Matthew Clark Davison is a writer and educator living in San Francisco. He is creator and teacher of The Lab writing classes, and earned a BA and MFA in creative writing from San Francisco State University, where he now teaches full time. He has also served as the chief artistic strategist at Performing Arts Workshop and coached writing at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. His work has been published in or on Guernica, the Atlantic, and more, and he has been recognized with a Creative Work Grant (Inaugural Awardee/San Francisco State University), Cultural Equities Grant (San Francisco Arts Commission), Clark Gross Award for a Novel in Progress, and a Stonewall Alumni Award.
Juliana Delgado Lopera is an award-winning Colombian writer based in San Francisco. The recipient of the 2014 Jackson Literary award, she’s the author of Quiéreme (Nomadic Press 2017) and ¡Cuéntamelo!, an illustrated bilingual collection of oral histories by LGBT Latinx immigrants which won a 2018 Lambda Literary Award and a 2018 Independent Publisher Book Award. She’s received fellowships from Brush Creek Foundation of the Arts, Lambda Literary Foundation, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and the SF Grotto, as well as an individual artist grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission. Her work has appeared in Eleven Eleven, Foglifter, Four Way Review, Midnight Breakfast, Broadly, and Time Out, to name a few. She’s the creative director of RADAR Productions, a queer literary nonprofit in San Francisco. Her debut novel, Fiebre Tropical, which won the 2014 Jackson Literary Award, will be out spring 2020 from the Feminist Press.
Lyz Lenz is the author of God Land: A Story of Faith, Loss, and Renewal in Middle America and the forthcoming Belabored: Tales of Myth, Medicine, and Motherhood. She has been published in many places, including the New York Times, BuzzFeed, the Washington Post, the Guardian, and the anthology Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture, edited by Roxane Gay. Lenz holds an MFA in creative writing from Lesley University and is a contributing writer to the Columbia Journalism Review.
Topher Lin is a writer, performer, and conceptual artist based in San Francisco. Since 2017, he has been an ensemble member of the San Francisco Neo-Futurists, with whom he has written, directed, and performed in hundreds of short plays as part of their critically acclaimed weekly show The Infinite Wrench. Although he no longer attends church regularly, he does host monthly worship-inspired secular singalongs with his band We Used to Praise God. If you ever find yourself in the Bay Area, please come on by! You can always find the latest at topherlin.com.
Carmen Maria Machado’s debut short-story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, was a finalist for the National Book Award, the Kirkus Prize, the LA Times Book Prize Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, the World Fantasy Award, the Dylan Thomas Prize, and the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction, and the winner of the Bard Fiction Prize, the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction, the Shirley Jackson Award, and the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize. In 2018, the New York Times listed Her Body and Other Parties as a member of “the New Vanguard,” one of “15 remarkable books by women that are shaping the way we read and write fiction in the 21st century.” Her essays, fiction, and criticism have appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, Granta, Tin House, VQR, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, The Believer, Guernica, Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has been awarded fellowships and residencies from the Michener-Copernicus Foundation, the Elizabeth George Foundation, the CINTAS Foundation, Yaddo, Hedgebrook, and the Millay Colony for the Arts. She is the writer in residence at the University of Pennsylvania and lives in Philadelphia with her wife.
Isaac Marion grew up in small towns around the Pacific North-west, pursuing careers in writing, painting, and music throughout his youth until the publication of his debut novel in 2010. Warm Bodies became a New York Times best seller, inspired a major film, and was translated into 25 languages. He spent the next eight years writing the rest of the story over the course of four books, now concluded with The Living. He lives and writes on Orcas Island and plays music in Seattle with the band Thing Quartet.
Rebekah Matthews lives in Boston. Her stories have appeared in such publications as Wigleaf, Pithead Chapel, and Barrelhouse, and her novella, Hero Worship, was published by Vagabondage Press. You can read more about her at her writing website, rebekahmatthews.com.
Maud Newton’s writing has appeared in Harper’s, the New York Times Magazine, Narrative, Oxford American, Bookforum, Catapult, the Awl, the New York Times Book Review, and many other publications. She lives in Queens, across the street from woodlands and a couple blocks from the subway, with her partner, her dog, her two cats, and her ongoing mental refutation of and dialogue with the religious dogma her family tried to instill in her. Her book on ancestors is forthcoming from Random House.
Sara Nović is the author of the novel Girl at War, out now from Random House and Little, Brown UK, and available or forthcoming in thirteen more languages. America is Immigrants, short illustrated biographies of Americans hailing from all 195 countries, is out from Random House in 2019. Nović is an assistant professor of creative writing at Stockton University and lives in Philadelphia.
Rachel Ozanne is an adjunct US history professor, academic coach, and freelance writer and editor living in Austin, Texas. When she’s not pondering religious or historical questions, she enjoys hiking, practicing yoga, making music, traveling, and eating tacos.
J. L. Powers is the award-winning author and editor of nine books for adults, teenagers, and children, most recently Under Water in January 2019. In 2017, she launched Catalyst Press and Story Press Africa to publish African authors and illustrators and books based in Africa. She can be found at powerssquared.com, catalystpress.org, and jlpowers.net.
Frank Schaeffer is the author of more than a dozen books. These include his best-selling memoir about his exit from evangelical “royalty”—as the New York Times described the Schaeffer family in their review of Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back.
Julia Scheeres is a journalist, editor, writing coach, and award-winning author of the 2005 memoir Jesus Land, a New York Times and London Times bestseller, as well as a narrative history of the Jonestown tragedy called A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Jonestown. Her essays, articles and book reviews have been published in the New York Times, Elle, Marie Claire, O Magazine, Wired and other publications. She lives in the Bay Area with her husband and two daughters, and you can find her on Twitter at @JuliaScheeres or at her professional website, sequoiaeditorial.com.
Deirdre Sugiuchi is finishing her fundamentalist reform school memoir, Unreformed, which takes place at Escuela Caribe, a Christian reform school in the Dominican Republic. Sugiuchi’s work has been featured in Electric Literature, Guernica, the Rumpus, Shondaland, and other places. Sugiuchi lives in Athens, Georgia, with her husband and son, where she’s also a school librarian. Learn more at deirdresugiuchi.com.
Ruby Thiagarajan is a writer and editor from Singapore. She is the editor in chief of Mynah Magazine, a longform print publication about Singapore.
Linda Tirado is the author of Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America. Her work has appeared in the Guardian, the Daily Beast, and elsewhere.
Mel Wells is a writer, feminist, and the founder of Beefcake Swimwear. Her work has been published in the anthologies Untangling the Knot and Spent, as well as in Nailed Magazine, Electric Literature, Salamander (2012 fiction finalist), Pathos, and Boneshaker. Wells has received grants from the Regional Arts and Culture Council in Portland, Oregon, and a two-week residency at Dickinson House in Belgium. Her ongoing illustrated project about her journey out of Mormonism can be found on Instagram: @myunderwearwillsaveme. She lives in Missoula, Montana, with her wife and their ridiculous cat.
Rooney Wynn is a black queer woman living in Raleigh, North Carolina. She sometimes writes nonfiction essays. She loves books but loves television comedies more. Two years at a Bible college in Australia birthed her love of travel. Find her on Twitter and Instagram at @regsizerooney.
About the Editors
Chrissy Stroop grew up in central Indiana and Colorado Springs, Colorado, attending evangelical schools in both places before going on to earn a BA in history and German from Ball State University in 2003 and a PhD in modern Russian history from Stanford University in 2012. Chrissy lived in Moscow, Russia, and taught at a Russian university from 2012 to 2015, then worked at the University of South Florida in Tampa as a postdoctoral scholar and visiting instructor from 2015 to 2018. The creator of the viral hashtags #EmptyThePews, #ChristianAltFacts, and #ExposeChristianSchools, she currently resides in Portland, Oregon and works full time as a writer, speaker, and advocate for the exvangelical community and movement. Chrissy’s writing has appeared in Playboy, Foreign Policy, Religion Dispatches, Political Research Associates, Dame Magazine, the Moscow Times, EurasiaNet, and other outlets. Chrissy’s personal blog, Not Your Mission Field, can be found at cstroop.com.
Lauren O’Neal is a senior editor at Midnight Breakfast, contributing editor at Catapult, and cohost of the podcast Sunday School Dropouts. Her writing has appeared in publications like Slate, the LA Review of Books, The New Inquiry, Nylon, and more. Originally from San Francisco, she now lives in New York. You can follow her on Twitter at @laureneoneal.
Contact Chrissy and Lauren
Thoughts or questions about Empty the Pews? Want to request Chrissy and/or Lauren to come speak? Drop them a note and let them know what’s on your mind.