The Sunday Rumpus Interview: Erika Rae


Confession: I have not actually met Erika Rae. As a journalist and as a former Evangelical, I feel the need to state that up front. Evangelicals possess a finely honed sense of guilt that, when we stray too far from The Truth, is assuaged only by public acknowledgement of our wrongs. We are similar in that way to Catholics, though we are loathe to admit this because many Evangelicals consider Catholics to be Pagans. I realize with mild surprise that I have written “we” instead of “they,” thus counting myself among the fold, again, though I left more than three decades ago.

Erika and I first discussed the entrenched cultural identity we share as former Evangelicals over the phone last summer, when she interviewed me regarding my book Holy Ghost Girl. We spoke again last week via phone and email about her new memoir, Devangelical, and about what it means to grow up in the thrall of an apocalyptic worldview.

There are differences in our stories. My “sort of” stepdad was a tent preacher who waged such war against education, that to attend college was tantamount to being a traitor. Scandal and betrayal forced me to break with the church when I was seventeen. Erika’s parents were academics who prized intellectual curiosity and encouraged their daughters to pursue higher education. There was more normal life, less drama. Leaving unfolded as a process for Erika. She began to question church teachings during her early twenties while working on an M.A. in Literature and Linguistics at the University of Hong Kong. Ten years passed, and she realized she was no longer Evangelical.

Erika began to write Devangelical in part as a response to talks with angry ex-Evangelicals, friends who recalled their church days with bitterness. As she reflected on her experience, she discovered a twisted humor, the kind that results when well-intentioned people with deeply held beliefs try to circumvent their humanity. They were bound to veer off course.

It was not lost on us that our most recent conversation took place in the days leading up to Christmas or The End of The World, whichever came first.


The Rumpus: So, Erika, what’s up with the little dress and the thigh-highs on the cover of Devangelical? Are you trying to make a statement that you’ve left the church to become a little slut?

Erika Rae: Yes. No! But it was meant as a statement, certainly. A large part of the Evangelical ethos that I experienced was focused on an attempt to refocus sexuality onto spirituality. One of the average Evangelical’s favorite topics has to do with sex: how far to go before marriage, when to say no, and how other people are sinful and going straight to hell for it. I would argue that many of the prominent political issues from this last election—abortion, gay marriage, government-provided birth control—are all offshoots of this.

Rumpus: I find it interesting that modern Evangelicals discuss “how far to go.” The religious milieu I came from, the Holiness tent revival movement, said don’t do it, period. Cut off your hands, tongue, and any other offending member…but don’t do it. What was never mentioned was that everyone was doing it, especially the preachers. Your church was more modern in its approach. As you put it in the book, you were trying to be “hot for God, not for each other,” and even go so far as to suggest that one of the church youth group’s main functions was to provide an alternative to sex. How did that work out for you?

Rae: Our denomination had branched off the Holiness movement, too, but was definitely a bit more integrated into modern culture than what I remember reading about your group in your book, Holy Ghost Girl. (It still blows me away how you managed to actually leave that!) One guest preacher we had at our university actually made cards up for us, color-coded for each base level (and a few in between) like a Homeland Security warning system. Hand-holding was next to green on one end of the spectrum, and intercourse was next to red on the other. “Heavy petting” was somewhere in the yellow-orange level and oral sex was right next to intercourse, of course, and was a bright blood orange. There were then dotted lines between the major color changes to show you, beyond a shadow of a doubt, which color progressions were like a middle finger in God’s face. Those cards were very helpful, of course. I am just sure college students were pulling them out while parked in the backs of their old beaters overlooking the city and checking them for reference.

The church I grew up in attempted to prolong these desires until marriage by refocusing our attention onto a radical relationship with Jesus, our “groom.” Other churches encourage teenage girls to pledge their purity to God and to their daddies. But while people may be able to resist inserting plug into socket, there are plenty of loopholes. Pretty steaming hot loopholes, as a matter of fact. Of course, I was in high school before the philosophical advances of a certain Lewinsky scandal, so we were able to smugly assert that we were not having sex, but still. Nature finds a way. I am always surprised by other Evangelical friends who—now grown up—will admit to having real sex, though. There was a lot more going on in my youth group than I had any idea about.

Rumpus: You and I were both raised essentially under the Evangelical umbrella. Can you elaborate on what that means for people who may not be familiar?

Rae: First, “Evangelical” (in the protestant sense): technically, it includes belief that Jesus was born of the virgin Mary as the only son of God, died on the cross, and then was resurrected to save those who believe in him from a place called Hell. People then have the responsibility to spread the word to keep others from going to Hell, too. Culturally, it bridges the gap between orthodox Christianity and its more fundamental versions, in that it strives to attract people to the Church through a plethora of “relatable” programs and activities designed to keep people from being tempted by “the world.” Examples may or may not include: Christian Movie Night, Christian Roller Skating Night, Christian Rock Concerts, Christian Gun Clubs, Christian Yoga, Christian Book Clubs, Christian Halloween (Fall Fest), Christian Dating Mixers, and Christian Cruises.

Rumpus: And so “Devangelical” means…

Rae: For me, “Devangelical” is simply how I describe myself when I suddenly realized that I was outside the Evangelical culture, looking in. If someone had told me twenty years ago that I would be here, I never would have believed it. I didn’t plan it. It happened over time for me. But once I recognized what had happened, I was interested in retracing the why and trying to find my way back to a place where I could feel honest about my search. That took introspection, forgiveness, and a whole lot of laughter.

Rumpus: I was struck in reading your story how nothing actually horrible happens. There is no scandal to point to, no moment where people are being overtly wronged…and yet you walk the reader through several events that eventually caused you to diverge from the culture of the Evangelical church. Why did you write the book, and is it your intention to defame or discredit the Evangelical church?

Rae: Certainly my motivation is not to defame the Evangelical church. I wouldn’t bring up the questions I do in my book at all if I didn’t care. Over six million people left the Evangelical church during the last five years, according to the last Pew Research Survey. If anything, I would think that the Evangelical church might be interested in joining in the conversation. And, if not, I know a lot of us who left it behind are. Personally, I’d love to see genuine change within the church; not a huge bail.

Rumpus: So let’s talk about sex some more…and guilt. Data from Evangelical sources show that they hook up at about the same the rate as those outside the church, but with considerably more angst. Tongue only slightly in cheek here. Could it be the guilt makes it more fun, and that Evangelicals are enjoying sex more than those of us who don’t feel guilty?

Rae: Totally. No, I don’t know about that. I suppose there could be an element of truth there, but my assumption is that people who are already believing they are doing something wrong sexually, tend to err on the side of unhealthy behaviors. Ted Haggard is a good example of this. As are certain Catholic priests we all know about. As was I, when I was sneaking in handjobs and then claiming I was pure as the driven snow based on a technicality, and then putting a ridiculous amount of pressure on everyone else by claiming purity was easy if they would just put God first. I mean, seriously? But I do think that there is something else to your question, in that people can tend to learn to get a rush only from “illegal” behavior. I think a lot of Evangelicals shoot themselves in the foot with this in that once they get married and sex is legal, it quickly becomes boring because there is no rush from doing something that is forbidden anymore. Hence, they go underground again.

Rumpus: There’s nothing like puberty to turn a parent from a liberal into a puritan. How do you deal with the issue of sexuality with your kids?

Rae: Well, my three kids are still young, but my oldest is fast approaching puberty. I plan to purchase a boxcar full of firecrackers and rig them up outside of her window. All that is to say that I hope I can be rational. Check back with me in a few years.

Rumpus: Despite the fact that this book is about Evangelical culture, it seems to appeal to a wider audience than just the Evangelical crowd. Can you explain this?

Rae: Currently, about 35% of our nation self-identifies as Evangelical (compare that with ~26% Catholic). Considering the influence this group has on the political climate—as evidenced by the recent election—I think a lot of people both in and outside this country are trying to simply understand the Evangelical mindset. And they should. It is a huge part of American culture. Not wanting to understand the Evangelical culture in our current political climate is a bit like not wanting to understand, say, the Mexican-American community in the middle of the immigration debates. But also, I believe that a lot of the issues I deal with in the book are a bit more universal to other religion—or religious culture—defectors. I have heard recovering Catholics, Jews, or even former members of the L.D.S. Church who say they can relate.

Rumpus: We both grew up waiting on the world to come to an end, and you make the point in Devangelical that Evangelical culture welcomes the end of the world. How do you think this paradigm express itself in today’s political climate?

Rae: The debate over global warming is a good example. This is because the general church has been approaching the issue from the angle that only God will destroy the earth, and not humans. This isn’t too different from the distrust of recycling back in the 1980s. Again, only God could destroy the earth, so we had better focus our time on saving souls rather than the Redwoods. Plus, it didn’t help that people who were into “saving the earth” were “a bunch of pagans who worshipped the earth as mother.” Luckily, a growing number within the church has realized that they can still take care of the “creation” without slapping the “creator” in the face.

It is also critical to understand that most Evangelicals (like other Christian branches) may be citizens in the world, but they do not consider themselves citizens “of” the world. For many, this essentially means that they do not feel this is their true home. Heaven is their true home. Therefore, they don’t really belong here, and they long for the day when they will be taken away to a place where they will be cherished and understood by a loving God. When they disagree with “the world” on certain issues, it really doesn’t matter since their citizenship is in Heaven. It is more important that their perception of God’s laws be enforced via legislation. It seems to me that this does not always open the door for peace or tolerance, which again, is not the goal. This may help to explain the current state of polarization our country finds itself in.

Rumpus: When I left the Evangelicals, I found that the end-of-the-world mentality continued to shape my behavior for a long time, you know as in the old “eat, drink and be merry (with mind altering chemicals if at all possible), for tomorrow we die” perspective. How did the apocalyptic view influence your struggle to define yourself apart from the Evangelical church?

Rae: Yeah, I can see that. For me, it was a little different in that I realized that I had been living my life as if I might be taken at any moment, not daring to cross any ambiguous lines with my big, hairy toes. I think I wanted to get over the fear of doing something wrong all the time—I distinctly remember thinking that I was so afraid of this, that I was forgetting to actually experience life. So, I sort of made a mental list of all the things I was afraid of, and began to experiment. Not for the thrill of “doing something wrong,” but more because I wanted to observe and explore for myself if it really was wrong. I wanted to get over my fears. I’m working on a new memoir that addresses a lot of this.

Rumpus: One of the biggest struggles for me in writing Holy Ghost Girl was the issue of betrayal. I lay awake lots of nights thinking, what kind of person holds their family up to public scrutiny and shame? (The answer? A writer! Not at all comforting.) Did you have similar struggles and how did you overcome them?

Rae: Definitely, I had similar struggles—and particularly in worrying over how I might offend friends and family by disagreeing with some of their conclusions. In my case, though, I attempted to not go too far into any of their personal lives. I wanted it to be an examination of my behavior, not theirs. That is actually one of the things I was incredibly impressed with when I read Holy Ghost Girl. You were able to really dig deep into your characters, while still treating their vulnerabilities with love. I’m a bit jealous of that ability.

Rumpus: Tom Perrotta told me that while writing The Leftovers, he began to think that the deepest divide in the U.S. wasn’t between conservatives and liberals, but between the churched and the unchurched. “The two sides don’t even speak the same language,” he said. I know from experience that the unchurched often think of believers as simpletons, yet you were surrounded by educated, and even more important for those of us who are writers, well-read people. How is it that rational people can hold what many consider irrational beliefs?

Rae: Right. So my parents were Christian academics, both with doctorates. My father was a Christian college president, and my mother was a language professor and is still a professional musician. Growing up, they passed their love of education on to my sisters and me. We traveled extensively. They taught me foreign languages. I learned to play several instruments. They encouraged complex argument and a breadth of exposure to different ideas and literature.

I understand the sentiment that people who do not believe in what is unseen have when they look at people of faith. It’s not logical or rational since it is not observable, the argument goes. I get it. A person of faith, however, would argue that it is just as big of a leap of faith to assume there is nothing beyond what we can see, and especially when referring to the entity people call “God.” As Voltaire put it, “Doubt is uncomfortable, but certainty is absurd.” That goes both ways, as far as I’m concerned. Faith, at its roots, is the strained hope that there is something more. It’s a choice about how one looks at the world, and in particular, about an afterlife, which of course cannot be proven either way on this side of the fence. For me, the problem simply lies in the point where the hope of the unproveable becomes fact. From there, it returns to the absurd.

Not everyone in the faith world sees it that way, of course. A premise is built about God and everything else in one’s life is built on that premise. In other words, faith is more commonly viewed as a form of certainty. Certainly that can be accomplished by both the educated and the uneducated, alike, though—and on both sides of the fence. We’ve seen evidence of this throughout the human story. I think there is truth to Perrotta’s statement, though. It is life being experienced by two entirely different paradigms.

Rumpus: But surely you agree that Evangelicals go further than mainline denominations and Christians in asserting the presence of the unseen, and just what that means and demands in return.

Rae: Yes, I would agree with that. We were completely obsessed by angels and demons, for example. As far as we were concerned, demons were waiting in every corner to influence us—and even to occasionally jump inside of us to possess us. Angels, too, were everywhere, but they would not necessarily help us unless we asked for the help. We believed we had to get specific, too. For example, “Please help me pass my exam at 8:25 today, and to also help me not to be late because of that one stoplight at the corner of 9th and Maple.”

Rumpus: I was surprised to find that the act of writing softened my view of my religious upbringing. In bringing those times and those people to life on the page, I began to see them through the lens of their belief instead of my doubt. Did you find writing your book changed how you felt about your childhood and/or your religion?

Rae: Absolutely. We were only trying, after all—even in the midst of our zealousness. It helped to be able to look back on all of that with some grace and laughter. The writing of this book was good therapy for me.

Rumpus: The formative nature of Evangelical teachings take me by surprise again and again. Do you find these beliefs reasserting themselves from time to time?

Rae: Definitely. I think when you are raised with one paradigm from birth, it never fully leaves you. That’s true of any religion, creed or culture. But I want to explore my understanding of the world and try to look past the cultural shaping. And still, no matter how deliberately I do this, I find that I slip back into those old thought patterns. It seems that it is my “default setting”. I often go back there automatically when I’m not actively thinking it through. It’s almost like the difference between involuntary breathing and voluntary breathing. If I stop paying attention to my thoughts and search, I revert to the old judgments, the old fears, the old guilt.

Rumpus: Do you think the Evangelical sensibility has anything of value to offer the broader world?

Rae: The community of the church is lovely in a lot of ways, in that people have a place of  refuge where they can belong. The teachings of Jesus are wise and certainly apply to a practical way to live in the broader world. Take care of each other. Don’t judge. Distrust showy religious people. Don’t be a dick. It’s pretty simple, really. Of course, I would argue that the culture and the teachings seem to be at odds a bit these days…

Rumpus: Sometimes I feel like a human conduit between the worlds of faith and doubt. Do you ever feel that way? Where do you stand now in terms of belief and disbelief?

Rae: It’s such a tight rope walk, isn’t it? Certainly I’m more Mulder than Scully in that I want to believe, but I’m also a victim of a postmodern mind. I deconstruct everything. I reinterpret everything. Everything, Donna. It’s not fair, really. Certainty is so much simpler. And so, I push on in my search, trying to understand. Trying to just let it go. I think one of the relevant pair of verses in the Bible to my struggle is when that man said, “Lord I believe. Help my unbelief.” That’s my dichotomy, too. Yeah, I realize I’m not really answering your question. So, where do I stand? I’m trying.

Rumpus: Your book is funny and irreverent without actually making fun of things like wrestling for Jesus. How important and how difficult was it for you as a writer to walk that line, and do you think you ever crossed it?

Rae: You did this well in Holy Ghost Girl when you described the tent meetings and the healings that took place. You described what you saw, without ever giving the reader the feeling like you were judging them. It was important to me that I attempt this, as well. It is not my job to say whether the exorcism I performed on my Goth friend at church camp was real. At the time, it was real enough. But there are other things that I probably poke fun at a bit more, although maybe not overtly. But seriously, Donna, how do you describe muscle men, who bend rebar in their teeth in the name of Jesus, without a little humor?

Rumpus: Evangelicals often (not always) think of themselves as being set apart from the mainstream. In what way did this outsider identity influence you to become a writer?

Rae: Probably in more ways than I ever realized before you asked this question. I learned a lot about being a writer from my Evangelical roots. Like my path to Heaven, if I was going to do it right, all I had to do was a) believe; b) persist on my path in the face of naysayers; and c) expect poverty.

Rumpus: Talk a little about your decision to publish with an indie press and how that experience has gone for you.

Rae: I started out, of course, naïvely gung-ho to get noticed by one of the big publishing houses. I was taken up by them twice, and dropped twice. It was very disheartening, of course. By the time I found Emergency Press, though, I had learned enough to know that a smaller press would mean better editing, better attention, and trust—actual trust! I am incredibly impressed by Bryan Tomasovich over there. In all honesty, he is the best thing that happened to this book.

Rumpus: So, your first published work. There is pressure after you write and publish a memoir to write another, and in some cases another and another and another. Are you afraid of being trapped in the role of memoirist? Got a plan for avoiding it?

Rae: Well, like I said above, I am working on another memoir (oops!). I’m also working on a novel, though. And, well, there is the small matter of the several fiction manuscripts I have already written, but which have not yet been published, and which span several different genres. I don’t know. We’ll see how this goes, I suppose. Whatever the case, the writing demon won’t leave me. Memoir or fiction, I’m in for the long haul.

Donna Johnson found redemption in books and the University of Texas. She is obsessed with the big questions posed by religion and has written about faith for the Dallas Morning News, the Austin American Statesman, The Holy Ghost Girl Blog at Psychology Today and other publications. Her critically acclaimed memoir, Holy Ghost Girl, won the Mayborn Creative Nonfiction prize and was awarded a Books for a Better Life award in the spirituality category. She lives and writes in Austin, TX, where with the help of family and friends, she works at leaving behind The Elect and becoming a normal person. More from this author →