The Rumpus Book Club chats with Chrissy Stroop and Lauren O’Neal about their co-edited anthology, Empty the Pews: Stories of Leaving the Church (Epiphany Publishing, November 2019), the importance of community and validation, how authoritarian religions stifle learning and growth, and more.
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This Rumpus Book Club chat was edited by Marisa Siegel.
Marisa: Hi, and welcome to the Rumpus Book Club chat with Chrissy Stroop and Lauren O’Neal about their co-edited anthology, Empty the Pews!
Chrissy Stroop: Hi everybody! Thanks for the welcome, Marisa!
Lauren O’Neal: Hello!
Marisa: So glad to talk with you both! This anthology was a very interesting read for me as a non-practicing Jew who’s only ever lived near big cities on the East and West coasts. To get us started, can you talk a little about when and how Empty the Pews was developed as an idea for an anthology? Super curious whether that genesis predates the 2016 election…
Lauren O’Neal: It predates it by YEARS.
Chrissy Stroop: Yes, we chatted about it when we were both still at Stanford. I was in grad school there from 2004–2012.
Lauren O’Neal: I was an undergrad at the time. We had been kicking around the idea for seriously, like, eight years.
Marisa: How did it move from an idea of a book to a real-life book?
Lauren O’Neal: Every year, we’d kind of be like, “Hey, remember that idea?” and take one step further toward it. And then finally we put out a call for submissions and started soliciting authors as well.
Chrissy Stroop: We didn’t really seriously start working on it until 2016, though, and then, to get at your next question, we started talking about finding a way to actually make it happen. Somehow, in 2016, we actually put out that call.
Lauren O’Neal: I think when we started working on it, we had this idea that Trump would be defeated and the anthology would be kind of a victorious manifesto. Not that we discussed that in those words, I just think that was kind of the feeling in the back of our minds.
Chrissy Stroop: I think it had something to do with me getting back to the point where I really wanted to find more ex-evangelicals again—I’d made an attempt to start a Meetup along those lines while in grad school, but it had failed. And then I taught in a Russian university for three years and was kind of distracted by having a front row seat to the steep decline of US-Russian relations, and seeing my ruble-denominated salary plummet in value lol.
For me, it was definitely about contextualizing this generational moment, the rapid secularization of America’s youth that was continuing, the data was undeniable. And I probably had some hope that demographics would “kick” in in 2016. But instead the Electoral College and the Russian influence campaign kicked our ass.
Lauren O’Neal: So that was fun!
Marisa: Well, it’s inarguably important for Americans to examine and understand what’s happening in evangelical Christian communities around the country right now, and so the anthology feels very timely.
Chrissy Stroop: I was teaching at the University of South Florida then, in 2016, as a postdoc, still chasing the tenure-track dream. And thank you, I agree.
Lauren O’Neal: Yeah, it turned out to be timely in the opposite way than what we were hoping!
Chrissy Stroop: Either way the voices of those who have survived toxic Christianity deserved, and deserve, to be heard. And I think the idea of an anthology appealed to me for a number of reasons. Memoirs can be wonderful, and poignant, and relatable. But I wanted something that would be more like a kind of composite, impressionistic portrait of the moment. I wanted not just individual but also collective visibility. That seems more likely to have a sustained impact on the public sphere.
Marisa: How did you collect work for the anthology? Did you put out a call for submissions, solicit writing, or both? Did the culling process change once you knew the outcome of the election?
Lauren O’Neal: Both, and no, the culling was long over by the time of the election.
Chrissy Stroop: We deliberately wanted a diverse pool of contributors, and we knew that we needed to have some more established authors, but I also wanted to publish some newcomers or less well-known people in the mix as well, and we also narrowed the focus to mostly those who had left religion for good. So we reached out to some individuals, and selected some from those who responded to our call for proposals.
Marisa: Were you at all surprised at/by the essays you received?
Lauren O’Neal: Yes! There are a million different ways to be Christian and a million different ways to be ex-Christian.
Chrissy Stroop: I can’t say I was surprised by much of the content. The essays that surprised me most were probably Peter Counter’s and Ruby Thiagarajan’s. I do think the diversity and yet the common themes that emerge within that constitute one of the most intriguing features of the collection.
Lauren O’Neal: One of the most surprising ones was Peter Counter’s essay “Saint Tornado-Kick,” which is about angels and karate. I definitely did not expect any essays about karate to be submitted.
Chrissy Stroop: Yes, “Saint Tornado-Kick” is such a quirky tour de force! It’s so unexpected, and so beautifully and sincerely written.
Marisa: I was especially touched by Linda Tirado’s essay, “Denmark Is a Country in Europe.” It speaks to many concerns that other work in the anthology addresses, especially around the idea of “facts”—because of her early experiences in three separate and distinct religious communities, she had a unique perspective on the ways we’re shaped by the communities we’re exposed to early in our lives.
Lauren O’Neal: Yes! The triple crown!
Marisa: I wonder whether you have thoughts on how children raised in very religious environments are conditioned to think and interrogate the world around them? And what it takes to rebel, to move beyond what you’ve been told is true?
Lauren O’Neal: Something that I think about a lot and that we briefly mentioned in the book’s introduction is how kids are often treated when they ask completely sincere questions in Sunday school.
Chrissy Stroop: Oh, so many thoughts. And yes, I love how Linda’s essay addresses that issue of epistemology.
There’s a lot of community discipline and reinforcement. And isolation, in my case in Christian school, for example. All abuser tactics to keep people in line.
Lauren O’Neal: Kids will ask completely legitimate questions about the nature of sin or heaven and hell, and they’re often chastised or even told that the devil put that thought in their head.
Chrissy Stroop: And authoritarian communities and institutions run on the “alternative facts” and post-truth ethos that is now running amok, and has been to some extent for a long time in right-wing media.
As a Christian school kid who learned things like Nessie might be real and thus proof that dinosaurs and humans lived at the same time, I like to say that we were doing alternative facts before it was cool. I’ve addressed this in a number of places on my blog and in some of my other writing if people want to peruse: here, here, and here.
Lauren O’Neal: I remember the sort of mental gymnastics I had to do to convince myself that evolution wasn’t real even as I learned in school that it was.
Isaac Marion’s essay in our anthology, “A Better Dream,” talks about how in order to keep believing in a rigid, conservative form of Christianity, you need other people around you to keep believing it too, or the illusion will be punctured.
Chrissy Stroop: Hence evangelicals and Mormons love their MLMs.
Lauren O’Neal: I think you have to train people not to be curious and interrogative, and that’s a huge part of conservative Christianity.
Marisa: It seems like, given the internet, there are so many ways for that illusion to be punctured now.
Chrissy Stroop: Yes and no, Marisa. For the curious kid who’s willing to risk their soul, yes. But the internet can also reinforce what we want to believe. There’s a lot of information online to be sure. But it seems like information illiteracy is an increasing problem in the US. And authoritarian Christian subculture functions to keep people consuming “alternative facts” and rejecting actual facts when they go against the ideology.
Marisa: That’s so true, Chrissy—and especially when you’re being told that you’ll go to hell for even doubting what you’re being told. And maybe haven’t been taught to use the internet the way other children outside of religious communities have been.
Chrissy Stroop: Right. The social reinforcement and indoctrination still matters a lot, but there are more ways to find outlets for alternative sources of information, to learn about different ways people live, if kids go looking. My reading wasn’t policed as closely growing up as some kids’ in similar circumstances is. And, a lot of kids who left fundamentalist backgrounds used to sneak reading their parents wouldn’t have approved of in the library—well, that’s my anecdotal impression from talking to people, anyway,
Marisa: R. O. Kwon has talked about leaving religion, and the heartbreak she felt in the wake of that decision. While there is absolutely freedom that comes from a life choice, there is also kind of necessarily a void in the absence of the faith that once existed. Some of the essayists in Empty the Pews address this feeling, and I was wondering if you might speak to it for your own perspectives. Has finding community with other ex-evangelicals help to ease the pain of the loss? (Or maybe it’s presumptuous of me to assume it feels like a loss!)
Chrissy Stroop: That’s a great point. I’m reminding of Thomas Hardy’s thoughts also on “the death of God.” They weren’t exactly cheery. Neither were Nietzsche’s, really. Identity loss is a huge part of this. You’ve had this indoctrination machine telling you who you are for your entire life, and then it’s gone. I repressed my queerness into my thirties, realized I’m a trans woman at age thirty-three, and often still have a hard time making choices or knowing exactly what I really want. There’s always social and psychological cost to leaving, and I’m glad we don’t downplay that in the anthology. Celebratory isn’t the right approach to these conversations—at least not exclusively. That’s why the first title we had in mind was “By the Rivers of Babylon: Apostates Remember Believing.”
The exilic theme, the mourning for lost Zion. It’s a very fitting metaphor. I feel like my childhood and youth were stolen from me. I spent college and much of my twenties in a protracted and painful crisis of faith, an existential crisis that never needed to exist. And on the other side of it, I still didn’t know who I was.
Lauren O’Neal: For me, it didn’t feel like a loss at all. It felt much more like freedom. I never really felt a sense of community in the church. R. O. Kwon has talked about how when she was a believer, she’d walk around feeling blissful. I never felt that. I never had a sense of a loving God, only that I was sinful and bad. To stop feeling that was a great gain for me, not a loss.
Chrissy Stroop: I absolutely did hate myself. But also, that was my whole community.
Lauren O’Neal: There is also a big difference between the two of us in that I grew up in a suburb of Berkeley, so the surrounding culture was very liberal. Most of my friends were not Christians. I was usually the odd one out for being Christian.
Chrissy Stroop: Maybe I was sort of addicted to those spiritual highs that happen, though they’re emotionally exhausting, when you go to some worship event with an altar call and cry your heart out and ‘rededicate your life to God.”
Lauren O’Neal: Another big difference is that I grew up Presbyterian, a denomination known for being very undemonstrative. No crying at altar calls!
Chrissy Stroop: There is freedom on the other side I suppose. But it was a scary freedom. Also, it wasn’t until I realized I was queer that the fear of a hell I had no longer believed in for about a decade finally faded away.
Marisa: I’ve never been especially religious, though I did attend Orthodox Jewish day school K–5 (because it was down the block?), and don’t remember ever believing in God. Even still, it sometimes feels like a lack. Or yes, a fear—if not that, then what? Where to turn for comfort, what to put faith in, etc.
Chrissy Stroop: Yeah, I ended up in mostly non-denominational-ish spaces, with certain charismatic beliefs becoming normalized. We never did speaking in tongues, though. I’m the oldest of two kids as well, and I had the typical oldest child’s caution. Always wanted to be a good kid, never wanted to rock the boat. Whoops
I’m a huge advocate of moral autonomy now, but finding strong and locally rooted community outside religion is not easy in the United States.
Lauren O’Neal: I never experienced God as comfort, so I didn’t feel like I suddenly had nowhere to turn. And I immediately liked not having to put faith in anything. It freed up so much mental space.
I’m the oldest of three and was by far the most observant of my siblings—but also the first to leave.
Chrissy Stroop: I experienced God as, looking back on it, fake comfort. The comfort that comes between episodes of active abuse. Not that I experienced the worst physical abuse—we got nothing worse than a wooden spoon. And I dodged the bullet of CSA. I now know there were predators around; some have been exposed. But the whole environment is very emotionally abusive, pervasively so.
Marisa: Chrissy, the parallels between fundamentalism and abusive relationships are pretty glaring indeed.
Chrissy Stroop: Lauren’s essay’s theme of self-hatred is relatable to me in this way. Fundamentalism is sadism. God is a giant negging PUA in the sky.
Lauren O’Neal: Hahaha, what kind of wacky hat does God wear?
Chrissy Stroop: Some kind of fedora?
Marisa: Was the process of putting the book together, and reading all the submissions, helpful in understanding your own experiences?
Chrissy Stroop: For me, I think, contextualization and knowing I’m not alone has always been helpful in processing my own experiences. So, yes. And it’s really only since about 2015 that I started connecting online with a lot of people from similar backgrounds. I wanted that before, but only experienced those connections in rare moments.
Lauren O’Neal: I think that in terms of understanding my own experience, I had already done a lot of that via my podcast, Sunday School Dropouts, in which my husband (a non-believing Jew) and I read through the Bible. But there’s always a beautiful spark when you read a sentence a stranger wrote and think, “That exact thing happened to me! You’re speaking for me!”
Chrissy Stroop: By the way, Rebekah Matthews and I graduated from the same Christian school. We knew each other. She was on yearbook staff as a sophomore when I was a senior and the editor-in-chief. But most of the kids I knew then stayed in the fold.
Lauren O’Neal: Most of my church friends have left the fold!
Chrissy Stroop: Lucky!
Lauren O’Neal: Like everyone in the worship band with me is an atheist now, hahaha.
Chrissy Stroop: Nice.
Marisa: Okay Lauren, I’m imagining you in a worship band and it’s… difficult but also hilarious.
Lauren O’Neal: I was the lead singer!
Chrissy Stroop: We have to do karaoke next time I’m in New York.
Marisa: Omg I am thirty-six years old and have never done karaoke. For no good reason. I almost did it at Tin House Summer Workshop this past July, but it went too late and I had to go to sleep. I’m old.
Chrissy Stroop: Where are you based, Marisa? If you’re based in PDX or you ever find yourself here, let’s go!
Marisa: I’m in NY, but I’m in Portland not infrequently and totally down!
We’ve spoken with other editors of anthologies in the Book Club this year, and they’ve all shared that it’s A LOT of work. Was that your experience? Would you do it again?
Lauren O’Neal: SO MUCH work.
Chrissy Stroop: Ha, so, we have talked about doing it again, and we might! But yes, it’s a TON of work. Herding cats, lol. Plus a lot of agents and publishers don’t want to take the risk.
There was a period with the anthology where I really wasn’t sure we were going to make it. An agent hadn’t gotten anywhere with big presses, and we parted ways. Then a friend introduced us to Epiphany, which I think is the perfect small press for it.
Marisa: I’m surprised a big press wouldn’t take it! It really is, again, so timely and important.
Were there other anthologies you looked to in determining how best to execute Empty the Pews?
Lauren O’Neal: Manjula Martin’s anthology Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living was very helpful, and she gave me some good advice about keeping so many different people on deadline.
Chrissy Stroop: So, I kind of had like a quasi-Norton anthology type concept in my head? Being from an academic background… There was initially going to be a bit more apparatus. But I’m happy with the balance in the end. A nerdy enough introduction, but not too nerdy, and only a few endnotes.
Lauren O’Neal: Apparatus!
Marisa: The anthology definitely feels kind of academic (i.e. I can imagine it’ll be on syllabi) but in no way limited to just that audience.
How did you two collaborate as editors, given that you live across the country from each other?
Chrissy Stroop: We started working this out over Facebook DMs, lol. But we did most things by email. I lived in Florida when we started, then Indiana, now Oregon.
Lauren O’Neal: Yeah, it was a lot of “Okay, I’ll edit this essay with track changes, then I’ll send it to you, then you send it back to me,” etc. A lot of Dropbox.
Marisa: Wow, did you both work on every essay?
Chrissy Stroop: I’ve now definitively given up on academia and am trying to get by as a writer/speaker/commentator/advocate. I depend on Patreon and hope that eventually I won’t, because I always feel like that could disappear at any moment.
We both at least read them all over, kinda checked each other’s work. But Lauren is the editorial MVP for sure. Also, her more literary background and my more academic one made for a good mix.
Marisa: Lauren is a superstar editor; I know that firsthand.
Lauren O’Neal: I come from an editorial background—I used to edit the Rumpus Book Club chats, haha.
Marisa: I’m pretty sure you wrote Rumpus’s style guide!
Lauren O’Neal: I have edited a lot of literary work and also a lot of, like, cookbooks. Nothing academic!
Chrissy Stroop: I was the editor of the English-language daughter journal of a Russian academic religious studies journal for a while, and I hated it. I felt like such a phony crafting that style guide. It was really hard because it was a very interdisciplinary journal, so I had to come up with this unwieldy mashup of APA, Turabian, and MLA. I had a lot of help with coming up with that style guide from a more professional academic editor than me, and I still hated it. But that’s neither here nor there I guess.
Marisa: What are you two each working on in your personal writing lives? (If you don’t mind sharing.)
Lauren O’Neal: I’m working on a novel, about which I can’t say anything more, for fear of jinxing it.
Chrissy Stroop: I have a proposal for a nonfiction book about the last forty or fifty years of the Christian Right’s culture wars, framed by the stories of survivors who have rejected the Christian Right, that is currently sitting in front of an agent.
If you’ve read Pure by Linda Kay Klein, it’ll be somewhat modeled on Linda’s autoethnographic approach, but applied to a broader range of themes. And much less Jesus-y.
I love Linda but damn that’s a Jesus-y book. We have had long discussions about how it’s rough that purity culture survivors who became fully secular don’t see ourselves represented in that book. She admitted that it worked out that way, and said she wishes she’d done more to include secular people. (Here’s an interview I published with her on my blog.)
Marisa: How do you hope Empty the Pews will be received? What are you most wanting readers to take from the essays assembled within it?
Chrissy Stroop: My hope is that it will help us achieve the collective visibility I mentioned above—”us” being the leavers from hardline Catholicism, Mormonism, evangelicalism, and other high-demand religions. There’s still a powerful taboo on criticizing any large Christian group too harshly in the American press. Ideally, this anthology would help us smash that taboo and get people who have left right-wing Christianity a seat at the table in the elite public sphere. I genuinely believe that the future of American democracy, if there is one, depends on us smashing that taboo. White conservative Christians are Trump’s base.
I also hope that many readers will find themselves in it and feel less alone.
Lauren O’Neal: The thing I generally want readers to take from any personal essay is a sense of understanding another person’s inner reality and how it informs and is informed by the world we all have to make sense of together. For this book specifically, I would really love other ex-believers to feel that their stories are valid and important.
Chrissy Stroop: I also completely second that, Lauren. Validation is critical. And it can be hard to find through the isolating process of leaving a high-demand religious group.
I also like your phrasing there, about having to make sense of the world together. Functional democracy demands pluralism. But what do you do when you’ve got anti-pluralist fanatics who hold immense political power? How do you counter that? I think we counter it by getting the general public to listen to the voices of survivors.
Marisa: Thank you both for your time tonight, and for your candor. I really do think this is an important book, and I hope it finds its way into many readers’ hands—and quickly!
Chrissy Stroop: Thank you, Marisa! Happy to join you, and I really appreciate you selecting this book!
Lauren O’Neal: Thanks for having us, Marisa! As I mentioned, I used to edit this chat when I worked at the Rumpus, so it’s very exciting for me to be on the other side of the process!
Marisa: Have a good night, and thanks again for putting this out in the world! Aside from its political import and timeliness, I’ve also found some new writers to dig into which is always a pleasure.
Chrissy Stroop: Excellent! So glad you like the book, and have a good night!
Lauren O’Neal: Good night!
Photograph of Chrissy Stroop and Lauren O’Neal provided courtesy of Chrissy Stroop.