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Former evangelicals are putting the American church under a microscope in pop culture

From Lucy Dacus to Danny McBride, more great art is examining evangelicalism’s relationship to America.

Lucy Dacus performs in front of stylized stained glass windows.
Lucy Dacus performs her song “VBS” (short for Vacation Bible School) on The Tonight Show in November.
Photo By: Sean Gallagher/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

You might be tempted to call Monica West’s terrific 2021 novel Revival Season “magical realism.” It features, after all, a protagonist who may or may not have the power to heal people by laying her hands on them, and it takes place in a world where the miraculous is rare but not unheard of.

But West’s novel doesn’t take place in some alternate reality. It takes place in the Black evangelical church in Texas, a world that possesses a bone-deep belief that God can reach down into the world and enact miracles, if only his worshippers entreat him purely enough. And though I grew up in a rural, predominantly white evangelical church in South Dakota, the hardcore belief of West’s characters was familiar to me in a way that filled me with a kind of relief, even though I haven’t been an evangelical Christian for decades. Finally, somebody got it.

For decades, the primary pop culture windows into evangelical Christianity were either produced by Christian artists toward specifically Christian ends or they were characters like Ned Flanders on The Simpsons: goody two-shoes who were often a huge pain in the ass.

Revival Season is just one entry in a new wave of art, mostly books and music, created by people with histories in the American evangelical church or on its edges but people who have since left that church behind and now view the church’s contradictions as a good source for art. (West, for instance, grew up in a Baptist church in Ohio.)

In just the last year and change, works I would classify under this broad umbrella include new albums from Lucy Dacus, Semler, and Julien Baker, and books by Kelsey McKinney and West. (Disclosure: McKinney formerly worked at Vox, and I was her editor for about a year. We have remained friends.)

Also notable are the Netflix series Hellbound and Midnight Mass, although they fit this description a bit less cleanly. Hellbound is about Christianity from a South Korean perspective, and Midnight Mass is about American Catholicism. One might also consider the currently airing second season of HBO’s The Righteous Gemstones, a wonderful comedy that fixes a gimlet eye on the world of megachurches, but places questions about actual religious belief off on its fringes.

What unites this recent wave of projects, particularly the albums and novels, is that they’re all framed from a specifically exvangelical point-of-view. (“Exvangelical” is a term coined by the podcast host Blake Chastain to refer to former evangelicals who are often harshly critical of the church on social media platforms.) Some of these works live directly in the center of evangelical culture, while others lurk on its fringes. But they’re all grappling with a world where the rules make the most sense for a small handful of people, who are usually white, straight, cis men.

The people making this art tend to not be cis men (with some notable exceptions), and they’re often queer. But this wave is notable for how it captures a major element in American life, one that our pop culture rarely attempts to talk about, in its many contradictions.

Two novels display how the tensions of evangelical Christianity can create great storytelling

While these pieces of exvangelical art are far from the only projects to look at the aftermath of evangelicalism (The Eyes of Tammy Faye, for example), the fact that they all came out in such a short time frame suggests that popular culture is moving slowly but surely toward thinking about evangelicalism in a slightly more nuanced fashion. And what unites them is how they wrestle with the difficulty of existing as someone who is not a white, straight, cis man within a hierarchical, patriarchal structure that insists it’s actually egalitarian.

“The most powerful people in the evangelical church are constantly saying they aren’t powerful. They’re saying, ‘I’m just a guy like you. I’m wearing my jeans and my button-up shirt up here. I’m just a regular guy who loves Jesus.’ But they’re not!” McKinney said. “The problem is that you have a group of people saying, ‘Everyone can have a relationship with Christ’ and at the same time enforcing patriarchal, heteronormative, often racist values among their members, which inherently says that you can’t.”

These works also all wrestle with the degree to which evangelical culture creates an entire alternate universe that can be seductively beautiful to get sucked into, as well as the moment when someone realizes there’s more beyond that universe.

The covers of the noels Revival Season and God Spare the Girls.
Revival Season by Monica West and God Spare the Girls by Kelsey McKinney capture the first feelings of doubt.
Simon & Schuster/William Morrow

“When I was 12 or 13, I would go to church and see the good that was happening there, see that people’s lives were being changed, but also wrestle with some of the not-so-subliminal messages of patriarchy and gender and sexism that were in there,” West said. “It was hard for me to break those two apart — that this thing that’s really helpful for people is harmful and insidious and problematic. I’m still involved with churches, so for a fair amount of my life I’ve wrestled with that intersection of what it means to be faithful and also be someone who is persecuted by your faith.”

Novels offer a particularly good mode of exploring the exvangelical mindset. God Spare the Girls and Revival Season have similar structures: a teenage girl is confronted with a major secret lurking in her family’s past, and confronting that secret leads to a slow questioning of everything else.

Both books also situate themselves firmly in that girl’s perspective, which allows even readers who have no background in the church to understand just how devastating such a revelation can be and how it can breed cynicism. Evangelical churches often position themselves as an alternative to churches with more rigidly hierarchical structures, but coming of age within an evangelical church often means realizing those churches also have a hierarchy, one that often disempowers characters like those in both novels.

“By telling people they are all equal in their faith and that everyone has the same power, you diminish the truth of the structure of these churches, which is that there are people who make decisions for everyone else at the top, and those people’s decisions are driven by getting money from everyone else,” McKinney said.

But having a clear-eyed view of those power structures is too easily obscured by the ways in which faith and the communities it props up become all-encompassing. When you are in one of these churches, you are so enmeshed in it, often in every aspect of your life, that seeing anything outside of it is impossible.

Revival Season features several moments when its protagonist, Miriam, the 15-year-old daughter of a prominent faith healer, really does seem to heal people, but none of these moments is confirmed to stem from anything supernatural. People’s conditions clear up, but that happens from time to time. Correlation does not equal causation. But when you’re in the thick of an evangelical worldview, it’s so tempting to believe that, yes, God has reached out to work his will upon the world, possibly through your very hands. You determine the cause backward from the effect.

“None of this is understandable. I think that no one can explain it. Christians will explain it by saying, ‘That’s God. The Holy Spirit did this,’” West said. “People who aren’t Christians are like, ‘What is this? What’s happening here? What do these people believe?’ [In the book], I wanted to lean directly into the nature of the lack of answers and the lack of clarity.”

Where Revival Season leans into the pseudo-magical realism of evangelical Christianity, God Spare the Girls captures the near-paralyzing sense of terror that can result from the first inklings of doubt one might have in the church they grew up in. Its protagonist, Caroline, spends the summer leading up to her older sister Abigail’s wedding reeling after learning that the girls’ father, a megachurch pastor, has been cheating on their mother. Worse, the church leadership isn’t particularly inclined to do anything about it beyond offering a slap on the wrist.

Both Caroline and Abigail question every aspect of the lives they grew up with, but as the book ends, it seems like one will break with the church for good, while the other cleaves to it more strongly. It’s a choice McKinney says was intentional.

“The moments when you start to question your faith are some of the scariest. For me, those came in high school, and I was terrified. It was the only culture I knew and the only faith I had ever had. I didn’t know what my options were,” McKinney says. “Once you start questioning, you have two paths. You can dig in your heels, or you can see what else is out there.”

Both of these novels are situated explicitly within the perspective of women confronting the limitations of the evangelical church when it comes to allowing them agency and possibility. The evangelical church is a deeply patriarchal institution, and too often, women are forced to carve out tiny little niches to survive within it.

But beyond women, the modern church is also a difficult — if not impossible — place to navigate for queer people, and a host of recent albums explore that idea.

How a number of 2021 albums explore the divide between the evangelical church and queer people

Singer-songwriter Lucy Dacus grew up going to church four times a week, something that didn’t really end until she was in college. She also grew up in a household where her mother had many gay friends and where queerness was accepted. Yet despite that accepting environment, Dacus said, she still struggled to accept her own queerness until she had left the church behind.

“The sum total subtext of church made me afraid to lose people or have people look at me differently [because I was queer],” she says. “Or maybe I just didn’t want to inconvenience God, to make him have to forgive me more than he already was.”

Dacus’s Home Video was my favorite album of 2021. She wrote many of its songs after revisiting high school journals, and the album courses with undercurrents of romantic longing for boys and girls, all enmeshed with an environment where church is an important pillar of the community.

Dacus’s own church growing up wasn’t as fire-and-brimstone as some of the churches depicted in her songs. “It was academic,” Dacus says of her childhood church. “The preacher that I grew up with would often go back to the Aramaic text and say, ‘This word had 40 meanings at the time. And so we’ve interpreted it this way, but it could mean all sorts of things.’” But she had many friends who attended those churches, and those experiences worked their way into Home Video’s songs.

In the album’s second track, “Christine,” Dacus reflects on attempting to tell a good friend that you don’t think she’s in a great romantic relationship. Yet the story of the song is also deeply intertwined with the church. Its opening image is the two women coming home from a church service, “saying how bent and evil we are.” The “evilness” in question stems from what evangelical Christians believe to be the essential sinfulness of man, but it overlaps with the intimacy of this moment between two women, which dovetails with the album’s other glimpses into queer lives lived in this looming shadow.

“I went to tons of friends’ churches, and the only goal was to make sure kids didn’t have sex. There was overt homophobia, transphobia, racism, then justifications for those things. That freaked me out a lot,” Dacus said. “So I had an impetus to change Christianity from the inside. But I think I must have given up on that.”

Julien Baker Performs At The Greek Theatre.
Julien Baker’s music often focuses on the struggles of existing within the evangelical church as a queer person.
Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

Dacus is not the only musical artist exploring this space. Among many others, I particularly love the work of Julien Baker (with whom Dacus sometimes performs in the trio boygenius) and Semler. And what’s notable about these artists is how often they are queer and how often their music digs into the messy reality of coming to terms with claiming your identity in the midst of a religious institution that, at best, sometimes tolerates you.

On these albums, the church isn’t the subject of every single song, but it’s always looming in the background. And that extends to works centered more forthrightly on Christian themes. On Semler’s two 2021 EPs, Late Bloomer and Preacher’s Kid, for instance, the singer wrestles with the fact that they remain Christian despite the difficulties queer people can find within the church. But can you escape something you were born into? As the opening lyrics on “Bethlehem,” the opening track of Preacher’s Kid go, “The first song I learned spoke of Bethlehem / So is that prophecy or is that brainwashing? / Cause no one ever pitched the Greek gods / And I don’t know why not.”

Semler is the child of an Episcopal priest, which is one of the most progressive Protestant denominations in the US, and they spent much of their childhood in Europe. But as they discussed in this episode of the podcast Queerology, the kind of easy peace and belief cishet people sometimes find in the church seems to elude queer people. But all this doubt isn’t just resonating with those who’ve left the church; it’s resonating with those who are Christians, too. Preacher’s Kid was the first recording by an openly queer artist to ever top the iTunes Christian music charts. Late Bloomer was the second.

It feels notable to me that these albums all forthrightly wrestle with how queer people can navigate a life where the church dominates the horizon, even if you’re a nonbeliever. After all, millennials and Gen Zers are leaving the church in droves, and polling data suggests that the reason may stem from the evangelical church’s opposition to queer people.

But what’s striking about all of these albums is that they aren’t polemics. Even when the church isn’t the right place for someone, it’s possible to miss the sense of community it can bring to your life. Leaving behind something you no longer believe in can provoke relief and a sense of freedom, but it also leaves you with an absence where something once existed. Finding something to fill that void is rewarding, but it doesn’t mean the loss wasn’t real.

And it doesn’t mean you can’t get stuck in cycles the church trapped you in. Dacus says she sees it in her friends who are struggling sometimes to accept their own self-worth freed from the church.

“It’s contradictory to be told, ‘God loves you no matter what’ and then also, ‘If you sin you’re bad, and you could go to hell,’” Dacus says. “I hope for all my friends that were raised in shame to break out of it. You almost get addicted, and you can incorporate it in a way that’s really hard to get away from.”

The evangelical church is one of the foremost forces in America today, but it’s one that is too often poorly understood by those who aren’t regularly interacting with it. The value of art is in how it can open up space between hardcore believers and those of us who either never believed or fell away. The artists in question, then, act as interpreters, bringing an important subculture into relief, without sparing it criticism, precisely when understanding that subculture is more important than ever.

And by considering that subculture specifically, more universal questions can be asked, too.

“Part of the goal is to make a book like this accessible to people who don’t have any interaction with the church,” McKinney said. “So you have to make it about the core question of ‘What do I believe?’”

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