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. Winner of the 2019 Eos Award. In this timely 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, J. L. Powers, 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.
Stroop and O’Neal, both former Christians, deliver a collection of essays about losing faith, begun with the Twitter hashtag #EmptyThePews, which created a groundswell of response from those who had left Christianity. Though the pieces address American Christianity and are weighted towards conservative evangelical Protestants, the essays feature diverse viewpoints within that scope. In “Now Defunct,” Stroop writes of a surreal teenage mission trip to Russia in 1999 that made her rethink her faith. In “Saint Tornado-Kick” Peter Counter explores the stifling Catholic schools of his youth and the moment he lost faith, during a robbery in Costa Rica. Some themes are repeated—discovering and embracing queerness, feeling out of place, questions of theodicy—and others are explicitly addressed in section headings, such as “Trauma and Abuse in Christian Contexts,” in which Mel Wells offers a gripping account of the complicated, abusive relationship she had with her Mormon stepfather in “Burden of Proof.” While some entries are overly brief or serve as just-the-facts recitations with little reflection, many others, such as Carmen Maria Machado’s story of a toxic friendship with a youth pastor, “A Girl’s Guide to Sexual Purity,” stand out for their lyricism and lucid introspection. This collection serves as an important public testimonial of those who have walked away from religion, and will surely inspire others to tell their stories. (Dec.)
Correction: An earlier version of this review used an incorrect pronoun to refer to contributor Mel Wells. It also incorrectly noted the book was self-published.