When Your Father Is a Man of God, But Also an Adulterer
Kelsey McKinney's novel "God Spare the Girls" asks what it means to be a young woman grappling with white Evangelical Christianity
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Caroline Nolan is frantically finishing preparations for her sister Abigail’s bridal shower at their family ranch house, when she finds a gold-packaged condom underneath her grandmother’s old bed.
For many families, this might be a slight embarrassment or fodder for jokes, but Caroline is the daughter of Luke Nolan: pastor of the third largest Evangelical Christian church in Texas, renowned in Evangelical circles across the country for his “Hope for More” abstinence campaign.
Caroline simply slips the condom into her pocket. A few hours later, she will use it herself.
Both Caroline and Abigail are about to leave the nest, though their plans have varying degrees of approval from the church. Caroline will attend a state college in the fall (not the expected Bible school) and 24-year-old Abigail is getting married (to a boy who’s perfectly nice but Caroline isn’t convinced Abigail really loves). The day of Abigail’s bridal shower, a scandal breaks: their father has had an affair. As further deception comes to light and upends their community, the distant sisters unite to find their way forward.
As a woman who came of age in an Evangelical church, I felt like Kelsey McKinney wrote God Spare the Girls just for me. There isn’t much fiction that portrays Evangelical communities, despite it feeling like only fiction could capture the complicated nature of Evangelicalism, the emotional cost of maintaining the perfect public image coupled with the supportive community of the church, the reductive teachings alongside beliefs about grace and forgiveness. McKinney—raised Evangelical in Texas—renders these complexities beautifully in her debut novel.
Via the magic of Google docs, McKinney and I chatted about purity culture and women’s selfhood, power dynamics within Evangelicalism, and the pain of questioning everything you’ve ever known.
Melanie Pierce: What motivated you to write about this world? Did you see a gap in fiction and set out to fill it, or did the setting of an Evangelical Texas community lend itself well to the themes you wanted to explore?
Kelsey McKinney: The story I wanted to tell—one about faith and power and what it is like to question everything you’ve ever known—fit best in the Evangelical Texas culture. I wanted it to feel like a real place and a real family and a real problem, and so I dug into Evangelical Christianity and specifically white Texas Evangelical Christianity.
I didn’t realize that there weren’t many other stories like this. But of course, I knew it in my soul, right? I knew that the culture I grew up in wasn’t common in fiction because I grew up reading everything I could get my hands on. Once I became aware of that, it became even more important to me to get it right. I wasn’t writing for people who don’t know about the church. I was writing for people who grew up Evangelical. I wanted to get it right for them, for us.
I’ve spent many, many years in therapy and I’ve come to realize that when I was reading (especially as a young teen) I was subconsciously looking for other ways to live. I didn’t see a life I wanted anywhere around me. I didn’t see any women I wanted to grow up to be like. And in books I did. I found people, if not with my same problem, with solutions I might copy.
MP: Abigail and Caroline Nolan grapple with the complexity of Evangelicalism: they uncover layer upon layer of institutional manipulation going on within the Hope Church and the claustrophobia of living within this rigid belief system (especially for women), while also valuing the community and the sense of purpose the church can offer, too. Did writing this book affect how you think about Evangelicalism—both in terms of the religious institution and as a personal faith?
KM: Yes, absolutely. When I started working on this book, I set several google alerts for terms like “pastor sex” and read absolutely everything I could find. I talked to people who have been whistleblowers in their own churches. I’m a reporter by trade, and I couldn’t help myself. I think I grew up—as is the nature of being the daughter of a youth pastor— a little more disillusioned with the church as a structure than many, but that reporting forced me to think hard about structures and power dynamics I had always accepted as “good.”
When I lost my faith, I had a really hard time. Sloughing off an entire culture is painful and realizing the ways in which that culture hurt you and treated you poorly is also painful. I started working on the book after I was well into processing that hurt, and I think it was really good for me. Fiction allowed me to hold up a lot of things to the light and say, you know what, this was bad, but I think it also gave me the space to acknowledge that the church was this beautiful, supportive space for me for a long time. It’s hard to hold both of those truths in your hands: that the white Evangelical church can be hateful and harmful and ignorant, and that it can be supportive and caring. I hope I’ve done that in the book. I did really try.
MP: Another way I think the book complicates Evangelicalism is by dramatizing one line of reasoning behind purity culture, particularly how Luke Nolan’s abstinence campaign encourages young people to “hope for more” than a series of meaningless relationships. This focus on self-respect versus shame almost sounds like a positive spin on purity culture, except…still no! What were you hoping to point to regarding purity culture?
KM: The first scenes I had of this book took place way earlier, during the early 2000s True Love Waits era. But even Evangelicals turn their nose up at that kind of rhetoric today, and as I worked on Caroline in particular, I wanted to make that conversation more nuanced. I wanted to focus on a purity culture that was aware of its status in the world and of external perception, but that hasn’t changed much more than the branding.
People who didn’t grow up Evangelical and have read this book thought this part was a kind of absurdism. They don’t really realize how pervasive this kind of narrative is in Evangelical communities. And that has been a really enjoyable reaction to me, because that’s part of what I was trying to toy with: the idea that Luke Nolan is infinitely aware of how Christians believe they are being perceived and how he manipulates that awareness to gain power. It doesn’t matter, really, that the outside world couldn’t care less about his movement if everyone participating in it believes that the secular world hates them for it.
MP: This is so interesting. Evangelicals are supposed to be in the world and not of it, and yet, the church still exists in exchange with the world. I like what you’re saying here, that the church both considers how it presents itself to the world and pits itself as being against the world, and how Luke Nolan’s character captures that.
KM: Something I thought so much about after I left the church is how Evangelicalism separates itself from “the world” and demands its believers do the same, but what that looks like is trends that are mainstream hit Evangelicalism ten years later. People were still wearing fedoras in megachurches in like 2019! It’s not a clean separation as much as it is a delay. Luke Nolan, because he is brilliant and because he’s manipulative, knows that and uses it to his advantage.
MP: Shifting gears here, the novel’s epigraph is an excerpt from the story of Lot:
“Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But don’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof.”Genesis 19:8—NIV
The way Lot treats his wife and daughters becomes a breaking point in Caroline’s and Abigail’s questioning of their faith, and the epigraph feels foundational, so key to the thematic underpinnings of this story. Why did you select the epigraph?
KM: At the height of my faith, I could not parse the story of Lot’s wife and daughters. It’s such a small part of the Bible, but the imagery is immense and the consequences worse. I always knew that story would haunt this book, that it would be the driving wedge between Abigail and her father, and that it would be a parallel for the betrayals happening at The Hope: this ugly, confusing thing that no one wants to look too closely at because the repercussions could be infinite.
MP: The last line of the novel slayed me. Which I think speaks to your intention to write this book for people who grew up Evangelical. You detail the story of Lot’s family and its emotional impact on Caroline and Abigail, so readers certainly don’t need to be familiar with the story to understand how it undermines the girls’ faith. For readers like me, though, who’ve grappled with the meaning of the story ourselves, the last line packs a punch.
How Caroline and Abigail interact with the story of Lot’s family also dramatizes a complicated theme that you mentioned, both as a fundamental piece to the book you wanted to write and your personal experience: what it’s like to question everything you’ve ever known. This strikes me as a theme that speaks to a wider audience than Evangelicals, as it feels like every day we’re asked to question what we believe is true about the world.
KM: Right, so I’m glad you picked up on this because to me, that is the heart of the book. That question of “what is it like to question you’ve ever known?” is universal. I think that can happen because someone you loved turns out to be bad, or because you need to question the faith you believe in, or because something you thought would make you feel a certain way didn’t. I hope it will be a bridge. I hope that there are pieces of this book (like that question) that will resonate for other people. For Caroline Nolan, that question is one she avoids for a long time. Part of its purpose as a narrative device, though, is to show that even in their moments of greatest questioning, the only way they know how to consider what to do is to turn toward God. They don’t have other ways to process. It’s painful to realize you don’t believe something and also to not know how to not believe it.
MP: In Abigail and Caroline’s world, rebellion can take many forms. Caroline appears to be the “rebellious” sister, but Abigail defies her father’s teachings too, albeit in quieter, subtler ways, like getting a tattoo. Perhaps the particulars of their rebellions are specific to Evangelicalism, but claiming agency over one’s body and ambition is a struggle common to many young women. Could you talk about using the lens of a patriarchal church to examine female selfhood?
KM: So it’s interesting you use the word “lens” here. As a book, I don’t think God Spare The Girls is told through that lens. I think it’s more focused on these girls without the kind of judgement of that culture. Or at least, I hope it is. But both girls are looking at the whole world through those lenses, which value “submission” and “meekness” and “modesty” over almost everything else. Their rebellions are small, right? If at a party in college Caroline confessed these “sins” to anyone not raised in this culture, they would probably roll their eyes. But that’s part of the point. These girls have to fight so hard against this culture to make space for themselves within it. Inside, these girls know they are constrained and they push against that. The lenses are the constraints.
MP: Right, I appreciate the way you clarify the lens of your book, and from my perspective, the book does exactly what you describe. I feel like even outside Evangelical circles, selflessness, submission, and meekness are expectations society puts on women. “She doesn’t spend enough time with her family/kids, she wears the pants in her relationship, she’s too loud”––these are mainstream criticisms of women that stem from a similar root. But these expectations for women are amplified in Evangelical circles, by nature of them being Biblical teachings.
KM: Yes, of course. These standards for women aren’t specific to Evangelicals, but there are higher stakes in an Evangelical church. In “society,” your failure to comply is what? A menace? An annoyance? It might ostracize you. But in a faith group, your rebellion is a reason to stage an intervention. At its height, your rebellion may even be taken as a sign that you never believed in the first place. It’s your standing in the community that’s at stake, but (depending on your theology) it might also be your eternal life. Those kinds of stakes are so hard to rebel against. It’s a little off-topic, but that’s why I really admire the work that artists like Semler and Lil Nas X are doing right now in music. They’re asking questions about why those stakes are so high and who benefits from there being such dire consequences? Their art is trying to push back from that damnation to ask who gets to decide whether or not you’re damned. Because in a lot of Evangelical churches in this country, it doesn’t feel like God is making that choice––it’s being made by the people who uphold these standards. The Luke Nolans of the world, it often feels like, get to decide how you feel about yourself and your standing with your god. That’s a lot of power they’re hoarding!
MP: Okay, I want to talk more about the idea of “women’s spaces.” The book opens with Abigail’s bridal shower, where her fiance, Matthew, makes an appearance. Before he’s allowed entry into the shower (with all women attendees), he’s instructed what to say, how to act, even which flowers to present his bride-to-be. The scene depicts the pressure placed on Luke’s family to project the perfect public image, but it’s also a scene of Caroline (with Abigail pulling the strings) asserting herself over a man—someone who holds power over her in Evangelical culture.
This got me thinking about the spaces Evangelical women often carve out in their churches: bridal and baby showers, ladies’ Bible studies, etc. The nature of those spaces still reveal the limitations placed on Evangelical women, but women are protective of them––if men are granted entry, as Matthew is, they must do what the women say! It’s sort of a permitted exertion of power over men. I’m wondering what inspired you to write Mathew into the bridal shower scene?
KM: Oh, this is so interesting because I didn’t even think about it this way, but that’s absolutely true. I inserted Matthew into the bridal shower scene because I wanted to show how clueless he is, how little he has to think about any of this shit that Abigail and Caroline have spent their whole lives worrying about. Most of the men in this book are meant to be these loveable dummies who exist in their world without thinking about it. Much of that is based on what I saw with my own eyes in the church. Faith is—statistically and culturally!—something women care more about. They are the ones who protect it, who pass it on to their children, who organize the bake sales and plan these Bible studies. They have this kind of soft power that no one recognizes.
A great example of this is Beth Moore—she is a fucking titan of Biblical teaching. As a reader, she’s one of the smartest literary analysts I’ve ever encountered. But what’s fascinating is only recently did Beth Moore break from the formal belief of Complementarianism, which is this idea that women and men have separate but equal purposes. She came out and said you know what, I was wrong on that. I really admire that ability to stand in your own failure, but it’s also stunning because Beth Moore has been PREACHING for years! She was already pushing that standard. But she did it within the guidelines of her faith, right? Men don’t watch Beth Moore videos. I don’t know what they watch. She was only teaching women so it was an exertion of power that was permissible. Like Abigail, she found places where she could do what she wanted to do.