Leaving the Church to Find Spiritual Nourishment
Jeanna Kadlec's memoir charts her trajectory from devout believer to heretic reborn into queer joy
The memoir Heretic opens with Jeanna Kadlec boarding a bus to the Middlesex County Courthouse in Massachusetts, where she is filing for divorce against her husband, an Evangelical Christian, and pastor’s son to boot. Kadlec is twenty-five and exhausted from the labor of suppressing her queerness. But, as a lifelong believer, she knows the consequences of straying. Already, she’s been chastised by her husband for her ambition, shamed by other women in the church for her clothing and curves, and pressured by herself to repent for the wrath she feels toward a pack of boys who assaulted her at a youth group hayride (because boys are permitted sexual transgressions, after all). Kadlec also knows her future if she stays. The reality for many women and queer people in conservative Christian communities is complete sublimation.
Running parallel to Kadlec’s personal narrative are well-researched historical and political nonfiction threads that contextualize Kadlec’s experience of the church, and provide readers unfamiliar with Evangelicalism a foundational understanding—a timely effort given our current political landscape. In sharing her trajectory from devout believer to heretic reborn into queer joy, Kadlec offers a hopeful roadmap for the future, both for ex-Evangelicals and for anyone looking to leave religious fundamentalism behind.
I spoke with Kadlec over Google Meet about the Evangelical groundwork for overturning Roe, biblical womanhood, and Kadlec’s utilization of tarot to get in touch with her intuition.
Melanie Pierce: This book has the potential to reach at least two audiences: former Evangelicals like me, who are excited to see our experiences reflected, and outsiders unfamiliar with the Evangelical framework, who are possibly looking to learn more about it now, with the rise of Trump and the fall of Roe. How did you decide on this research-intensive, hybrid approach to your memoir, and who were you writing the book for?
Jeanna Kadlec: I was writing the book as a hybrid memoir before I realized I was writing a hybrid memoir. The way that I write personal narrative is the way that I think—really, I’m just making my thought process legible for the reader. In a lot of hybrid memoir, especially by queer writers, we’re not trying to claim to be the sole authority of our own ideas. Obviously I’m the authority on my own lived experience, but if I’m going to situate myself within the context of growing up Evangelical, I’m not going to use my experience as the end all be all.
My impulse as a person and as an ex-academic is to do historical research. I don’t know that I could write what people consider to be a straightforward memoir that doesn’t incorporate other threads. This is what I love to read, and it’s what I love to write.
Honestly, you perfectly picked up on the audiences that I had in mind when I was writing. My ideal readers, first and foremost, were younger versions of myself, which is to say ex-Evangelical queer people who were coming out of the church. You can narrow that to folks who are also Midwestern, or who also grew up in working-class homes. But ex-Evangelical queers are certainly my most targeted audience. My hope for the book was that it would find the readers who it was supposed to find, the people like us. But as is evident by the fact that I stopped [in the memoir] to explain virtually everything to do with the church: it’s meant to be user-friendly for people who grew up in other parts of Christianity, or in other religions, or with no religion at all, who are curious or angry about the impacts that this one very hardline faith has on their everyday life in this country.
MP: Right. Heretic is timely because the white conservative Evangelical framework has permeated America’s political landscape to such an extent, it’s hard to unravel where Evangelicalism ends and the government begins. For example, you cite a 2020 Pew Research study that found that half of Americans think the Bible should influence US law—far more than the population of white Evangelicals.
This is a complex question that you wrote an entire book to answer, but to give readers a taste: can you describe some of the ways that the average American experiences the efforts of Evangelicals “pressing on their life,” as you write?
JK: I’ve been living on the East Coast for almost 10 years now, basically the entirety of my post-college adult life. These places, culturally speaking, are not saturated by Evangelicalism in the way that the towns that I grew up in the Midwest are, where even if folks are not attending a church, the biblical literacy, the awareness of cultural Evangelical phenomena, is so high. I was staggered by how many people I knew out here, who I was in community with—wonderful folks, incredibly smart folks, queer folks, but who were mostly from the coasts—were not aware of how much of our culture is directly based in Evangelicalism. Not just the stuff that’s explicitly anti-choice, but where that comes from with purity culture. School dress codes, for example, are profoundly connected to the church. Those are profoundly connected to segregated schools. Who was pushing segregated schools in the mid-20th century, long after Brown v. Board? It was Republicans; it was Evangelicals. So many contemporary social issues, things to do with “protecting children,” you trace it back and it goes back to Evangelicals, almost always. It’s astonishing to me how much folks don’t recognize the church’s influence. Even Evangelicals, right? There was so much that ended up in the book that I didn’t know when I was still in the church. So I can’t harp on folks too hard who aren’t in the church.
We’re at a point right now that seems so extreme, a crisis point. But really, all of this is based on Evangelical priorities, on the foundational ideology of Evangelicals and Republicans (at this point, they’re virtually interchangeable). [They] have been laying the groundwork for decades.
MP: There’s this thread in the book about the values that growing up Evangelical instilled in you, like the importance of community and nourishing your soul, the power of the communal sacred, and—to get really specific—how exegesis, or close reading of the Bible, gave you a foundation for textual analysis in your English classes in college. How important was it to you to knit these lessons that you learned from Evangelicalism together with unpacking your religious trauma?
JK: I don’t know that it was conscious, though hearing it framed that way, I would absolutely call those positive experiences and lessons from the church. My ability to look back and to see what was good about the experience is the result of time and healing. Those were very important and profound experiences I had within my faith that helped lay a foundation for things that I came to value. It’s impossible for me to talk about my love of literature without the church. It’s impossible for me to talk about why community is important to me without talking about the church. Certainly there were times in my past when I was more fresh out of those experiences, when I tried to excise those things, but I’m far enough out of it at this point that I can take the holistic view.
MP: Biblical womanhood is an important subject in Heretic. You talk about the Evangelical ideology of male headship and the lack of power that women and queer folks have over their own bodies. I’m assuming you were in the final stages of publication with Heretic as Roe fell. What was that like for you?
JK: We were in third or fourth pass. It happened in time for us to adjust some language, but it didn’t really have an impact. It’s still an undercurrent—[I write] about the lack of sexual agency, the way that women and queer folks are conditioned to not trust themselves, and to not believe that you can make decisions for yourself, for your body, for your health, without the input of a parent or husband or pastor or an authority that is not you. The next logical step is to go to reproductive health.
How it was for me: it was actually very strange, and I’ve talked with other ex-Evangelicals about this. My girlfriend is also ex-Evangelical. I was just numb. I feel like for those of us who grew up in this, this has always been the plan, this is always what they said they would do, and then it happened. And I was like, “Well, they did it.” And my girlfriend was like, “Yep, they did.” They’ve been saying they were going to do it, and there were so many folks that didn’t fucking believe that it was ever going to happen, and who still don’t take it seriously. I have so many issues with the church—obviously! I wrote a whole book about it! But at least they tell you exactly what their plan is. A lot of my rage in the months since has been, quite honestly, for folks who continue to dismiss the seriousness of it, like folks on the left, and establishment Democrats of course.
MP: Part of this memoir narrates your former marriage to an Evangelical man. A factor that drew you to him was that he claimed to want a partnership of equals, and he wasn’t interested in your submission, so you expected to have a marriage that was godly but differed from rigid gender roles. But then, early in your marriage, he seems to have a problem with your ambition, and he tells you in this chilling scene at the kitchen table, “You’re not an individual, you’re my wife.” What was it like to revisit that time in your life and probe it so thoroughly for the book?
JK: This book has had a number of different iterations over the years, and the scenes with him that made it into this final version are the ones that have made it through every version of the book. So at this point, the arc that is my marriage, and the scenes that I have chosen with him, are very distilled, and I have been sitting with that arc for a very, very long time. The emotional rawness feels pretty distant. What you’re describing, how chilling it is—I’m like, “Oh, I guess that is chilling. I guess that was bad.” And it is. I had to bring all the walls down to write it, and then I put them all right back up.
MP: You write about how the teaching of original sin instilled a deep sense of shame in you, and how believers are trained to actively disconnect from and distrust their bodies and desires, because those bodies and desires are rooted in original sin. Evangelicals are not only denied the agency to make their own decisions, but they’ve also been programmed to shut down their intuition.
Can you talk more about your shift from prayer journaling to your tarot and journaling practice, and utilizing tarot as a tool to tap back into your intuition and feed your spirit?
JK: I’m a lifelong journaler. My earliest ones are from when I was 10 or 12 years old. I still have a lot of these childhood journals, and they stop being a record of my days and turn into constant talking to God when I’m a teenager. It clearly coincides, in my mind, with when I started getting policed by other women in the church for what I was wearing and started to get the talks about purity culture and how sinful we all are, how sinful our bodies are. Those coincide with my journal diving into constantly talking to God, which is to say constantly checking in with God and being like, “I want to do this. Is this okay?” Eventually, I realized I had this incredible journaling practice but I didn’t really know how to record my days or how to articulate my desires if I wasn’t using God as an interlocutor, if I wasn’t checking in with someone. If there wasn’t that arbitrary authority in my life, how did I know if I was doing it right?
Tarot essentially provided me with a structure to help me get through that really messy valley. I knew that I could write my way through it, but I needed a structure to get me to the other side. Tarot came in as a helpful tool to do that. It’s really like the art of close reading. That’s what I was doing in the beginning. The spiritual part of tarot for me came a little bit later. In the beginning, it was just me using the cards to give a structure to the journaling. It was like playing twenty questions with myself, figuring out what I want.
MP: As a follow up to that: what advice do you have for those coming from religious fundamentalist backgrounds who are interested in alternative spirituality and finding meaning in other rituals?
JK: I don’t know that I would give advice in the form of, like, here are specific tools, because the tools aren’t necessarily going to get someone there. For me, tarot was helpful because it jump-started my way back into an existing practice. It was helping me unlock why journaling felt so stuck for me. It was helping me get back in touch with myself, redirecting that conversation with myself back to, “Oh, I can want things. Oh, I can just talk and God doesn’t have to be here.” Which sounds so basic but if you’ve been in the church—
MP: That’s a radical notion, really.
JK: Yes, that’s radical! You can just want things and not have to check if they’re godly or not! So it was helpful for me for that reason. If folks are curious—they’re leaving the church, leaving organized religion of any kind that’s conservative and harmful, or that just isn’t good for you—and wanting to explore stuff, I would recommend journaling, or at least would recommend having a little session with yourself where you really sit and write or think or voice memo or drive around in the car and talk to yourself, to really think about what you’re looking for. Is it the connection to the divine that you’re missing? Is it that you miss Bible study, reading something and rigorously studying it? Do you miss community? Do you miss singing with other people? Not that it has to be framed in terms of what you miss, but that spiritual practice, however harmful it was, did feed something for you, and what aspect of that can you explore in terms of bringing it in? I think the more helpful thing is looking at the specific need that you’re looking to fill. All of those things are spiritual, and all of those things are holy, so think about which things you crave and which actually really nourish you. There are paths, modalities, different traditions and tools that you could institute, and different kinds of gatherings for any and all of those things.