Before Kelsey McKinney was a journalist covering sports over at Defector, she was a self-described youth group kid who grew up in evangelical culture. Those experiences provide the backdrop for her debut novel God Spare the Girls, which follows two sisters reckoning with the realization that their megachurch pastor father has been having an extramarital affair.
The book is a work of fiction, McKinney stresses. The story she’s telling is made up. But the tensions faced by Abigail and Caroline Nolan will resonate with anyone who’s felt their spiritual footing shift underfoot with a growing awareness of a world that doesn’t fit into the bubble they were raised in.
McKinney talked about her growing up experience and reflected on her novel with our senior editor Tyler Huckabee. She’s in a very different place spiritually than she was as a teenager, but she still has an enormous amount of compassion and even admiration for the evangelical culture that molded her. She told us why writing the book was so scary, whether or not she has hope for the Church and why she still “respects the h*** out of Beth Moore.”
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
TYLER: Were you a youth group kid?
KELSEY: Oh, yeah. For sure. I led a middle school girls Bible study in high school, which is unfathomable to me now. I’m like, “In no way was I, at 17 years old, capable of teaching any 13-year-old anything.” But yeah. I was “a really good kid”, quote unquote. I’ve hit all those checkboxes you were supposed to hit. All my closest friends were in the youth group growing up, for sure.
I think that can be really hard when you start to go through a doubt or deconstruction process. You feel an obligation to the people who poured so much time in you, and can feel a little guilty about rejecting some of those things.
Totally. I think that’s part of the hardship of recognizing who you are as a person in general. If you grew up in a place where certain things are black and white, good or bad, and you realize that you’re in the black section, you have to come to terms with, “OK, so is it that I am “bad”, or is it that maybe these lines weren’t great to begin with?”
When I went to college, I had to deal a lot with my own sexuality. Even though I ended up marrying my high school sweetheart, I was bi. I grew up loving women. So it was really hard for me to reconcile that, “OK, I believed this really strict doctrine on this. So if I feel this way, does that make me innately bad, or does it make the doctrine wrong, or is it both?” That’s a terrible spiral to fall into at 22.
Do you keep up with any of your friends from that time?
It’s interesting. The people I was closest to at that time, even though we all were in the same environment, all kind of ended up in a similar place.
A lot of people that I grew up with have read the book. My parents have read the book. Everyone who I’m extremely close friends with has read it before it comes out. I thought they would have more pushback than they would, to be honest.
I don’t think that this book paints the evangelical megachurch in the nicest light in the world, is what I will say. Luckily, it is fiction. This is not the church I grew up in. This is not the way that the pastor preached at my church, growing up. So it’s been interesting to see who is able to draw that firm line of like, “Oh, yeah. Some churches are bad, but not ours,” and who’s like, “Oh, this kind of hit a little bit too close to home. It’s painful to me.”
Is it hard to write a book a like this, knowing that some of your readers — especially those who know you — are going to take it personally?
It was a little scary. I was scared of what people would think of it. I’m still scared of what people will think of it. It’s a vulnerable space to be. Even though the whole book is fiction, the questions in it are really personal. “How do you know what to believe? How do you decide what truth is? Who gets to tell you what to do? What is right and what is wrong?”
All of those questions are true for me, and so it’s hard to be like, “Yeah, here. Take this little book with all of the worst questions I’ve ever asked myself, and shred it.”
As you were going back to study evangelical culture, did you come across anything that you still have fondness for? Or was it mostly bad memories?
Yeah. What is that song? The song “Dive,” who wrote that? Is it Michael W. Smith? Oh, I can’t remember.
You’re thinking of Steven Curtis Chapman.
I am, yes! My Spotify shuffle is completely borked now. I’d forgotten half of the songs I listened to growing up, so when I was working on the book I was trying to get back into this head space and I made all these playlists. Now my Spotify thinks that I just want those songs. So it will be like, “Oh, two St. Vincent songs, Phoebe Bridgers, Steven Curtis Chapman,” and I’m like, “No.” But then it keeps going and I’m like, “OK, this song kind of slaps.”
Did it end up helping you process the past? Did it change you?
I think when I started writing this book, I was processing through a lot of the pain that the Church had caused me. The earlier drafts of it, I think, show that a lot more. But through the process of working on it and remembering and doing a lot of memory exercises to recall learning hand motions for VBS, I think it brought me to the point where I can say, “I loved growing up in the church that I grew up in and it gave me a lot.” I hope that comes through in the book. I think for me, it was cathartic in the opposite way that people think it might’ve been cathartic, in that like writing about it gave me a newfound appreciation for something that I thought had just been bad for me.
I think it’d be hard to write a book like this and not get preachy with it, which is a balance you navigate very well.
Thank you. Even in the sisters’ journeys with their faith, I wanted it to be clear that there wasn’t a right answer here. The end of this struggle is not clearly, “You should come out of it believing this or deciding this.” I wanted it to be more complicated than that.
My upbringing in the church was mostly un-traumatic. It was really great for me for a really long period of time, and there are things that I learned there that hurt me. Holding both of those truths in your hand is really hard to do. To say both of these things is important: This is a loving space, and it can hurt people.
Is that something you think evangelical readers will be able to take away from reading the book?
I hope evangelicals read this book. I hope that they don’t think of it as an attack on their churches. If you can, read it as a lens to view who decisions are made for. The church, in doctrine, is great at being like, “We make our decisions for the least among us.” But, in practice, often the decisions that are made are for the people with the most power. That is the point of the book.
I don’t think every church is bad, but I think it is good to look at your own church and say, “Where do we make decisions for powerful people instead of the least among us?”
In your day job as a journalist, I’ve seen you cover issues of power and abuse quite a bit. Where do you think the church’s abuses of power are distinct from more general institutional abuses. And where is it the same?
I think the Church is really similar to a lot of other powerful organizations. Evangelicals as a whole are huge voting bloc, but they’re also a huge financial group in America. There’s a ton of money in the evangelical church.
I don’t want to say that wanting power is evil. But I think that power attracts people who want to take advantage of it. I think every form of power has that problem. From the PTA president to the President of the United States. I think that is something you have to be really careful of, and the church, in teaching, does a really good job of being like, “None of us are powerful. None of us matter at all. Like the only leader of this church technically is God.”
But then practically, the way decisions get made are 12 men sit in a room and vote. It’s like, “OK, so why? And why them? Can we just make a graph of how much money those men donate to the church, just see what’s going on there?” I think those are the kinds of things where [the Church] is exactly the same as corporations and other places. You’re making decisions that help the church make money.
I think great churches don’t do that. Great churches say, “We want to make decisions for our community, or for our people, or for the people who don’t attend our church.” They push back against a standard. But if your church is structured the exact same as a Fortune 500 company, that should give you a lot of pause.
I think the pushback you’d get on this is that these men aren’t trying to protect their institution as much as they’re trying to protect “the Truth.” Or, at least, the Truth as they understand it.
Prove it. Show me where it says women can’t preach more than once in the original Greek translation. They can do it, but then there are all of these loopholes where they’re fine to let women preach.
The Beth Moore thing was… I respect the h*** out of Beth Moore. I think the ability to admit that you’re wrong is uncommon in most people and I admire it. She’s been preaching for decades. The conversation we’re having is, “Should women be allowed to preach?” Beth Moore has been preaching for decades, she’s just only been preaching to women.
I understand the idea that we believe something and we hold onto it really tightly, and we want to protect that. I’ve read the Bible my whole life. I love it. I think it’s a great book. I am obsessed with it in a lot of ways. But the thing that it says over and over again is that your job is to love people, and your job is to help the poor. I don’t know how you can read dozens and dozens of verses in the red type saying help the poor, turn around and say, “It’s important for us to protect the power seat of this group.” I don’t know.
Did the Trump stuff surprise you in 2015? That evangelicals backed him so aggressively?
I don’t know. I wanted to be surprised, I’ll say that. A lot of the people I wanted to surprise me did not. This is going to get me canceled. I’m so sorry to the evangelical church. I love you guys so much and I think that’s what’s hard for me. This place was so good for me and in ways that I don’t think it even intends, can be bad for people. I think the core beliefs of Christianity could change the world, and I think politicking and money gets in the way of that.
Do you have hope of it getting better?
I look at Semler and her work, and I think there’s a huge wave of people our age right now coming out and saying, “I had a really hard time in this.” I do find that inspiring, to hear people say, “I’ve lost parts of my faith, but not all of it,” Or, “I’ve changed my mind about this.” I find that really inspiring.
The tenants of Christianity, I think, when you look at them as loving each other as much as you can, treating other people the way that the Lord would treat them and helping the poor and feeding the hungry, I think that those are classics. They never go out of style. That is where I think change can happen, and I do think that’s kind of happening now.
God Spare the Girls is available now.
Tyler Huckabee is RELEVANT's senior editor. He lives in Nashville with his wife, dog and Twitter account.