Reclamation of Authority in Heretic: An Interview with Jeanna Kadlec

the book cover for Heretic

Jeanna Kadlec’s memoir, Heretic, blends her personal narrative of leaving evangelicalism and coming out as queer with a deeply researched account of the history of evangelicalism in the United States and cultural criticism of the movement’s relationship to power.

“What are decades of devotion compared with one swift fall from grace,” asks Kadlec in the book’s opening chapter, which begins with her trip to the courthouse to file for divorce from her husband, a pastor’s son. At the time, Kadlec was a doctoral student in English literature and teaching Paradise Lost to undergraduate students, meanwhile her marriage and her faith were unraveling. After committing the first twenty-five years of her life to her faith, Kadlec wasn’t just leaving evangelicalism, she was leaving “the only version of [herself] that [she] had ever known.”

Remarkably, alongside this chapter’s personal story of divorce and loss of faith, Kadlec also traces the threads of the cultural power of American Protestantism from the earliest settlers to Trump’s election and the Capitol insurrection, as well as how these threads weave into her own life experiences and her attempts to heal from religious trauma.

In an author’s note, she considers the difficulty in defining the word “evangelical” and points to it “as the standard bearer of hard-line fundamentalist Protestant beliefs in American politics and popular culture.” But Kadlec points to other defining characteristics throughout the book too. She says, “Evangelicalism is defined by fear, any singular threat automatically interpreted as a threat to the whole: fallen Christians, like apples gone bad, pose a risk to the entire batch.”

In Heretic, Kadlec writes a devastatingly thorough critique of evangelicalism as she records her spiritual journey out of fear and into reclaiming authority over her own life.

Kaitlyn Teer: I appreciate the many threads you bring together in your memoir—personal narrative, researched material, and cultural criticism—but most of all I appreciate how you put language to the experience of leaving evangelicalism. My sense is that, like me, you left evangelicalism at a time when there wasn’t really a shared vocabulary for it. Now we have terms like exvangelical, spiritual deconstruction, and religious trauma. When did you start writing this memoir and how did your language evolve alongside it?

Jeanna Kadlec: I got the idea for Heretic in 2015 and completed a draft in 2018, which is to say that the language was evolving as I was drafting, but I also wasn’t particularly plugged into what would become the exvangelical community online. I did become aware of the term exvangelical through the work of Blake Chastain, who coined it as a hashtag.

I was particularly resistant to the word deconstruction when I learned it. As I discuss in the book, when I hear “deconstruction,” I think of Derrida. And deconstruction, as exvangelicals use the term, is not a process that I went through when I was leaving the church. I wasn’t trying to figure out what, if anything, I could keep. Instead, the loss felt absolutely totalizing. There wasn’t any joy or curiosity; it was just absolutely devastating grief.

In the first chapter, I include a quote from Rachel Held Evans—who tragically died so young but whose work had been a beacon for me when I was still in the church—about how we have cultural language and resources for so many different kinds of bereavements and losses and dreams deferred: “But no one really teaches you how to grieve the loss of your faith. You’re on your own for that.”

And I remember just reading that paragraph and weeping. It felt like such a touchstone for me in the process of writing my own book.

KT: Your memoir situates your personal narrative within a deeply researched account of evangelicalism’s historical and cultural context. What was it like for you to tell both stories at once and to make those connections explicit?

JK: It was definitely challenging. On the one hand, the history and cultural criticism were always there in early drafts of the book. I made lots of gestures to church history or to evangelical culture, going off on tangents in the middle of very personal scenes about my upbringing. Early editors who we sent the book to were like, what is this? Because that kind of A-story/B-story structure wasn’t yet flagged explicitly, and the book wasn’t built in the way it needed to be.

In later drafts, and in what the book ultimately became, I made a much more intentional commitment to building out the church history and deciding what kind of cultural criticism would support the memoir.

One of the challenges I faced was that I had a tendency to use a more academic voice when writing the researched parts and to switch registers and go into a much more personal voice when writing memoir. So really, I had to try to bridge the gap between those two styles of writing. Another challenge was having to research a lot of the church history, because I didn’t know it. It wasn’t what I went to grad school for—I studied English literature, not religion—and I didn’t grow up in churches that taught that history.

KT: Do you think that’s intentional?

JK: It absolutely is. I think about my friends who grew up Catholic—and for all of the multitudinous issues with the Catholic church, they do teach the history of the church. Whereas in the evangelical churches I grew up in, the sermons invisibilized the theology the pastor was drawing on. They explained scripture as if this interpretation is how it has always been and for all time. But the idea that scripture is the literal, inerrant, and infallible word of God, is, itself, an invention of nineteenth-century American Protestantism. And they also didn’t teach the history of how the different denominations in the US evolved and spread across the country. I had to teach myself, and that was a very long process.

KT: Sometimes your memoir feels like it was written to explain your experiences to people who weren’t raised as evangelicals. For instance, when you explain why the church you attended was called Calvary. But then, other times, it feels as if you are writing with fellow exvangelicals in mind. How did you think about audience while writing this memoir?

JK: During revision, I thought about audience in a few different ways. In terms of the religious component, I wanted the book to be an on-ramp for people who had never stepped foot in the church. I wanted there to be enough in-jokes and casual, uncited references to scripture for exvangelicals or formerly devout Christian readers, but I also wanted to write for someone of another faith or someone who has never been religious but who is reading the book in order to understand more about the state of the country. That became really important for me as I was writing in the wake of the 2016 election and especially, more recently, in the wake of January 6th. It became such an imperative that I make the book accessible.

After January 6th, I remember talking to so many folks here in the NYC area who were like, “They’re saying they are Christians, but isn’t Jesus about love?” And I was watching the events unfold, saying, “That’s exactly what I grew up with.” I wanted people to be able to use my book as sort of an Evangelicalism 101.

Also, when it came to audience, the most important thing for me was that I didn’t want to explain anything about being queer. I didn’t want to do any on-ramps, if you will, into queerness. It was very important for me that queer readers were able to just read the book without feeling like I was explaining anything that they already knew. This isn’t an explanatory book about queer people; it’s a book of queer experience.

KT: There is a chapter titled “F/F,” which is a coming out story that traces your emotional affair with a fellow grad student and the dissolution of your marriage. And in it, you interrupt the narrative with these yearning fragments that begin with, “In an alternate timeline…” And these imagined timelines hold so much longing for what might have been, as well as so much grief for what actually was. To me, formally, this chapter feels like a lyric essay. I was wondering if you could talk about that chapter because it does seem formally different.

JK: That was a chapter I wrestled with for a long time. I kept trying to write it more chronologically and less fragmented than it is now. And it just did not work narratively; it kept falling apart. Finally, I talked it through with some very dear old friends, who were there for me at the time of that relationship. They were like, well, of course, you can’t shoehorn it into a traditional chapter structure, because that relationship busted you apart, and busted everything apart. Of course, you’re writing in fragments.

That feedback gave me permission to explore a more fragmented form, and the chapter ultimately became the psychological turning point of the book. After that chapter, the structure of everything that follows really shifts. In the latter half of the book, the chapters aren’t as traditionally structured as the early chapters. After that chapter, it’s very much things fall apart and the center does not hold.

KT: Given that some of these chapters almost read as essays, is there a way of thinking about this book as a memoir-in-essays?

JK: Yes, I think it could be considered a memoir or an essay collection or a memoir-in-essays. But I think memoir-in-essays is the one I’d most agree with, except you can’t really put both memoir and essay on the cover. I love this question because it strikes at where what a book actually is rubs up against publishing’s demand to categorize things for the marketplace. It’s a marketing vs. genre problem.

KT: Some of your chapter titles borrow explicitly from biblical phrases: “In the Beginning,” “You Are (Not) Your Own,” “This Is My Body,” and “The Promised Land.” It strikes me as a subversive choice. Could you talk about your relationship to those titles, especially as they give the book its structure?

JK: I think the fact that I automatically reached for those titles, especially for the first and final chapters, speaks to what I note in the book, which is how embedded Christian language and metaphor is in our country, but also, specifically, how embedded it is in my life and language. Not every reader is going to pick up on references that aren’t cited, like the chapter titles, but readers who share my background will.

KT: You say that learning to read the Bible critically shaped you as a reader and in some ways prepared you for success in academia. You wrote, “Before English lit classes taught me textual analysis, how to close-read Shakespeare and Jane Austen and Toni Morrison, I was scrutinizing scripture through what pastors call ‘exegesis’ in Sunday school.” How has your background shaped you not just as a reader, but as a writer. In terms of craft, is your memoir a kind of de-conversion narrative? I don’t know if in the church that you grew up in people spoke of having a personal testimony—if so, is this book like a personal testimony but in reverse?

JK: I would say absolutely, yes, it is. I love that context. It is a personal testimony of leaving. It is a deconversion narrative. It’s like kind of being a missionary, but in the reverse, because I’m telling people how traumatizing the church can be. In terms of explaining how deep the roots go in terms of the country and how much of a grip evangelicalism has on our politics and our language, I really wanted to spread the gospel, as it were.

KT: Lyz Lenz has defined the exvangelical canon of literature as “a series of books written by evangelical outsiders who not only question the dogma but trace its trauma through their lives.” What do you think about the idea of there being a canon of literature that is exvangelical, and would you consider your book to be part of it?

JK: I certainly think there is an emerging group of narratives. I wouldn’t go so far as to say there’s a canon or that, as a group, it’s large enough to identify the mainstays. I will always cite Garrard Conley’s Boy Erased as the book that really blew open the doors for the rest of us. Lyz Lenz is a good friend and her book God Land was also so powerful in terms of moving the needle on the literary conversation, especially since that book came out before the 2020 election. I hope there are more books. I hope there are more books, especially from people of color leaving the church and from first-generation immigrants who grew up in evangelical churches, because right now, the group of exvangelical writers, as it is, is profoundly white.

KT: When you moved to Boston for graduate school, you confronted some misconceptions that coastal, metropolitan people, especially liberals and academics, might hold about religious Midwestern people. You write, “To them, religion and intelligence simply did not go together.” Though you’ve left evangelicalism, your interest in spirituality remains. I’m thinking especially of the chapter titled, “Queen of Swords,” which is about reading tarot cards. While writing your memoir, did you find yourself attempting to explain your interest in spirituality in ways that perhaps you couldn’t have when you were younger?

JK: Yes, is the short answer. I absolutely could not have articulated what tarot, specifically, was opening up for me when I was first starting to read. My ability to articulate my spiritual journey is the result of time and distance. I don’t want to suggest that time and distance are always necessary for personal writing. But, for me, it has been essential. It’s been about a decade since all of this, and that time has allowed my understanding of myself to grow, as well as my understanding of the leaving, the breaking, the grief. I’m still wrestling with it, pretty obviously, but I now have a much better handle on its roots.

I don’t think that, at the time, I could have articulated that reading tarot was helping me acknowledge myself as an authority. That was something the church had denied me, and other women and queer people. Through tarot, I was reasserting that I could have a say over my own life. I don’t think if you had asked me in the initial months of starting to read tarot that’s what I would have said. But now I can very clearly see that’s what was underneath all the big emotions and queer confusion and romantic feelings for messy people, and me being a mess underneath it all—I was craving some kind of authority over my own life.

KT: Your book is intellectually rigorous, and it’s spiritual. What contradictions do you find yourself still making space for in your writing, especially when it comes to spirituality?

JK: I am living with the contradiction of being a pretty outwardly spiritual person who talks and writes about astrology, publicly, in literary New York City. I write about astrology explicitly in the book and in my newsletter. So the anxiety about being taken seriously as an author, to a lesser extent, is still there. But I’m like, this is me, take it or leave it. I am trying to let go of the desire for recognition and prestige, because it doesn’t necessarily accompany the kind of work that I do, even if it is intellectually rigorous, because it is also profoundly spiritual. But also, I’m writing for people like me.

KT: You write a newsletter called Astrology for Writers. I’d love to hear you talk about the connection, for you, between spirituality and writing. What practices are important to you? What has astrology done for you in terms of thinking about your writing?

JK: I’ve kept a journal pretty regularly for more than twenty years. Writing is the closest I get to a religious practice these days. For me, it’s a very spiritual experience, very meditative. It’s a way that I can connect with myself and then also can connect with the divine.

A few years ago, I became interested in astrology. I came to astrology very slowly and then all at once. It felt like a language I had always spoken, especially as someone who really likes patterns and systems and things with a lot of history. There are many astrologies and they have extraordinarily well-documented histories, with a wealth of texts that go back thousands of years. Learning about astrology helped me to understand some of the patterns I was writing about in my own memoir, certain things that had been happening, astrologically, in the world and in my chart. Looking at it in hindsight, I felt this sense of, oh, that’s incredibly obvious, no wonder that was going on. So kind of quietly, behind-the-scenes, while working on my memoir, I was developing this astrology practice.

In my newsletter, I started writing about how astrology was helping to deepen my understanding of myself and my habits as a writer, helping me structure my day, and, ultimately, helping me understand why I’m writing. Other writers I know were looking at what I was doing and how my habits were changing for the better, and they were like, hey we want in on that, which is what I share in my newsletter.

KT: Let’s talk about the title, Heretic. Do you conceive of yourself as a heretic? And if so, what does it mean to you to reclaim that label?

JK: Honestly, I think I’m more properly an apostate, but that’s not a very marketable title. To be a heretic, conceivably you’re still a believer, but you have a punishable ideology that is out-of-step with the church. An apostate, on the other hand, has renounced belief and is preaching against it.

However, the reason the book is called Heretic is because the title came before anything else. It hit me in the body in the way that some titles do. It came to me when I was out for a walk one night with my ex-partner and I had this sudden realization: I’m going to write a book about everything that happened and it’s going to be called Heretic. And seven years later, it’s here.

The title was just very much a North Star for me, and it encapsulates the tone of the book. And it’s for anyone who shares that experience in any way. Like, if you were a difficult teenage girl in the church, arguing or trying to claim some agency? That’s heresy. You believe that men and women should be equal? That’s heresy. You believe women can teach? You believe that queer people are people and don’t have to change? You think trans people are the children of God? To many evangelicals, those are all heresies.

So I think the position of heretic is very claimable these days, especially in this country.

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