December 19, 2012
It’s too cold!
No, I’m inside.
You have a swing inside your house?
Yeah. I always wanted one.
Like a playground swing?
Like a porch swing. But inside. It’s wrapped with red Christmas lights.
A Christmas swing!
Exactly. There are presents underneath even.
When I was a kid I always said I’d have a swing in my house some day.
Yeah, but how many kids actually make that happen? That’s kinda bad-ass. I remember once you wrote a story about a slide and like, static in your hair.
That’s next. Our living room has really tall ceilings and a balcony. Every time I walk through I’m thinking, how can I put a corkscrew slide in here? That’s just human nature, isn’t it? You get what you want and then there’s always something else.
How’s this for crazy? You and I have been doing this Nervous Breakdown thing for so long and now we both finally have books coming out.
It is crazy. And wonderful. Persistence. That’s the thing, I guess. It took 14 years of writing and nine books to get one published. Being a part of The Nervous Breakdown community has been an important part of that. Also, I can’t wait to read your book, Midnight in the Belly of the Whale, when it comes out in the spring (high five).
Ain’t it fun? (secret youth group handshake) Both of us editors and ex-evangelicals. Well, I don’t know. Do you consider yourself an ex-evangelical?
I don’t follow the evangelical thought-stream anymore. But I’m certainly still a strong supporter of faith. I just so happen to also be a strong supporter of doubt. I’m a victim of postmodernism, I suppose, in that I don’t believe a thinking person can logically approach a 2,000-year-old history of interpretation and theology without that element. There are a lot of questions that surface, and I think it’s important that we actually ask them. And not just ask them, but entertain them. Faith is nothing without doubt in that it crosses the realm to certainty, which is absurd. It is also no longer “faith.” Faith is faith because it contains hope, in the face of doubt.
That’s a good way to put it. I’m still evangelical, just about different things now. I think we are all evangelical about something.
Some people are evangelical about their pets…
Oh yeah. So I’m looking at your cover…
You should have seen the other cover photo! The one with handcuffs and the bottle of Mad Dog.
Never mind. I blame Megan DiLullo for that.
…so I’m looking at the cover and the word “devangelical”, and wondering just what that means? Is it “de” as in against? What is your definition of evangelical?
I think it looks a little more startling than it probably is. Basically the book is about growing up in the evangelical church, then being surprised to find myself on the outside and then trying to retrace my steps and figure out why. I suppose the technical definition of the protestant version of evangelicalism today involves unquestionable belief that Jesus was the son of God, born of the virgin Mary, and died on the cross and then rose again to save those who believe in him from a place called hell. Believers should then tell the world to save others from hell, as well. Culturally, it seems to bridge the gap between a more orthodox Christianity and extreme fundamentalism, in that it’s drive is to be relatable. The problem I have is simply in the all-pervading culture that has arisen around it, which for me, meant some (ahem) interesting expressions of zeal and a separation from what I would call an honest life.
There’s been an evangelical backlash for the last five or ten years, some of it mean-spirited and some more like rolling your eyes and laughing about acid-wash Girbauds or totally loving Saved by the Bell. Like, “what were we thinking?” But on the other side, a lot of people have been hurt by church at its worst.
I read a survey recently that said that more than 6 million people have left the evangelical church in the last five years. In talking with friends of mine who have left, there are many who seem angry. A lot of them say they feel like they’ve been lied to, or they’ll cite issues with money or power or politics – and they just shut down on faith or a spiritual search all together. That’s not where I’m coming from. Sure, atheism is logical and I respect people who choose it, but I’m still very curious about this feeling inside that there must be something more. I like the idea of God being behind this world, whoever God really might be. That’s the big question mark. So I decided I could get angry about some of the stupid things I did in the name of the church or I could laugh. And I decided to laugh. I was only trying, after all. Even if sometimes that meant attempting to exorcise my Goth friend at church camp.
What good things came from your relationship with the church?
Well, I believe in grace. In forgiveness. In Jesus’ teachings about grace and forgiveness and not being judgmental towards people. Learning to love people even if they are different from you. And that it’s important for us to take care of each other. That’s what makes the world go around, I think.
Hard to criticize religion like that.
Who would want to?
So how much of this book is about repressed sexuality?
Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.
Hey, I grew up in the same world, you know.
(still laughing) Oh man, with teenagers, sex is going to be the dominant theme, anyway. I joke in the book about youth group being a substitute for sex. I say it tongue-in-cheek but in some ways there’s probably some truth there…. You have this concept of rechanneling all your passion towards God. And the purity rings given to you by your daddy and all that Bible talk of the church being the bride and Jesus being the groom. One girl I met recently told me about how she used to dress up with lipstick and pumps and go on a “date” with JC. So there’s this um, interesting misplacement of sexuality onto God and uh… (breaks down into giggling now.)
I came up Pentecostal. We were nuttier and not so conservative. I remember several sermons about this erotic book tucked away in the Old Testament that very much connected spirituality and sexuality. But we got plenty of “keep it in your pants” sermons too.
Well, sure. And our denomination didn’t refer to sex as a bad thing. Just as long as you are properly married, that is. In the meantime, we were doing everything we possibly could to refocus our sexuality into our spirituality…you know, to be hot for God, not each other.
You know, the method might have been goofy and misguided but some of us probably needed to hear the message.
Well, there are certainly healthy behaviors and unhealthy behaviors, but you have to remember that in my world, sex outside of marriage earned hell based on certain interpretations of scripture. The result of that teaching was some, uh, very interesting subversions in the youth group. And with that comes a lot of guilt and self-loathing. I don’t know how healthy all of that is. I think there must be a balance somewhere.
Some of the youth group kids were quite clever with the loopholes. Not me. Some other kids I knew.
Uh, yes. Those other kids.
You met your husband very young, in church, went through all these things together and got married. In a sense, the fairytale came true for you. Or at least it made it easier? It seemed like it turned out good for you.
Yes, we began dating at age 14 and then married at 19. It did turn out good for us, and I’m grateful every day for him. In our late twenties we had some serious marital troubles, though, and we almost lost it. We married young because we were so focused on getting to have sex—real sex!—and that’s great and all but that probably isn’t the best reason to get married. We had not really gotten the chance to figure out who we were on our own legs first. The truth is that we had a lot of growing up to do and some independence to learn. For a lot of couples who married young for the same reasons we did, that’s about the time they lose it, too. We got lucky. I know many whose marriages dissolved because of this. I don’t know if it’s bad or good, but I do know it is painful.
So tell me how the first week of book release feels.
Oh, geez. Well, I was walking in downtown Boulder the other day and saw my book in the bookstore and…
Yeah, that. What was that like?
Amazing. I think I almost cried. (laughs) But also very surreal. In no way do I feel like I’ve arrived. There’s so much work still to do, so much marketing. One of my author friends Tony DuShane (Confessions of a Teenage Jesus Jerk) told me that he doesn’t know any new authors who don’t lose their shit at least once, so maybe I’m right in line with the curve. So I guess the answer is it feels like just one step on the path. But yeah. It feels good. Of course, now I get to sit back and listen to the critics…
You work so hard and wait so long. And it comes so much later than you think.
I haven’t had a chance to process it yet. We had the launch party a couple days ago. It means a lot to have your friends show up. And a lot of them came out so I am thankful but I was a little surprised. You write in isolation for so long and then there are actually people there – it’s a little unnerving. But at the same time I was over the moon, I won’t lie.
I was talking to a lady the other day who thought authors write the book a few months before it comes out and then start another one. She was shocked that most books are finished a year or two before they hit the shelf. Have you started your next one yet?
Oh sure, yes. I’ve got a couple I’m working on. One is a fiction about an entrepreneur trying to make it in Boulder during the recession. I have no sense of whether it will be interesting to anyone or not, but I am having so much fun writing it. Half the time I’m giggling before I even sit down to my computer.
Which story from Devangelical is your favorite?
Hmm. Well, there are the muscle men for Jesus and the awe we had for them back then – busting bricks with their heads in the name of Jesus. That was fun. I love looking back on the youth group days, trying to convert the “New Agers” at metaphysical fairs. But I think my favorite is looking back on the relationship I had with my parents. They both have such pure hearts and good intentions. They taught us well. Towards the end of the book I talk about when my Dad was dying. He was concerned about me because of the church I had chosen – because it was more open to interpretation than he would have liked – but even in the midst of that, even when I backlashed against him and was overly defensive, the thing I look back on was that he loved me so much through that. Even though we had a difference of opinion, we respected each other in the end. I wish we could have expressed it better. But I believe we had an understanding.
You know, every religion falls short. But it seems that at best, that’s what it comes down to. Family and friends. The way we treat one another. If our beliefs point us towards kindness and depth and an awareness of those things that matter — that’s what we have to hold on to.
There’s a lot of beauty that the church taught me. I learned a lot about love. And that’s what is important. Those things I poke fun at in the book, those are superfluous. It’s the difference between what is cultural and what is true. That’s what I had to separate. In my own mind, at least.
So you’re still married to your youth group sweetheart and you’ve got a bushel of kids. Do you go to church?
Certainly not every week, but I go. That surprises some people. The church is a very accepting, all-affirming church that honors the individual search, and also the benefit of putting many hands together to help people in need. I love the community and the way people lift each other up. Half the time I cry in the service. I love the hope. The mystery.
How do you talk to your kids about God?
I just try to have a conversation. You know, I don’t have everything figured out so I don’t want to tell my kids that I do. I think what’s important is the search. If a person is truly searching and if God is truly real – then I think he will show up. Or rather I shouldn’t say “he”—or “she” for that matter. God would have to be beyond sex, I think. I still say it sucks that we don’t have a gender-neutral third person pronoun. Whatever the case, I want to honor my kids and their own ideas and journeys. It is my job simply to walk beside them.
ERIKA RAE is the author of Devangelical: Why I Left to Save My Soul, a humor memoir about growing up Evangelical (Emergency Press, December 2012). She is editor-in-chief at Scree Magazine and nonfiction editor at The Nervous Breakdown. Erika earned her MA in Literature and Linguistics from the University of Hong Kong and to this day can ask where the bathroom is in Cantonese, although it is likely that she will not understand the answer. In her dream world, she fancies herself a kung fu master cleverly disguised as a gentle mountain dweller, eagerly anticipating danger at the bottom of every latte. When she is not whipping one of her 3 children and denying them bread with their broth, she runs an ISP with her husband from their home in the Colorado Rockies.