Heather left the charismatic movement the night after she walked through a “fire tunnel” and pretended that the Holy Spirit had knocked her down. A fire tunnel consists of two parallel lines of eager Christians and looks like a Virginia reel. People walk through the tunnel one by one as the others pray for them. The idea behind this is that when godly Christians pray actively, particularly when they pray together with noise and energy—when they “shout to the Lord,” as a popular song by former Hillsong Worship leader Darlene Zschech puts it, reworking Psalm 100—the Holy Spirit comes, and then spiritual current flows from the hands of those who pray into the bodies of those for whom they pray. Sometimes, those who pray feel their hands grow warm and tingle with power. Often, those who walk stumble and fall, zapped by God’s power, drunk on God’s love. They fall because when the spirit comes in force, it feels so overwhelming that their knees give out. They lie on the ground, grinning with joy. But when Heather fell down that evening, the way everyone expected, she knew she was faking it. She never went back to the charismatic church again.
The God that emerged from the cultural tumult of the 1960s was meant to shoot into people’s lives like a bolt of lightning. The “new paradigm” churches, as University of Southern California religious studies professor Donald Miller called them, emerged in response to the spiritual sensibility of the age. People had experimented not only with psychedelic drugs but also with yoga and transcendental meditation. The Beatles made Indian guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi famous. On April 8, 1966, Time magazine published a cover story titled “Is God Dead?” In this context, the new Christian churches imagined themselves as reaching out to the unchurched, rescuing young people from acid and introducing them to a Christian life that was not only just as vivid—but better. They promised their followers that they would meet God in encounters as passionate and as real as those of the first disciples.
These new churches announced that they didn’t do “church”; they offered “a real God for a real people,” in the phrase I saw emblazoned on a T-shirt at a Christian conference. This God wanted an intimate relationship with you, to talk with you about ordinary things—how your day went, what you were having for dinner. He was your friend but also God, and he could do miracles. Filled with the power of his Holy Spirit, these neo-Pentecostal or Third Wave Christians—what I will call “charismatic evangelicals”—healed the ill and cast out demons. They did the things Jesus said they would do in John 14:12: “He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father.” That was the message: he who believes will have “hands of power.” By the 1990s, around a quarter of all Americans belonged to one of the new churches. Some were progressive, particularly on the coasts, but most were conservative—strongly committed to sexual purity, strongly opposed to government programs for the poor. In 2016, most of these congregants voted for Donald Trump.
When people grow disenchanted with this kind of church, their politics often change. And some of them leave their churches because of their politics. A growing number of evangelicals, particularly younger ones, are appalled by what they see as the willingness of the evangelical movement to put up with anything for power. When Christianity Today published an op-ed that said as much in December 2019, the surge in traffic crashed the magazine’s website. But people quit the church for other reasons, too, and when they do, they often leave behind their sense that God is a supernatural person. When such an intensely emotional involvement comes unstuck, it can feel more like a bad divorce than a new insight. Just as in a divorce, when people rebuild that relationship, they set out to rebuild it without what went wrong for them before. When God no longer seems like a supernatural person who promises miracles, it is harder to trust the idea that justice comes in the next life rather than this one.
Heather grew up in Southern California, not far from the coast. Her parents were politically moderate (her mom voted Democratic), mainstream Christians. None of her school friends were religious. Heather rebelled by becoming more conservative than her parents, finding her way at 15 to a youth summer camp for evangelical Christians, one of those operations meant to give teenagers an intense experience of God. There she met the most interesting people she had ever known. One young man was smart and quirky and funny, and the Holy Spirit flowed through him like an open tap. Visions. Prophecies. Supernatural dreams. “I mean, God moved through him in all these ways,” she told me.
A girl her age introduced her to the books and films of Heidi Baker, a charismatic evangelical superstar who has spent many years in Mozambique healing the lame and making blind babies see. As an anthropologist, I am troubled by footage of this white woman using her power, supposedly uniquely bestowed by God, to save Black babies. Why, we might ask, would God not have given such power to local Africans? Nevertheless, Baker is a cult figure in charismatic evangelical Christianity, and the otherworldly spectacle of her work thrilled Heather. “The supernatural is the best,” she said. “It’s like magic, you know? And of course you want to be part of that, because it’s cool.”
Soon Heather was deep into the Book of Revelation, that apocalyptic tale of spiritual warfare and righteous heroic action. She thought that Revelation explained 9/11, and even predicted the attacks. Then she read the Left Behind series of novels—vivid adventure tales about life on Earth after the Rapture, an event that causes planes to crash because some pilots, among other people, have been drawn up to heaven (in one case, leaving dental fillings behind), while those who remain battle it out with demonic forces. Heather became so engrossed with the books that she grew frightened. “I had to stop reading them because I thought, ‘Oh, this is real!’ ” She thought that she saw all around her signs that the “end times” were fast approaching. Her world suddenly felt bigger than ever before, and her life meant something greater than before. When she prayed, she felt powerful.
One evening she went to the beach in San Onofre with some new friends from camp. As they sat by a fire, someone suggested that they go down to the beach to pray. “I could tell that they were sensing or intuiting something that was kind of how God was going to move that night,” she said. “You’ve seen that sort of gleam in someone’s eye when they’re like, ‘Let’s go spend time with God,’ because they know God’s gonna be up to something that night.”
So down to the beach they went. The others began speaking in tongues, those sounds that take familiar phonemes and tumble them repetitively such that they sound as if the person is speaking in a language they do not know. Heather was skeptical but also a little awed, sure that anyone who could do that must be in tune with God. Then one friend had a vision out of Revelation—she saw a horse and rider in her mind, going down the beach—and another person announced that God wanted to use their time together to deal with Heather’s demons. For the next two hours, they prayed ardently, and they spoke directly to the invisible demons they were sure had infested her.
One might imagine that Heather would be offended, but like speaking in tongues, demonic exorcism is one of those charismatic practices that seem off-putting to outsiders but impossibly seductive to those who want to be insiders. In the Gospels, Jesus spends a great deal of time naming demons, banishing demons, and curing the illnesses demons have caused. Outsiders—mainstream Christians, non-Christians, people who don’t understand—interpret these demons metaphorically, or perhaps as real in another time but not real in the world we inhabit. The core commitment of the charismatic evangelical movement is that the supernatural power is here, now, present, and available to those who understand and know and believe. To adherents, demons are real.
Heather didn’t feel that she had anything inside that wasn’t part of her, and as her friends asked her to name her demons so that they could summon them and denounce them in the name of Jesus, the best she could do was to call them the demons of loneliness and fear. “They didn’t have names, like your traditional—like, what, Beelzebub.” But as she named those feelings, she knew them as her enemy—and that made her feel like an insider. “There’s a hierarchy. You can’t just walk into a charismatic church and be seen as someone who is worthy of receiving these gifts. You have to prove yourself.” Now that Heather had done so, God would really be able to do, through her, what he wanted in the world. Now she would be powerful.
It was wonderful to feel God so close. Like many charismatic Christians, Heather kept a journal, and she shared with me the pages from these years. One entry from the summer when she was 16 opens, “Hey Jesus!” For hundreds of pages, through that year into the next and beyond, these are the giggly, despairing, ecstatic entries of a teenager making her virginal way through the temptations of high school coolness and disturbingly attractive boys. But they are not quite ordinary journals. They are also love letters to a person, the perfect boyfriend, Jesus. No one, she wrote, will ever love her like him. “It’s time for bed, but I enjoy our talks, Jesus—I love you.” She told him secrets. “Brian was in church last night! Praise the Lord. I think he needs to be in my prayers. And I want to keep Adam in my prayers too. Hm: having stuff you and I know about is kind of nice.” And Jesus was like a lover, though she wouldn’t write down details. “Right now, I’m not yet ready to put any Song of Songs into my lover’s journal. Wo! Just not that time. That book of the Bible is super intense.” She noted that she danced and sang and shouted out for him in church. She wrote, “I [heart] you.” Heading off to her parents’ mainstream church one Sunday, she wrote, “Father, be my strength today as I venture into a church I can’t praise your name in. It’s so boring.”
It’s hard not to envy this perfect intimacy, this invisible friend, completely trustworthy, a never-inattentive boyfriend and an always-loving father, this sense of not ever being alone. Heather thought that writing in her journal helped her to think through what had happened that day and how to prepare for the next. “It helped me to understand my world a little bit better, helped me to feel in control of feelings that often feel out of control.” But her journal entries are not writerly reflections: they are dialogues. Sometimes charismatic Christians write out their prayers and then wait for God to take charge of the pen and respond. Heather did not do that. But her entries are written for someone else (God) to read, and they carefully define the relationship she sought with him: who she wanted to be with him and what she wanted him to do with her. Tucked away among the giggles and hearts are moments of doubt when she steps back to reassure herself, almost as if she gives herself a little shake, and then he becomes real again.
Please tame my heart. Quiet my soul. Hush. Shh … He loves you Heather. He knows everything about you. He wants so much for you. Let him. Let him. Calm … peace. He loves you. He died for you. He loves you. What do I say? A measly “thanks.” It seems so insufficient. Don’t worry, Heather. He’s in control. He’ll catch you when you fall. He wants all of you. Teach me to dance.
She rarely wrote to herself. A prayer journal shifts the telegraphic inner monologue into a conversation.
The risk is that the promise of intimacy with God can make ordinary life feel like library paste. The charismatic church pitchforks people into a world in which ordinary, everyday prayer affects war in the Middle East and politics in Washington, and it promises a relationship more passionate than you can get with an ordinary human. “set me on fire!” Heather wrote. Yet her journals also ache with loneliness. They are the normal struggles of any inward-looking teen—she feels gawky, tongue-tied, scared of romance, yet so eager to be liked. She wants God to take it all away, to make it better, and he didn’t, at least not all the time.
Not long after that night on the beach in San Onofre, Heather went down to Mission Viejo with one of her friends for a worship session in someone’s living room. As the group was singing and praising God, the pastor looked up and said, “Is Heather here?” It was a name that had come to him in his mind as he prayed, and she felt that it was an astonishing confirmation that God was real. “Whoa, it’s true, you know? He knows me.” And she was off on an intense high—that God had chosen her, that her life would be filled with meaning. She wrote,
The Holy Spirit was so present! … I was told that I was loved by You and You’ve known me from my mother’s womb. I am so filled and blessed. I am accepted by you. Plain and simple … I pray that we could lay in the sweet pasture of your furious love.
When the pastor prophesized that she would travel, Heather thought that God was seeing into her heart, that he would send her out to change the world. “I go back to my dorm, and I’m literally blown away.”
But it didn’t last. Heather became a freshman at Azusa Pacific University, a Christian college. She went there because she didn’t want to be the odd one out any more. “Nobody is going to know me as a goody goody virgin lips. We’ll all be Christian boys and girls.” It was tough to make friends. She was shy. She had braces, which made her feel awkward. She no longer saw her friends from camp. She took a class on liturgy and realized that all those spontaneous experiences she’d had were manipulated out of her—that all that powerful music in church was intended to make her weep. She saw around her Christian kids experimenting with methamphetamines and sleeping around, and she wondered whether they were doing that because they felt that their faith testimony wasn’t “hardcore” enough. If they started using meth, then God could save them from meth, and they would have a much better story to share in church. Heather, too, started smoking and drinking.
In time, she began to feel that something was wrong. So she returned to the worship group in Mission Viejo to see if she could rekindle her sense of connection. That’s when she went through the fire tunnel, and suddenly the search for the experience of the Holy Spirit seemed foolish. Selfish, even. She thought she’d fallen over in the tunnel just so that the people in the house group would like her. “You know, ‘Oh, they’re all wiggling. Should I be wiggling?’ ”
It had been two years of charismatic intensity, maybe three. There would be another few years in which she yearned intensely for a God better than a boyfriend, and for the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Her journals remain awestruck over her intimacy with God. But gradually, the conversational tone diminishes. She stopped going to the house group. She stopped going to church. She wrote in her journal, “I want to fling off being religious. It’s scary because my American Christian religion tells me exactly what it thinks right and wrong is!” She wanted to find out by herself. But she also wrote, “I miss being in a church. I miss talking to God.”
I met Heather in 2016 in a church full of people who called themselves “recovering evangelicals.” They had grown up in the megachurches of the evangelical right but could no longer stand the politics or, just as often, the services, during which they felt manipulated.
It is hard to convey, to someone who has not seen it, the smooth quality of the Sunday morning performance at a megachurch. Men in headphones sit at the back of the hall behind amplifiers the size of tugboats, dimming and raising the lights, modulating the volume, shifting the amplification from one microphone to another. There is a carefully crafted arc to the music. The rock band begins the service with rousing songs and finishes it with soft ones, trailing off into silence so that worshippers can weep into their prayers. Pastors in jeans and open-collar shirts bound onto the platform. They tell jokes, they tell personal stories, they talk about scripture. Sometimes they cry. The goal is to make members of the audience cry, or at least to move them—to make them feel as if they have come out of the everyday and encountered God. But once you realize that the music has been selected to induce these emotions, it can feel like cheating. Heather married a man who played in a church band for a while. He was aghast at how deliberately the music was chosen to affect the congregants. He stuck it out for a while because, after all, it was church. But he also told Heather that he felt like taking a shower after each service.
The church where I met Heather, Mountainside Communion in Monrovia, California, is what a megachurch is not. The Sunday I attended was about the least-produced church service I’d ever seen. The group met in a church building, but they were removing the pews, which they considered to be too hierarchical—the pastor up front, looking out onto rows of sheep. The church had started out in a living room some 10 years earlier. Having outgrown that, it moved into a basement, and then into its current location. When I was there, the congregation consisted of about 120 people, about a third of whom were under 12. Most of the kids went off to “Godly Play” for part of the service. But before they did, as the pastor was talking about God breaking into the world, four boys raced across the front of the room holding a foam floatie like a battering ram.
The band was unamplified and not very good, but after the congregants joined in, you couldn’t hear the musicians singing. Toddlers—who did not go to Godly Play—picked up tambourines and maracas from a basket in front and waved them randomly to the music but also throughout the morning, making noise during the sermon, stampeding during prayer. Apart from that, nothing was loud or emotional. The pastor didn’t try to make anyone cry. Instead, he reflected like a scholar on quotations about gratitude by Henri Nouwen, the great Catholic contemplative, and philosophers like Hume and Kierkegaard. Heather said that she and her husband stayed in the church because the music and the sermons felt authentic. She called it an organic, free-range spirituality.
Churches like Mountainside have been around since the 1990s, when they were known as “the emerging church.” They combine an intense focus on the Bible with a laid-back atmosphere. As anthropologist James Bielo points out in Emerging Evangelicals (2011), these churches arose in response to the overproduced spectacle of the megachurch. Their members meet in living rooms and basements—in houses, the way the early Christians did. Many of them grew up in evangelical churches but left because they could not stand the politics, the rigid dogmatism, the suburbanness, the complacency, or the hypnotic, manufactured music. They want to seek Jesus without knowing the answers, the way the disciples did in John 1:38, when a few of them walked off to follow Jesus and he turned around and asked them why. They reject the packaged truths offered in megachurches. As one such churchgoer told Bielo, “We used to joke that we were a support group for recovering Fundamentalists.”
Their recovery is taking place amid a sense that evangelicals have gone off the tracks—a feeling intensified by the rise of President Trump, who in 2016 received 80 percent of the evangelical vote. But the urgency of the moment is about more than politics. Many former evangelicals are driven by growing concern about climate change. Dominion theology, the view that God gave the earth to humans to govern and do with as they please, is still deeply embedded in evangelicalism. When former Pennsylvania Republican senator Rick Santorum, a Roman Catholic who has adopted many conservative evangelical views, accused President Obama of promoting environmentalism as a “phony theology” and said, “man should be in charge of the earth,” it was not only a political attack but also an established theological position.
Sexual politics also plays a part. In 2017, Dani Fankhauser published Shameless: How I Lost My Virginity and Kept My Faith, an account of her liberation from evangelical expectations about chastity; in 2018, Linda Kay Klein published Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free. Both memoirs were rejections of the “purity culture” that took root in evangelical Christianity in the 1990s—chastity rings, daughters taking fathers to purity balls, no kissing before marriage, and no dates, for that matter, unless fathers were present.
The term exvangelical has emerged as a hashtag on Twitter in the past few years. It is an increasingly common label for people who see themselves as part of a generation that grew up in the evangelical culture of the 1980s and 1990s and are now mobilizing against it. Around 20,000 people download Blake Chastain’s Exvangelical podcast every month, and the exvangelical Facebook group has more than 6,000 members. Former evangelical churches are rebranding themselves, like the Blue Ocean churches that broke away from conservative evangelical churches over their approach to race, sexuality, and politics. New forms of neomonasticism—intentional spiritual communities formed outside mainstream denominations—are liturgically or biblically conservative but often do not align themselves with Republican politics. In recent years, according to the Pew Research Center, the number of people identifying themselves as “nonaffiliated” with any church has risen sharply, and the numbers suggest that many of them are millennials who have left evangelical churches. (Even so, absolute numbers in evangelical congregations have remained steady as older people continue to join.)
What is striking about all these exvangelicals is that, unlike charismatic evangelicals, they do not imagine God first and foremost as a supernatural person who interacts with people. The cornerstone of evangelical faith is that the individual should maintain a personal relationship with Jesus, who, in this context, is interchangeable with God. I have met young charismatic Christians who have set a dinner plate for God and who have pulled out a chair for him to sit on. I have met young women who go on what they call “date nights” with God, taking a sandwich down to the park and hanging out with him on a bench, his arm around their shoulders. There is a playful element here, sanctioned by C. S. Lewis, for evangelicals perhaps the greatest theologian of the 20th century: “Let us pretend in order to make the pretence into a reality.” To experience God as an imaginary friend makes him your own. The God who converses over that dinner plate or sits beside you on that park bench is personal, intimate, and invulnerable to mainstream skepticism.
But that is not how the recovering evangelicals imagine God.
For many former evangelicals, the idea of God as a supernatural person was the most hurtful part of the faith. Evangelicalism offers its adherents an intimate, loving other in their private inner worlds, someone who is always there, always reassuring, always a reminder of one’s larger purpose. Psychoanalysts call these inner others “objects.” Our mothers and fathers are always with us—sometimes more present, sometimes less so—as an inner amalgam of memory and expectation that comments and cajoles throughout the day. Evangelicals devote a lot of time to reworking that inner other into a loving presence that transcends the limitations of human parents. I envy the peace that their God can give.
But when the inner other disapproves of you intensely, it can feel awful, worse than your own self-blame. Chastain, the Exvangelical podcast host, told me that when he became uncomfortable with the church, the Holy Spirit started to feel like an “inner narc.” As an evangelical who feared that he had disappointed God, he felt as if he was jailed from within. “The Holy Spirit sort of takes over your sense of conscience,” he said. “Even though you may feel conflicted about the message you are receiving, it still feels as if it’s coming from something external.” For evangelicals, that vise grip results from the powerful reframing of inner experience—a God who talks to you inside your mind, who becomes to some extent your inner voice, your conscience, your blankie, your whip. A young woman said to me once that when she lost her evangelical faith in high school, she worried for a time that she would never be able to make decisions again, because all those inner commitments felt as if they were God’s ideas, not her own. It took months before she thought she had reclaimed her psychic grounding. For those who reach puberty as young evangelicals and discover that they cannot remain chaste, or are drawn to the “wrong” gender, or cannot bear the image of God (gun-toting, Trump-voting) that people around them hold, it can feel like they are being suffocated.
In the exvangelical world, people describe the process of transforming their God within a framework of “deconstruction” and “reconstruction.” They say that people need to go through a process of taking God apart in order to put God back together in a way that works for them. Brenda Marie Davies, host of a YouTube channel called God is Grey (meaning humans cannot know God’s truth directly), fell in love with the God she met in her evangelical youth group while in middle school. She loved the sense of purpose this God gave her, the sense that her choices mattered to the world. But her youth group leader told her that God wept when she masturbated, which upset her. So at 15, she organized her friends into a chastity ring ceremony. In art class, she created a papier-mâché pregnant woman holding a gun to her big belly, a project Davies titled “Abortion.” By 22, she couldn’t bear the insistence on virginity any longer. Even though she married the man she slept with, she was tormented. It took her years to deconstruct, or take apart, the force of that inner pressure, and reconstruct a God who didn’t hate her.
In many recovering evangelical churches, “God” comes to mean something more embodied within the community of the faithful, the name for the people they can become together. At Mountainside, one congregant argued in an academic paper against the very idea that humans are composed of two parts, a material body and a nonmaterial soul. He considered this division to be not only neuroscientifically wrong but also bad theology. If we have both souls and bodies, he wrote, then Christians will think of their responsibility as being to the soul—and not to the body’s need for food or shelter. He blamed Saint Augustine for the emphasis on inwardness that we think of as so central to Christianity. He thought that the churches of the early Christians were more like Mountainside: small house groups in w hich people risked something to be with one another. Matthew 18:20 states that “for where two or three gather in my name, there I am with them.” If the charismatic church took this to be an invitation to imagine God as an invisible supernatural friend, this man took the verse as an invitation to imagine God as embodied in each person’s earthly relationships. To be clear, this is not a disavowal of supernatural divinity, nor even a denial that God has some personlike qualities. Rather, it’s an expression of theological humility, an understanding that whatever God is, God is of the world: here, not there; with us, not apart from us.
You can find some version of this theological reasoning in the books that inspire many people in these disparate, once-evangelical groups—books by Richard Rohr, Rob Bell, and Wendell Berry. Rohr, for example, is a Franciscan priest who founded the Center for Action and Contemplation, in Albuquerque. His books on spirituality have sold millions of copies. He speaks, in part, to recovering evangelicals. “Fundamentalism misses the fundamental,” he writes in Yes, And (2013). Elsewhere, he writes that spirituality creates people who let go of the need to be saved, that Christians have substituted reading scriptures literally for reading them seriously, that “God can most easily be lost by being thought found.” For him, God is not so much a supernatural being as a way of experiencing the world in which humans live—realizing that you are present, rather than seeking a presence. God, he writes, is more verb than noun.
The abandonment of God, the supernatural person, has real implications for politics. Christianity is a supremely dualist faith. At the heart of the Christian story is a radical tension between the aspirations of the soul and the gross desires of the body, the salvific inner assent of conviction and the bodily suffering of the human. This intense inwardness can make what really matters different from what is here on Earth. An emphasis on God’s supernatural person and his miracles goes hand in glove with an emphasis on spiritual—and not bodily—salvation. And so the body does not really matter. One follows Jesus’s admonition to feed the poor only because that food will bring their souls to Christ. I have often wondered whether many evangelicals tolerate the political concept of alternative facts because to some extent, as they see it, the facts about life on earth do not really matter. Modern evangelicals often interpret the Bible as predicting that Jesus will return to remake the world, and that the period just before he appears will be marked by chaos and looming catastrophe—the end times. In April 2020, a poll surveying evangelical pastors and pastors from historically Black churches found that nine in 10 of them saw signs of the end times in current events. In this line of thinking, the material world and its suffering bodies will vanish, and the saved will be taken up to heaven. From that perspective, what politicians get up to is irrelevant.
This narrative is unavailable to those who reject the sharp dualism of mainstream evangelical thinking. If God is embodied within the community of the faithful, what matters is earthly bodies, care for the world as it is, and a belief that God’s purpose is best served by enabling humans to flourish regardless of doctrinal details. Mountainside began because the man who now serves as its pastor became frustrated with the direction of the church he had served as a youth pastor. It was a large church in Pasadena, focused on salvation, on bringing more souls to Christ. The aspiring pastor couldn’t afford to buy a house in Pasadena, so he and his family settled nearby in a lower-income community and became neighbors of a lot of single parents with at-risk kids. Walking around the neighborhood, he began asking himself, Why am I driving to Pasadena when there is good work to be done here? He decided that the kids’ struggles to become flourishing, contributing adults was a form of wrestling with God. He wanted to work with them in the struggle, and he wanted to make a difference in the neighborhood they shared. As his new church grew, its congregants scrubbed out a cockroach-infested apartment, tried to open a free health clinic staffed by a church member’s son, and set up an immigration center. This story is not uncommon for these churches. They want to heal the world as it is now rather than save souls for a heavenly tomorrow.
“The charismatic movement tripped me up,” Heather told me, “because the supernatural in-breaking of God takes you out of ordinary moments, and gets you hooked on this supernatural high.” Then she paused. “To me, that’s missing the point.” If God is not a supernatural person but found within the community you share together, saving someone’s soul just doesn’t matter. Getting the cockroaches out of their house really does.
Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.