Discover more from The Bugbear Dispatch
Moving Past Evangelical Shame
A Conversation with Meghan Crozier of Thereafter
Last week here at The Bugbear Dispatch, I wrote an essay about the comprehensive presence of shaming in evangelical subculture. For evangelicals, shame—certainly around sex, sexuality, and gender roles, but far from only that—functions as both an internalized and external mechanism for discipline and control.
I am far and away not the only exvangelical who’s been doing a lot of thinking about the power of shame and how to move past it. For example, here on Substack, you can listen to D.L. Mayfield of Healing is My Special Interest interviewing antiracism educator Toril Williams Douglas on the subject. It’s a wide-ranging, thought-provoking conversation that I highly recommend by two fellow exvies who are also fellow Portlanders. PDX represent!
The Bugbear Dispatch exists thanks to the financial support of readers like you. If you like what you read, please consider becoming a paid subscriber!
The Portland Metropolitan Area also happens to be where my friend Meghan Crozier resides. She too is an exvangelical and is cohost of the podcast Thereafter, “a place where we explore life on the other side of faith change.” Meghan frequently organizes get-togethers in the area with a group of exvie friends, and in recent years she’s added bigger event organizing to her many activities.
During the pandemic, Meghan wrote a memoir about her experience as an evangelical that she’s shelved for now, but that served as a launching point for involvement in exvangelical social media. It also helped her to embrace, as Meghan puts it, “my desire to constantly ask the hard questions, say the thing, and get more comfortable living in the gray.”
Meghan’s next big event for exvangelicals—coming up in Portland in February—will be focused on moving past sexual and gender-related shame and stigma. Dubbed Content Warning, the event will bring together “podcasters, authors, therapists, speakers, and creators that want to reinvigorate the conversation happening around sex and sexuality in faith deconstruction spaces where people are healing from purity culture.”
In light of that focus, Meghan was an obvious choice for an interview to follow up on the essay I published last week. Unfortunately, there’s always more to say about evangelicals and shame, and please note that shame is a key factor in the authoritarian movement now often referred to as Christian nationalism, which we touch on in our interview. What follows below has been edited slightly for clarity. And for those who might be interested in attending an exvangelical event in the Pacific Northwest, there’s more information on Content Warning at the end!
“Not Allowed to Be Human”: An Interview with Meghan Crozier on Moving Past Evangelical Shame
How long have you been a part of online exvangelical discussions and communities, and what does being a part of those things mean to you?
My biggest dive into these discussions was through the Clubhouse app. At the time, most of us were in quarantine and desperate for a community. My friend Teel and I hosted a weekly chat on Thursday evenings called Post/Progressive Christians Talk and worked through a variety of topics. It almost became an exvangelical small group of sorts. My friend Meg Cowan also hosted a Sunday chat with a lot of content creators that were growing platforms at the time, and that’s how I met some of the people behind a few larger accounts at the time.
How did you decide to get into podcasting, and what have been some of your most memorable episodes and experiences as a podcaster?
I met Cortland Coffey on that Clubhouse app that I mentioned, and he invited me on Thereafter as a guest. It was around the time when I was going through what I’ve heard people refer to as their “rage reading” phase of deconstruction, and I was hungry for conversations about what I was learning.
I would listen to other episodes of Thereafter while I was running and would stop mid-run to text Cortland my thoughts or ask questions. Eventually, he ended up parting ways with his first season co-host and we decided to host the show together. My favorite part of the podcast is the long-lasting relationships we end up building. If you look at the collaborator list for the upcoming Content Warning event, many of them have been previous Thereafter guests. I would say one of my favorite episodes was when we had Tori Williams Douglass on to talk about masturbation. To be honest, I love being able to destigmatize topics that people tend to feel shame around, and that was a really fun conversation. I also loved the episode that Cortland and I did about coming out as bisexual later in life. We really try to acknowledge throughout our episodes that we don’t claim to have all the answers, and you can really see how our lives have shifted along the way.
By the way, I do think the terms “exvangelical” and “deconstruction” have morphed and don’t mean the same thing to everyone. When we say “deconstruction community” it could mean so many different things. My faith has even shifted within that from progressive Christianity to agnostic. Some want conversations about theology, others want to talk about things like justice, political activism, advocacy for marginalized groups, etc.
It’s almost impossible to make generalizations about exvangelicals like we can about evangelicals. For example, even though there is a broad spectrum of types of white evangelical Christianity, you can generally say that they hold to beliefs about wanting to spread/witness their faith, are most often not queer affirming, and usually maintain abstinence until marriage as a “Biblical sexual ethic.” On the other hand, exvangelicals are all across the board. That’s why it’s so difficult when churches publish books and articles about folx deconstructing. It never feels like it represents me at all.
When the shame we’re taught in evangelicalism controls us, we’re not only not allowed to be human, but we are forced to think that being human is a terrible thing.
I certainly don’t trust anything evangelicals say about exvangelicals or that buzzword “deconstruction.” Much of it is clearly said in bad faith, so to speak. But don’t you think that the vast majority of self-identified exvies are at least liberal to leftist politically?
Still, the term “exvangelical” has definitely morphed. I noticed already in some of the earlier exvangelical discussions on Twitter that outsiders, particularly evangelicals, assumed exvangelicals wanted to have a shared theology or “worldview,” which was bizarre to me. But on the other hand I know how evangelicalism teaches people to think comprehensively about “worldviews” and beliefs.
Outside the Twitter bubble, I think the shift started around 2021, when more prominent evangelicals first apparently felt the need to start making public comments in print instead of just trying to ignore us in the hope we would go away. Since then I often encounter this notion that exvangelicals are all liberal Christians, which again is bizarre to me as an atheist of evangelical extraction. Of course evangelicals also often assume that we’ve all just “deconstructed” so we can have all the “unbiblical” sex we want, ha ha. Thoughts?
I began to develop deep shame at not being perfect, at ever even thinking I could’ve been perfect, and then at being such a horrible person that my actions caused Jesus to die.
I do believe that there are overlaps, especially politically, among exvangelicals, But one thing that I’ve noticed when it comes to folx in the process of what we often call deconstruction, is that there are some who still fiercely limit the questions they allow themselves or others to ask. When books like The Gospel Coalition’s Before You Lose your Faith: Deconstructing Doubt in the Church arise, it feels counterintuitive.
This process for me has been about finding a new path without any prescription. Securing a belief system on the outset doesn’t feel like deconstruction at all. It feels like when my pastor held up a concordance printed by Intervarsity Press and said “If you have any questions about tricky things in the Bible, go here!” and I found myself digging into books twice the size of my Bible for answers that were only within the approved belief system of the church I was in at the time. I often call some of the “deconstruct/reconstruct” folx “I voted for Biden instead of Trump so that’s why I say I’m deconstructing” people.
Ha, well, I personally would consider The Gospel Coalition’s little book, of which I have a copy, nothing but defensiveness, damage control, and manipulation—something that is only related to the “deconstruction” of evangelicalism inasmuch as it’s a response to it. But of course, those are 100% not “voted for Biden” people, and yes, clearly there are some “exvangelicals” who are trying to keep most of their inhumane evangelical beliefs while being more humane than the average evangelical, but they can only take it so far.
One thing I’ll add here, and this may be a tangent or it may not be, but as someone invested in conversations about purity culture, sex, and sexuality, I see exvangelicals sharing & recommending creators, authors, podcasters, and books from people and sometimes I cringe at the names I see pop up. People who aren’t affirming. People who preach Side B theology (the idea that it’s not a sin to be gay as long as you suppress your “same sex attraction” in a lifetime of celibacy). People who are willing to say words like orgasm and masturbation, but create so many rules about these things that it feels like high control evangelicalism all over again. People who say “I’m queer affirming” but then a polyamorous person raises their hand and they say “except you.” I feel stuck sometimes because evangelicals will say “You were never a real Christian,” and of course they don’t get to gatekeep who I was or wasn’t. But there are times when I’m tempted to say to someone, “You aren’t really deconstructing,” so I’ve had to reflect on where that comes from and what that really means. What would “really deconstructing” look like for me then? That’s why it’s so difficult to define this community. We just aren’t the same.
You mentioned “finding a path without prescription.” I definitely agree with you that we shouldn’t be prescriptive about whether people land in or outside of religion and spirituality once they start deconstructing their faith. I’m now an atheist myself, but since I became a part of fostering online exvangelical discussions and community spaces around 2015, I’ve been arguing that exvangelicals with different beliefs should hold space for each other and that shared values are more important than shared beliefs.
Who should be paying attention to exvangelical discussions, in your view? Just exvies and people from similar high control religious backgrounds, or is there something there of value for the broader public?
I love this question, especially because I do think some folx deconstructing tend to think their experience is solely due to broken systems within the evangelical church, but I think we’re also responding to broken systems in society as a whole. Conversations about consent within relationships, for example, sometimes feel like only a response to strict teachings within purity culture in the evangelical church, but if you look at history in the broader society, everyone is catching up to understanding consent. When you look at legislation being passed around the country, discrimination against queer folx isn’t just a church issue, it’s an issue in the broader society. Yes, much of this legislation has roots in Christian nationalism, but some of it is rooted in societal queerphobia. I think everyone should be paying attention to these conversations, especially the lived experience of those who have been harmed in spaces where they are discriminated against and excluded.
Let’s talk a little bit about how shame works in evangelical subculture. Obviously it’s a tool for policing conformity around sexuality and gender roles, and is pervasive and extremely damaging in purity culture, but it’s even broader than that as both an external and internalized disciplinary mechanism, isn’t it?
The moment I started making my own decisions, separate from what the church or my mentors would want me to do, I had so much shame that I didn’t have an ounce of respect for myself.
Yes, a thousand percent. Can we talk for a minute about the recent conversation around Speaker of the House Mike Johnson and the news about how he shared the Covenant Eyes “accountability” software with his 17-year-old son? While there’s a very valid conversation to be had about the inappropriateness of having a minor and your son be your accountability partner, I was curious about the broader conversation about pornography and masturbation.
I may have missed it, but I didn’t see anyone tackling the question about whether this software is necessary in the first place. And when I had private conversations about this with people in my network, we wondered whether the stigma around pornography is more about the porn itself or about what you do while you look at porn or both.
I’ve seen Christian authors—even progressive authors that claim to be pushing back against purity culture—make arbitrary rules about things like solo sex, sex toys, and porn when these aren’t things that are addressed in the Bible. I also see creators making a living creating ethical porn and I think yes within evangelicalism but also in society as a whole there’s a giant shame stigma just in that one area. It’s not a topic that is talked about out loud, even in small close-knit circles.
After reading your article “This is Your Brain on Evangelicalism” in The Bugbear Dispatch, I have so many thoughts. What I’ll start with is this. When I was in college, I spent a couple of years praying an hour a day. I had gone to a conference and read a book that outlined a journaling format called PART which stood for Praise, Admit, Request, and Thank You. I would write out each section, and also read the daily reading from The One Year Bible along with it.
Can we talk about the “admit” section? The idea was that every single day, I was supposed to search my soul for the sins I needed to confess. Sometimes if I searched my soul and couldn’t think of a sin to confess, my confession that day would be about how prideful I was for thinking that my sinful self would seriously not have something to confess. Because I was in college though, these confessions often revolved around being discontent with how single I was or not sticking to my commitment to “wait to be pursued,” (a teaching I followed that I had learned from books, mentors, and my peers). You know how they say that when you develop a daily gratitude practice then your brain will shift? I haven’t seen research, but I would wonder if that happens with a daily confession practice. I began to develop deep shame at not being perfect, at ever even thinking I could’ve been perfect, and then, as you mentioned in your article, at being such a horrible person that my actions caused Jesus to die.
But here’s where this “it’s my fault Jesus died” tool of shame falls even more apart. After I graduated from Christian college I walked away from church for a couple of years. I dated someone that wasn’t a Christian. I stopped going to church. I started sleeping around. I began drinking for the first time. Later, when I returned, I called these my “rebellious years” and pushed them to the furthest part of my brain, hoping they would never surface. (Now, as I’ve been deconstructing, I sometimes refer to these as my “GO MEGHAN” years).
What happened was the moment I started making my own decisions, separate from what I thought the church or my mentors would want me to do, I had so much shame that I didn’t have an ounce of respect for myself. I didn’t take care of myself. I got into a couple awful situations with men. I believed in my bones that these negative experiences were my fault for failing to live my life the way God would have wanted me to live. Shame is not only a tool of control, but during those years it was a mechanism for gaslighting myself into believing that I deserved every bad thing that happened to me because I wasn’t “walking with God.”
I also think that when shame is used as control, it stunts our growth. Therapy is so incredible because it is validating. I’ll never forget when I was agonizing over a decision in therapy (on Zoom) that prioritized myself and my own needs over others, and my therapist leaned forward into the camera and said, “You’re human.” When the shame we’re taught in evangelicalism controls us, we’re not only not allowed to be human, but we are forced to think that being human is a terrible thing.
Can you say a little about how you’ve managed to take exvangelical community offline? I’m privileged to be one of your exvie friends here in the Portland area and really appreciate how you bring folks together.
I kind of joke sometimes that I’m like a deconstruction bartender—I just turn on the lights and open the doors and hope that people come in and have those conversations.
This is something beautiful that has happened quite organically. I think that building community in audio-based apps like Clubhouse or through audio sections of social media like Twitter Spaces has created a different style of space than text only that lends itself more to close friendship and connection. I’m running a half marathon in every state and I also travel for work, so sometimes I would just grab a meal with a Twitter friend or even sometimes run with one and slowly that’s evolved into hosting mini-meetups.
When I ran in Denver, Cortland and I pulled some folx together one afternoon, and eventually we did a meetup in Portland June 2022 (I’m so so sad you had to miss it due to COVID) with 10 collaborators. It’s so hard for me to distinguish between collaborators and attendees—I like to call attendees “participants”—because I think everyone has value in this space and everyone’s experience has something to add. There’s also something beautiful that happens when you pull together a group of people that had similar upbringings and then overlaps in their faith unraveling. It’s not necessarily always the center of what we talk about, but it’s so nice to say something like “Oh my word I used to play that game at youth group” and have everyone else nod along and know exactly what you’re talking about. And then when you do run into those tougher topics around evolving faith, it’s nice to have a crew to talk to about it.
Tell our readers a little more about your approach to event planning, what your organizing process is, and how that first event you mentioned above went.
Let me tell you that as an enneagram one, my brain goes in a million directions when I participate in planning events. I always want to pull together diverse and intersectional perspectives because I value learning from experiences that may be different from my own.
I also want to make it a worthwhile experience for participants because I honor people’s time and money and willingness to travel to connect. While some folx have larger platforms, I think a lot of us feel like we’re just everyday people wanting to connect.
But it can also be overwhelming having so many of your favorite people in one place at one time. It’s a bit like summer camp, but not the toxic kind. At the PDX meetup we had a couple morning sessions and a couple evening sessions with a few hours between to explore Portland and have lunch. I always value the unstructured time just as much as the structured time because the goal is just as much to build community as it is to have the event.
Some of my closest friends now are people that I met at that first PDX meetup, but we all took a risk in making it happen—collaborators and participants. I remember when we first advertised the PDX meetup, someone replied to my tweet and said “No offense, but what.. is actually happening at this event?”
People that had interacted with us for ages knew that the group of people was a group that could be trusted to put together something incredible, and it really came together well. When I paid the bartender at the end of the night, she was in awe at the conversations about family, relationships, sexuality, decolonization, etc. that we’d been having. She said she hadn’t heard those conversations anywhere and just loved to see that they were happening. I kind of joke sometimes that I’m like a deconstruction bartender—I just turn on the lights and open the doors and hope that people come in and have those conversations. The panels get shaped by who shows up.
You’re organizing a second big in-person event that’s coming up in February, and, if COVID or something doesn’t prevent me from being there for a second time (knock on wood), I’m looking forward to being a panelist. This event, called Content Warning, will be focused specifically on sexuality, gender identity, and moving past purity culture. What inspired this event and what would you like our readers to know about it?
I’ll say a couple things about this. One is that I have wanted to do another event ever since the first PDX meetup, but it took a bit to get off the ground because event planning is work. Luckily, I have a great team of collaborators with amazing minds.
The second is that I get frustrated sometimes with some conversations about purity culture in—I guess I’ll say “progressive” spaces. They tend to have more limitations to them than I want. I want to move past sitting in our trauma and move forward to sex positivity and what’s next.
I also want the conversation to be more expansive and inclusive. I want trans perspectives, racially diverse perspectives, perspectives from different age groups, from therapists and sex educators. I want to include conversations about non-monogamy and sex work and ethical porn. None of these conversations are prescriptive, but I just want to bring these topics out of the shadows and allow people room to learn new perspectives and new ideas.
I think there is so much to be learned from other perspectives. For example, I’m not polyamorous, but I’ve learned so much from my nonmonogamous friends about platonic friendships across gender. I’m not transgender, but trans authors sharing their journey of transitioning identities have made me feel seen in some shifts I’ve faced.
I remember questioning whether I was bisexual at 40 and thinking “I’m way too old to be figuring this out now” and then listening to Paula Stone Williams’ memoir and how she transitioned gender at 60 and thought “if she wasn’t too old to make a shift at 60 than I’m not too old to discover new things about myself at 40.” I want everyone to have access to these conversations, so the thought of bringing them into one space is incredible. Plus, I want to create space for connection and what I like to call “hallway conversations” or the conversations that happen before and after the more structured elements. I also don’t want people to be intimidated by the topic. If you want to show up and share your experience, awesome. If you want to show up and just listen and learn, great. If you want to show up just simply because you want to connect with our collaborators and other participants, that’s great too.