by Katharine Armbrester
Kelsey McKinney’s debut novel is not for the faint of heart—the emotional wallop it packs is as devastating as if you were sitting in church on a placid Sunday, and the preacher in his pulpit suddenly revealed your deepest shame to the entire congregation.
God Spare the Girls is a story that is laced with shame, the shame that is heaped upon women in a policing, fundamentalist, Texan community, the shame that purity culture and rigid gender roles produce indiscriminately. Despite the fact that women are the ones who are the backbone of evangelicalism, and that the pews are largely filled with women on Sunday, little regard is taken for the mental and emotional the pressures of fundamentalism and “Biblical Womanhood” take on women, and McKinney dives into this with an insider’s knowledge, and a moving story.
Abigail and Caroline are the daughters of the charismatic and photogenic pastor of a Texas megachurch, who came to prominence after a recording of a sermon he gave on purity culture went viral. The novel opens with bridal shower for the older sister Caroline who is newly engaged, much too young, has done “everything right” in her very public courtship and is about to rewarded with marriage. She is her father’s right hand and despite her theological depth and writing skills can’t follow her father into the pulpit, as she belongs to an evangelical tradition where “women remain silent in church.”
Caroline, on the other hand, appears at first glance to be everything her older sister is not. She is not as serenely beautiful or seemingly secure in her faith, and she is secretly dating a boy from her church and embarks on a sexual relationship with him, keeping it secret from both their parents. McKinney does a wonderful job of describing how high the stakes are for Caroline in “disobeying” the laws of purity culture, and her biting observations are priceless. “Well-raised Christian boys always stared so deeply into your eyes that you knew all they could possibly be thinking about was your body.” But another secret is about to come out and bring Abigail and Caroline’s world crashing down: on the day of the wedding shower, it is revealed that their father has been having an affair with an extremely vulnerable single woman in their congregation.
Their father, Luke Nolan is, mercifully, not a careless caricature of evangelical celebrity pastors for, unfortunately, he is a vividly rendered example of the hypocrisy that rears its ugly head frequently within American churchdom and quickly seeps back into the ground like morning fog. Nolan is reminiscent of Doug Phillips, founder of the Vision Forum Ministries which advocated for patriarchy and the Quiverfull movement, and who enlisted his demure blonde daughters to advertise the success of his particular brand of dangerously retrograde Christian Reconstructionism until, like Luke Nolan, it was brought to light that Phillips had committed adultery and his empire crumbled from within.
Young girls within the particular evangelicalism that McKinney describes so vividly are brought up to revere their fathers and obey them unthinkingly until the Lord brings a husband to them. To his daughters, Luke Nolan has been, to quote Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible: “hardly a father except in the vocational sense; as a potter with clay to be molded.” As they realize just how fallible (and just how deceiving) their father is, Abigail and Caroline must navigate their pasts and their future, and they temporarily leave their father’s house and stay in a house they have inherited from their grandmother, a devout Christian woman who died under mysterious circumstances.
The only weakness in McKinney’s narrative is her lack of detail in describing the “third-largest” megachurch in Texas. She fails at times to describe the overwhelming amount of social activities, and the private Christian school or homeschooling co-op that would undoubtedly be attached to such a large church, and which the Nolan girls would be intimately familiar with. McKinney does however describe the interactions between the Nolan girls and the church ladies with vivid, biting realism: “As the daughters of a famous and beloved pastor, the girls had attended hundreds of bridal showers, each one…with saggy sandwiches, dwindling juice pitchers, and oft-repeated if unconvincing meet-cute stories.”
There is a great deal to praise and digest in God Spare the Girls, and I am sorry it did not last for another fifty pages and have a perhaps more conclusive ending. However, for a debut novel it is marvelous, and I’ve no doubt that McKinney’s work will move from strength to strength, and continue to shine a spotlight on the gangrenous shame that young women entrenched in purity culture continue to break free of every day.
God Spare the Girls is the perfect book for women who can remember the heady days of the True Love Waits movement and I Kissed Dating Goodbye, and who are left flailing when they realize that all their good behavior has not given them the perfect white-picket-fence life they were promised as impressionable teenagers years ago. It is also a worthwhile book for younger readers who are struggling to separate Biblical truth from the “prosperity gospel” that is laced in much of evangelical Christianity today, particularly as dispelled by young, attractive YouTube influencers.
Caroline and Abigail’s story is one of growing awareness, discernment, and an owning of their own voice, which is an important lesson for all Christians. Christianity is a discipline that does entail a great deal of self-sacrifice, but the gospel of Jesus is not and will never be one that systematically harms women or holds them back from declaring the truth.
Katharine Armbrester is in the MFA creative writing program at the Mississippi University for Women. She is a devotee of Flannery O’Connor and Margaret Atwood and fully intends to be an equally disconcerting playwright—she thinks Alabama needs one.