Blowing Up Biblical Womanhood

A photo illustration combines an author photo of a woman with black-rimmed glasses and dark, medium-length curly hair with the dark cover art for her memoir.
Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Harper

Growing up Evangelical in the rural Midwest, writer and astrologer Jeanna Kadlec did everything right. As she details in Heretic, her memoir of leaving the church and coming out as a lesbian, available on October 25, she was a devout child who married a pastor’s son at 23 and a paragon of biblical womanhood. The gender-essentialist term does not appear in the Bible, she says, but was created by Evangelical leaders as an extra-scriptural text in the 1980s in reaction to gains in the women’s, LGBTQ+, and civil-rights movements.

“It was very much, We need to prop up white manhood and white womanhood and use the Bible to defend it,” says Kadlec, whose book interweaves her personal story with a concise history of the Evangelical church and rigorous analysis of its influence on today’s culture. From Chip and Joanna Gaines’s reality home-remodeling empire to the overturning of Roe v. Wade, Kadlec spotlights where Evangelicalism hides, often in plain sight. Christian fundamentalism, she shows us, is not antithetical to the American project but a foundational tenet.

In Heretic, we get to know Kadlec twice: Once, in retrospect, as a young girl, then a woman, whose relationship with Jesus was the most important thing in her life. A woman whose intellect and ambition, applauded by church elders when applied to Bible study, was eventually seen as a threat. As she pursued a Ph.D. in literature, she struggled with the tension between the radical feminist texts she analyzed and the subservience that her faith and marriage demanded.

When we meet her again, she is coming out and leaving behind all she knows — church, husband, academic career — to step into a freer life. Untethering from the monotheistic mindset of her youth, she learns to read tarot, moves to New York, becomes a professional astrologer, and falls in love. In the occult and queer community, she discovers a sense of belonging and ritual she thought she’d lost forever. Heresy originally meant “choice” or “choosing”; by reclaiming the term weaponized against her (heretic, one who has left the church), Kadlec chooses herself.

There’s a popular conception, which you discuss in the book, that you cannot be intellectual and devout particularly an Evangelical believer in a Christian God. How did that tension impede or support your journey to leaving?

For a very long time, it was something that I had to ignore in order to stay in the church. Not because of the intellectual pursuits themselves, and not because of being a smart person in the church — there are plenty of smart people in the church — but rather because of the gender dynamic there. I was a woman who had intellectual goals and priorities and was also trying to be this faithful wife. The kind of man I married, the kind of churches we were in — that was always going to end in an ultimatum situation. Everyone around me, including my ex-husband, was just banking on me eventually seeing the light. Choosing wifehood and motherhood, maybe a nice little job on the side. But I had really big goals. It was just a friction that was incredibly uncomfortable and became more uncomfortable once I was in graduate school and I was exposed to the possibility that life could present me with over the containment that the church demanded.

As I was reading, I kept thinking about internalized misogyny, like the church ladies telling you not to wear such tight clothing, laugh at the boys’ jokes, or even just talk so loud. I’m wondering how that monitoring prepared you for the idea of your body not belonging to you.

We were told in youth group that our bodies were not our own and that we had to dress modestly and there was no sex before marriage. And then I was taken aside by church women starting in like sixth grade, told that my body was tempting and that my clothes were too tight. They weren’t, you know? I was 11. I was in jeans and T-shirts. And pretty much every girl was getting this kind of shaming in some capacity no matter what we looked like.

Having developed curves really early, I certainly took it personally in particular ways. But talking to ex-Evangelicals, women who’ve come out of the church, everyone got it. It was indiscriminate and really hurtful and harmful and executed by elder women toward young girls. That internalized misogyny, like they went through it and now they’re going to put younger women and younger girls through it.

I’d love to hear about how buying lingerie helped you settle into and appreciate a body that was constantly monitored growing up. 

Lingerie was my first go-to because it was a way to be sexy but not revealing on the outside. I was still unpacking the modesty trauma of purity culture. Once I was no longer in the same house as my ex-husband, I was like, Oh, I get to wear something without tempting a man. It broke so many things open for me. I’ve always worn a full bust size, and so many stores just don’t have stuff that fits me. So I went to a lingerie store that I knew would have things for me. Anyone who has ever had the experience of, whether it’s lingerie or clothing, most stores not carrying your size, when you go somewhere that does, it’s a really affirming and powerful experience. It became an outlet for me to start to play and experiment with personal style, with starting to embrace my body for what it was outside of what the church told me it was.
Okay. Christian girl autumn. I think I’d always understood the aesthetic you’re describing as just basic pumpkin-spice-latte bitch. How did I miss that it was inherently churchy?

I think the “Christian girl autumn” meme didn’t come around until like 2018 or 2019. So I was well out of the church by then. But the way that those photos ping Christian to me and a lot of other people is so distinct. I think it’s the conformity. The conformity of hetero-ness, on the one hand. All of these are white women wearing the same outfit that is also — and this is the key thing — very modest. It’s this very distinct jeans and infinity scarves and hair is blown out and they got their latte — the vibes are youth pastor’s wife, you know?  

I keep thinking about how social-media aspirationalism has created an avenue for that. 

These accounts are not tradwife. At least on the surface, they aren’t explicitly going hard on what we would call “culture war” social issues. They aren’t going hard on abortion. They aren’t explicitly talking about trans kids. But the values that are underpinning their life and everything they’re saying are gender essentialism, biblical manhood and womanhood; you have to have children, there’s a right way to do a marriage. You just have to be able to discern that beneath the pale Instagram filter.
How did learning to read tarot and exploring the metaphysical, the mystical, whatever you want to call it, help you start to strip away patriarchal ideas from your own spiritual practice? 

Coming from Christianity, I was not considered an authority on my own experience, on my own body, on anything, really. What tarot really helped me do was simply acknowledge that I could be the authority on my own experience. That I could be the authority on what was happening to me and on my body and on what I wanted. That simple shift in perspective, which took time and a lot of practice, was totally revolutionary. 

I love the term “corrective spiritual medicine.” Could you explain what you mean by that and how playing Dungeons and Dragons, for example, provided it for you?

What I mean is something that’s helping to heal spiritual harm, whether or not we’re consciously aware that it’s spiritual harm. In the book, I talk about how being present and being really embodied is for me — someone who grew up really dissociated and really focused on the future and the rapture and possible death and all of that — very corrective spiritual medicine. Unexpected things can be corrective spiritual medicine, like D&D! For me, one of the major therapeutic benefits of D&D has been helping to excavate a lot of my religiously motivated anger. And also, just helping me to be really playful. Because I grew up in a really conservative household and in a conservative church, I had really high expectations. My behavior reflected on the family. I wasn’t really playful as a child and wasn’t allowed to be. Getting to just play as a grown-up has been really revelatory.

Community — belonging to it, losing it, remaking it, redefining it — seems to be one of the through-lines of the story. How has the definition of community changed for you as you came out and grew into your queerness?

Before, I was oriented toward nonfamilial community, but it was based in a shared faith in Jesus. Jesus brings us together, but without that there’s nothing. Given the total collapse of those relationships following my leaving the church, I really needed to push myself to understand what that looks like. I’d also been taught that the church’s community is of a higher level and a richer level than anyone else’s because we are connected to each other through Christ Jesus. Which is horseshit.

I had really close friends who were outside the church before, but I hadn’t understood that those were actually my real friends. That their love for me was simply predicated on their love for me. There wasn’t an external authority or hall monitor telling them that because I voted for a certain person or because I slept with a certain person they could no longer be my friend. In coming out and in a gradual divestment from my natal family, and in becoming friends with other people who for a variety of reasons couldn’t rely on or weren’t close to their natal families, those relationships became family. And not just in an “Oh, we see each other for coffee” way. We show up when someone’s in the hospital. We put each other in our emergency contacts. I learned that those were the people who were going to show up for me in ways that my natal family never did. That was a really powerful reimagining and revisioning of what family meant and what it could be.
How has the process of leaving the church, coming out, and claiming a new queer and spiritual life changed your relationship to language?

My relationship to language has taken a while to shift because the process of having those sheddings and leavings and breaking out of the cocoon as a butterfly and all of that didn’t shift the very deep internal hard-wiring of my brain that was still very fundamentalist in nature. I was recently talking with my editor, Jenny Xu, who also grew up Evangelical and has also left the church, about this. Both of us still struggle with seeing things as black-and-white, which is such a fundamentalist way of viewing the world. Like not appreciating the gray.

Untangling that and really taking that apart in my language — that it’s not an either/or, that I don’t have to go to an extreme. It has a lot to do, too, with how I understand other people’s language, how I read other people, how I listen to other people. There can be so much more spaciousness and play and curiosity, whereas before I would hear or interpret a much more hardline commitment to something. That has been a very, very slow but very major shift and something I’m still working on.

At the end of the book, you write, “There is a truth about queer people. We have resurrected ourselves, we are born again, our tunes are empty, we are risen.” Is there something inherently queer about resurrection? 

I do think there’s something inherently queer about being born again. The idea that Jesus is a queer witch gets thrown around a certain amount on social media, which I always am entertained by and think there’s probably some truth to. And I think queer and trans folks, no matter what your story is, it is a rebirth story in some capacity. It is a shedding. It is a cocooning. It is interacting with the world in a different way and allowing yourself to be seen in a different way. The old self is dead and the new self is risen. That is really fucking queer.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Blowing Up Biblical Womanhood