Interview with Emily Hedrick

NOTE: This interview emerged from questions I sent to Emily Hedrick in July 2018. Full disclosure: I also edited her True Confessions of a God Killer, a fascinating "allegorical memoir" which is described further below, for the DreamSeeker series of Cascadia Publishing House, whose editor, Michael King, also receives a shout-out from Emily. –Jeff Gundy

JG: For those who may not have read True Confessions of a God Killer, can you describe the book and how you came to write it?

EH: During my first year of college I was caught up in a unique spiritual crisis: my belief in God was hurting me. I searched for spiritual resources to make sense of what was happening to me, but even authors willing to write about "the dark night of the soul" seemed to be more interested in helping Christians cope with doubt. I wasn't doubting - and that was my problem.

After giving up on finding any writing that would resonate with my experiences, I started telling my friends I killed God (meaning, I decided to turn myself into an atheist no matter how much I believed) and started writing down some of my thoughts. Eventually, this took the form of True Confessions of a God Killer.

JG: The book is clearly not a conventional memoir. How did you find your way to the unusual style and approach that the book takes? How would you define that style? Can you talk about why you chose not to write in a more "realistic" mode?

EH: At this point, I'd describe the book as allegorical memoir. I stumbled on the style because the experiences I was trying to process were difficult to relay to other people as significant. "Spiritual abuse" was the phrase I chose to describe the catalyst for my unique faith crisis. Unfortunately when I used the phrase among trusted friends, the word "abuse" scared them, and they struggled to believe the severity of my feelings and experience when it didn't have a physical dimension. I also discovered that the term was not well-known or defined. Since I was daring to process an "abusive" situation which would never be externally reconciled, I chose to put the book in allegorical form.

I found as I was working in this form of allegory that it gave me the voice I lost the moment "spiritual" got put in front of "abuse." If I could describe someone telling me that my feelings were incorrect and that I couldn't trust myself as actually being strangled, perhaps people would be able to understand my story better, maybe even believe me. If I could describe someone refusing to engage with questions about God or believe or validate experiences that didn't match a belief system as God being chained up and unable to speak, maybe people would better understand what I experienced.

JG: What models or sources for the book were important to you?

EH: The simplicity of Grimm's Fairy Tales and the style of John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress influenced me the most as I wrote this book. I remember describing my story to a friend by saying, "It's like Christian (the main character in Pilgrim's Progress) sets out to leave his town but instead of the burden he carries being "Sin," it's God."

JG: You wrote True Confessions when you were a quite young Mennonite woman. What advice would you have for young writers, Mennonite writers, and/or women writers about writing autobiography? (Feel free to combine or challenge these categories as you like.)

EH: Write for your own healing first and foremost, and you may discover you can help others as well. When I was first writing the book, it was just for myself. I created certain scenes to better describe what was happening inside me, and I'd read them over and over saying to myself, "Yes. That happened." It was a way of helping me learn to trust myself and find my voice again after so many people told me, "It can't have been that bad."

It was only when I got into the publishing and editing that I got scared to write. I remember at one point in the editing when I was writing new sections for the book, I was struggling with perfectionism and analysis paralysis. A dear mentor of mine looked me straight in the eyes and said, "Write from your heart. You can edit it later." That's how I started and it was how I needed to continue. It's so easy not to start because we think it has to be perfect. If I learned anything from the publishing process, it's that nothing will ever be perfect, and editing (both doing it yourself and getting it from others) is a profound gift.

JG: True Confessions has a provocative title, and some of what happens is quite startling, especially its depiction of God (or should it be "God"?)[1].The book itself is the best explanation of what you mean by calling yourself a "God killer," but can you describe what you mean by that phrase, and (without too many spoilers) how it works out in the book?

EH: The most straightforward outside-of-the-allegorical-world definition of a God killer is someone who stops believing in God on purpose, often in response to spiritual abuse. And what happens in the book, and what happened for me, was transformational healing.

JG: You're now working as a pastor. What connections, tensions, etc. do you find between that work and your work on the book?

EH: My vision of being a pastor is actually depicted in my book. "The Woman without a God" is who I wanted to be for people who have been hurt by the church. But I wrote her when I was a college student. Now that I'm a pastor, the situation can sometimes feel a bit catch-22: By being a pastor, I want to be able to provide healing space for people who don't trust church anymore. If people don't trust the church, how am I expecting them to show up there? While I know the power dynamic shift of me, a "God killer," being a pastor is HUGE, I also feel a bit isolated by the assumptions put on pastors. After all, pastors are supposed to be the ones that have their faith together, think the church is worthwhile, and believe in God all the time, right? Now that I'm living it, I'm realizing that "The Woman without a God" was spending more of her time tending to her town of "believers" than to the sick young woman at her house. For some reason, I didn't put that together when I wrote her as a character, but God, do I know it now!

It also may be worth noting that the Woman without a God spent time wandering around outside her town, and that's where she encounters the main character of my book. It's a good reminder for me that doing "non-church" stuff is an important part of my ministry, especially if I want to be there for those who have been hurt by the church. And on top of that, the young woman does not become part of the Woman without a God's town. Healing after spiritual abuse doesn't always mean showing up in a church. It's a good reminder not to expect that.

JG: Now that the book is published and has been in the world for a few years, how do you find yourself feeling and thinking about it? What did it teach you? Where might your writing go next?

EH: In many ways it felt like a sacrament for me. Writing down my story in a way that I could understand what was going on and sharing it with a few people who might benefit from it was a spiritually transformative process. Publishing the book was an important part of my own healing. To not only get my story down on paper but have it acknowledged as worth publishing (thanks, Michael!) validated my experiences and reactions to them - especially when I felt so trivialized when I was first trying to process the experience.

After having continued my schooling, I have learned so much more about feminism, narrative, and theology that I've been able to go back and look at my book anew through a variety of lenses. In this way the gift I wrote for myself keeps on giving, providing fresh material for reflection and growth

7 years after the first draft of this book, I do often call it an expression of 20-year-old angst, but I know it's more than that. Through the process of writing this book I learned how significant writing and publishing can be in the healing process and will continue to draw from that discipline as I process my life going forward.

I'm here to tell you that being a 27-year-old (I started when I was 25), single, female pastor has been more unusual than I first expected. I know there's a lot going on inside me about what I've learned in my first few years of ministry. I'm looking forward to doing some more writing in that vein - maybe a bit less allegorical. Whether it's something that can be helpful for others remains to be seen.

JG: What else do you want to add?

EH: As I continue getting more distance from my original writing of True Confessions of a God Killer, I've noticed my attachment to the role of "God killer" has changed over time. At first I wanted to get over it: To write the book, get it published and move on by believing and acting the way I did earlier. I know 7 years later, that "getting over it" doesn't look like turning into the kid I was before I wrote the book. My faith is a little weirder now. I don't believe in God all the time. I often roll my eyes at Christian words like "forgiveness" and "mercy" and "faith" and "trust" because I've heard them used so many times they don't mean anything anymore. I curse when I'm around my friends because to me, the word "God" is more a tool to be used than a word that describes something meaningful. And yet, I preach quite a few Sundays and pray for people regularly, and do the things pastors do because they are the things I do. It is a strange reality for me to hold these two parts of myself together, but I'm finding it essential to being an effective pastor and compassionate human in this world. I hope the Christian church has room for weird pastors like me. A good Christian witness to a spiritually abused society looks less like an enforced moral code and more like honest storytelling. It is the storytelling that heals and transforms so much more than the rules and doctrines. I hope we can live into that witness and celebrate it as we journey forward.

[1] Emily Hedrick's comment: That's the question, isn't it? That's where the allegorical world and the "real" world collide. Shouldn't God always be "God"? Even in Lima, Ohio?

About the Author

Emily Hedrick

Emily Hedrick is the pastor at Lima Mennonite Church and an intentional living coach. She lives in Lima, Ohio with her ever-faithful personal pastor Allis, a collie/Australian shepherd mix, and whatever monthly guests show up via her Airbnb business.