Most stories set inside the world of the U.S. church are, let’s face it, not great. They’re full of either goody-two-shoes Ned Flanders types or spittle-flecked Dirty Dancing goobers. I’ve got nothing but love for The Simpsons and Patrick Swayze, but neither of these exactly gel with my own experience growing up in the church.
Some hew a little closer to the truth. I like director Brian Dannelly’s 2004 Mandy Moore-vehicle Saved! and the brief but evocative church scenes in Netflix’s Beef had the ring of authenticity. But I don’t think I’ve ever read a book quite like Jason Kirk’s Hell Is a World Without You. This book, a bildungsroman about a teen’s evangelical house of cards and the mounting life experiences, new friends, and cold fingers of doubt that threaten to knock it over, is a call coming from firmly inside the house.
“There is so little pop culture that depicts what it’s actually like to be inside [of church] and to wonder whether you belong in there,” Kirk told me in an interview.
That’s why he says that even if his characters are fictional, the setting for Hell Is a World Without You is “basically transcribed” from real experiences. “The See You at the Pole, the Christian pop culture, the way pastors responded to 9/11 by talking like Mel Gibson. None of those details are invented.”
Those details make up the world of Hell Is a World Without You, where Isaac, a youth group kid grieving the recent loss of his dad and struggling with his older brother’s radicalization into fire-and-brimstone fundamentalism. He feels duty bound to follow his brother’s spiritual footsteps and get busy saving the U.S. from the liberal menace lest his own soul spend eternity in hell — an existence spent suffering from an increasingly deranged series of diabolical torments Isaac imagines surely await him.
But Isaac’s also bonding with his fellow youth group kids over Five Iron Frenzy’s ska punk, pizza-saturated lock-ins, and World of Warcraft. He’s confessing every stray thought to his accountability group and then razzing them about his paintball score. For Isaac, youth group is a source of both deep trauma and deeply good times. He’s making friends he’ll have forever and memories he’ll be unpacking in therapy at least as long.
That too is inspired by Kirk’s own experience in youth group, a place where he says he both learned “insane” things and found friends that he still holds close (he met his wife through Tooth & Nail Records). In a way, Kirk says, the community you find in church can also be your ticket out of its most toxic elements. “We were learning horrible things that we, ultimately, ended up competing against together,” he says. “We ended up in this group that found our way out together, which is the thing I wanted to depict.”
Hell Is a World Without You isn’t just written in first-person, it is drowning in it. We’re submerged deep into the emerging mental, spiritual, emotional, physical, and sexual psyche of Isaac, watching his prefrontal cortex develop in real time. Isaac’s interior monologue motors along at several miles a minute, with competing voices wrestling for control of his narrative — an endless rap battle between an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. Most often, this dialogue takes the form of Isaac’s own budding doubts, frustrations, and sexual attractions getting shouted down by an all-caps, culture-war-obsessed voice in his head that he assumes is God. It’s an assumption he comes to doubt more and more as he gets older.
As a writer, Kirk has a gift for communicating the chaos of a teen boy’s brain on youth group — the way faith and doubt and ego and shame and loneliness and horniness all work together like funhouse mirrors through which even the most mundane experiences are warped and distorted. When he overhears a friend’s stray comment about catching a guy staring at her breasts, Isaac prays “Lord, please let these ladies discuss boobs for this entire ten-minute walk, amen. Honestly, I like girls so much, I’d listen to them talk about anything, even Jesus! ‘FIRST TIMOTHY 2:12! WOMEN SHOULD BE SILENT, FEMINIZED SHE-MAN!’ Sorry.”
The story is set in the early ’00s, which means the shadow of 9/11 looms large over Isaac and his group of friends, mentors, and crushes as they navigate a rapidly shifting geopolitical landscape that mutates whatever evangelical dogma it doesn’t calcify. The older Isaac gets, the more he connects with people beyond his faith circle, trying to tell himself that he’s only making friends so that he can convert them to Christianity even though he’s dimly aware that his real motives are more complex, more human.
“The very first device I used to depict Isaac’s brain becoming too loaded for him to sustain was a Jenga tower,” Kirk says. “Like, a friend comes out, but [Isaac’s] been told that it’s wrong to be LGBTQ. Well, there goes a piece of the Jenga tower because he’s siding with [his friend]. He learns a scientific fact that doesn’t square with the literalist interpretation he’s been giving, there goes another square. And eventually after years, the tower is wobbling.”
Kirk eventually discarded the Jenga device, but I related to Isaac’s wobbling tower — the way gay friends, Jurassic Park, and a deep discomfort with the “War on Terror" started scattering my own Jenga pieces hither and yon. In that way, former youth group kids may find themselves reading Hell Is a World Without You with their fingers over their eyes, wincing in recognition of some of their most repressed cringe. But the deconstructed among us may also recognize some of the light bulbs flickering to life and the frightening, enticing possibilities they illuminate.
Kirk says he was inspired to write the book by the music of exvangelical kid/Underoath fanatic, and boygenius member Julien Baker, who has been open about her own complicated feelings about time spent in church. Like Baker, Kirk found the writing process therapeutic, and it got him reflecting on the damage done to gay kids in many conservative churches. So much so that for the first couple months of book sales, he donated the proceeds to the Trevor Project, a nonprofit focused on suicide prevention among LGBTQ+ teens. It’s Kirk’s way of, as he puts it, following Joseph’s example in Genesis 50: taking the worst parts of his upbringing and using it for good. According to Kirk, the final donation will be over $50,000.
It’s one of Kirk’s ways of making sure that this story isn’t just about him. Because even as he’s unpacked some of his own upbringing, he’s also gotten some clarity about the extra trauma endured by women, queer folks, and people of color in the evangelical church. Of all the feats Hell Is a World Without You pulls off, one of the most impressive is how it follows Isaac’s own expanding appreciation of the diversity of the people around him. It isn’t just welcome representation for ex-youth group kids. Almost anyone can find themselves here.