Blessed Are the Nones: An Interview with Stina Kielsmeier-Cook

In Any Church, You Will Find Couples Where One is Attending Church and the Other Isn’t.

Guest Contributor / 3.18.21

This interview comes to us from Kristin Thomas Sancken:

In the United States, the decline of religion is happening at a rapid pace. While 65% of Americans still identify as Christians, according to the Pew Research Center, those who check “none” for religion have grown from 17% in 2009 to 26% in 2019. The growth of “nones” is more than a statistic. It’s changing relationships in churches, friendship circles, and families.

At first glance, one might assume Kielsmeier-Cook’s book, Blessed Are the Nones, is a tale of becoming disaffected with Christianity. But it’s just the opposite. Blessed Are the Nones is a story of coming of age as a Christian Millennial — from the passion of an Evangelical adolescent experience, to the piety of New Monasticism of the 2000s, to the confusion of the role of Christianity in politics over the last decade. As more Millennials become agnostic, how do you hold onto a faith when those you love most have decided to let it go? In this book, Kielsmeier-Cook seeks to answer that question within her own marriage.

I joined Kielsmeier-Cook over Zoom on the Sunday after the Daylight Savings Time change. As we took another sip of much-needed coffee, our children occasionally butted in to complain about missing Lego pieces or sibling squabbles. We ignored the unique pandemic circumstances of the conversation and had a cozy chat.

 Q: What prompted you to write Blessed Are the Nones?

 A: In the first year after my husband Josh’s deconversion from Christianity, I was looking for things to read that might help us navigate our unexpected interfaith marriage. There are many books from an evangelical perspective about how to pray your spouse back to faith, but the disconnect for me to that message was so strong. Yes, my husband had left the church, but I too was wrestling with questions and doubts. There was a gap in what resources were available, yet interfaith marriages between Christians and agnostics are a growing demographic. In any church, you will find couples in which one is attending church and the other isn’t. Toni Morrison famously said, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” I suppose that’s why I decided to write this spiritual memoir.

I was also encouraged to write more about the subject because of the response I received after I wrote an article in Christianity Today back in 2016 called “Blessed Are the Agnostics.” People reached out to me to thank me for giving words to describe their marriage or relationship after a faith change. The jumping-off point for the article was an experience I had at the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin University. During her keynote address, author and pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber gave a benediction, a riff on the Beatitudes, where she used the phrase “blessed are the agnostics.” I had never heard anyone speak about those who had left the church in a way that honored their journey and blessed them. It moved me. As a writer, I also wanted to tell a generous story about Christian-agnostic marriage that used a lens of love rather than an approach rooted in fear.

Q: There is a memorable scene where you’re trying to bring your two children to your church’s Palm Sunday march around the neighborhood. You are both literally and figuratively left behind as you try to meet your children’s needs, but there isn’t anyone there to help you. What do you wish pastors and faith leaders knew about people, particularly parents, who come to church without their partners?

A: I laugh about this story often with our church’s children’s pastor now. I wish faith leaders were aware of how challenging it is for any solo parent with young children to participate in church life — whether that person is divorced, raising kids on their own, or in an interfaith relationship like me. I’d encourage them to start by having a conversation with single parents in their churches. Everyone likes to be asked, “How can we support you?”

There are many ways to show support, such as intentionally sitting beside them in Sunday services, or by offering to watch a child during the fellowship hour so their mom or dad can hold an adult conversation. There are barriers to single parenting in church that are sometimes invisible, and it feels good when others notice that and stand in the gap with you.

My church encouraged us to form an interfaith family small group that we started with another Christian-agnostic couple in the congregation. We have five couples who now attend our monthly “interfaith supper club” gatherings. Our church community has really honored my and my husband’s story and made him feel welcome. Belonging to our church isn’t conditional on beliefs.

Q: This book focuses on the many narratives of faith outside of mainstream, male, American spirituality — including female saints and nuns. Describe a little more why those voices are meaningful on your current spiritual journey.

A: Growing up in both mainline and evangelical Christianity during the 1990s and early 2000s, I didn’t hear many stories about monastic women. My exposure to nuns was solely through the movies The Sound of Music and Sister Act. My mom was a pastor in the Presbyterian church, so I knew that women could be preachers and pastors, but when I discovered the monastery I found it so empowering to be in space where there isn’t the male gaze. It’s rare in the Protestant church, beyond your typical moms’ group, to find spaces that foster woman-centered spirituality.

When I walked into Visitation Monastery of North Minneapolis featured in the book, I felt such a sense of peace. It was a sharp contrast to the feelings I had when I was solo parenting at my new church. At the monastery, there wasn’t any assumption that a married woman like me would have her husband by her side. I could show up to morning prayer on my own and feel perfectly at home. I thought of myself as “spiritually single” and believed I shared that attribute with the Catholic Sisters. That was the initial attraction.

As I’ve explored Catholic spirituality, I’ve learned to love stories about female saints. Some of the stories are frankly bizarre — but these venerated women often operated outside the dominant narrative of what a Christian female should do or be. It helped me realize there is nothing new under the sun. For instance, St Jane Frances de Chantal, who co-founded the Visitation order, struggled with her mental health, with depression and with doubt. When you scratch under the surface of these stories about the saints, you realize that no one is immune to suffering or doubt in their faith journey. There is nothing wrong with you if this is part of your faith story.

Q: What do you hope your children learn from growing up in a mixed-faith household?

A: I hope that they see a model for marriage that respects difference; that shows support that extends beyond religious conditions and extends beyond any particular faith community; that interfaith couples can love one another and support each other even if they believe different things. I’m hoping that will serve them well as they grow up in a pluralistic world.

Someone in our church recently encouraged me about parenting. He said that, growing up, he never had a model of how to have a relationship with someone whose worldview or faith was different from his. He told me, “You’re giving this real gift to your children.” That is not a perspective I hear often from Christians when I tell them about my mixed-faith marriage. I do hope our kids see our example as a gift.