So it didn’t surprise her family when she became a star pupil in the Missionettes, an evangelical program for girls from three through 14 years. After a standardized test of the King James Bible, she graduated as one of the top three students in the state of Ohio.
Fast forward a dozen years to 2006, and her friends and teachers were delighted but hardly shocked when critics warmly greeted her first novel, “Born Again.”
The San Francisco Chronicle’s reviewer said: “From the first chapter…Kerney woos us with tongue-in-cheek humor,” adding that throughout she “successfully reveals the manifold contradictions and inconsistencies inherent in adult life.”
A notice in the New York Times Book Review said that the novel has “guts and strength” and that its message is conveyed “subtly and skillfully.”
The 26-year-old Richmond-based author, who no longer subscribes to the faith she was raised in, was taking the praise in her stride on a recent visit to New York to promote and explain the genesis of “Born Again.”
“The specific incidents and characters are fictional,” she said. “I had to make it more interesting than my life actually was.”
The narrator is Melanie, known to most as Mel, a 14-year-old evangelical Christian who wins a scholarship to a study camp but discovers that top of its preparatory reading list is Charles Darwin’s “The Origin of Species,” a book banned by her Pentecostal church. The academically ambitious youngster strikes a deal with herself: she’ll read the book in order to disprove, with Scripture, the theories of the path-breaking 19th-century naturalist.
The novel’s cast of characters include a sister who has a baby born out of wedlock and has fled from an abusive boyfriend, an underachieving brother who has given up on church-going entirely, has dabbled in anarchism and lives in the family’s basement, and devout parents who have their own problems and secrets from the past. Also involved is her attractive pastor, whom she has a crush on, and her best friend, a classmate from a “secular” family (they’re Methodists).
“The essence of it is based on my experiences: the type of religion, the kind of sermons I would listen to,” Kerney said.
The family attended a very large church in her hometown, Ashtabula, at which worshipers spoke in tongues and danced in the aisles.
“I was very religious myself,” she remembered. “I was very into it growing up.”
Her Pentecostal church put a lot of emphasis on conversion. The target of its outreach weren’t other evangelicals and fundamentalists, like the Southern Baptists (the domination her mother grew up in), who were seen as being in the same camp; rather it aimed to win over Catholics and mainline Protestants, such as Methodists and Presbyterians. “We saw them as people to be witnessed to,” she recalled.
While the first-time novelist was able to tap into her general knowledge of the culture, some specifics of her life proved useful, too. “I could write an older brother and sister, because I knew what it was like to have an older brother and an older sister,” she said.
But her two siblings bear little resemblance to her characters. Her brother, for instance, is a church-going evangelical Christian and is particularly serious about his faith.
It was something that Kelly Kerney began to leave behind when she was 15, a year after she graduated from the Missionettes.
“I think my curiosity started to go beyond religion and the Bible after a while, and I started to see an outside world,” she remembered.
“I think my parents knew where I was going, and they tried to encourage me to get back in touch with my religious side,” she said. “I was their pride and joy on the religious front for a long time.”
Her loss of faith didn’t produce an internal crisis or trauma. “Once I figured that that wasn’t for me, I think I felt a lot more settled. But it was difficult in my family.
“It’s hard sometimes going home because we have such differing views on things,” said Kerney, who makes the trip to Ohio a couple of times yearly.
Nonetheless, her father told her he enjoyed reading the novel, which is something that pleased her. “I wanted him to like it,” she said.
She added: “He was very happy that I show lots of different types of Christians.”
In contrast, Richard Russo, one of America’s top novelists, praised the book as a warning about what America could become.
Kerney said it was interesting to her that people could engage with the book in different ways, and take different things from it.
Yet in this instance, she appears to side with her father: in her view, evangelicals don’t necessarily form the monolith that liberals think they do and the same range of personality types can be found amongst them as anywhere else.
Many people live their faith quietly, she contended, while others are more vocal. “I wanted to show the spectrum and a young girl engaging all that and seeing how people live their faith in different ways,” said Kerney, who is the daughter of a homemaker and an electric company worker.
“I feel that people have an idea that all evangelicals are a certain kind of Christian who just want to impose their beliefs on others,” the novelist added.
The American reality is more complex than the “us against them” dichotomy, she said. “It’s not how it is and it’s not productive.”
When she went to study as an undergraduate to Bowdoin College in Maine, her background intrigued her peers. “People would ask me questions about it; they were really curious,” she recalled.
“I didn’t realize how different my upbringing was from a lot of people’s until I went to New England.”
While there, she fell in love with the East Coast. However, Kerney — who has several Irish lineages in her background (including one traced to an ancestor who was brought over to fight in Cornwallis’s army and later settled in Kentucky) — went to the University of Notre Dame to study for her postgraduate degree in English literature.
Kerney, who loves hiking and backpacking, credited Virginia’s warm weather, and the fact that she has friends there, with her more recent move to Richmond. There, she hopes to pursue a career as a full-time writer.
With regard to religious belief, she labeled herself an agnostic. “God is a very personal thing,” she said. “I really wouldn’t determine the existence or non-existence of God based on my personal experience, and that’s just the way I’ve come to things.”
In the same vein, she added, she doesn’t believe that her own experience has some essential truth that can be applied to the next person.
Her position accepts multiple perspectives, she said. “What marks fundamentalism is that there is an ultimate truth — there is ultimate good and ultimate evil. And everything falls on either side.
“I’m constantly challenging my perspectives,” Kerney said, and then added, laughing. “I guess sometimes I read too much.”