The Afterlives of American Evangelicalism:  A Review of Interior States By Meghan O’Gieblyn

The Afterlives of American Evangelicalism: A Review of Interior States By Meghan O’Gieblyn

January 22, 2019

Review By Geoff Martin
Interior States by Meghan O’Gieblyn (Anchor Books, 2018) 

 

 

Back when I began losing my evangelical faith, my first instinct was not to leap into open rebellion but to write it down. I wanted some documentation, a testament, that would record what it was that I had once believed in so whole-heartedly. I feared those lines of thought would be too easily forgotten. What I didn’t know then was how such a formative experience—of a fundamental faith both won and lost—lingers on for a lifetime. Nor did I grasp just how terrifying it would be to try to put a modicum of self down on the page, or worse: to refine it and make it public. Like the prophet Jonah, I ran in the opposite direction of the call.

That long lingering, as well as the fear and courage it takes to write, is something Meghan O’Gieblyn evidently knows well. "To be a former believer," she writes in her evocative first essay collection, Interior States, “is to perpetually return to the scene of the crime."[1] Each of her fifteen essays, wide-ranging in their content, contains an element of that circling back around: to her Midwestern evangelical childhood or to her time at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, where the threading began to unravel. Her tone, however, is not angry or aggrieved but pensive. She stands decidedly out-of-place, no longer Christian but equally suspicious of the easy niceties and liberal dismissals of the secular left. Positioned at the in-between, Interior States is a lyric rendering and timely comment from and about a region and faith that are central to the fraught divisions of this era.

In the sharp, concise preface, O’Gieblyn draws a theological distinction between the act of private confession (including its secular analogue: the confessional essay) and the evangelical Protestant practice of giving public testimony. These essays, she writes, “were spurred not by the need to unburden myself, but rather to connect my experiences to larger conversations and debates.”[2]

With her “abiding anthropological curiosity” of Midwestern history and American evangelicalism, O’Gieblyn sets out to cover ground.[3] The opening essay, “Dispatch from Flyover Country,” selected as a Best American Essay in 2017, lays the scene. It finds her writing from a trailer in post-recession Michigan, eyeing the cultural coasts with some degree of jealousy and attending a Lake Michigan baptism scene that is as ancient as it is contemporary.  In “Hell,” she faults the “seeker-friendly” trend of contemporary evangelicalism for its euphemistic rendering of evil. She positions this timidity alongside a set of daring—but ultimately abandoned—9/11 sermons she hears from Bill Hybels, the former pastor of the influential Chicagoland megachurch, Willow Creek. Her insider/outsider perspective builds through to the powerful final essay, “Exiled,” which weaves reportage from Mike Pence’s church in Indiana with biblical and literary criticism to explicate the evangelical rhetoric of being exiled in their own country. O’Gieblyn offers an astute read on the Vice President as a Daniel-like figure for white evangelicals who see him as a godly man striving to do right by his own people while in service—and stated loyalty—to the King of Babylon.

Throughout, O’Gieblyn offers candid scenes from her faith upbringing. “The End,” for example, opens with her family stockpiling food and water in preparation for Y2K. In “Sniffing Glue,” the most fun and self-deprecating piece in the collection, O’Gieblyn recounts her discovery of Nirvana’s seductive, ironic power not from her Michigan living room but from a hotel television in Russia while accompanying her grandfather to a post-Soviet era Christian missions meeting.

But O’Gieblyn’s recollections are never the sole point of these testimonies. She is, instead, fascinated by the persistence of belief, “the architecture of the idea,” that has endured in surprising ways through a wider, ostensibly secular culture:[4] our civilizational “death wish” for an apocalyptic end, MTV’s “pessimysticism,” the disguised conversion narratives of contemporary motherhood memoirs, the re-baptism of the “Pure Michigan” marketing campaign, or—most impressively—the spiraling connections between dispensational theology and the “transhuman” future envisioned by Silicon Valley elite, like Peter Thiel and Elon Musk.

With a masterful attention to the volta, the turn, her essays track off in unexpected switchbacks or land at conclusions at once as surprising as they are incisive. Taking a road trip to the Creation Museum’s Ark exhibit in “A Species of Origins,” a piece that has the initial makings of a kind of mocking, gonzo journalism, she instead finds herself explicating a docent’s position in a fumbled Truth vs. relativism debate with her boyfriend: “I forget which side I’m on,” she admits.[5] Which is a kind of repeated, critical refrain: the way in which we do not know our own selves, no matter our religious certitudes or our scientific conclusions. In “The Insane Idea,” for example, O’Gieblyn offers a trenchant defense of the fellowship-spirituality of Alcoholics Anonymous against recent criticisms of self-help hucksters who cannot abide the program’s language of dependence and spiritual discipline: “If the leading scientific experts contend that recovery from addiction depends upon belief in a fictitious entity—free will—why,” she asks, “is it any more ‘irrational’ to believe in YHWH, the spirit of the universe, or the community of fellow alcoholics?”[6]

The cipher of the collection is made plain as grace in the middle essay, “On Subtlety,” where O’Gieblyn lays out an emergent understanding of how faith and writing and life entwine around a pervasive and ineffable mystery. When she abandoned her faith, she believed that she was “leaving this inscrutable world behind” but admits that, “as it turns out, the material world is every bit as elusive.”[7] To make a work of subtlety and nuance, whether in the craft of religion or science or art, is, she writes poignantly, “a transaction of faith.”[8]

That generosity of spirit and inquisitiveness is the marrow that binds each distinct essay into a greater whole. I particularly like how each essay ends with a brief citation to the original magazine and publication date (i.e. 2017, n+1). The notes allow for the puzzle of re-ordering the set chronologically and seeing O’Gieblyn’s thinking self at work over the course of the last seven years. It also directs our attention to editorial participation. Rather than couching this work in the acknowledgments or leaving it for the legal department to list on the copyright page, O’Gieblyn names each venue and, in so doing, reminds us that some of the most perceptive writing today is available by quarterly subscription, and that to read and support those journals is to encourage more work as prescient as hers.

O’Gieblyn’s writing is, ultimately, a whisper of encouragement to put down the book and consider one’s own life, for the stories it yields and wider connections it makes. It is possible, Interior States posits, to be generous and clear and agile on the page, to hold up the past as evidence and the present as worthy of the full weight of our concern.

 

 

Purchase Interior States here 

________

Notes

[1] Meghan O’Gieblyn, “Hell,” Interior States (New York: Anchor, 2018), 42.

[2] Ibid, “Preface,” xii.

[3] Ibid, “Exiled,” 203.

[4] Ibid., “Preface,” xiii.

[5] Ibid., “A Species of Origins,” 79.

[6] Ibid., “The Insane Idea,” 102.

[7] Ibid, “On Subtlety,” 126.

[8] Ibid, 127.

 

________

Geoff Martin currently lives and writes in Western Massachusetts. His prose has appeared or is forthcoming with The Common, The Citron Review, The Olive Press, Psaltery & LyreCity Brink, and Canadian Literature. His long-form essay, "From the Banks of the Grand," was shortlisted for The New Quarterly's Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest. Find him at www.geoff-martin.com and @gmartin9.

 

Hey, check out Writing in an Age of Doubt.

 

 

Photo by Akira Hojo on Unsplash.



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