Anchor, 2018, 240 pp., $16.00
During my years as a graduate student in Missoula, Montana, I was struck by the dynamic between the writers in the university’s M.F.A. program and the native Montanans who constituted most of the student body. While the hipster poets disdained anything that smacked of conservatism, they seemed perfectly at home adopting the accoutrements of working conservatives from the Mountain West. They donned trucker hats and flannel shirts, drank Pabst Blue Ribbon and cheap whiskey, and wore Wranglers and cowboy boots that they found at the secondhand store. Authenticity was synonymous with appearance, and though I enjoyed their company, they never quite seemed to step outside of their ironic projections.
Meghan O’Gieblyn begins her recent collection of essays, Interior States, by describing a similar dynamic in Madison, Wisconsin. Like Missoula, the city is home to a state university with a liberal reputation and, in recent years, has brimmed with corporate money and transplants from the coasts. At the farmers’ market there, she noticed that “the Amish men selling cherry pies were indistinguishable from the students busking in straw hats and suspenders.” Much like the Missoula poets used cowboy boots as cultural capital, the new economy in Madison re-appropriated Midwestern industry as commerce: “Old warehouses were refurbished into posh restaurants whose names evoked the surrounding countryside (Graze, Harvest). They were the kinds of places where rye whiskeys were served on bars made of reclaimed barn wood, and veal was cooked by chefs whose forearms were tattooed with Holsteins.” O’Gieblyn, who earned her M.F.A. in Madison, soon grew tired of the scene, realizing that it “suffered from the fundamental delusion that we had elevated ourselves above the rubble of hinterland ignorance.” The grass-fed beef and the shade-grown coffee didn’t trouble her; the lack of self-reflection did.
O’Gieblyn is more than qualified to weigh in on our contemporary divisions. A native Midwesterner raised in an evolution-denying, Evangelical environment, she attended the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago before a crisis of belief led her to leave the school and her faith. In her own words, taking a cue from Plato, she imagined that experience to be like “exiting a primitive cave and striding onto terra firma, where there would be no more shadows, no more distant echoes, only the blinding and unambiguous light of science and reason.” Yet she soon realized that her brave new world was as run-through with false pieties as the one she left behind. In Interior States she writes about a wide variety of subjects—a Creationist theme park, Ray Kurzweil, 1990s Christian rock, and Mike Pence, among others—to reveal our common irrationalities and penchant for self-deceit.
Much of Interior States reflects on how modern Evangelicalism’s adoption of secular marketing techniques has undercut its mission. In an essay entitled “A Species of Origin,” O’Gieblyn visits the Creation Museum in Kentucky and notices that museum patrons seem more interested in the sleekness of the exhibits than in the facts the exhibits make known. Visitors drool at the description of plans to build a full-size replica of Noah’s Ark—510 feet long, 51 feet high, 85 feet wide—as a testament to Biblical literalism (the exhibit has since been completed). O’Gieblyn herself had been schooled in Creationist apologetics as a child—she memorized certain ocean salinity statistics that suggested the Earth was no more than 6,000 years old, and knew to raise her hand when someone said otherwise and ask, “Excuse me, sir/madam: Were you there?” Though she later disavowed Creation science, she respected the rigor of her upbringing and its commitment to what her church understood to be true. But in the time between her childhood and adulthood, commercialism had crept into Evangelicalism, and now the faithful seem unable to make the “distinction between truth and the quality of its presentation.” The museum is temple to the idea of Creation science, not to the actual science.
“Sniffing Glue” reflects on the burgeoning Christian rock scene in the 1990s, when acts such as DC Talk and Carman aped mainstream sounds to win over religious-minded youth. Like O’Gieblyn, I was one of them, and I distinctly remember the thrill of hearing music that sounded exactly like what my friends were listening to, only with messages acceptable to my parents. I may not have been cool, but at least I listened to cool music. It is important for Christianity to speak the language of the people, but when it mines the resources of popular culture so heavily, O’Gieblyn suggests, it begins to lose its identity entirely. One pastor boasts that his services are so exciting that “a lot of people say they feel like they’ve just been at a rock concert.” But then why not just go to a rock concert? When the young O’Gieblyn was first exposed to MTV (surreptitiously, in a Russian hotel) she saw bands like Nirvana and the Smashing Pumpkins, and “knew she’d been cheated by Christian rock. This was crack, and I’d been wasting my time sniffing glue.” The real thing is always better than the imitation.
These efforts at evangelization miss the reality that our habits shape our desires more than the messages we hear. As Marshall McLuhan famously put it: “The medium is the message.” Fundamentalism’s wholesale embrace of consumerist practices, in O’Gieblyn’s estimation, has rendered it powerless to stand apart from secularism. Market research may not reveal that to be a desirable quality in a corporation, but O’Gieblyn’s essays suggest that is precisely what a faith needs to sustain the spiritual lives of its members. One reason she left the faith, in her early twenties, was because being Christian “was a label to slap on my Facebook page, next to my music preferences. The gospel became just another product someone was trying to sell me, and a paltry one at that.” Ultimately, she implies, her church failed her generation.
Despite this, O’Gieblyn does not dogpile criticism on her childhood faith. Instead, she recognizes that her upbringing trained her to recognize the many ways in which secularism—especially that of America’s coastal elites—functions as an ersatz religion. Hipsters and progressives have their own pieties, and their beliefs are often just as irrational as the denizens of the “rubble of hinterland ignorance.” The progressive goal of a suffering-free society is noble, no doubt, but how different is it, really, from the Puritans’ attempt to erect a “shining city upon a hill”? Progressivism and fundamentalism, she claims, are two sides of the same coin. In “The End,” O’Gieblyln reveals how the social reforms of the Progressive Era at the turn of the 20th century gave birth to American fundamentalism, which adopted the former movement’s Hegelian arc and bent it toward more religious goals. This included the once-popular belief known as “premillennialism”—that the second coming of Christ, predicted to happen before the turn of the 21st century, would usher in a thousand years of peace on earth. The Y2K scare, for which O’Gieblyn’s family extensively prepared, was in part fueled by the vestiges of this belief.
The connection between Christianity and progressivism is further developed in the collection’s most fascinating essay, “Ghost in the Cloud.” Originally published in 2017 for the journal N+1, it traces the apocalyptical Christian roots of the transhumanist movement. Transhumanism, whose most prominent spokesperson is the futurist and Google director Ray Kurzweil, contends that humans are progressing towards a Singularity in which we will merge with our technology and become more than human. For a time after her de-conversion, O’Gieblyn became an acolyte of the movement, because she recognized in it something similar to what her Christian faith had promised: in the apostle Paul’s words, that God “will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.” For O’Gieblyn, Kurzweil’s message was “the ghost of her first hope,” a secular doubling of Evangelicalism’s promise. The connection isn’t simply coincidental; the roots of Transhumanism are in fact Christian. The word first appeared in a nineteenth-century translation of Dante’s Paradiso, in which the poet coined the neologism transumanar to describe his sloughing off the limits of the flesh and becoming pure spirit in heaven. Not surprisingly, there exists today a Christian Transhumanist movement, which understands modern technology as actively ushering in the Parousia on earth.
O’Gieblyn’s attraction to Transhumanism was short-lived, however. Ultimately, its inadequacies proved to be those of American fundamentalism, namely, that it cannot account for suffering and human weakness. In the middle of “Ghost in the Cloud,” O’Gieblyn takes time to reflect on her occasion to leave her childhood faith:
My doubts began in earnest after I read The Brothers Karamazov and entertained, for the first time, the implications of the classic theodicies—the problem of hell, how evil could exist in a world created by a benevolent God. . . .I imagined myself evangelizing a citizen of some remote country and crumbling at the moment she pointed out those theological contradictions I myself could not abide or explain.
Theodicy, the attempt to reconcile the existence of evil with a good God, is an ancient problem. Ultimately the Christian tradition would say that despite our best efforts to explain it, suffering remains a mystery, one which often requires a deep faith to accept. Such a faith is not antithetical to doubt but rather tempered by it, and perhaps even coexistent with it. The Christian contemplative tradition understands this, and teaches that any meaningful encounter with God on this earth leads through the desert; redemption is only made possible by the cross. In this sense, O’Gieblyn’s rejection of Evangelicalism is only a “deconversion” if measured against the superficial notion of faith peddled by certain sects of modern Evangelicalism. A fuller notion is provided by the American Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor, who echoes the prophet Isaiah in calling faith “a ‘walking in darkness’ and not a theological solution to mystery.” Viewed in this light, Interior States marks O’Gieblyn’s deepening, not dissipating, faith.
The book also charts the author’s search for a more genuine community than American fundamentalism or secular progressivism can offer. She comes closest to identifying one in “The Insane Idea,” her essay examining the history and philosophy of Alcoholics Anonymous. AA has recently fallen out of favor because, as Gabrielle Glaser claims in a 2015 feature in the Atlantic, “nothing about the 12-step approach draws on modern science.” O’Gieblyn identifies the debate as between competing views of human agency, and puts her finger on the essential question: “Can the individual really—as Glaser alleges—help herself?”
AA flies in the face of the ethos of the self-made individual because it insists that we must rely upon each other to overcome our darknesses. Modern critics liken receiving treatment for addiction to taking a pill, but AA is not a product, and its members are not consumers. In fact, the intended beneficiary of AA is not the alcoholic receiving help but the alcoholic giving help. Bill Wilson founded the organization in the 1930s as a way to help himself stay sober: “It was not just a case of trying to help alcoholics…If my own sobriety were to be maintained, I had to find another alcoholic to worth with.” In other words, AA understands that the self is fundamentally absurd. Unlike so many groups O’Gieblyn describes in Interior States, it does not seek to purify its members or showcase their worthiness; instead, the organization takes as its starting principle the acknowledgement of our shared weakness. Not surprisingly, the American Trappist abbot and contemplative Thomas Keating called Alcoholics Anonymous “one of the most succinct and accurate expressions of Christian spirituality.” O’Gieblyn would concur.
At the end of “Dispatch from Flyover Country,” the author attends a mass Evangelical baptism in Lake Michigan. The potluck gathering is warm and genuine; we are no longer on the turf of Madison hipsters or slick-talking pastors. Though she is not a believer anymore, she feels a kinship with those gathered on the shore, “barefoot like refugees in the sand.” As she watches the scene from a distance, O’Gieblyn describes the mark that faith has left on her:
It is a conviction that lies beneath the doctrine and theology, a kind of bone-marrow knowledge that the Lord is coming; that he has always been coming, which is the same as saying that he will never come; that each of us must find a way to live with this absence and our own, earthly limitations.
After reading her collection, it is clear that O’Gieblyn’s way of “living with this absence” is by writing about it. Her essays convey a deep compassion for her subjects at the same time that they offer a trenchant critique of the American self, her own included. Though she is a fallen-away Evangelical, her writing is catholic—that is, universal—in a manner refreshing for those of us accustomed to the internecine polemics of American Christian culture warriors. O’Gieblyn may indeed be said to possess faith, albeit one closer to the wisdom of the desert than that of the mega-church. Interior States is a must-read for Americans of all stripes.