… It’s difficult to avoid sensing something perverse in the fact that I have returned so obsessively to the religion I spent my early adulthood trying to escape. And while I have written so much about the Midwest, the truth is that I’ve often felt that I would prefer to live almost anywhere else. I’m not sure how to account for this, except to say that it’s a paradox of human nature that the sites of our unhappiness are precisely those that we come to trust most hardily, that we absorb most readily into our identity, and that we defend most vociferously when they come under attack.
Interior States is a collection of essays by Meghan O’Gieblyn, a self-professed apostate after eschewing her evangelical upbringing. The pieces mostly address religious concepts in modern America, and especially in connection to the Midwest (interior states – get it?) she’s almost uncomfortably familiar with.
The intersection of secular culture and Christianity is the place she finds most interesting, bringing to it the unique perspective of having lived at both extremes (“I’d grown up in the kind of millenarian sect of Christianity where pastors were always throwing out new dates for the Rapture,”) and spent considerable time thinking deeply about both, and what they mean for culture, politics, education, etc. It’s a fascinating study to make, especially now, as some statistics indicate a shift from religion while certain politics indicate we remain inextricably linked. Not to mention the lens of experience through which she views it.
Some of the essays in this collection examine the ways in which our increasingly secular landscape is still imprinted with the legacy of Christianity.
There is some careful, measured memoir as well, mostly serving to establish narrative in her shift in beliefs and how her life was, and continues to be, affected. It never becomes too revealing – even when speaking of something deeply personal, like faith and its loss and how that actually feels, some distance remained. I found that I liked this tone for the most part, although elsewhere it felt somewhat chilly.
When she does give a glimpse into her own interior state, troubled and transitioning, it’s an exquisitely rendered landscape:
I was living alone in Chicago’s southern industrial sector and working nights as a cocktail waitress. I was not well. Beyond the people I worked with, I spoke to almost no one. I clocked out at three each morning, went to after-hours bars, and came home on the first train of the morning, my head pressed against the window so as to avoid the specter of my reflection appearing and disappearing in the blackened glass. When I was not working, or drinking, time slipped away from me. The hours before my shifts were a wash of benzo breakfasts and listless afternoons spent at the kitchen window, watching seagulls circle the landfill and men hustling dollies up and down the docks of an electrical plant.
Her writing is elegant and absorbing, even when topics are complex. O’Gieblyn has a deep understanding of history and historical narratives, and exploring these make up the structure of much of this writing – the linking of historical narrative to the present alongside her quietly thoughtful analysis.
She garnered a lot of attention for a truly excellent piece, “Exiled”, likening Vice President Mike Pence to the biblical figure of Daniel, an advisor to King Nebuchadnezzar, including examining the possible evangelical perception of him in the White House by his midwestern former constituents. She lays out Pence’s fondness for the Old Testament and explores his particular brand of spiritualism, even visiting his former Indianapolis congregation.
I really liked “A Species of Origins”, centered around a visit to Kentucky’s Creation Museum, where O’Gieblyn near-automatically spouts remembered doctrine when her boyfriend argues with a pastor. It’s humorous, as are many moments throughout when apostasy rubs up against stalwart belief. Her exploration of Christian vs. secular music was another quite funny story, as she’s more than willing to poke fun at herself: “If you’re wondering what teenager in her right mind would listen to a forty-year-old Vegas showman with a Jersey accent rap about Jesus, the answer is: me.”
When she first sees MTV in a Moscow hotel room on a family trip regarding teaching “Christian ethics” in Russian schools, she realizes the difference between secular and Christian rock, summing it up hilariously: “I couldn’t have told you what the word “irony” meant, but I knew I’d been cheated by Christian rock. This was crack, and I’d been wasting my time sniffing glue.”
I didn’t always connect to these essays as much as I’d have liked. O’Gieblyn has a quiet, almost gentle style to her storytelling that makes it smoothly readable and requires deeper, slower reading. I liked the underlying ideas, the concepts, and I especially liked her perspectives and clear-eyed analysis and storytelling, but something ultimately didn’t coalesce. Possibly this is because the pieces were written separately for different publications at varying times and the message or impact, even the quality varied correspondingly.
I’m glad to be aware of her voice and her perspective, both of which are important and much-needed. Religion is a tricky, heated area, where it’s easy to draw criticism, anger, mistrust and and accusations when proclaiming yourself a non-believer, let alone one who’s “lost the faith”. I applaud her for the strength and bravery underscored in every piece here.
Over the past decade, most of the writing on Christianity in this country has taken the form of obituary. More than one of the magazine editors who published these essays insisted that I acknowledge the 2014 Pew Research study about the rise of the “nones”—young people who claim no religious affiliation—as though to affirm the popular notion that America is leaving behind its superstitious past and treading unwaveringly into the future. Perhaps this is true. But as someone who has traveled that path myself, I can confirm that such journeys are rarely linear or without complications … even when a person outwardly denounces a long-standing belief, the architecture of the idea persists and can come to be inhabited by other things.
A smart and meaningful take on American evangelicalism, its Midwestern roots, and how it looks and what it means from someone who’s been inside and looks back with skepticism.