It is important to remember that crisis knows no region or faith.
Meghan O’Gieblyn deals in mythologies. Immersion in the church and doctrines of evangelical Christianity marked her childhood and young adulthood in Michigan until a crisis of faith altered the trajectory of her life. During her first year at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago she began to doubt the character of the God she prayed to so deeply that she could no longer envision a long-planned life of mission work. All the cruelty in the world obfuscated the hand of a loving God and no amount of prayer could replace the veil over O’Gieblyn’s consciousness. Her next few years were spent in Chicago reconciling with the secular world as a non-believer.
As a nation, we have learned a great deal more about evangelicalism since the election of Donald Trump. Evangelicals represent most of the mass of voters who keep the President’s historically low approval ratings from completely crashing, refusing to abandon him while the courts get remade according to their culturally conservative values. And then there is the Vice President, Mike Pence, a true believer and the great boogeyman of progressive nightmares. Most fear a potential President Pence will bring the conservative project to its eventual conclusion, transforming the United States into Gilead.
If we have been paying attention, we know this sudden sense of political and cultural regression is not a fluke perpetrated by outsiders but the end game of a project that has lasted for decades. People seem to forget that Margaret Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985 because the TV show is current. The culture moves quickly for many of us while evangelicals have adhered to a strict identity and structure that often begins—as it did for O’Gieblyn—with homeschooling. Evangelicals train their children to remain evangelicals and convert non-believers to their cause. It is hard to believe anyone escapes given that depth of indoctrination.
Evangelicals use their life stories as a recruitment tool, testifying in public about God’s love in their lives. The structure of the testimonial becomes more effective if the believer can describe a period of doubt made better by divine grace. As O’Gieblyn describes in the introduction to Interior States, her collection of rather profound personal essays, the idea was to use one’s own experience to build a case for God. But that is not her goal here. O’Gieblyn’s loss of faith is hard won, but the evangelicalism of her earlier life still affects her like a language she remembers speaking and she is often acting as our interpreter, remarking on the ways Christian narratives are evident in the broader culture. In can be as obvious as the ever-present redemption tale, or as surprising as the scriptural antecedents shaping the doctrine of the atheistic, transhumanist movement, but it is always there.
Evangelical Christianity is not the only mythology O’Gieblyn contends with in her writing. She again resides in Michigan, surrounded by empty factories and dying industries that once powered the country. This was a part of America where a high school education would reward a person with a middle class existence. Now the Midwest languishes in a state of perpetual transformation away from the auto industry and into an undefined future. The stability of unions has vanished. What is attractive about the region now for residents is family and a fairly low standard of living:
“Sometimes we fool ourselves into believing that we’ve outsmarted the system, that we’ve harnessed the plucky spirit of those DIY blogs that applaud young couples for turning a tool shed or a teardrop camper into a studio apartment, as though economic instability were the great crucible of American creativity.”
In the Midwest, “work is work and money is money, and nobody speaks of these things as though they were spiritual movements of expressions of one’s identity.” But, melancholy is also melancholy, and O’Gieblyn’s writings about the region are rife with a sense of loss and stoicism. It is as if an entire region of the country is sharing its testimonial, but has yet to reach the point in the story where the hard times ended and the light was within reach.
Thankfully, O’Gieblyn makes it her project not to speak in broad umbrella terms like “evangelical” or “Midwest” for too long. She works in specificity, consistently connecting a personal matter to broader phenomena. In doing so she illustrates the fractious coalition that comprises the evangelical movement as well as complicating the sort of nostalgic yearnings of MAGA America. Even while that part of the country wants to believe it has always been meat-and-potatoes and great man myths, artisanal coffee shops and farm-to-table restaurants are rising from the ashes of its late capitalist aesthetic.
O’Gieblyn’s work is consistently thought provoking—her essay “On Subtlety,” where past critiques of her work turn into a treatise on ambiguity that stretches all the way to the nature of the cosmos, for example, is brilliant and funny—but she is at her best when describing her earlier, evangelical life and her transition away from its teachings. The essay “Exile” is a profile of the biblical rationale that men like Mike Pence utilize to remain in service of Donald Trump. They liken themselves to Daniel, an Israelite who served the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar to advance the interest of his people. In “Hell,” she describes rebranding attempts by certain megachurch preachers to drop the fire and brimstone from their sermons for more positive messaging, an effort altered by 9/11. But the essay “Ghost in the Cloud,” where she describes the many ways she mourned during the aftermath of her loss of faith, is the highlight of the collection. It is an examination of the lengths one will go to avoiding feeling, a cycle that spans both intellectual and substance abuses.
At this point in our history we are too prone to creating Others like the “Midwesterner” or the “evangelical.” What we need is a new literature of empathy, a canon that is more representative of the people who make up the country. Such a canon would include Interior States. It is important to remember that crisis knows no region or faith. If we are fortunate, we will all doubt everything we have been told and have the opportunity to redefine ourselves. At her best, O’Gieblyn offers a guide book about how to survive such a time.