In her preface to this often stunning, always measured debut book of essays, Meghan O’Gieblyn captures her essayistic identity in a quote from William James: “The most violent revolutions in an individual’s beliefs leave most of the old order standing.” Interior States is an examination of the Midwest and the self—a wry, ambitious catalog of what happens when a writer abandons belief yet retains a religious language and latitude.
O’Gieblyn grew up in “a dwindling Baptist congregation in southeast Michigan, where Sunday mornings involved listening to our pastor unabashedly preach something akin to the 1819 version of hell.” “Saved” at 5 years old, she entered Moody Bible Institute at 18. There, the Word was literal and absolute. But don’t fall for the “widespread misconception that biblical literalism is facile and mindless.” Rather, the peculiar erudition of Christian literalism “is even more complicated than liberal brands of theology because it involves the sticky task of reconciling the overlay myth—the story of redemption—with a wildly inconsistent body of scripture.”
A former evangelical whose audiences are primarily secular—think Harper’s, The New Yorker, The Guardian—O’Gieblyn calls out the lethargy of contemporary American culture. “I developed a physical allergy to NPR,” she writes, suspicious of narratives that center the narrator and, in doing so, praise that narrator. She thinks they are somewhere between self-satisfied and self-congratulatory: “It seemed to me then that we suffered from the fundamental delusion that we had elevated ourselves above the rubble of hinterland ignorance—that fair trade coffee and Orange You Glad It’s Vegan? cake had somehow redeemed our sins.”
As a pox against that mindset, O’Gieblyn would “unwind by listening to a fundamentalist preacher who delivered exegeses on the Pentateuch and occasionally lapsed into fire and brimstone.” During those long drives home from her night class, charged by a cadence which stirred her, about a God in which she no longer believed, “I would slip into a trance state, failing to register the import of the message but calmed nonetheless by the familiar rhythm of conviction.”
That need for conviction—perhaps more its hymn than its literal message—enables O’Gieblyn to arrive at interesting and refreshing conclusions. She laments that “at a time when we are in need of potent metaphors to help us make sense of our darkest impulses, Protestant churches have chosen to remain silent on the problem of evil, for fear of being obsolete.” Here O’Gieblyn carries what she calls the evangelical Protestant tradition of public profession. These essays are her peculiar testimonies.
More than anything else, they are stories of the Midwest, where exists “a profound loss of telos, the realization that the industries and systems that built the region are no longer tenable.” Her literal and metaphorical home, the Midwest has been “less a destination than a corridor,” a place where you can easily develop “an existential dizziness, a sense that the rest of the world is moving while you remain still.”
The Midwest breeds outward kindness and inward skepticism. “When you live at the center of the American machine,” she writes, “it’s impossible to avoid speaking of mechanics.” She’s a welcome guide through this machine. “Awareness is not the same as perspective; sometimes the former is an obstacle to the latter”—aphorisms paint the atmosphere in this book. O’Gieblyn earns her pronouncements. In an essay about subtlety, that which she proclaims her “chronic foible,” O’Gieblyn shares “when I finally abandoned my faith, I believed I was leaving this inscrutable world behind”—an evangelical world of impossible theologies, in which God was absent but longed for. “But as it turns out,” she knows, “the material world is every bit as elusive as the superstitions I’d left behind.”
Rather than a jeremiad against the Christianity of her youth, Interior States asks her former faith to return to its previous authenticity, one lost to a consumerist sense of worship. O’Gieblyn retains what she calls “an abiding anthropological curiosity” to her past life, and it has created a curiously powerful result. She’s a writer who speaks in tongues—Biblically trained, and yet now her own—and who understands America from the middle.
After finishing Interior States, I returned to the William James essay that O’Gieblyn so appropriately quoted. He finishes that piece with a meditation upon the value of pragmatism: “Rationalism sticks to logic and the empyrean. Empiricism sticks to the external senses. Pragmatism for her part is willing to take anything, to follow either logic or the senses, and to count the humblest and most personal experiences. She will count mystical experiences if they have practical consequences. She will take a God who lives in the very dirt of private fact—if that should seem a likely place to find him.” O’Gieblyn is a writer worth trusting, a writer who audaciously, and stylistically, seeks truth.