Since at least the 2016 election, much hand-wringing has occurred over the growing cultural divide between urban, bicoastal “elites” and the denizens of “flyover country.” In her debut essay collection Interior States, Meghan O’Gieblyn straddles this divide, training her keenly skeptical eye on both the conservative evangelical world of her Midwestern upbringing and the progressive, secular culture she is now part of. Armed with a crackling intellect, a dry wit, and a lucid, precise prose style, O’Gieblyn shows how difficult it is to truly leave behind the faiths we once inhabited.
The collection’s unifying subject is ostensibly the American Midwest. The title is a play on words, referring to both geographical and emotional interiors, and the first essay, “Dispatches from Flyover Country,” which was anthologized in Best American Essays 2017, acts as a keystone for the collection. Even the cover art features a giant billboard reminiscent of those seen along the highways of Illinois and Indiana, the sky above streaked with the contrails of commercial jetliners.
On a deeper level, though, the collection is most concerned with loss—particularly, as O’Gieblyn puts it, “the loss of direction that occurs after the decline of a doctrine, an economy, or an entire worldview.” The Midwestern states have in common a sense of the loss of their original telos, a feeling that “the industries and the systems that built the region are no longer tenable.” This parallels O’Gieblyn’s own sense of spiritual loss: she grew up in a deeply evangelical household in small-town western Michigan and attended Moody Bible Institute for college before a crisis of faith caused her to leave the church. “But people who have gotten that far into the faith never totally shake it,” she writes. “To be a former believer is to perpetually return to the scene of the crime.” The entire collection is suffused by an aching awareness of absence and an obsession with the indelible markings of the past.
Losses are often blessings in disguise, though. O’Gieblyn’s history of deconversion, her point of view as an outsider to both secular modernity and to religious faith, are what give her observations such perspicacity and make hers such an original voice. I have often suspected (self-servingly) that apostates make the most clear-eyed critics. I mean apostates in the broadest sense, refugees from any ideology—people who have worked themselves out of the iron cage of belief and have who have undertaken a radical, wholesale reformation of their own worldview.
In some of these essays (particularly the ones written while she was still contending with her loss of faith), O’Gieblyn trains her skeptical eye on the culture she has left, observing the hypocrisy of evangelical Protestantism’s attempts to stay culturally relevant. She seems in these early essays to still have a yearning for the church to live up to its principles and fulfill its role as a moral authority, even as she has been disappointed by its worldly practices. For example, in an essay called “Hell,” she criticizes the recent tendency of Protestant churches to gloss over the traditional doctrine of sin as a misguided marketing ploy:
Like so many formerly oppositional institutions, the church is now becoming a symptom of the culture rather than an antidote to it, giving us one less place to turn for a sober counternarrative to the simplistic story of moral progress that stretches from Silicon Valley to Madison Avenue. Hell may be an elastic concept, as varied as the thousands of malevolencies it has described throughout history, but it remains our most resilient metaphor for the evil both around us and within us. True compassion is possible not because we are ignorant that life can be hell, but because we know that it can be.
I find her essays even more interesting, though, when she turns her critical faculties not just on evangelical Christianity (which is all too easy to poke holes in), but back onto the pieties of our contemporary secular world. In an essay on “American Niceness,” for instance, she points out that the “posture of innocence” assumed by many liberal millennials is almost as insidious as the inoffensive blandness that provides cover to conservatives: “An apparent article of faith among young Americans on the left, a group in which I include myself, is that while we may belong to an ugly nation, we ourselves constitute a more benign and welcoming elect, a distinction that seems to depend less on the civic duties we have undertaken or the sacrifices we have made than it does on the fact that we use the right pronouns and ritually acknowledge our privilege and buy fair trade.” Mawkish tourism campaigns, cynical youth marketing, hipster “authenticity” aesthetics—none of these symptoms of twenty-first century society escape her razor wit.
Reading this collection, one often gets the sense that O’Gieblyn is looking out at the contemporary scene like a space alien or time traveler—and in a way, that’s exactly what she is. Homeschooled until tenth grade, she had never even watched MTV until she was thirteen (though she had seen Christian rock videos). “Anachronism” is a concept that comes up throughout the book—“It’s difficult to live here [in the Midwest] without developing an existential dizziness, a sense that the rest of the world is moving while you remain still.” Having hopped out of one pocket of history and into another, O’Gieblyn is acutely aware of how our views of reality are colored and distorted by historical narratives, whether the Christian or the progressive or the transhumanist. As she notes, “Losing faith in God in the twenty-first century is an anachronistic experience” indeed—but her anachronistic experience is what allows her to so accurately observe the present.
Often, her observations take the form of noticing the ways in which religious modes of thought still operate, usually unnoticed, within secular culture. “Even when a person outwardly denounces a long-standing belief,” she writes, “the architecture of the idea persists and can come to be inhabited by other things. This is as true of cultures as it is of individuals.” There are the more obvious ways that Christianity continues to influence the nation, e.g. through people like Mike Pence who exercise power in the political sphere (and in an essay on Pence, O’Gieblyn does an excellent job of translating the current Christian rhetoric of “exile” for readers). Then there are the less obvious ways that religion rears its head, e.g. in the “conversion narratives” of motherhood that appear throughout popular literature and film, in our contemporary habit of apocalyptic thinking, and in liberalism’s assumption that history unfolds in a progressive arc toward redemption. If she hadn’t had, and lost, such a deep Christian faith, she might not have noticed how Silicon Valley tech utopianism subsists upon religious hopes for resurrection and transcendence in almost the exact same way Christianity does. Her intimate familiarity with Christianity—not just its outward doctrines, but the “interior state” of being a Christian, a true believer—allows her to perceive its shadowy forms wherever it appears.
As more and more Americans drop or fall away from institutional religion, it can be easy to buy into the illusion that religion is no longer relevant—at least, not in our cosmopolitan urban centers—just as it can be easy to dismiss the large middle of the country as “flyover territory” not worth thinking about. O’Gieblyn’s insightful and poignant debut makes clear that these interior states cannot be so easily forgotten, for the present depends more on them than we realize.