“Losing faith in God in the twenty-first century is an anachronistic experience,” Meghan O’Gieblyn writes in her first essay collection, “Interior States.” “You end up contending with the kinds of things the West dealt with more than a hundred years ago: materialism, the end of history, the death of the soul.” Given that remit, a private sense of alienation pervades these 15 essays on such binaries as theology and branding, the soul and technology, the Midwest vs. the coasts.
An Upper Midwest intellectual from a fundamentalist Christian family, O’Gieblyn brings an outsider’s voice to bear on subjects from economic decline and liberal hipsterism to transhumanism and the questionable teleology of motherhood. In “Dispatches from Flyover Country” she locates the phlegmatic virtue of Midwestern stoicism, “a resistance to excitement,” which “comes from tuning out the fashions and revelations of the coastal cities, which have nothing to do with you.”
In “Hell,” she describes college exposure to the cynical marketing of a local megachurch, whose dishonest “feel-good” messages about hell helped nudge the unraveling of her faith. The essay deconstructs end-times theology, identifying Old Testament narratives of apocalypse as the “revenge fantasies” of powerless peoples “who’d suffered horrible injustices.”
She “love[s] nothing so much as to hear about the hygiene of other people’s souls,” she admits in “Contemporaries,” a commentary on her circle’s preoccupation with “personal development.” They meet in farm-to-table restaurant rooms of reclaimed wood, sipping mineral water and incanting the joys of desert meditation marathons and the “voice in my head that speaks the truth.”
“A Species of Origins” takes us on a road trip to Kentucky’s Creation Museum, where O’Gieblyn is startled by creationists’ latter-day engagement in pseudoscience: “It’s not so much anti-intellectualism as it is intellectualism conceived on another planet, by scientists stoned on hallucinogens.” “Sniffing Glue” offers a personal history of Christian rock; the jig is up once she discovers Nirvana. “The End” pokes fun at family preparations for the heralded doom of Y2K — when the end didn’t come, they supped on dried meat and powdered mashed potatoes for a year — and also explores the American pull toward apocalypticism.
In the standout final essay, “Exile,” she illumines for the nonbeliever the precepts of neo-millennialist Christians, who map American Christianity onto Old Testament stories of Jewish exile, and explicates the activities of Capitol Ministries, which runs Bible study sessions for Christian legislators in “Maintaining Biblical Attitudes with New Political Leadership” — translation: why they should bestow loyalty on President Donald Trump. Despite unprecedented power, movement leaders, like the vice president, insist that “no people of faith today face greater hostility or hatred than the followers of Christ.”
Marian Ryan has written for Granta, Catapult, the New York Times, Slate and other publications. She lives in Berlin.
By: Meghan O'Gieblyn.
Publisher: Anchor Books, 222 pages, $16.
Event: In conversation with Chris Stedman. 7 p.m. Oct. 24, Magers & Quinn, 3038 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.