When Meghan O’Gieblyn writes about getting an MRI to gauge the size and operability of a tumor in her head, the climax of the scene has nothing to do with the results of the scan. Indeed, the tumor never comes up again. Instead of learning the final diagnosis, we learn that the MRI induced a kind of double vision. Inside the tube, O’Gieblyn thinks, “I am a person of the future, enclosed in this synthetic cocoon that uses particle physics to capture the insides of bodies.” But the machine, made by the same company that manufactured her mother’s overheating dishwasher, is also “loud and clunky”—barbaric-seeming. “Throughout the rest of the session,” she writes, “these two images—the machine as futuristic wonder, the machine as primitive contraption—existed simultaneously in my mind, like a hologram.”
That the past and the future are both alive in the present is a commonplace. But O’Gieblyn is uncommonly attuned to its manifestations, often dwelling on hologram-like concurrences that others gloss over or miss completely. In an essay about Hell, for example, she describes her surprise when she—who grew up believing in damnation—sees “scholars like Elaine Pagels refer to Satan as ‘an antiquarian relic of a superstitious age,’ or [comes] across an aside, in a magazine article, that claims the Western world stopped believing in literal hell during the Enlightenment” (emphasis O’Gieblyn’s). O’Gieblyn grants that belief is, from certain angles, anachronistic, but she implies that claims of its disappearance neglect its contemporary relevance. The scholar’s relic guides millions of people’s lives. If there’s a motif running through Interior States, O’Gieblyn’s new and varied essay collection, it’s her attempt to braid together the out-of-sync historical, cultural, and religious narratives she finds hiding in plain sight.
The book’s main themes, Midwesternness and Christianity, are drawn from O’Gieblyn’s life. Born in 1982, she was raised by evangelical Christian parents who moved the family from Illinois to Michigan to Wisconsin. But she began to lose her faith soon after matriculating at the Moody Bible Institute, where she had gone to become a missionary. While coping with the loss of the beliefs that had defined her worldview, she turned to writing, which became “a way to impose some semblance of order on a world that felt muddled and morally chaotic.” Interior States is the result of this turn. Rounded out by three book reviews, one meditation each on the concepts of subtlety and contemporaries, and a consideration of Alcoholics Anonymous, its core comprises three essays on the Midwest and six on Christianity.
If an MRI scanner occupies the middle of a Venn diagram charting our technological past and future, O’Gieblyn’s first pieces on evangelicalism show her hovering between phases of her own life, youthful devotion shaded over by encroaching doubt. Published in secular magazines but written “primarily to evangelicals,” these essays combine personal history with critiques of theological compromises made by Christians desperate to remain culturally relevant. In “Hell” (2014), for example, O’Gieblyn criticizes church leaders who downplay original sin and eternal damnation to attract new followers. Salvation being meaningless if there’s nothing to be saved from, she sees these beliefs as the backbone of Christianity’s theological—and moral—authority. “Part of what made church such a powerful experience for me,” she reflects, “was that it was the one place where…it was taken as a given that the person standing in the pews beside you was morally fallible, a fact that did not prevent you from taking her hand in prayer.”
Nevertheless, she eventually found herself unable to accept the belief professed by her bible school teachers that people can be damned eternally simply for want of baptism. The essay’s arguments against a watered-down Hell punctuate an account of the slow and painful disappearance of her belief in Hell’s existence. It sometimes seems as if the arguments are a way of mourning the loss. “Hell,” like O’Gieblyn’s other early pieces, is a dramatic, attentive account of a mind at war with itself—a mind that keeps seeking a coherent worldview and finding hypocrisies and holes.
Her severance from religious faith no longer fresh, O’Gieblyn takes a different approach in her more recent pieces. She’s not arguing with the church anymore; she’s interpreting it for fellow nonbelievers, revealing Christian throughlines in the putatively secular world. In “Exiled” (2018), she uses Vice President Mike Pence’s theology as a lens through which to examine the adaptability and persistence of the religious right, whose demise commentators have frequently predicted, particularly pre-2016. These confident assumptions, she writes,
rest on the modern, liberal notion that history is an endless arc of progress and that religion, like all medieval holdovers, will slowly vanish from the public sphere. But evangelicals themselves regard history…as a cycle of captivity, deliverance, and restoration, a process that is sometimes propelled by unlikely forces—pagan strongmen, despotic kings.
According to this reading, politicians like Pence are at once throwbacks and future-oriented contemporaries. For them, the stakes of Donald Trump’s astoundingly profane presidency involve not only Supreme Court nominations but also a divinely willed, biblically grounded return from (supposed) exile.
In another of her newer pieces, “Ghost in the Cloud” (2017), O’Gieblyn recounts the aftermath of her defection. “Losing faith in God in the twenty-first century is an anachronistic experience,” she writes. “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.” In the throes of this loss, she becomes obsessed with transhumanism, the idea, preponderant in Silicon Valley, that people will one day be able to upload their minds to computers that will keep them alive forever. By explicitly casting her own loss of faith as an analog of Western secularization, she sets up her subsequent obsession with transhumanism as evidence that, “though few transhumanists would likely admit it, their theories about the future are a secular outgrowth of Christian eschatology.” (As she puts it, in one of many memorable sentences, these theories “restore, through science, the transcendent hopes that science itself obliterated.”)
“Ghost in the Cloud” is probably the best essay in the book, the most fully realized example of O’Gieblyn’s efforts to use her life in the service of a larger point. Her autobiographical material stands on its own as a story, but it’s only her first step toward an argument. She neither apologizes for the smallness of her experience nor takes it to be overly representative—a difficult balance to strike in any personal essay.
In fact, the dangers of taking certain experiences or ideas to be overly representative is one of the themes of O’Gieblyn’s writing on the Midwest. In “Dispatch from Flyover Country,” she counterbalances scenes of Muskegon, Michigan, where she lived for a while, with scenes of the more urbane Madison, Wisconsin, where she went to graduate school and currently resides. The Midwest is not only famously flat landscapes and heavily dressed iceberg lettuce but also city dwellers who suffer from the “fundamental delusion” that “fair trade coffee and Orange You Glad It’s Vegan? Cake” have elevated them “above the rubble of hinterland ignorance.” An identity, in short, built on buying into and then distancing oneself from regional stereotypes.
In “Midwestworld” (2016), O’Gieblyn splices together not regions of the Midwest but tranches of its economic history. The essay is an account of a trip to Greenfield Village, a “living history” museum outside Detroit that attempts to replicate earlier versions of American life. There are printing presses, bonnets, horse-drawn buggies. Founded by Henry Ford during the Great Depression, the museum has attracted crowds in the years since the Great Recession. O’Gieblyn suggests that Midwestern visitors are drawn partly by a sometimes-desperate nostalgia for “the bustle of people making things.” They live, after all, in a region whose residents have ample reason to suspect that “the fruits of the economy do not correspond to the exertions of the nation’s labor force”—a suspicion that was reinforced when the city of Detroit declared bankruptcy the same week in 2013 that the Dow Jones and the S&P hit record highs: “Prosperity, once envisioned by Diego Rivera as an endless collaborative assembly line stretching into the future, is now a closed loop that ordinary people are locked out of.”
Just as O’Gieblyn’s early essays dramatize her loss of faith in Christian eschatology, “Midwestworld” dramatizes a loss of faith in the inevitability of progress. What remains? Her writing testifies to a faith in reality, even if it’s composed of simultaneous, yet incommensurate, realities.