APRIL 5, 2019
I’VE CONCLUDED SOMETHING about the sort of stuff that I want to read as we approach the end of the 21st century’s first act, an era violently inaugurated by 9/11 and defined by the surveillance state, war in the Middle East, economic collapse, and the reemergence of fascist politics. When it comes to serious cultural critique, the best writing has a bit of religion about it; the most cognoscente and cutting of cultural critiques must be permeated by the sacred. This is true regardless of the theological positions of the author; indeed, a sense of the numinous among ostensibly secular writers constitutes the nonfiction canon of our current age.
That’s because post-modernity — late capitalism, neoliberalism, what have you — is defined by sublimated theology. How could we claim otherwise after the sacrificial horror of religious violence that was 9/11? We’ve supposedly been at God’s wake for a century-and-a-half now, not noticing that He is over in the corner, nursing a drink and looking at us all with that sly smile of His. Not to beat a dead God, but not only hasn’t religion been exorcized from culture, it’s impossible to even imagine that it could be, because as Meghan O’Gieblyn argues in her excellent new collection, Interior States, to be a “former believer is to perpetually return to the scene of the crime.” Regardless of our individual faiths, we’re all guilty former believers in something.
O’Gieblyn is more of a former believer than many, however, and she makes use of her Midwestern, fundamentalist Christian upbringing to bolster a sophisticated critical sensibility, providing astute readings of everything from Great Lakes gentrification that trades in a kitschy, hipster “spirit of the prairie […] industrial ethos;” to John Updike’s suburban-sexual ennui; to the hermeneutics of Alcoholics Anonymous; and to the baroque rationalizations of evangelical Trump supporters. Interior States is an exemplar of the exact sort of commentary that uses religious vocabulary to describe our current moment. O’Gieblyn’s writing works to much greater effect than the anemic hand-wringing of more secular critique.
On the left, much of the content written to garner clicks is either centrist “#Resistance” editorializing, or increasingly scholastic call-out culture, which takes the rhetoric of pious scrupulosity for a political position. O’Gieblyn surveys the depressing state of the bulk of commentary produced today, writing that whoever’s “job it will be to weed through our digital garbage and make sense of it all” will be “forced to conclude that everything that could possibly be said about us was true, as well as its opposite.” O’Gieblyn writes that future historians will believe that we were somehow both decadent and austere, that we were barbaric and effete, and that “we consumed too much fat” and “that we did not consume enough.” When it comes to cultural criticism on the right, we afford those writers with an unearned charity if we skirt over the quality of their critiques (although we also save ourselves a lot of time). But while secular observers would admit that religion has defined Islamism and the Christian right, there is a tendency to otherwise bracket the theological out, to push religion to the periphery.
Once from the right herself, O’Gieblyn understands something about evangelicalism and its (often contradictory) politics, and by proxy, the wider state of the country, which more dismissive analysis can’t quite put into the correct words. She writes that although “I no longer espouse this faith, it’s hard to deny the mark it has left on me,” for “even when a person outwardly denounces a long-standing belief, the architecture of the idea persists and can come to be inhabited by other things.” The biographical genius of O’Gieblyn’s essays is that she uses her own experience of losing her faith to make a more universal claim: the persistence of sublimated theology is “true of culture as it is of individuals.”
That claim — that religion persists not just on the A.M. radio dial and the Christian Broadcasting Network but indeed among the bromides of Silicon Valley enthusiasts or the apocalypticism of (legitimate) fears about climate change — defines this type of criticism, which is the most fully commensurate with understanding our era. Interior States is the fruit of that sensibility, a collection of mostly previously published essays written between 2011 and 2018 which appeared in periodicals like The Point, n+1, Guernica, Tin House, Ploughshares, Oxford American, Boston Review, The New Yorker, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. A biographical thread runs through O’Gieblyn’s essays, true to Montaigne’s contention that the best nonfiction must sprout forth from the personal into the more abstract, and she draws freely from her evangelical upbringing and her Detroit childhood. Where her perspective is most welcome, however, is when she applies her theological sensibility (sublimated or not) to ostensibly secular phenomena, where “faith’s epic story of messianic redemption lives on in the utopic visions of transhumanism and in liberalism’s endless arc of progress,” and where, regardless of partisan identification, “apocalypticism has been a potent force in our nation’s history and has left an indelible mark on American political life.”
O’Gieblyn compares her essays to what were called “testimonies” when she was growing up, that is, an individual statement of sinfulness, which in the evangelical tradition exists to communally bind the faithful together in the shared nature of perdition. If I can offer my own testimony regarding Interior States, I’d have to admit that vanity made me anxious about reading O’Gieblyn’s essays. There is a lot of correspondence in our respective beats: we’ve both found religion at the center of our critical disposition, we’re both from the industrial Midwest (broadly constituted), and we’ve covered lots of the same subjects, including transhumanism, addiction, and apocalypticism. Any writer who tells you that they don’t have some anxiety in encountering the words of a living scribbler whose interests are similar to theirs is either lying or a much better person than I. Envy made me want to see O’Gieblyn stumble, but at a certain point, the quality of her prose and thought overcame my pettiness. Life is too short and Interior States too enjoyable for me to hold on to my sourness for too long.
What helped, if I’m being honest, was how much we differ in our religious upbringing. Her ex-vangelical past provides a specific depth in her commentary that someone from a more secular background, such as myself, finds inaccessible. O’Gieblyn writes that her family’s “dinner conversations sounded like something out of a Hawthorne novel,” and I can emphatically say that among my culturally Catholic family in a mostly Jewish neighborhood, our conversations were much less Calvinist. I’ve come to my concerns about religion from a different direction, and I’ve always been aware of a certain lacuna whereby my understanding can be intellectual, not emotional — of the head and not the heart. O’Gieblyn and I can both explicate the differences between supralapsarianism and infralapsarianism, but only she avidly listened to the Christian rocker Carman when growing up. We can both define premillennial dispensationalism, but only O’Gieblyn has ever given a faith testimony. We’re both familiar with double-predestination, but I’ve no idea what the soft-serve in the Moody Bible Institute’s cafeteria tastes like or what it feels like to attend a suburban Chicago megachurch.
Growing up, I had a borderline prurient interest in evangelical Protestantism, which is why I’m familiar with figures from Rob Bell to Ken Ham whom O’Gieblyn writes about. I’ve probably seen more of The 700 Club or Origins, Cornerstone Television’s creationist pantomime of a science show than your average Elizabeth Warren voter living in suburban Boston. Such fascination had a whiff of the spectacle about it. For a relatively secular American who grew up in a community that, even if it was in Pittsburgh, was spiritually closer to the Upper West Side than to Branson, there remains something scandalous in O’Gieblyn writing that she’s “heard more than one believer argue that Mother Teresa is in hell […] while Jeffrey Dahmer, who supposedly accepted Christ weeks before his murder, is in heaven.” College was when I first met people who held those opinions, and I still haven’t quite gotten over the shock.
O’Gieblyn, of course, wouldn’t be shocked that such people as evangelical Christians walk among us, and contrary to the expectations of those with Cambridge or Berkeley zip codes, she also understands that the reductionisms of their beliefs do us no service in understanding faith’s role in American culture (fundamentalist or not). That’s not to exonerate the worst excesses of evangelical Christianity, nor especially to endorse their historically atrocious politics, where the “central hypocrisy in the history of fundamentalist theology is the fact that white evangelicals managed to find signs of the apocalypse in every social evil except their own prejudice.”
The fatal error made by the secular, liberal observer is to assume that such prejudice signals a lack of rigor; it comes in the assumption of intellectual superiority on the part of the observer. If anything, O’Gieblyn makes the convincing argument that “Christian literalism is even more complicated than liberal brands of theology because it involves the sticky task of reconciling the overlay myth […] with a wildly inconsistent body of scripture.” The reasonings of apologetics may be tortured, but they are not unsophisticated. Familiarity with such literature will have even the novice admitting that O’Gieblyn has a point when she says that such theology is “every bit as complicated and arcane as Marxist theory or post-structuralism.”
Such is the profound deficit in some secular appraisals of the religious right, which assume that not only are the adherents dim, but, with grave condescension, that they don’t even understand their own positions. I’ve heard well-meaning but biblically illiterate secular liberals ask without irony how some Christians could justify their homophobia with the Bible, seemingly unaware that the Bible is filled with homophobic statements. Scripture justifies genocide at some points — it’s not a self-help book of feel-good platitudes. No battle is won in pretending that chapter-and-verse-spouting evangelicals are misinformed about the literal content of the book. Rather, the argument always is and always should be: “Why should we base any public policy on a literal reading of the Bible?”
Furthermore, there is liberation in admitting that there are and always have been ways to be religious — to be Christian — not centered in scripture. There is something very Protestant about being concerned that everything must have recourse to the Old and New Testament. I imagine that O’Gieblyn would see a bit of sublimated theology in the liberal need to revise the Bible into something it isn’t. Unlike those that are flabbergasted that anyone could justify hate through the Bible, I simply don’t care what the Bible has to tell me about things which my reason disagrees with. No sola Scriptura in my thought; I dismiss it as ironically unbiblical. I’m rather content to pick and choose what I like about the Bible’s politics as if I were in a buffet line. Yet among some liberal commentators there remains a staunchly secular Protestant view that if evangelicals justify their terrible political opinions, it must be that they’re wrong about what’s in the Bible.
Such was my experience when I was interviewed by a journalist concerning a Newsweek piece that I’d written about evangelical support for Trump. Though I’d assert to him that I found many evangelical views cynical, opportunistic, and even morally repugnant, the pundit seemed frustrated that I wouldn’t admit that the supporters were also stupid. O’Gieblyn would have handled such questions much better than I did; her exegetical fluency makes her the ideal interpreter of evangelical political justifications. Her essay “Exiled,” which examines the role that Vice President Pence plays in the Trump administration, masterfully explains how (admittedly strange) rationalizations are proffered to assuage the (non)guilty consciences of religious supporters. For some, Pence is a Daniel in the court of Nebuchadnezzar; for others, Trump is the pagan king Cyrus who liberated the ancient Jews. My point isn’t that these are anything other than rationalizations for supporting a man who is obviously morally unfit for any position of power; it’s that, in and of themselves, they can’t be accused of lacking a certain scholastic sophistication.
If O’Gieblyn’s contribution were only to explain evangelicals to secular readers, Interior States would be helpful enough, but its true vitality is in gesturing toward that which explains how the sacred operates across an unexpected array of phenomena, from the internet left’s fundamentally theological view of themselves constituting a “more benign and welcome elect” where to use the “right pronouns and ritually acknowledge our privilege and buy fair trade” has an almost evangelical gloss, to her childhood observation that all she “heard on MTV was stuff about God.” To observe that supposedly secular things are, at their core, religious is not to dismiss them, but that observation is the goal of this new cultural commentary, which I find so beguiling.
O’Gieblyn’s writing could be classified in a genre that I’ve identified as the “New Religion Journalism.” Like the movement of the ’60s and ’70s, which I’m consciously contrasting it with, the New Religion Journalism is a mode of nonfiction in which often personal questions of faith are interrogated against the backdrop of wider issues, where authors frequently insert themselves into the story in a manner in which more traditional “God beat” reporters wouldn’t, and most importantly, where the theism/atheism binary is questioned and the full ambiguity and ambivalence of belief can be displayed. The New Religion Journalism is the popular corollary to the academic movement, which Ryan McDermott identified as the “New Theological Literary Studies.” I associate the New Religion Journalism with Peter Manseau and Jeff Sharlet’s founding of the publication Killing the Buddha in 2000, an unconventional religion site for those “who are both hostile and drawn to talk of God.”
Over the past two decades, a panoply of such sites has emerged, including The Revealer, The Marginalia Review of Books, and Religion Dispatches, and O’Gieblyn is joined by commentators like Sharlet and Manseau, Ann Neumann on medicine, Patrick Blanchfield on firearms, Kelly Baker on racism, Kaya Oakes on progressive Catholicism, Nick Ripatrazone on poetry, Tara Isabella Burton on the religiously unaffiliated, Burke Gerstenschlager on radical politics, and dozens more at a variety of publications. These are authors from a variety of denominational backgrounds (and none), across a diversity of theological positions (and none), and with a broad range of interests and politics. New Religion Journalism is defined by what O’Gieblyn describes as a “kind of bone-marrow knowledge that the Lord is coming; that he has always been coming, which is the same as saying that he will never come; that each of us must find a way to live with this absence and our own, earthly limitations.”
O’Gieblyn detects among the secular-minded an “underlying impatience with religion itself and the persistence of its postures in modern life.” Writing about religion for non-sectarian publications is a bit like what I imagined it must have felt to be a Victorian critic considering erotica in The Fortnightly Review. If our 19th-century forebears were squeamish about issues of sexuality, then it is faith which our new arbiters of convention have deemed inappropriate as subject matter for polite company. Religion is something that other people have, but in the corridors of secular, liberal society, we’re too rational for such superstitions. Yet no major phenomenon today — from the horror of the new nationalism to the hopefulness of the new socialism — can be understood without some recourse to theological categories. As O’Gieblyn writes, if we “dismiss the rants of televangelists, or snicker at the megaphone insanity of street preachers, it is at least in part because they embody” some of the transcendent yearnings, which we’ve just barely repressed, for “[i]n the end, the history of evangelicalism, cynical and fatalistic as it may be, is very much our own.” Even in our bare ruined choirs, there is an echo of mumbled prayers from long past. The job of the critic is to listen and decipher them.