Essayist Meghan O’Gieblyn was raised in a fundamentalist Christian household in Michigan by parents who, at one point, believed the apocalypse was imminent. In fact, the family stored up so much nonperishable food in the event of the end of the world that they ended up subsisting for months on “colorless suppers of dried meat and powdered mashed potatoes,” refusing to admit their error.
O’Gieblyn writes about her upbringing, and the influence of religion in her life, in the 15 essays that comprise her debut essay collection, Interior States, which comes out this week. Diverse in subject — in one essay, she writes about the way critics of Alcoholics Anonymous are uncomfortable with its spiritual character; in another, she analyzes a theme park devoted to biblical creationism — the writings are consistently, exquisitely thought-provoking. In all, the collection of essays is at once challenging and lyrical, and portrays a nuanced, complicated look at faith, secularism, and evangelical culture in 2018.
While O’Gieblyn writes, frequently and movingly, of losing her faith in adulthood, her criticisms of evangelical culture and Christianity are filled not with polemic but with yearning: a spiritual and moral hunger for what Christianity could and should have been, and the “missed opportunities” for faith in a capitalist, secular age.
I spoke with O’Gieblyn about American evangelicalism, her own faith, and her process. The interview has been lightly edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Tara Isabella Burton
In a lot of your essays, you talk about different elements of what you call your “deconversion” experience, out of a quite extreme form of evangelical Christianity. Can you tell me a bit more about your faith journey?
I was raised in a fundamentalist home in Michigan. I was homeschooled until 10th grade. And when I was 18, I went to Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, which is a very small, very old, conservative Christian college founded by Dwight L. Moody in the 19th century. And it was while I was there — while I was studying theology and really getting in depth into the Bible for the first time in a way that I hadn’t as a child — that I started contending with a lot of problems. Particularly the theology surrounding hell, predestination, the problem of evil, that I didn’t really think about in any depth until I was at that school.
I was also driven by the cultural problems within Christianity — a lot of the hypocrisy in that culture, the way that women were regarded. So I ended up leaving Moody after two years of a four-year program, and spent many years still struggling. I didn’t call myself an “atheist” when I left. It wasn’t a clean break. But writing was one of the ways that helped me make sense of these questions and forge a new identity. All of my essays are in different ways trying to make sense of that experience.
Tara Isabella Burton
Something I find really striking about your work is that while you absolutely do criticize much of the faith tradition you come from, you’re also similarly critical of a secular world (and media) that fails to understand that faith tradition. Throughout your essays, you reserve harsh words for magazine articles that refer, say, to the idea that the Western world “stopped believing in hell” sometime around the European Enlightenment, or scholars who refer to Satan as an “antiquarian relic of a superstitious age,” as biblical scholar Elaine Pagels did. What does the secular world get wrong about evangelicalism and fundamentalism?
I think the thing they get wrong most often is that it’s a very simplistic worldview and that it depends upon wishful thinking and faith. Faith is obviously a big part of Christianity, and a lot of believers do defer to that, no question. But the type of Christianity I grew up in was a very intricate worldview that depended upon rational principles, that functioned within that world sort of separate from secular rationality. So you know we were taught apologetics as children. We were taught to defend our faith, to use Scripture as evidence to respond to these common attacks on Christianity.
When I was at Moody Bible Institute, the intellectual culture there was very intense and academically rigorous, even though we were studying the Bible from a literalist point of view. We weren’t studying liberal theologians. It was a very insular world. But we read the Bible with a kind of attention and depth that I think would be familiar to academics. It’s hard to explain that to a secular audience because a lot of the things we were studying in depth sound insane to a secular audience. We’re talking about how to prove that the Earth was actually created in six days based on all of these theologically arcane methods. But it did function within its own insular world as a system of rational thought.
Tara Isabella Burton
That makes a lot of sense within the paradigm of your work, which treats religion and the ideas behind it extremely seriously, and with depth, even when you’re criticizing it. And at times, you still see the value in it. In your essay on the differing ways hell has been treated in contemporary Christianity, for example, you talk about how there is a potential within the narrative of hell to find “a sober counternarrative to the simplistic story of moral progress that stretches from Silicon Valley to Madison Avenue.” What elements of your religious upbringing would you like to see preserved, and why?
When I was writing many of these essays, my biggest criticism of the church is that it didn’t provide an antidote to capitalism. And it could have! I grew up in the 1990s during the megachurch era. There was still this idea that they could compete with secular youth culture. I have an essay in here, for example, about the phenomenon of Christian music, and how a lot of Christian artists in the 1990s were trying to compete with bands, which were on MTV, to compete with whatever was popular and add a Christian “twist” and sell whatever was popular. It leads to an inauthenticity.
There was a missed opportunity to offer an alternative to this culture of consumerism, of capitalism, that a lot of us were already disillusioned with, and the church was doing the exact same thing. It wasn’t providing an escape. It was marrying the culture.
I talk about this in my piece on hell. In the 2000s, people stopped talking about hell to appeal to a larger audience. Pastors started running churches like a business. They did market research and found that hell made people uncomfortable. People didn’t want to hear about hell, or how they were sinners. But the gospel message doesn’t really work if there’s no stakes, nothing to be saved from. And I think there was a missed opportunity to reinterpret hell — as a metaphor for evil, for these difficult experiences that people go through, like addiction or war.
Tara Isabella Burton
Let’s home in on that a little bit more. In Interior States, you talk a lot about the evangelicalism of the late ’90s and early 2000s. In the past few decades, how have you seen that world change? Where has evangelicalism gone in America?
It’s become much stranger, I think, than it was even when I was a Christian. It’s interesting watching the movement evolve now, as an outsider. With the Trump presidency, and the overwhelming amount of white evangelicals who voted for him — that was an incredible disillusionment for me. The narrative of when I grew up at school during the Bush years was, “He’s one of us; he’s a good man.”
And then to see the church do a total 180 and support someone like Trump, who is not a Christian, who is an adulterer, who totally goes against all their values — it makes it clear that [Christian politics] were about cultural dominance, Christian nationalism, patriarchy, white supremacy. I think the Trump presidency sort of revealed the extent to which maybe Christian politics were always about those issues.
And there’s been a rift, too, within evangelicalism. I think a lot of Christians, particularly younger evangelicals, have become really disillusioned with that label, or are calling themselves “ex-evangelicals” or gravitating toward mainline Protestant denominations that are more concerned with things like social justice.
Tara Isabella Burton
Let’s talk a little bit more about your own work and your process. In your essay “On Subtlety,” you talk about how your experience of faith informs your writing on a narrative as well as content level. You talk about how a kind of sense of meaningfulness pervading the world, and a compact of trust between a narrator and a reader that mirrors that between God and creation, made you more prone to writing “subtle” pieces, where you trust the reader to get it. Can you expound further on how your faith tradition informs your writing as well as your subject matter?
I actually started off as a fiction writer. And one of the criticisms I always got in workshop with my work was that I wasn’t being explicit enough — that I was forcing the reader to make connections that I should have been making as a writer. And I’ve gotten criticism even as a nonfiction writer. It started to seem like it was larger than a craft problem — like it was actually a problem with the way I looked at the world.
When I was growing up in the church, there was this whole narrative of “you have to pay attention. God can speak to you in mysterious ways.” And you have to be careful in calling attention to those connections. Christians were always looking for signs, like, “God is speaking to me through the words of a popular song.”
There’s also this interpretative vigilance that we were taught as children. We were taught that the secular world was kind of this unified ideology that was trying to dupe us, and we had to deconstruct these messages and be vigilant guarding ourselves against it. And I think that was a useful education in a lot of ways, because it taught me critical thinking.
Also, there’s a way in which that idea of religious mystery is something that has informed my writing. I do sometimes think of writing as a very mystical process. A lot of writers do. Sometimes you don’t understand the way your subconscious works — the way the ideas rise to the surface. It can feel like a religious experience at times.