Meghan O’Gieblyn obsesses over region and religion

The Madison-based writer shares her new essay collection, “Interior States,” on October 13 at the Wisconsin Book Festival.

The Madison-based writer shares her new essay collection, “Interior States,” on October 13 at the Wisconsin Book Festival.

The essays collected in Meghan O’Gieblyn‘s forthcoming book Interior States often find the Madison-based writer working through an unease with the contemporary world. While O’Gieblyn’s prose style is sober and methodical, she’s often examining people and movements who don’t quite feel certain of where they come from or why they make the decisions they do. In the essay “Contemporaries,” the Michigan-reared, Madison-based writer recalls a dinner conversation with friends, one of whom asserts that “All of us have a lie that we hinge our entire lives on.” The scene leaves O’Gieblyn questioning just how much we can know ourselves, even among supposedly rational and introspective folks in their early 30s:

For a long time afterward, I recalled the moment at the restaurant when we all looked at one another across the table, each of us ostensibly thinking about our lie. What was clear in that moment was that we all believed we could correctly identify our own self-deception, a conviction that seemed, the more I considered it, peculiar to people my age. Unlike the disciples of Freud, who sought to lay naked the hard knob of truth at the core of their existence, we are content merely to insist that we’re cognizant of the delusions that animate our lives, that we can approximate their location in the byways of our psyches.

It’s strange to me that one review praised “O’Gieblyn’s contemporary, hip voice,” because if anything her work wrestles with a profound ambivalence about things contemporary and hip. Much of the doubt and dislocation at work in Interior States comes from O’Gieblyn’s deep affinity for the Midwest and her upbringing in an evangelical Christian family. While she lost her faith after an abortive stint at the conservative Moody Bible Institute, O’Gieblyn finds that Christianity and the theological traditions she studied at Moody (before earning an undergrad degree at Loyola University Chicago and an MFA at UW-Madison) are still profoundly important to her understanding of the world. This has given her an unusual and vital perspective on transhumanism—a school of thought that holds that technology will enable human beings to transcend their bodily limitations—and, in the book’s final entry, the fundamentalist victim complex on which Vice President Mike Pence has built his political career.

O’Gieblyn will be speaking on Saturday, October 13 at A Room of One’s Own as part of the 2018 Wisconsin Book Festival, and on December 4 at Upper House on the UW-Madison campus. Ahead of those events and Interior States’ October 9 release, O’Gieblyn spoke with me about unpacking her former faith, her fascination with her home state’s tourism ads, and defending Brutalist buildings.

Tone Madison: One big theme running through this book is that you lost your faith, but you also are intellectually wary of people or traditions of thought that ignore the role of religion. Have you always applied those religious ideas to the secular world in the time since you’ve lost your faith, and has that been a struggle in itself?

Meghan O’Gieblyn: That is something that’s changed, maybe around the time I started the essays. When I first left Christianity in my early to mid-20s, it was sort of a long process. There was a period right after that where I was very vehemently atheistic and against religion and felt like it had ruined my life. I had a lot of anger about it. I don’t know if that really comes through in the essays, because I think by the time I started writing I had really moved away from that. I guess that’s something else I realized, in looking back over the essays, is that I do have this sense of ambivalence about my experience in the church. I do feel like it’s informed the way I look at the world in a lot of ways and not all of those ways are bad. I do value the worldview I got from the church. I think it was a really unique place to grow up. I still carry that with me in a lot of ways.

I think the thing that is surprising to me, too, as I began writing these essays, is how often I found myself defending the faith that I grew up in, that I had left. I don’t want to say I was defending it as though I was trying to say that everything was good about it, but I think that there’s a lot of misconceptions about Christianity and about evangelicals in particular. By that time, I’d been out of the church long enough that I’d read so much secular non-fiction about Christians and been exposed, to a greater degree, to people’s stereotypes about that culture. Part of what I was trying to do in these essays is complicate that narrative, and in some ways to show what was good about it, but also I think to show that it goes a lot deeper. It’s a lot more complicated in many ways, and in many ways it’s worse than people assume.

That’s something I struggle with, too, living in Madison. I’m in a place now where most of my friends are not religious at all, and I often find myself sort of getting a bit defensive about the way that people regard religious people—that they’re duped, that they haven’t thought through their worldview. I know from experience—I studied apologetics in bible school. It is a very intellectually complex worldview that operates completely separate, I would say, from secular rationality. I do find myself defending Christianity in some sense now, and then when I go back to visit my family in Michigan and I’m immersed in it again, I get very angry and sort of retreat to my old feelings about it and feeling very claustrophobic and uncomfortable. I’m always wavering between those two poles, emotionally and intellectually.

Tone Madison: It’s funny that you mention that about Madison, because it is this intensely secular place, and yet there are kind of a ton of churches and faith communities to go along with that. I’ve never quite been able to make sense of that.

Meghan O’Gieblyn: I have a few friends in town, some of whom I’ve met through my writing, who are evangelicals, and a lot of them live on the west side of town. I’m on the near east side, and that in Madison seems like a whole other world in many ways. But yeah, there is a big mega-church, I think it’s called Blackhawk, over on the west side, and there is a large evangelical community here. My experience in Madison, though, is that it is very secular and it is very politically isolated from the rest of the state. We’re sort of in a bubble here. It is a little bit more porous, I think, than other cities are, maybe on the coasts. I think a lot of my friends who live on the east coast, particularly New York, they’re completely bewildered by the specter of evangelicalism, like, “How can these people believe these things?” And in Madison, even though we are in a bubble, everybody I know, almost, has some family member who’s born-again, or grew up in more of a restricted environment themselves religiously.

Tone Madison: Throughout the book, you’re thinking about that territory between religion and doubt and it seems like you’re really trying to engage with it in a lot of different ways. You mentioned anger, and I don’t feel like there’s much anger in this book.

Meghan O’Gieblyn: Yeah. I think in some ways, I could argue that the process of writing was a way of exorcising that anger and releasing it. The type of writing I do, I think it’s difficult to be angry. I’m trying, by writing, to gain a sense of control and mastery over a topic or over an experience, trying to create a narrative so that I can understand it better. I think that there is maybe some sublimated anger in the way that I’ve chosen to write these pieces, particularly the early ones. The first piece in the collection I wrote was about Christian youth culture, particularly Christian music, and the way it was marketed to teenagers (“Sniffing Glue”). The second one I wrote was about how evangelical pastors had stopped preaching about hell (“Hell”). The main criticism that I was lodging against the church in both of those essays was that they were being hypocritical, that they weren’t being true to their own values. I don’t think I realized this at the time, but the reason why I chose that argument is because I knew that was going to hurt people in the church more than just saying, “Oh, you guys are crazy, you believe in miracles, you have this illogical worldview,” which I think is the typical secular narrative about the church.

I think I had this real desire, when I started writing, that I wanted to critique the faith from within it. A lot of those arguments were things that Christians had criticized the church for themselves—that we’re trying to appeal to the culture too much, that we’re trying to be of the world as opposed to being apart from it. That is something that bothered me when I was still in the church, and I think I had a lot of lingering anger about it when I started writing.

Tone Madison: The essay about Christian music, especially, provides a sense of context about some things that I experienced growing up. I grew up Catholic, but I was exposed to a bit of that Christian-music culture through friends who were in different denominations. Once in Texas I definitely got dragged to a concert at Six Flags. I think it was the band Third Day, who you mention in your essay. And I went to a Catholic church that always had one weekly mass with kind of corny rocked-up music. And looking back, through the lens of what you wrote, it’s pretty clear that they were doing that for fear of losing relevance.

Meghan O’Gieblyn: It’s interesting that you mention a Catholic service doing that. I have a friend in town who grew up Catholic, and he keeps talking about writing an essay about the evangelical-ization of Catholicism.This is something that’s happening within Catholicism, now that they’re having this big emphasis on youth culture and these big conferences with flashy music and everything. I think it is something that’s sort of spreading even to other types of Christianity beyond evangelicalism. But yeah, growing up in the ’90s, the megachurch era, everything was about cultural relevance. Christianity was a lot more dominant then and I think they had this idea that they could compete with secular youth culture.

A lot of the essay that I wrote about contemporary Christian music was basically about how Christian leaders during the ’90s believed that they could compete with MTV, this entity that had control of youth culture. What they basically tried to do was create these bands that were like the Christian version of whatever was popular on MTV and VH1 at the time, sort of like designer impostor perfumes, the knock-off version. Which I think ultimately failed, because obviously churches and Christian ministries don’t have the kind of apparatus or budget that Viacom does, or did during that era. They couldn’t do youth marketing with the sophistication that those corporations could.

I think a lot of people who grew up during that era in that type of evangelicalism, particularly people of my generation, have become really disillusioned by it. Even a lot of my friends who are still in the church and still identify as Christian no longer call themselves evangelicals. A lot of them have started going to mainline denominations or have become Catholic, or are interested in more mystical forms of Christianity. I think that is an aspect of my experience that I don’t know if I was aware of at the time that I was writing these essays, but it’s become much more prominent in recent years that the things I was disturbed by as a child, they are very much widespread among people my age.

Tone Madison: And that knock-off quality you talked about—kids can tell! There’s no one more brand-savvy than kids who are being exposed to this really hyper-stimulating marketing.

Meghan O’Gieblyn: I think about how it could have gone differently, if they had realized that, or been aware of the fact that it wasn’t landing with a lot of kids. This is something that I realized after I left the church. I remember just thinking it was really hokey and thinking I was being lied to as a teenager, but I also felt that way to some degree about MTV. I think everybody did. I don’t know if we were the first generation to grow up like that, just being hyper-aware of the fact that people were trying to sell us stuff all the time, and also in a way, it seems like kids today are maybe not. Or maybe they’re just so inured in it that it doesn’t bother them anymore.

Tone Madison: The other big theme running through this book is that you’re from the Midwest and the way that makes you relate to the rest of the world. In “Dispatch From Flyover Country,” you talk about the Brutalist buildings on the UW-Madison campus. I wanted to ask about that because I’m always kind of fascinated by people who defend these widely maligned buildings. I’m guessing you’re talking either about Humanities or Vilas Hall?

Meghan O’Gieblyn: Yeah, it was the Humanities building that I taught in. I love those buildings, and I wish I knew more about architecture and I could defend them more lucidly, but I just love how strange they look and I find them really unique and beautiful. There’s this association with authoritarian politics with these buildings, that they’re supposed to be these huge imposing buildings with a sense of power, making people feel week as citizens, so they are problematic in that sense, I guess. Although, I realized when I was going through the copy-editing and fact-checking for this book that that anecdote that I mentioned about how the buildings at UW were built as intimidation tactics during the 1960s student riots was apocryphal. It’s actually not true. But it’s a widespread myth. I think I was told that during orientation when I was here for grad school, that they had built these buildings specifically to look intimidating, with narrow windows that couldn’t be smashed with rocks, and they were supposed to be a response to these student uprisings during the Vietnam War. But it turns out that that’s not actually true.

But yeah, they just tore down a church [St. Paul’s] right on [Library Mall], a Catholic church that was in this beautiful old Brutalist building. I went to mass there once. The inside of it was like being in a cave. It was very stark and the amphitheater was, like, concrete walls and no windows. But they’ve since rebuilt a more traditional, very beautiful-looking church that I haven’t been inside. But yeah, I’m sad to see those buildings go.

Tone Madison: The “Pure Michigan” essay, about Michigan’s famous tourism ad campaign, stands out in this collection, because you focus on how a tourism campaign can resonate with the locals of a place. The anecdote about your friend who would get homesick for Michigan and watch those ads and cry is really touching.

Meghan O’Gieblyn: Well, they’re beautiful pieces of advertising. Do they play them in Madison? I don’t know if I’ve ever heard them here. When I was living in Chicago, they played them a lot. They have the music from the movie The Cider House Rules, it’s this very cinematic, soaring music, and Tim Allen is narrating them. They can be very moving. And that’s a true story about my friend who used to watch the ads and cry because she was so homesick. I think they are very affecting for people who live there.

I never thought about writing about them before, but I moved back to Michigan around the time of the Flint water crisis, and it was a really bizarre thing because they were playing these ads about Pure Michigan, most of which focus on the purity of Michigan’s water—on commercial breaks from news coverage about the Flint water crisis. It became so dark and Orwellian in a way. I was like, who’s controlling the programming here? There was no awareness of the irony.

Most of the Pure Michigan ads, in the beginning, were about the west coast of Michigan, the area that was very built for tourists—Traverse City, Benton Harbor, and there were a few about Upper Michigan also. So there’s the sort of bucolic, idyllic version of Michigan in those ads, and then the other side of Michigan, where we have Detroit and Flint and sort of this dark, industrial, gothic version of Michigan. I think those two versions of Michigan are really sort of the two ways that people talk about the Midwest, too. There’s these two traditions of, on one hand, this very pastoral, small-town America that you see in, say, Grant Wood paintings, this idealized version of middle America, and then you have these sort of decaying industrial sectors that are full of pollution and crime.

Tone Madison: In the essay you address that dichotomy a bit by talking about UW-Madison’s William Cronon and his book Nature’s Metropolis. That book talks about city and country as these very intertwined things, rather than diametrically opposed to each other.

Meghan O’Gieblyn: It is interesting to see how old these ideas are. I mean, in Nature’s Metropolis he’s talking a lot about late 19th century and early 20th century novels, and there’s sort of this trope in Hamlin Garland or Frank Norris novels where there’s a young person who grew up in the rural Midwest, and they turn 18 and go to the city to get work and there’s this archetypal scene of them taking the train into Chicago or some other large metropolis and just seeing this hellscape of industry for the first time. This is supposed to be this huge contrast to this pastoral world that they grew up in. Cronon points out how those worlds are connected, and how a lot of those novelists were actually aware that those worlds are connected, that the farms were part of the same system that fed the city, it was all the same economy. They were part of this vast machine of industry and agriculture, and the divisions are false in some sense. I think they’re still false today, especially now that our ecosystems are so intertwined. But we still make those distinctions for some reason.

Tone Madison: What’s next for you?

Meghan O’Gieblyn: I have a book tour coming up, so I think most of my focus is going to be on that for the next four to six weeks. I have a lot of traveling and I get to do some readings, which I’m excited about. Long-term, I do have another book that I’m working on. It’s about technology and how emerging technologies are raising questions that have typically been dealt with by theology. I wrote a little bit about this in one of the essays in the collection, “Ghost In The Cloud,” which is about transhumanism and how these technological narratives are very close to Christian eschatology. When I got the book deal for the essay collection, it was a two-book deal, so I pitched an expanded version of that essay. That was sort of the starting place for the second book, [but] it’s sort of veered away from that now. It’s still about technology and theology and philosophy to some extent, but it’s not so much about transhumanism. I kind of got over reading about that, and I think people are maybe not as interested in transhumanism as they were maybe just a few years ago. I’m writing about more emerging technologies that are in development right now, like deep-learning algorithms and neural networks and things like that.

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