Author: Meghan O’Gieblyn
Publishing Date: October 9, 2018
Pages: 240 (Paperback)
In her famous description of the South as “Christ-haunted,” short-story author Flannery O’Connor evoked a world which was both intimately familiar with the things of the Gospel, and yet no longer took them seriously. The verbiage, the categories, the feeling of Scripture had, over the course of decades, soaked down into the cultural bones of the South, such that a person could never quite escape the notion that God might actually be somewhere just down the road between Milledgeville and Atlanta. As a son of the South, I can confess that this feeling is true: even those who don’t attend church are still caught by the feeling that they might need to hedge their bets. Beyond the South, the phenomenon is the same, though the ghosts are stronger some places than in others. As Robert Jones has argued, America is moving to a place where even strongholds of the faith, geographies where churches have been established for centuries, may very well be on the verge of being witnesses to this haunting rather than vanguards of a cultural assumption. The South, in other words, does not have a lock on this feeling of loss. It is time for the Midwestern testimonials to rise—and it’s in Meghan O’Gieblyn’s collection we find such a witness.
O’Gieblyn approaches this collection not as a believer, but one for whom belief is this kind of haunting presence. In this collection of her pieces from The New Yorker and The Oxford American, among other places, she writes not as a journalist documenting the remnants of Christian culture but as a translator of a foreign land for wide-eyed secular observers. In the opening of the book, she describes her task as one of “testimony,” intending “to connect my experience to larger conversations and debates” and to bring the world of N+1 and The Boston Review together with her own legacies of Midwestern evangelicalism. The original homes of these essays were the homes of the cultured despisers, written to provide an accounting for herself of what it means to live in the shadow of faith.
The essays cover a great deal of ground, from the specifically theological (“Hell,” “The End,” “A Species of Origins”) to the specifically cultural (“On Reading Updike,” “Pure Michigan”). Apart from knowing that O’Gieblyn is bearing witness to her upbringing, the links between the theologically-driven essays and the cultural-exegetical ones are sometimes hard to see. What seems to draw them together is the way in which the geography (the Midwest) and the faith she left (evangelical Christianity) are two inseparable pairs. The ghosts of the faith receding ever slowly across the region are taking with them something of what it has meant to be Midwestern. The difficulty now is that she is one living between worlds, in the Midwest but not of it, living in the echoes of the religion which permeates the region. In her essay “On Subtlety,” she describes that when she finally left the faith, she thought it was to embrace a world of fixed reason only to find that “the material world is every bit as elusive as the superstitions I’d left behind” (126). Throughout the collection, it is sense of entanglement, loss, and devotion—devotion to place, past, and present mystery—which is a kind of throughline of the disparate essays.
The essays are, in sum, a body of work from one seeking to make sense of what it means to love the world at a kind of distance. For the world O’Gieblyn loves—the Midwest—is not just intertwined with, but suffering from a kind of Christianity which is intrinsic to it, but which it cannot yet do without. In her essay “Sniffing Glue,” for example, she writes on her early years listening to Contemporary Christian Music (CCM), and the ways in which its ethos of mirroring broader musical trends is both its strength and its liability. She describes the ways in which, in the early 2000s, a bevy of groups such as Lifehouse, Jars of Clay, and Switchfoot found themselves straddling two worlds, with lyrics which were both astute for the insider but innocuous for the unbeliever. It was this covert kind of musicianship which O’Gieblyn describes as another piece of the argument that drew her away from the faith; in this kind of music she found nothing distinct, nothing which could straightforwardly offensive to secular sensibilities. As one who spent hours dredging the bargain bins of the soon-to-be-extinct Lifeway stores, I related to the dual sense of awe and shame that came with spending so much time with CCM. For all its earnestness and zeal, it does, as she writes, carry a sense of duality. Either it tried so hard to be the early U2—a kind of musical unicorn who in its early days managed to write songs entitled “40” and “Gloria” while still selling out arenas—or it became firmly emmeshed in making music for Christians which sounds relevant, but modeled off of other values.
O’Gieblyn poignantly puts it this way:
“Despite all the affected teenage rebellion, I continued to call myself a Christian into my early twenties. When I finally stopped, it wasn’t because being a believer made me uncool or outdated or freakish. It was because being a Christian no longer meant anything. It was a label to slap on my Facebook page, next to my music preferences. The gospel became just another product someone was trying to sell me, and a paltry one at that.” (152)
In the end, it was not that the faith was too little a part of the culture that caused her to leave it, but that it was too much a part of the Midwest. Yet, this drive of Midwestern Christianity to be at home runs both ways, and is not entirely a story of lament. In her essay “Ghost in the Cloud,” Christians engage the strange new world of posthumanism to make faithful sense of it, despite the cultural skepticism toward such an alliance. This drive toward finding a place to be manifests itself also in the language of exile, as seen in the closing chapter entitled, “Exiled,” on the rhetoric of Vice President Mike Pence. In this essay, she chronicles the ways in which the desire of the faith to be a part of the culture can lead to excesses or resentment when marginalized, an embrace of whatever means necessary to restore that sense of home.
The collection is not an apologia for Christians looking to leave the faith, or a congratulatory pat on the back for those who already have. Rather, it is a testimony of one who has left and of the difficulties of remaining faithful to who one has been— grateful for it, even loving of it, without being beholden to it any longer. Reading these essays as one who married into a Midwestern family and whose roots are in Michigan and Indiana, I am reminded that this feeling of being haunted by a Christianity which is everywhere and yet waning is one of the many things which bridge my own upbringing and my wife’s. This sense of in-between, of rooted rootlessness, of hanging on, is ubiquitous—and to be frank, interminable.
The challenge of essays like those from O’Gieblyn for the believer is not that they are not true, but that they come from one who has been within the fold. She writes clearly and carefully, as a graduate of Moody Bible Institute, as a supplicant and confessor, and thus, able to speak as a witness who Christians should hear. Writing not to tear down or to build up, but to testify, her essays are like the stones at the head of the Jordan River, a monument to what has been. But Christianity, culturally speaking, has been where it has been, and it cannot stay there without dying in the wilderness alongside its memories. To move forward is to be at home with the hauntedness of our places, whether South, West, or Midwest, while at the same time not turning these memorial stones into weapons nor into bread, but to await what new paths God will carve in the Christ-haunted Midwest.