In her memoir, Interior States, essayist Meghan O’Gieblyn summarizes her departure from faith. She writes: “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 When I finally stopped, it wasn’t because being a believer made me uncool or outdated or freakish.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.” A lot of O’Gieblyn’s book saddened me: this was one of the lines that scared me. If we had known O’Gieblyn in her youth, we would not have expected this outcome. She grew up in a devout evangelical home, was homeschooled, and attended Moody Bible Institute. She listened to Christian music, read Christian novels, watched Christian movies. She studied Christian doctrine, Christian worldview, Christian apologetics. Theological terms like “prelapsarian” still roll easily off her tongue. And yet . . .
O’Gieblyn begins her book with a preface reflecting on loss of meaning. She writes that “what unites the states of the Midwest—both the ailing and the tenuously ‘revived’—is a profound loss of telos, the realization that the industries and systems that built the region are no longer tenable. And I suppose what unites these essays is similarly an abiding interest in loss, particularly the loss of direction that occurs after the decline of...an entire worldview.” This is the condition of Modernity—the dreadful shift away from Dante’s cosmology toward one in which we feel alone in a cold and uncaring solar system. But O’Gieblyn also experienced the evangelical desperation that attempts to respond to the crisis of Modernity with worldview curricula and entrenched evangelical subcultures. And while her discussion of Rod Dreher is more focused on his writings on religious liberty, one gets the sense that she would not be interested in Dreher’s proposed solution to Modernity’s alienation. For even if Dreher’s “Benedict Option” amounts to more than the fear-based withdrawal of conservative middle-class white people from mainstream culture, O’Gieblyn writes dismissively of “the idea that one can simply ‘step off’ the path of modernity and retreat into the wilderness.” After all, she herself was one of those kids who had the bona fide Benedict Option experience, and it didn’t exactly fortify her faith.
A lot of O’Gieblyn’s upbringing parallels my own. I, too, was a homeschool kid immersed in evangelical subcultures. And while I didn’t end up at a Bible school per se, my brother did, as did many of my friends. My brother and some of those friends still practice. Some of my closest friends no longer do. In any event, much of O'Gieblyn’s experience resonated with my own. I chuckled when I read her discussion of the Christian musician, Carmen: “If you’re wondering what teenager in her right mind would listen to a forty-year old Vegas showman with a Jersey accent rap about Jesus, the answer is: me.” Me too, friend. I winced when she described her panicked childhood prayers for Jesus to come back into her heart again and again, on the off chance that he had left. Again, me too. I resonated with the order in which she ever so tentatively deconstructed the various tenets she had been taught: maybe the flood was local, maybe hell is temporary, maybe the Book of Revelation was written about Nero, maybe God doesn’t require us to vote for Republicans. I laughed aloud when O’Gieblyn described her first exposure to MTV, and the way it opened her up to pop culture. “All I knew was that this music made me stop feeling like a sheltered and naive homeschooler,” says O’Gieblyn, and “I knew it made me smarter and hipper than the kids at church -- that it made me less of a sucker in a world that was trying, on all fronts, to dupe me.” O’Gieblyn is a generation ahead of me, and while I didn’t grow up with MTV, I can still remember the music that played the first time I turned the radio dial to the local hit music station: Kesha crooning out “she won't ever get enough / once she gets a little touch...” Certainly pop culture was and is banal, but that didn’t prevent it from becoming enchanting—at least for a time.
As I write this review, I am preparing to graduate from a rigorous four year liberal arts program at a Christian university. I’ve spent these years studying history and literature, philosophy and theology. As a result of these studies, I converted to Roman Catholicism, and now I’m watching close friends follow that same trajectory. But I’d be lying if I told you that I think this classical education has only ever strengthened my religious convictions. Reading O’Gieblyn’s book reminded me just how vulnerable I am to falling into the same tortured agnosticism. As the tradition teaches, reason is instrumental, it is a capability that may or may not help us achieve appropriate ends. And the ends cannot be supplied by reason alone: our desires shape the ends that we pursue, and if our desires are not rightly ordered, reason will only help reinforce our own errors. We know this. This is Augustine 101. And yet, per Augustine himself, even understanding the technicalities of Augustinian theology is not sufficient for making us Augustinian. I wouldn’t be surprised if O’Gieblyn could teach an excellent high school seminar course on Augustine. But that ability has never been enough to speak to the actual state of our souls.
So where does this book leave us, both as educators and as wanna-be believers? I have two thoughts. The first is that the faith is affective, not just intellectual, and the problems of Modernity won’t be solved at worldview camp. O’Gieblyn writes that “when I finally abandoned my faith, I believed I was leaving this inscrutable world behind...But as it turns out, the material world is every bit as elusive as the superstitious I'd left behind.” Well, yes, the world is inscrutable, and we need religious traditions that draw attention to that and indeed celebrate that inscrutability through rituals that enlarge our horizons of meaning. The scientist examining specimens through a microscope is simply observing the mystery; the Christian receiving Christ in the bread and wine is participating in it.
My second thought is that religious formation needs to be centered on continuous, loving affirmation of the Biblical narratives, not merely the teaching of mental constructs—whether systematic theology or complex apologetics. O’Gieblyn writes of the pull that religion sometime still has on her life, describing it as a hope of sorts: “The fevered, elemental hope that the tumult of the world was authored and intentional, that our profound confusion would one day click into clarity and that the broken body would be restored.”
It’s this hope that underscores her flirtation with transhumanism, though she astutely recognizes that transhumanism is a secularized offshoot of Christian apocalypticism and rejects it on that basis. Our hope is not in a system of thought: Our hope is that our personal experience will be enfolded in a narrative of final redemption through the work of Christ.
On her good days, O’Gieblyn struggles to hope; mostly she seems to have lost hope altogether. But her reader needn’t follow suit. Central to the narrative of redemption is our identity as restless souls on pilgrimage. Early in her book, O’Gieblyn writes about the sounds of the trains echoing throughout the Midwest. She writes: “On some nights, it’s easy to imagine that it is the sound of a more profound shifting, as though the entire landscape of this region—the North Woods, the tallgrass prairies, the sand dunes, and the glacial moraines—is itself fluid and impermanent.” Our experience of liquid modernity is destabilizing: We long for permanent structures of meaning to buffer our permanent sense of self. And yet if we take our cue from Augustine, the fluidity of the modern world need not overwhelm us. Indeed, if Augustine is right, restlessness is our natural condition and the very condition through which we are driven toward God. And so maybe, paradoxically, the experience of losing one’s totalizing worldview can anticipate a fuller pursuit of our telos.
In a portion of the book that made my heart ache, O’Gieblyn write these lines: “In the light of a glorious morning, it’s tempting to believe that this is a place set apart: that the water itself is redemptive, that it will make us clean.”
It’s a beautiful narrative, isn’t it, that stepping into this ordinary water can become the place and time in which our souls are made clean? And I guess that’s what I’m left with, having read her book. The constructs, however internally coherent they may be, are constructed, and they can be fairly easily adopted and discarded with just as much ease. But the story itself is something deeper. She writes of the Christian story as “a kind of bone-marrow knowledge that the Lord is coming.” In the end, I think there’s only the one thing that we can all do for ourselves and for our students, and that is to tell the old, old story, and then hope—truly hope—for the best.
Anthony Barr is a graduate of Templeton Honors College at Eastern University where he studied History, Literature, and Orthodox Thought and Culture. He writes for Ethika Politika, University Bookman, and the CiRCE Institute.
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