Winner of The Believer Book Award for Nonfiction
"Meghan O'Gieblyn's deep and searching essays are written with a precise sort of skepticism and a slight ache in the heart. A first-rate and riveting collection."
A fresh, acute, and even profound collection that centers around two core (and related) issues of American identity: faith, in general and the specific forms Christianity takes in particular; and the challenges of living in the Midwest when culture is felt to be elsewhere.
What does it mean to be a believing Christian and a Midwesterner in an increasingly secular America where the cultural capital is retreating to both coasts? The critic and essayist Meghan O'Gieblyn was born into an evangelical family, attended the famed Moody Bible Institute in Chicago for a time before she had a crisis of belief, and still lives in the Midwest, aka "Flyover Country." She writes of her "existential dizziness, a sense that the rest of the world is moving while you remain still," and that rich sense of ambivalence and internal division inform the fifteen superbly thoughtful and ironic essays in this collection. The subjects of these essays range from the rebranding (as it were) of Hell in contemporary Christian culture ("Hell"), a theme park devoted to the concept of intelligent design ("Species of Origin"), the paradoxes of Christian Rock ("Sniffing Glue"), Henry Ford's reconstructed pioneer town of Greenfield Village and its mixed messages ("Midwest World"), and the strange convergences of Christian eschatology and the digital so-called Singularity ("Ghosts in the Cloud"). Meghan O'Gieblyn stands in relation to her native Midwest as Joan Didion stands in relation to California - which is to say a whole-hearted lover, albeit one riven with ambivalence at the same time.
O'Gieblyn, whose essays have appeared in the New Yorker, Best American Essays, and the New York Times, muses on various religious topics in this delightful debut. Standout essays include "Dispatch from Flyover Country," about her experiences being raised in a Midwestern fundamentalist family fixated on the end times, and "A Species of Origins," about her visit to the Creation Museum in Kentucky. With her tongue planted in her cheek, she also writes on Christian rock music, contemporary culture in the Midwest, and the political views of Vice President Pence. Each essay is well-crafted and enjoyable, yet the collection as a whole feels scattered: though many of the essays address the central themes of faith (especially Christian faith) in American life, the overall organization is puzzling, and some of the works are removed from the theme, such as a book review of Emma Donoghue's novel The Wonder. Still, O'Gieblyn is a strong writer, and the individual essays flow due to the moving prose, the author's subtle sense of irony, and her deep insight into and affection for her topics. Although the collection never congeals, these distinct pieces shine individually.