Here’s more help understanding America (a book review)

One summer in the mid-’90s, the writer Meghan O’Gieblyn was at a Christian rock festival in Peoria where the headliner was DC Talk, a trio formed at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. The band was riding a wave of mainstream popularity thanks to the grungy, alt-rock sound of its album Jesus Freak (the record would rise to No. 16 on the Billboard 200). Capping a day that involved a mosh pit and crowd surfing along with a gospel presentation and an altar call, DC Talk did an acoustic set “complete with an unfurled Turkish rug and candelabras just like MTV Unplugged,” O’Gieblyn remembers, and closed with a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze.” 

If it seemed weird that a Christian rock band would embrace a song by the drug-overdosing guitar god, O’Gieblyn explains that this was not at all unusual. Contemporary Christian music (known in industry and fan circles as CCM) concerts “often included secular covers,” she writes. “DC Talk sometimes closed with Nirvana’s ‘All Apologies’ – except instead of singing the line ‘everyone is gay’ they changed it to ‘Jesus is the way.’ I am not making this up.”

O’Gieblyn isn’t making up anything in her book Interior States, which is what makes it so crucial. 

It’s become a cliché, now, the way the coastal media keeps sending reporters out to the middle of the country to try to explain the feelings of voters who elected the current president. Meanwhile, a handful of writers who live here have already been doing that work. O’Gieblyn’s book came out toward the end of a year that saw Sarah Smarsh become a bestseller by taking a hammer to tired tropes about Kansas, and a major movie made out of Garrard Conley’s 2016 memoir “Boy Erased,” about surviving gay-conversion therapy in Arkansas. 

O’Gieblyn reports from up north. She lives in Wisconsin, went to college in Chicago, spent much of her childhood in Detroit, and visits Mike Pence’s church in Indiana so we don’t have to. 

But unlike so many commentators on Pence and the Christian world he inhabits – and the rest of us do, now, too – O’Gieblyn’s observations about how we got here and what it all means are informed by lived experience. Raised in a born-again family, O’Gieblyn was homeschooled until the 10th grade, grew up “submersed in evangelical youth culture,” and went to Moody Bible Institute. 

Though she left the faith, she does not write about it with the resentment or derision of a wounded escapee. Instead, she is thoroughly versed on not only the Bible but also its scholarly, historical and political interpretations, and applies this deep knowledge, along with warmth and wryness, to an entertaining array of topics – the sum ends up feeling like every aspect of American life. She writes from the critical distance of a non-believer but also with clear-eyed respect for her fellow humans as she lasers in on Christianity’s sociopolitical hypocrisies.  

Like most LGBTQ Americans, my lived experience is on the receiving end of these hypocrisies, many of which inspired the activism I wrote about in No Place Like Home. Reading Interior States, I wasn’t surprised, in the concluding chapter on Pence, to see current Secretary of State and former Kansas Congressman Mike Pompeo’s name in there, just like a lot of us weren’t surprised when a recent viral video showed Pompeo behind a pulpit condemning homosexuality as “perversion.” Pompeo’s sermon wasn’t new, and many LGBTQ Kansans know all too well the ministers, Terry Fox and Joe Wright, associated with Wichita’s Summit Church. 

Pompeo’s sermon was in 2015. Here’s the whole thing:

Too many of us who’ve been demonized by Christians in positions of power – or by those seeking positions of power – still don’t fully comprehend the mindset. That’s even more true, I imagine, for the straight white American citizens who never had much reason to stay vigilant about the rise of the religious right until they found themselves cruelly surprised by the 2016 presidential election. As a gay Midwesterner, my survival and sanity have depended on such vigilance, yet every one of O’Gieblyn’s essays offered revelations about the depth and breadth of Christian influence in American life.

Some of it’s frightening, for sure. But knowledge is power and O’Gieblyn’s book is full of that, first-hand. 

So, while Kansas might have refuted a bit of its red-state stereotype in November with what the Washington Post called its “mini-rainbow wave,” those of us who have watched politics for decades know there’s always a backlash. And it’s still too easy to envision an American future straight out of The Handmaid’s Tale.

“One needn’t look to dystopian fiction to conjure the kind of theocracy that Pence might prefer. It’s right there in the Bible,” O’Gieblyn writes.  

She’s talking about the Old Testament idea of exile and return, and how (among other things) some American Christians now feel oppressed, like exiles in their own land, since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision legalized same-sex marriage. And for those who base their worldview on Old Testament promises, politics is a very long game. 

The good news is, you don’t have to read the Bible to fully grasp what all of this means for our foreseeable future. You just have to read O’Gieblyn.

C.J. Janovy is the author of No Place Like Home: Lessons in Activism from LGBT Kansas. Follow her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.

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