Steven Wingate. Of Fathers and Fire. University of Nebraska Press, 2019. Tupelo Hassman. gods with a little g. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019. Meghan O’Gieblyn. Interior States: Essays. Anchor Books, 2018.
AMERICA HAD STARTED European and venerable, and then grew back to become new and youthful,” the late Harold Bloom observed in The American Religion. Leaving behind storied cultural traditions and centuries-long conflicts between nations, colonists in the new world entered a second spiritual childhood.
A national religious spirit developed, prioritizing experience over doctrine and personal connection with the divine over confessions and creeds. With recourse to a Christian vocabulary and set of concepts, this wild, intuitive faith grew beyond the bounds of its religious origins, producing heretical utopian communities, great engines of social reform, and free-range spiritualisms promising enlightenment, fulfillment, and transcendence.
What’s remarkable about this predicament of chaotic, recurring violence and ecstasy is the way it resembles the struggle for incipient selfhood that characterizes the period of adolescence—a stage from which our culture has arguably never emerged.
Steven Wingate brings the American religious spirit into a recent novel of coming of age in Colorado, Of Fathers and Fire. Fatherless Tommy Sandor is a beefy seventeen-year-old boy who lives in the tiny town of Suborney, in a state of perpetual acrimony with its older residents.
The year is 1980. Ronald Reagan is animating a resurgent conservative political movement with promises of “making America great again,” an idea that requires an openness to war with Iran. The hostage crisis is ongoing. One Suborney resident has mounted a white cross in his yard with “283” inscribed on a placard where Christ’s head should be, indicating the number of hostages. Another placard, where Christ’s feet should go, reads NUKE IRAN.
In the period between childhood, when the adult world is fixed in permanent and imposing shapes, and adulthood, with its practical understanding of the flexibility and arbitrariness of much of that world, a great shifting takes place. For Tommy, this involves abandoning earlier dreams of military service—and a growing suspicion and anger about the roots of the populism sweeping his town.
Rejecting the resentful purism of his neighbors’ concept of American identity (which is constructed out of a familiar and contemporary-feeling set of interlocking exclusions) Tommy takes up with a traveling religious group—an “intentional community,” in their own words; a cult in those of Tommy’s mom—that is making its way on foot to Suborney to rehabilitate its derelict church and fix up the town.
They call themselves “the Sons and Daughters of Jesus and Mary,” and their band of grotesques includes, among others, a one-handed Mexican painter, a freakishly tall man, a greaser with half his teeth missing, and a tiny, malformed child who wordlessly sings melodies that the rest of the group repeats with quasi-religious phrases. (“I am of dust and bone!” “Give thanks to the sky!”)
The “restoration of the Primitive Church, which probably never existed,” in Bloom’s telling, is a perennial concern of American religious enthusiasts, and the spirituality of the Sons and Daughters perfectly evokes the spirit of this project. They own only two sets of clothes each, travel on foot, shower from a sun-warmed garden hose, and do a variety of local service projects. Tommy sees in their commitment to an ascetic life of good works a sign of their authenticity. He comes to trust them and their leader, a man with a bashed-in cheek named Richard Thorpe.
Anger defines Tommy, who has spent years waiting to leave for New York to meet the father his mother tells him left her after a one-night stand. What she hasn’t told him is that his real father is Richard Thorpe. Anger also defines the narrative voice of the book, which has a persistently hard-boiled aspect. Characters don’t lack the “courage” to do things, but rather the “guts.” They “ditch” clothing instead of discarding it. This voice is put on in a way that creates a special resonance with Tommy, whom we first meet posing in front of a mirror, admiring his huge neck for how it must look to those who might desire to harm him.
For a teenage boy, Tommy has an unusual sensitivity to the possible selves he might become. The idea is introduced plaintively—on a night of discouragement, “he had no music inside him, only a heavy, dead sense of all the Tommies he’d never be”—but after he finds a model in Richard Thorpe and the Sons and Daughters, he begins to reconsolidate. His demand is for a spiritual vision that foregrounds questions of degree rather than of direction, a kind of moral simplicity.
The Sons and Daughters seem to have it, their verities appearing solid, stable, and hospitable next to the blinkered nativism of Tommy’s neighbors. But there is an admixture of the occult in the group’s beliefs, one that is revealed when Mother Meg, their elderly matriarch, first gives Tommy a lesson in tarot using a regular pack of playing cards, an experience that culminates in a journey to Nebraska City to learn the truth about his origins.
The open horizon of Colorado and Nebraska is a recapitulation of the frontier of Tommy’s spiritual ancestors, but with all sense of possibility removed. In place of the open west, there is the blank, featureless future. Tumbleback Road out of Suborney is bordered with windblown detritus that replenishes itself as fast as it can be removed: “A gallon bottle of Clorox bleach, cut in half to make a scoop. Sunday comics and restaurant placemats and Polaroid photos, stuck in the weedy ditches on either side of the road. A Styrofoam box from a Big Mac.”
On the static plains, Tommy seeks Jesus, but the appellation “Christ” is absent from the book. This is the simple Jesus of red-letter Protestantism, the wild man in the back of the modern imagination slipping from tree to tree, as Flannery O’Connor would have it.
In its explorations of this wild and very American spirituality, Of Fathers and Fire places itself in an emerging context of literary treatments of the excesses, hazards, and fascinations of para-Christian faith. Some other recent books that explore a similar territory are Adam Fleming Petty’s amusing and ultimately disturbing novella followers, Christopher Beha’s beautiful and also disturbing What Happened to Sophie Wilder, and Jamie Quatro’s Fire Sermon, which brings together aching physical desire with tortured spiritual self-questioning.
What Wingate adds to these worthy books is an exploration of the barbarian psychology of the teenage religious obsessive, someone for whom any moment is one in which the sacred can erupt:
Dolman started walking on, but Tommy grabbed him by the elbow. The light around them suddenly felt ancient, like they were two brothers on the road in Bumfuck, Israel, in the days when Jesus walked the earth, deciding whether to follow him or not. Is he for real? Would he lie to us? Tommy dropped to his knees and prayed without words until Dolman broke down crying and stumbled away. The light had taken them over and stripped them down to the nothingness at their cores. Isn’t that what God wanted?
When Tommy stood up, it was 1980 again, and he walked home to find his mom’s Chevy LUV still in the driveway.
And here is one face of the God of the American religion in the life of an American teen: possibility restored to the futureless, derelict cities of flyover country. A way out.
The simplicities cannot last. The struggle between Tommy’s mother and father culminates in a cataclysm that destroys the newly remodeled church and threatens the whole sad town. After the fire and the rain come, they run off into the night in opposite directions. Like Ishmael in Moby-Dick or the Book of Genesis, Tommy is a bastard, and here he becomes parentless. Having considered whom to follow, he follows neither, and sets off to make his own way on the plains.
Where Tommy finds succor in the chaotic energies of the American religion, Helen Dedleder of Tupelo Hassman’s gods with a little g knows only their depredations. Her father is stolen from her by a malignant fundamentalism grown freakishly powerful in the municipality of Rosary, California, where evangelicals have a level of control over the town’s residents that would make a Chinese state censor raise an eyebrow.
Helen is in the book’s driver’s seat, and gods opens with her voice: “If you were flying in a plane over Rosary, California, the first thing you’d see is me, a skinny white girl with messy hair and a big backpack, waving you on.” Rosary received its name in a boardroom from the executives who opened the Rosario Bay Oil Refinery, to which the town is attached like a barnacle.
Rosary’s skyline “is a graveyard” of “crosses and bell towers” that “march on forever, each taller than the last.” A city ordinance prohibits any structure exceeding the height of the tallest church tower in the city, with the de facto exception of the oil refinery.
Townspeople who lack access to the internet (restricted to keep the digital tide of secularism at bay) take to posting messages on signboards and telephone poles, creating an impromptu culture of ephemera. Once a month, all the posted notices are stripped away, and the cycle of guerrilla message-making begins again. Such are the forms that life takes in its struggle against death.
The fervent evangelicals who preside over Rosary are individually and collectively so lacking in personality, so void of any characteristic beyond a will to power, that they exist as a dreadful monolith. Their ideology has drained them of all life, and Helen rages at them in part for how they have stolen her father. “My dad is basically a zombie,” she says, “just another sad old white person in his Sunday best. Too single-minded and slow to be dangerous, he ends up being more annoying than anything else.”
Hassman’s narrator calls Rosary’s fundamentalists “thumpers” (as in Bible thumpers), and with repeated use throughout the book, the term begins to echo a different word from real life. Trumpers and thumpers: everything that rises to power must converge. The religiously justified municipal fascism of Helen’s small town restores an important dimension to the religiously justified fascism of our own world: its smallness.
Still grieving the recent death of her mother, Helen takes up with fellow teenage ne’er-do-wells, and their decadent bravura is an unceasing act of rebellion against the regime. Unlike Wingate’s Sons and Daughters, Hassman’s group—“the Dickheads,” in proper adolescent fashion—is made up of people whose lives are ahead of them, provided they don’t mess themselves up too badly. They hang out in a tire shop where the proprietor gives them free beer when the girls flash their breasts at him.
Helen’s Aunt Bev runs the Rosary Psychic Encounter Shoppe on the edge of town, where she is subjected to a series of episodes that begins with vandalism and harassment and ends with arson. Preternaturally calm and self-possessed, Bev is one of the fixed celestial bodies in Helen’s social cosmos, alongside a transgender girl named Rainbolene. Rainbolene and her cis-het brother Win are new in town, and they invite Helen over to read their father’s vintage books of pornography out loud to one another.
Helen’s romantic travails in the context of an oppressive theocratic society drive the book’s plot, and are rendered in a voice by turns brash, affected, exuberantly vulgar, and irreverent. Some of the short chapters are titled with the sorts of puns that hormone-addled teenagers specialize in: Masturbate Theater, Condom Nation, Cummittee Meeting. The nearby city of Sky represents the hope of freedom from Rosary that Helen and her friends long for; they listen to radio broadcasts from Sky that provide an ad hoc version of the sex education prohibited in their high school.
Like Tommy, Helen has a special spiritual inheritance: an ability to read tea leaves, by which means she unknowingly predicted her mother’s death from breast cancer. (Her aunt was present to interpret the signs, which Helen could see but not decipher.) Aunt Bev tutors her during off hours at her psychic shop. Through this practice, Helen begins to develop a spirituality that grounds her in her resistance to the empty religion mandated by Rosary’s civic authorities.
Where Wingate’s book plays with one side of the American spiritual imaginary, Hassman’s plays with another. Helen and Aunt Bev inhabit a world of progressive and earthy spiritualism. The freedom Helen and her friends seek in gods with a little g is of an uncomplicated variety: rooted in bodily autonomy and agency, expressed in sexuality, and opposed to tradition, authority, and the claims of revelation insofar as they infringe on the rights of the individual. Helen sees only bad faith in the hearts of Rosary’s leaders, people whose religion has always neglected and obscured the sacred task of modern life: to become oneself.
To become, or to discover. “We are a religiously mad culture, furiously searching for the spirit, but each of us is subject and object of the one quest, which must be for the original self, a spark or breath that goes back to before the Creation,” Bloom writes. Helen’s long struggle against Rosary’s oppressive religious culture notwithstanding, she continues to act and want according to the patterns of Bloom’s American religious paradigm. Her rejection of one of its forms conceals an embrace of the most important parts of its spirit.
As her voice invokes an authentic persona of adolescence, the hopes and dreams of Helen and her friends are resolutely adolescent, as well. A small triumph in the final pages is the apparent de-conversion of a participant in a transphobic act of violence; he asks the Dickheads to take him to Sky in their used van. As they do everywhere, teenagers in this town help each other to get off and get free. There is little as American as that.
The struggle for the self links Tommy and Helen’s spiritual journeys to the main current of the American religious imagination, and this struggle is at the heart of a spate of recent literary nonfiction about belief as well. Meghan O’Gieblyn’s first book of essays, Interior States, was released early last year to critical acclaim. Though not a monograph, it hangs together as a series of meditations on common themes.
Raised outside Detroit by fundamentalist parents who stocked food for the apocalypse of Y2K before she left for Moody Bible Institute, where she continued to deepen her knowledge of dispensationalist hermeneutics before losing her belief in God, O’Gieblyn has spent much of the past decade working out through her writing what happened to her during the decade before. Her project is a valuable contribution to a growing literature about (and written from within) the liminal space between belief and unbelief.
She knows the joys and consolations of earnest faith. Having apostatized in college, she never quite gets over the aversions she developed as a young believer. Living in Madison, Wisconsin, a sort of Mecca of Midwestern progressivism, O’Gieblyn finds herself not at home among her people at last, but vaguely disquieted for reasons she can’t quite name: “I came to find the live bluegrass outside the co-op insufferable. I developed a physical allergy to NPR. Sitting in a bakery one morning, I heard the opening theme of Morning Edition drift in from the kitchen and started scratching my arms as though contracting a rash.” Coming home from work, she writes, she took to unwinding by listening to a fundamentalist radio preacher, “failing to register the import of the message but calmed nonetheless by the familiar rhythm of conviction.”
O’Gieblyn’s interventions are quietly incisive, generous, and exact; she seems specially capable of resisting the pull of ideas deemed urgent or important in order to uncover deeper insights. Her best essay in the collection, “Ghost in the Cloud,” provides a great example of her working method.
After dropping out of Moody, O’Gieblyn spent years in Chicago working at a bar where a coworker introduced her to the work of transhumanist Ray Kurzweil, famous for both accurately predicting the amount of time it would take scientists to map the human genome and for making a pronouncement that has yet to be tested, which is that by 2045 science will have brought about “the Singularity.” (For those unaware, the Singularity is the moment at which humans will achieve immortality by uploading consciousness to digital machines.)
Growing up in evangelical spaces leaves a person with a certain amount of hardwiring that no software modifications can change, to use a metaphor Kurzweil himself might appreciate. This is a key insight of O’Gieblyn’s: though the current of faith in her life is long dead, the circuitry is still in place, and when an errant charge from a new source enters the system, that circuitry lights up again.
This is what she realizes has happened when she finds herself deep enough in transhumanist philosophy to be considering ways in which her earlier fundamentalism could be justified under her new paradigm, with her prayers to God going instead to the programmers responsible for running the simulation that is our universe. This avant-garde philosophy has the same formal character as the dispensationalist eschatology she left behind in Bible school. She even notes that the word “transhuman” made its first appearance in English in an 1814 translation of Dante’s Paradiso.
What O’Gieblyn offers here is a productive use of a compromised inheritance. As Wingate and Hassman explore heterodox, deeply felt belief and resolute unbelief in the contexts of their novels, O’Gieblyn turns her attention to a hybrid form of these elements so delicate as to risk its own collapse. It is the form of faith providing a structure for a secular humanist content.
O’Gieblyn’s sensitive, probing, and autobiographical explorations of religious cultural phenomena are in the same class as those of a number of other great nonfiction writers working today. These include Jia Tolentino, John Jeremiah Sullivan, Jeff Sharlet, Lyz Lenz, Dennis Covington, and Adam Kotsko. Kotsko’s recent essay on his evangelical upbringing for n+1 identified the moral self-scrutiny engendered by his conservative Protestant parents as the key reason for his leaving evangelicalism altogether in favor of a moral and intellectual community more open, welcoming, and consistent.
Conversions take place at a higher rate in adolescence than any other time. After leaving that stage of life, it may become possible to understand in retrospect the meaning of that conversion (or de-conversion), and whether what came before the break is salvageable. Not doing this work isolates pre-conversion experience, and can give it a traumatic character. (Sullivan’s now-classic essay “Upon This Rock” contains an episode of emotional tumult—a “colossal fucking go-to-pieces”—brought on when he is forced to recall the lost consolations of his experience with evangelical belief in high school.)
The American self contains multitudes: believers, unbelievers, the proudly heterodox, the meekly agnostic, conscientious objectors, freethinkers, vegans, and still other varieties of spiritual aspirant too obscure or holy to name. In this country’s perpetual adolescence, it can feel impossible to bring these ways of being together into a single whole, as Tommy longs to do with his many possible selves. O’Gieblyn offers, then, a special gift: an adult writer, she sees what came before her loss of faith, and values what was good in it without offering it her assent. Her critical recuperation suggests one possible future for American culture: one in which all our spiritual possibilities might coexist without threatening one another’s destruction.
The spirit will never leave, is the thing. It blows over the abandoned towns of the Midwest and inspires hope in the shadows of postindustrial collapse; it restores possibility to futureless clusters of homes in the Rockies and the wasteland of California. The rite of exorcism is useless here; the spirit recognizes no ritual that pretends to predate its own existence. We have to learn to live with what we cannot cast off or cast out. In short, we need to become adults.
Martyn Wendell Jones is an American writer and journalist living in Toronto. His work has appeared in the Hedgehog Review, Commonweal, The Weekly Standard, Books & Culture, and other publications.