High Fructose Corn Syrup for the Soul: The Intoxicating Literalism of Mars Hill
Last night I made good on my promise, announced last week on this blog, to engage Mars Hill deacon Joel Fariss in a “sane, mutually respectful conversation” about his church’s teachings. That’s exactly how it went down. Fariss seemed like a decent enough guy. He was friendly, relaxed, and even a little charming. And yet somehow, his brain is tuned to a frequency that doesn’t even exist on my dial.
Fariss’s outwardly hip, tech-saavy church Mars Hill has frequently come under fire for homophobia and misogyny, usually through the inflammatory and provocative remarks of founder Mark Driscoll. Knowing this, I quickly steered the conversation toward the church’s teachings on homosexuality and Fariss confirmed that he believes it is a sin (but no more damning than, say, heterosexual adultery or cheating a business partner.) Still, in Joel Fariss’s worldview, there is no “healthy and positive” way to embrace one’s homosexuality, a view that puts him at odds with the dominant culture on Capitol Hill, to say the least.
And so we reached an impasse. It was clear that nothing I could say was going to shake his faith, and obviously he wasn’t going to convince me of anything. Faith is faith precisely because it defies reason. And perhaps I would have been content to leave well enough alone, except, damn it, his religious views hurt people. I’ve seen their very real effect in the lives of people I care about. And so I began sizing up his faith; examining his Wall of Certainty from different angles. Was there a loose brick somewhere I could wiggle a little?
Now, most of my experience with right-wing Christianity (i.e. the gay-loathing, Fox News watching, evolution-denying, doctor-killing variety) comes from growing up in Wichita Falls, Texas, where fundamentalism is, well, fundamental. That is to say, they hand out Bibles at the same time they hand out the goofy accents and big hair. In the womb. (Why not?! You’re already a fully formed person!) Thus, I have always found that a certain amount of the religious conservatism that comes from the rural and interior parts of this country is xenophobic in nature: the result of a deeply ingrained fear of the outside world, created by and for those who have never actually had much firsthand contact with the constantly evoked, largely illusory ‘other.’
Mars Hill does not fit this mold. The church has only been around since 1996, when it was founded by Mark Driscoll in his Wallingford living room. Since then, it has grown to a multi-media empire spanning six campuses and boasting over 8,000 members in a city where, as Mark Driscoll quips, “there are more dogs than Christians.” Mars Hill’s members are not striving to preserve a perceived cultural legacy. They are, in fact, creating one from scratch. And it’s actually gaining momentum.
Last night, Joel Fariss leveled with me as to why he’s in the fold. ”Jesus Christ is the only thing that fills me up. Everything else—be it booze, sex, music—has a ceiling to the enjoyment I can get from it. Does that make sense?”
Yes. It actually does make sense to me. It also makes sense to University of Pennsylvania neurobiologist Andrew Newberg, who has written several popular books about the relationship between religion and brain chemistry. Human beings, it seems, are hard-wired as spiritual creatures, in that we are programmed to seek and assign symbolic meaning to our experiences. We are also programmed to seek ecstasy, if we are lucky enough to find a method that works for us. (Let’s just say I’m no stranger to spiritual ecstasy. It is for this reason that I start from a position that is sympathetic to the religious impulse.)
But all religions are not created equal, and I believe that much of the caloric content in Fariss’s “fill up” comes from what I’ll call High Fructose Corn Syrup for the Soul: high on style, low on insight. It’s true, the Bible is consulted exhaustively, but the Bible’s context in the comparative history of human ideas is utterly ignored. (Joel looked at me like I was from outer space, for instance, when I casually mentioned that the Deluge narrative in Genesis 6 is basically a retelling of an episode from the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh and that dying-and-resurrecting god-men were all the rage in Pre-Christian antiquity.) This willful ignorance is nothing if not the result of a taboo against investigating the history and context of one’s own faith.
Here’s a little tautology about truth: it is never threatened by digging deeper. But for the members of Mars Hill, their entire belief system is, in many ways, a life-support system for the rickety and shallow notion that the Bible is a literal account of actual historical events (a topic I’ve tackled extensively on this blog and will thus leave to the links) and that the one-and-only path to God leads through Jesus Christ. I see no way of interpreting this statement that is not an affront to the billions of peaceful, spiritual people in the world whose religious systems do not incorporate Jesus.
Take away the house of cards of literalism and what do you have left? If your religion is strong enough, you ought to have plenty. Most Buddhists, Hindus, and liberal Christians for example, recognize their mythologies as exactly that: deeply symbolic vocabularies of culturally mediated stories and images that resonate with them on so many levels as to seem integral to the human experience. To attempt to force myth into the narrow confines of literal history, for many, is to profane it. Once a religion has dispensed with literalism, it is much more capable of becoming truly ecumenical. Most Hindus believe that other religions are (or can be) equally valid paths to God. Sadly, many Christians do not.
The theology of Mars Hill teaches that creation is inherently sinful and separate from God, and that the only way for humans to be reconciled to God is through Jesus Christ. The fundamental separation between God and man is not an uncommon view within Christianity, but it is idiosyncratic within the context of world mythology. Compare, for instance, the account of the creation of Adam and Eve in Genesis to that of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, where it is the Great Self itself that divides into two halves, male and female, thus positing the creator in and through, rather than separate from creation. Both stories echo the generative, microcosmic whispers of cell division. But the Biblical narrative, as it is typically read, is one of a fundamental separation from God; the Hindu narrative one of profound, interpenetrating union.
Mars Hill’s use of ‘sin’ as a motivating factor for religion is dependent upon this perceived separation. Such a notion as ‘sin’ has no place in a worldview that sees everything as inherently infused with God’s will. Personally, I strive for a morality that is not based on an external system of “thou shalts,” but an internal, intuitive process of sympathy, compassion, and ultimately an identification with all living (and that includes nonliving!) things.
I walked away from my conversation with Joel Fariss with mixed emotions. On the one hand, I like him personally. I have no doubt there is a rich, complex human being behind that seemingly impenetrable Wall of Certainty. On the other, he has willfully positioned himself on the opposite side of a culture war that I don’t believe we can afford to “agree to disagree” on any longer.
When it comes to gay human rights, liberals have the moral high ground. Period.
As it turned out, I didn’t have much time to sit and ponder what had transpired. When I got home, there was an email from Jonah Spangenthal-Lee waiting for me. I agreed to do a telephone interview in advance of The Stranger’s press deadline (this morning) and the story hits newsstands this Thursday. I am a little fearful of how I will come off—I’m horrible on the phone, and The Stranger’s tone on religious issues is seldom as diplomatic as mine—but Jonah’s one of the better writers and I trust him. So I guess this story is…to be continued.
UPDATE: The article came out today, and there is really nothing to it. Spangenthal-Lee has me lamenting that I didn’t convert Fariss into a “gay-loving new-age panreligionist.” Fair enough.