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.

Steven Miller. The Consequences of Falling in Love. Photograph, 2008.

Steven Miller. The Consequences of Falling in Love. Photograph, 2008.

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.’

Emily Pothast. Bible Belt Buckle. Etched copper, brass, stones, miniature Bible, 2003.

Emily Pothast. Bible Belt Buckle. Etched copper, brass, stones, miniature Bible, 2003.

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.

The Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet XI: The Deluge. Via mythstories.com.

The Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet XI: The Deluge. Via mythstories.com.

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.

Adam and Eve with the Serpent. Mosaic, c. 12th/13th c., Sicily.

Adam and Eve with the Serpent. Mosaic, c. 12th/13th c., Sicily.

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.

~ by emilypothast on June 10, 2009.

12 Responses to “High Fructose Corn Syrup for the Soul: The Intoxicating Literalism of Mars Hill”

  1. “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?”

    Aw. That used to be one of my trump (I thought) lines too when I was steeped in the hip, feel-good, ultra-personal, Jesus-is-better-than-any-high (no really, you have to try it!) Christian life. I can’t really blame people for seeking that feeling, wherever they find it (though seriously, I have to question the quality of sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll these Christians have partaken of *cough*). But how can anyone excuse even an intelligent or charming person for aligning him or herself with a religion that is so morally corrupt and bigoted?

    When it comes to gay rights, liberals have the moral high ground.  Period.


    I can’t wait to read the interview.

  2. (I LOVE Amanda’s comment!!)

    It is so great that you met with him, Emily. This Mars Hill Thing is pretty fascinating, and scary. Best to tackle it one-to-one, I think.

    I had so many “Yes!”es and “Ah!”s reading this post! Hurrah for superpowers!

    Really? Wallingford? Ipes!

    “Faith is faith precisely because it defies reason.” Huh. I can buy this line when it explains faith in a spiritually “unreasonable” entity, like Christ, but not as an excuse for “faith” in faulty reasoning.

    “. . . Mars Hill does not fit this mold.” This is precisely what makes it so fascinating! and scary!

    “Last night, Joel Fariss leveled with me as to why he’s in the fold.” So, I guess Jesus-as-substitute-for-sex-and-all-earthly-pleasures could make sense (kind of? as per Amanda’s comment) but this does not explain why he would need to attain the pleasures of Jesus in this particular church or ANY CHURCH AT ALL. Unless it is all about the church (and NOT Jesus), and Joel Fariss gets his jollies by trying to take away my civil rights?

    “It is for this reason that I start from a position that is sympathetic to the religious impulse.” I wonder if it’s the spiritual impulse (as opposed to the religious impulse) that you’re really talking about here. I think the religious impulse of Mars Hill folks has very little to do with the spiritual ecstasy Andrew Newburg writes about.

    I really appreciate your generosity and thoroughness in laying out comparative religious mythology. I usually loose steam when I get the glazed-over “outer space” look. What you’re saying SO CLEARLY needs to be said.

    It is baffling to me how most (!) Christians grab a few one-liners (and not even the best ones!) and then run like hell from the Bible–as though they’re afraid to read their own book of truths! Sad.

    Emily, you are lovely and artful with your diplomacy and nuance; and also SPOT ON when you say “I don’t believe we can afford to “agree to disagree” on any longer.”

    I can’t wait for the Stranger article.

  3. and, I love your bible belt!

  4. “It is for this reason that I start from a position that is sympathetic to the religious impulse.” I wonder if it’s the spiritual impulse (as opposed to the religious impulse) that you’re really talking about here. I think the religious impulse of Mars Hill folks has very little to do with the spiritual ecstasy Andrew Newburg writes about.

    Yes, and yes. You’re right, I personally identify more “spiritual” than “religious” and I would agree that (for me at least), the impulse is one that is internally, personally motivated. The ecstasy is primarily “spiritual,” although as Amanda can attest, for charismatic Christians at least, group ritual is a key component to the spiritual act, which makes it religious. (At least in the sense that there are multiple people involved…)

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments, guys! Also, feel free to come to my defense if/when the Stranger commenters start trying to tear me a new one for sympathizing with the enemy. =)

  5. gay rights? i think you mean human rights.

    the Stranger is lucky to have you in their pages this week. can’t wait!

  6. Shauniqua, FTW. Absolutely.

  7. […] Turns out, for all the talk on the blog, only one girl showed up to talk with him and gave her own perspective on it. (Beware! There is one VERY inappropriate picture on there. The rest of her blog, however, is […]

  8. An eloquent and enlightening episode, Emily.

    I would like to point out that the majority religion almost everywhere is interpreted in the most convenient possible way for the ruling class. You quote the religious texts of Hinduism, beautifully at that, as a liberating force, while millions of Hindus in India convert to Christianity because it liberates them (at least philosophically) from an oppressive caste system imposed through centuries of fundamentalist interpretation of those same texts.

    Christianity here is not the culprit, as you yourself know but your readers may forget (and readers of The Stranger, as you mention, almost always do). Literally hundreds of millions around the world–roughly as many Christians as there are in America–are willing to face sanctioned discrimination, violence, and even death because they find liberation in it that is more important than life. Millions of Christians (I might even dare to say “most,” but that might be pushing it) really do embody Christ’s teachings as best they can–love your neighbor, turn the other cheek, give your shirt. Not only is there great potential for good to be done by Christians, there is enormous good being done by Christians, right now, everywhere around us. Even being done by people with whom we fundamentally do not agree about basic human rights. That’s the nature of being in human society.

    On a side note, I just noticed that you can report a post as “mature.” I thought that was kind of neat and was about to do it for your post, and then I realized it meant “pornographic.” So I didn’t.

  9. By the way, my comment was aimed more at the comments and less at the post. I enjoyed the post.

  10. I ran across this blog today for the first time. As I am a follower of Jesus with very liberal sympathies your words are quite inspiring, yet at points difficult to accept.
    You briefly touched on two of the biggest road blocks (in my view) of contemporary conservative evangelical Christianity, the first being the separation the vast majority of evangelicals promote between sexuality and identity.
    The sentiment of this Marshill pastor that homosexuality “is a sin but no more damning than, say, heterosexual adultery or cheating a business partner” is proof of this separation, for it relegates sexuality to a realm of decisions, as opposed to an expression of identity.
    Because sexuality is certainly an expression of identity, I believe that evangelicals do injustice to their homosexual neighbors when they advocate this view. As a heterosexual male, I can see that there is a big difference between a bishop or pastor saying, “stop cheating on your wife with your co worker” and “stop liking women”. One is a behavioral matter, the other is much deeper. I often wonder what would change if the evangelicals approached sexuality with the sensitivity that comes from embracing such a perspective of identity. Would bridges be built? What about loving one’s neighbor?
    The second issue you touched on involves this pastor’s motivation for pursuing his interpretation of Christianity, “Everything else—be it booze, sex, music—has a ceiling to the enjoyment I can get from it”, you quote. I hope this is only partially his justification for his faith, but as is this encapsulates a huge portion of Evangelical Christian justifications for their faith pursuits. This is egoism, and it is the most predictable aspect of humanity. It falls quite short of what the teachings of Jesus advocate, and it is certainly opposed to even the most ancient ideals of virtue. The “illusory other”, (if I follow the context of this reference) as you put it, in a sense is the focus of the love that Jesus promoted, and further more His life, while it has been the subject of dispute, was a model of sacrifice and relational investment, not simply the pursuit of immediate and unfettered enjoyment. (Though, according to various church traditions, He definitely knew how to have a good time).
    I once heard an orthodox priest quoted as saying, “the truth is not an ideal, it’s a man”. Truth in its many forms is subjective, living, spiritual, reasonable, unreasonable, and beautifully shrouded in the fabric culture. And yes, some times it hurts, just as man causes pain and experiences it. In your post I struggle primarily with what you imply regarding the nature of truth. Your biggest beef with Fariss is that the views he promotes hurt people. However, I would definitely say your fairly bleak summary of Christian myths, not to mention the pointed words you have in regards to Fariss, could be seen as hurtful. Beyond that, your statement about the truth never being threatened by digging deeper (which I whole heartedly love) is only as true as people’s emotions, sense of justice and over all identific biases allow it to be, or so your delivery would make it seem, because once again your biggest issue with Fariss is that his views hurt people. It is people’s feelings that illicit your response (which I absolutely LOVE! Please don’t get me wrong..) But if being hurt is a thermometer for discerning the truth of a matter, then the thermometer isn’t fully functional…
    I’m not sure we’ll ever really know what the world would look like if, for a day, the evangelicals of Fariss’s type actually heard what communities (like the Capitol Hill community) said from the deepest part of their hearts, and like wise, if on that day, the Capitol Hill community did the same… but I would like to see this day come none the less.
    In my view, and this is a struggle that every human being shares regardless of religion or life style, the issue is ourselves. Our tight fisted grasp on our own identity becomes the precondition by which we accept truth, reject lies and understand the world around us. But is identity truly the bedrock of existence? While our experience with everything in life is quite subjective, without first subjecting our identities to a truth from outside the self, we are left wanting in terms of ethics and what it means to love, among many, many other things.
    I am convinced that the evangelical movement will never build the bridges of relationship in the way that Jesus advocated until they embrace this aspect of being, and the same is true for the communities that are hurt by the current of evangelical soap box appeals…

  11. Great points. I would agree, SamuelWish, that the negative aspects of Christianity as a dominant force in the US today are more a function of its co-option by the “ruling class,” so to speak, than anything inherent in the religion itself, though at this point it’s nigh impossible to distill the fundamentals from the centuries of politics and practice.

    Truth in Open Hands, thank you for bringing your thoughtful and moderating voice to this discussion. You have given me a lot to think about. Your observation of the evangelical separation of sexuality from identity is spot on, as is your identification of Joel Fariss’s motives (as communicated to me) as failing to address the central theme of self-sacrifice inherent to the Christian narrative. Joel and I actually talked about this; how we both agree that “individualism” is a problem in our society. Though I think Joel sees this individualism being best addressed by submission to his church (and its paradoxically self-gratifying ends), while I would argue that actually following Christ’s example of self-sacrifice and transcendence would get one much closer to the heart of the goal, which is to stop seeing oneself as a discrete, individual entity at odds with God and the rest of creation and to dissolve the notion of individual self into a much larger whole that is fully infused and commensurate with with the presence of God. This is the goal of all mysticism—no matter what tradition it may sprout from—and it’s why I refuse to see the a religious practice involving the imposition of a prescribed morality on others as anything other than an obstacle/distraction from one’s own spiritual path.

    This is also what I would consider to be my biggest “beef” with Joel Fariss and his teachings, not the fact that his views hurt people. I wrote that “hurt” line with a mind to relevant ongoing discussions among some other local bloggers regarding the role of Christianity in the current struggle for marriage equality. But you’re absolutely right: tying my argument to an emotional response is not what I mean to do, and I should clarify.

    My biggest beef with Joel Fariss is that he promotes and intellectually and spiritually lazy, spoon-fed version of a mythic narrative which, if left open to symbolic interpretation, contains within it a profound metaphor for spiritual self-transcendence. I do not mean to be “bleak” in my assessment of the way the Creation story from Genesis is interpreted by many Christians, but these are in fact the same elements that occur again and again in creation myths all over the world (male/female duality, axis mundi/tree of life, a single or double serpent). They are so universal that worthy efforts have been made to link them to the emergence of human psychological structures, which in turn mirror the structure of the brain itself. But using this combination of elements to suggest something about Original Sin or an inherent rift between man and God is very specific and idiosyncratic to the Judeo-Christian tradition.

    Why? One reason is probably geopolitical. In this article from the Jan. 2008 issue of Harper’s, Richard Rodriguez observes (as religious scholars have) that the ecology of the desert from which the Abrahamic faiths emerged is fundamentally harsh and difficult for humans. This is in contrast to the fertile, agriculturally settled areas of Mesopotamia and Egypt where goddess/fertility cults emerged as the natural human response to the landscape and the way of life it would support. It makes sense that man’s relationship to the gods is defined at least in part by his experience of the natural world.

    The heirs of the Judeo-Christian tradition no longer have the cultural experience of those perennially exiled, nomadic shepherds whose exploits are chronicled in the Bible, but the mythic constraints have been partially preserved. What we have now is a theology borne of perceived oppression in the hands of, as SamuelWish pointed out, those capable of doing the most oppressing. It’s true that evangelical Christians draw strength from perceived persecution, and the way they have been able to parlay that into post-colonial domination and imposition on a global scale is truly remarkable.

    That said, I am ever an advocate of traditional religious systems, in so far as they are understood to be (conscious or unconscious) human constructions and they contain mechanisms for self-revision to accommodate spiritual and intellectual growth. I respect them for a number of reasons, in that they are preservers of cultural heritage and that they contain time-honored information whose meaning may be perennially rediscovered and made new. But I also think we’re approaching a time where a truly global civilization has rendered many of the old affiliations obsolete, specifically where they claim to hold a monopoly on truth. Bottom line: I’m heartened to hear that you identify as a Christian, and also have a deep and probing interest in the big picture. It’s a good sign for the future of Christianity.

  12. […] this blog entry (to readers with more conservative taste in art, there may be some images on this blog link that […]

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