There’s really no one else like journalist and novelist Josiah Hesse, author of the ongoing Carnality series, in the Exvangelical community, or, presumably, anywhere. His literary work exhibits a dark brilliance, he has an evocative way with words and striking aesthetic sensibilities, and he has been a pioneer both in the production of what could be called exvangelical literature and in covering important stories related to American evangelicalism as a freelance journalist for The Guardian with an insider’s understanding that isn’t diluted by the disingenuousness and defensiveness of certain journalists associated with Wheaton College.
You can get a taste of what Josiah is all about in the interview posted below, and you might have a chance to catch him on tour as he launches his new book, Carnality: Sebastian Phoenix & the Dark Star (available for purchase starting August 15), this fall. Check out the book’s trailer here, follow Josiah on Twitter, and enjoy our discussion below, which touches on Pentecostalism, the value of art, the ability of ex-evangelicals to provide important insights on evangelicalism, and the complexities of #BeingExvangelical.
Chris Stroop: Thanks for agreeing to this interview, Josiah. Could you tell readers of Not Your Mission Field a little about your childhood experience with evangelicalism and your religious deconstruction? What made you ultimately able to leave?
Josiah Hesse: I grew up as a Pentecostal junkie in 1990s rural Iowa. I use the word “junkie” because I was involved in some Christian event around nine times a week for most of my teenage years, and couldn’t live without it. I was a member of multiple churches; starred in passion plays, hell houses and street preaching theatrical productions; attended two church camps every summer, four conventions every school year; and worked a part-time job at Bennigan’s to pay for my Christian school tuition, where creationism was my science class and reading the Bible counted as English.
I was hooked on the visceral rush of a Pentecostal church service. The music, the cardio, the primal thrill of shaking your body while spitting gibberish into the air—all while surrounded by dozens of people flopping around in the same orgiastic madness.
But, like any drug, Pentecostalism has a nasty comedown. The terror of hell was with me every minute of the day. Sexual playfulness (with girls and boys) convinced me I was beyond saving. Rational questions like “Gee, there are a lot of religions out there, how do I know mine is correct?” or “What did Noah do with all the animal poop?” were understood to be the voice of Satan speaking in my head, which scared the fuck out of me. I suffered from insomnia, chronic nightmares and sleepwalking (still do). Panic attacks, depression, and dissociation were my most consistent companions. Christianity caused this, yet Pentecostal church services were my respite from the pain.
From the ages of 17-25 I slowly got sober from God. I left home and discovered books (I don’t think I ever saw books in anyone’s homes as a kid), and learned the fucked up story of how the Bible was written and assembled. I reread the Bible and found Paul’s misogyny barbaric. I took psychedelic drugs and began having a lot of (non-procreative) sex.
CS: You’re an atheist now. Do you think there are meaningful ways for atheists, agnostics and progressive believers of various stripes to build bridges to one another for the purposes of unpacking toxic religious backgrounds and/or the pursuit of the common good? If so, what would that look like?
JH: I like the term “non-believer,” because it feels more neutral. I was one of those “New Atheist” assholes a while back, before I realized what a bully I’d become on the topic. Also, writing the Carnality books reminded me of what it felt like to be an evangelical; the logic behind it, the fear, the love, the good intentions. That compassion I feel towards believers extends to all forms of non-believers.
Progressive Christians sometimes bother me, because my whole thing is: the Bible (to me at least) is a profoundly fucked up book, and if you believe God wrote it, then shouldn’t you do all the fucked up shit (i.e. kill your wife and children for disrespecting you) that it commands you to do?
Ah, but there I go again, bickering about the social gospel on the internet, surely making the blood of any non-fundamentalist Christian boil like the seas of hell. I’m trying to do better. Trying not to pick ecumenical fights with progressive Christians on Twitter. I’m trying to look for what connects us rather than what divides us. I don’t want to be a dick.
Ultimately, a large reason I wrote the Carnality books was to validate the experiences of other exvangelicals. Over the years, I’ve written a bunch of stories about my own childhood, and I get a lot of emails from people who can relate to so many details of my experience, because it’s such a common story. It’s common, but rarely talked about in mainstream society. When people reach out, they often say “I didn’t know other people felt that way as a kid,” because most evangelical kids stay silent about the fears or questions that rattle around in their heads, questions about sex, or death, or why the pastor is ten times wealthier than his food-stamp congregation.
I don’t want to lead a revolution, or really even offer any solutions to this fucked up situation. All I want to do is give exvangelicals a literary catharsis that tells them “Yeah, that happened to you, and it was fucked up and not your fault. It’s OK to feel bad about it.”
CS: As a follow up to the previous question, what potential do you see in the exvangelical community that has burst onto the scene as an amorphous, but visible and meaningful, entity, and arguably movement, over the last couple of years? What kinds of projects would you like to see exvangelicals pursue? What kinds of pitfalls might you think need to be avoided?
JH: The increasing momentum isn’t a surprise to me. I started meeting a lot of exvangelicals around Denver in 2006 or so. Kids with stories just like mine. Same timelines from belief to apostasy. Just like it’s common for queer kids to leave their rural homes and head to the city, it was the same with us faith refugees. For me, the best thing is the validation. Because anyone who grew up in a secular household can’t understand what it’s like to believe your thoughts are actually demons.
I’d love to see more art come out of the exvangelical community. Memoirs are great, and necessary, but I’d love to see some comics, paintings, sculptures, stand-up comedy, novels, plays, and movies that express the trauma of growing up this way. The graphic novel Blankets was phenomenal, but things like that are rare. That movie Saved was horseshit because it wasn’t (to my knowledge) made by real exvangelicals. Chuck Klosterman’s essay on the Left Behind series had its funny parts, but he was so ignorant of that culture. We need more authentic voices making art about their religious abuse.
CS: I hear you on the need for authentic exvangelical art, and I think we’ll be seeing more of it. I know that some is also out there that has the potential to find a wider audience with increasing community visibility. And yeah, thinking your doubt are, or could be, demonic is a mind fuck that people who haven’t lived it probably can’t fully understand. That’s part of my story too, though without all the Pentecostal trappings. But let’s talk a bit about your literary work. How did you become involved with Suspect Press, and what would you consider to be its greatest achievements so far? Where would you like to see it go?
JH: I’d been active in the zine culture of Denver since I arrived in 2004. That was back when you could live off the meager sum you’d get from selling zines and washing dishes, back when Denver was cheap and ignored by the world. Suspect Press was founded by some friends of mine; I was just writing stories for them back then. I took it over a couple years ago, partially as a vehicle for exvangelical stories. My business partner, Amanda E.K., is currently working on a memoir about growing up in purity culture. She’s also from Iowa, grew up a few miles from me as an evangelical. We went to the same Son Shine Festival every year but had never met before moving to Denver.
The Suspect Press marketing director has a boyfriend that actually went to the same Assemblies of God church camp in Iowa as me, but I don’t think we’d ever met.
It may sound arrogant, but what I’m most proud of is the Carnality release party we just threw at the Tattered Cover Bookstore in Denver. It’s a legendary bookstore, and they were gracious enough to let us put on an after hours show, with beer, lit only by hundreds of electric candles. We all got dressed up in these pagan-meets-cyber-punk costumes and makeup. Amanda and I wore goat legs in honor of our logo, the trickster god Pan. I had this Satanic Ziggy Stardust makeup on, and read from Carnality while Davey & Goliath played on a projector screen. It was a secret that this insane, 40-piece band called Itchy-O were gonna close the show. They’re like a Satanic circus–only “Satanic” is too specific. They’ve made up their own mythology, some kind of fusion of mariachi, Zoroastrianism, Cirque du Soleil, Sonic Youth-noise, Arabian high school marching band. We all danced like witches, like Pentecostals.
CS: That really sounds like something to see! I look forward to joining you at your book tour event in Chicago in October. Anyway, when you first began working on Carnality, did you already conceive of it as a series?
JH: I didn’t. I just wanted to write a whole arc of a family gaining and losing their faith. The father as a young convert, the son never knowing anything else. When I started I honestly believed it would be one book, probably no more than 200 pages. Three years and 1200 pages later, I decided to break the story up into six books.
CS: What are you trying to accomplish with the arc as you now launch the second book, Carnality: Sebastian Phoenix and the Dark Star? What kind of continuity will there be with Carnality: Dancing on Red Lake? Will readers get any more details about the corpses by the mostly submerged Ferris wheel, and/or on what exactly happened between Phil and Zacchaeus Sloan in the woods? Will we learn any more about Jacob Sloan’s life after he ran away from “the forces of the Antichrist”? If not, why did you decide to leave your readers with so many unanswered questions?
JH: Yeah, there are a lot of loose ends in the first book that I was excited to resolve in this second one. Similarly, there are a lot of new threads in this book that don’t get resolved until the later books. That’s what’s fun about writing a series, you get to play a long game, and hope that readers follow you down that road.
But I promise you, unlike the writers of Lost, I do have a plan for every thread in these books. There are no unexplained polar bears or smoke monsters in Carnality, I can assure you of that. By the end readers should feel satisfied in that their questions were answered.
CS: In a recent interview, you mentioned Stephen King as an influence on how your write horror. Who else has shaped you as a writer, or who shaped the first Carnality book, if anyone? As you effectively conure the sixties and seventies in the book, I seem to detect echoes of the Beats. Thoughts? As a writer, I find your prose highly evocative, and I’m particularly impressed with your ability to conjure surprising similes when it’s so much easier to fall back on cliches. What do you see as your own strengths and weaknesses as a writer?
JH: The J.T. LeRoy books were a huge influence on this series. The story of that author himself is a wild ride, particularly since he turned out not to exist. I was reading a lot of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series while writing Carnality 2. His ability to make a scene both hilarious and profoundly sad is a skill I long to acquire. And Tom Robbins, naturally. Finding a beat up copy of Even Cowgirls Get The Blues in a San Francisco hostel changed my life.
The Beats? Yeah, definitely. I discovered them around the same time as acid, and spent a lot of time wandering around my hometown, zapped out of my gourd, listening to live readings by Burroughs or Ginsberg and thinking about my childhood.
CS: You’re about to go on tour to continue promoting the launch of the second Carnality book. Where can readers of Not Your Mission Field get information about any events that may be coming to their town?
JH: We don’t leave for tour until September. We’ll have more dates posted on the suspectpress.com site later this month, but the big ones now are our show with Christian Nightmares at Quimby’s in Brooklyn on September 30. And then we’re doing a live taping of the Exvangelical podcast at City Lit in Chicago on October 12. These shows will feature two exvangelical friends of mine from Denver, Ryan Connell and Alessandra Ragusin. Ryan was in the Hell House documentary, back when he was a believer, and now he runs the Holy Apostate blog. Alessandra writes hilariously dark comics and poetry.
CS: In addition to writing literature, you publish a lot of freelance journalism. What do you consider your best journalistic article, or which was most satisfying to write? As a journalist, what is it that you want to accomplish?
JH: Covering the Planned Parenthood shooting in Colorado Springs for three days was a big deal. I’d never worked for The Guardian before, had very little crime journalism experience, but I could pump out a shitload of bullseye writing about conservative Christian politics in the Springs. That was the moment I realized two things: Europeans looooooove stories about crazy, American, armed religious zealots, and there was very little competition when it came to journalists who could write about that culture.
Most journalists grew up in East Coast, middle-upper class, white, educated, NPR-tote-bag-and-stack-of-New-Yorkers-on-the-coffee-table culture. They knew dick about evangelical culture. It was rare that any journalist could define terms like “prosperity gospel” or “slain in the spirit.”
Interviewing the kids from Jesus Camp ten years after its release was a gas. I spoke with the filmmakers, too, who are idols of mine. The ability of that film to satisfy both evangelical and secular audiences makes it a journalistic masterpiece. I long to write something about evangelicals that both sides feel accurately portrays their perspective. Anyone who hates evangelicals can look at that film and say “It’s child abuse!” And yet evangelicals can look at it and think “Yup, that’s how you do it.”
It was a delight speaking with Sarah Kernochan, director of Marjoe (another big influence on the Carnality series). We’ve struck up a fun online friendship. She even wrote an essay for Suspect Press a while back about dating Harry Nilsson during his Lost Weekend with John Lennon.
CS: You once wrote to me–I’m paraphrasing from memory, as I’m traveling and don’t have the letter in front of me–that while I want to see evangelical subculture die out (something I can’t exactly deny even though there are aspects of it that I do appreciate), you have a sort of nostalgia for it, and, despite finding evangelicalism incompatible with your personality, you don’t want it to disappear. I think we would both agree, however, that it’s a toxic and dangerous influence in American politics. Is this still where you are with evangelicalism? And how do you think we can most effectively combat evangelicalism as a political force?
JH: I think more people sharing their stories with the world is the best combatant against religious abuse. Yeah, it’s fucked up what kids raised with this shit have to endure. But at the same time, I’m not a revolutionary. I don’t have any answers. I’m no longer an atheist that wants to call believers stupid. It does sound stupid and harmful to me, but what are we gonna do, ban religion? I just don’t want people looking to me for answers.
And yes, for whatever reason, my brain is flooded with dopamine whenever I relive 1980s and 90s evangelical culture. I can watch hours of evening news reports on Jim Bakker, Jerry Falwell, or Jimmy Swaggart. I’ve watched the PBS series God In America more times than I’d like to admit. Same with The Eyes of Tammy Faye. Not a week goes by that I don’t listen to either Carman, DC Talk, or some Tooth & Nail band.
I don’t have a great explanation for why this is, but I know I’m not alone. The archival footage Christian Nightmares collects is a big hit. Same with the Good Christian Fun podcast. A lot of my exvangelical friends and I like to get together on Sunday afternoons, sit down to a potluck of church food–Jell-O salad, fried chicken, macaroni and (too much) cheese–and watch some awful Christian movie like A Thief In The Night or anything with Kirk Cameron. We’re often profoundly stoned for this.
CS: I have to admit that I too will watch documentaries and old footage about Jim and Tammy Faye, etc. I’ve also watched the Kirk Cameron Left Behind adaptation fairly recently. I’m one of those exvangelicals who thinks evangelical subculture is so permeated with abuse that it’s irredeemable, and yet I’m obsessed with revisiting it in order to unpack my experience, and I’m glad to have a community that gets this. So while I’m an activist, I also see where you’re coming from. I’ve known other people who just kind of want to forget everything about their evangelical upbringings, but that doesn’t work for me. It’s always a part of you. Anyway, is there anything else you’d like to say regarding ex-evangelical community and concerns or to readers of Not Your Mission Field in general?
JH: Nope. I feel like I talk too much as it is.