Josiah Hesse on Carnality and the Weird History of Evangelicals in America

In his debut novel Carnality: Dancing on Red Lake, local author and Westword contributor Josiah Hesse delves into the weird world of the evangelical movement. The first in a planned series of six books that trace the history of the movement in America, Carnality lays the groundwork for this ambitious task. At the center of the story is Jacob Sloan, a tortured man who was once the evangelical movement’s child star but who’s now retreated from society altogether. Through Sloan’s life, Hesse illuminates the strange threads that connect the Haight-Ashbury scene with the Moral Majority. Before his appearance Friday at the Denver Public Library to read from the book and offer concrete examples of his hippie-to-fundie thesis, we caught up with Hesse to talk about the book, the history of evangelicals in America and how hippies and Jesus freaks are actually bizarrely similar.

Westword: Did I read that infamous child preacher Marjoe was the inspiration for the main character?

Josiah Hesse: You could say that, but I’d say it’s primarily inspired by my life. I grew up as an evangelical in the ‘90s in Iowa, which is this book is set in. It’s the first installment of a six-part series of historical fiction that traces the movement of the evangelicals in America in the second half of the twentieth century.

In this book, I’m looking at how the hippie generation of California in the ‘60s really created the evangelical right of the ‘80s. The Moral Majority, James Robison, Ronald Reagan, all of it, I think, was bred out of the hippie movement. It’s a long, detailed path to connect the two things, but they are firmly rooted together.

That’s really what I’m doing at the library on July 31 is giving a presentation — in promotion of the book, which deals with this — through videos and pop songs and fashion and political facts that look at that timeline. Going from the Monterey Pop Festival through the election of Ronald Reagan through the Left Behind book series being the most successful book series in American history.

It’s an interesting topic and it kind of makes sense. I covered a documentary on the Source Family, and some of them ended up becoming evangelicals, basically joining a Christian cult after being part of this weird sex-and-drugs cult. It’s not hard to imagine how people could transition from one to the other.

I don't think it’s really all that different, or that there’s really all that much of a jump to make. In my experience, there’s a terrific amount of sexuality in a Pentecostal church service, between the music, the environment, being crammed in with a bunch of bodies shaking and sputtering gibberish while the tempo rises and everyone is sweaty and it’s dark outside. It really has that kind of a feel of an orgy, where you are in another land, where the rules outside the door don’t apply.

There really was a time where the hippie movement and Evangelical Christianity were the same in the 1970s. It’s kind of known to history as the Jesus movement, but it was incredibly large. Bob Dylan was a prominent member of this. He attended the Vineyard Church in Los Angeles. He recorded three Christian rock albums in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s and was preaching to his audiences about armageddon and how we needed to prepare and the mark of the beast.

Dylan was just a small portion of it. It was all over the nation. The best-selling nonfiction book of the ‘70s was The Late, Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsey and it prophesied that the end was coming around the year 1988, based on a Biblical prophecy that said one generation after Israel was restored, the Son of Man will return to claim his kingdom. I’m paraphrasing, but something to that effect. So they all bought this book and it became a huge deal. Orson Welles started a movie adaptation of it, which is actually kind of like Nicolas Cage starring in the Left Behind adaptation, now that I think of it. They had their own gathering: The Explo 72 festival in Texas had like 200,000 people. Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash and Billy Graham were all performing. It was called the Jesus Woodstock, by Newsweek I believe.

These people all had the music, the aesthetic, the vocabulary, the whole culture of San Francisco in 1967, and a lot of them did use drugs. Hard drugs weren’t popular, but marijuana was tolerated in many circles. Sexuality was a little more loose. It wasn’t quite the peace and free love of the hippies, but it was kind of like the early Christians, where the rules weren’t quite set yet. Everything was still up in the air. It was mainstream evangelical Christianity that really adopted that movement, after rebelling against it for a good ten years. They really embraced it in the ‘80s because it became this huge, capitalistic machine, with the whole Christian rock industry built off of that. It’s so strange how there was this was little vortex where both worlds overlapped or cohabitated seamlessly, but when you look at the ends of the spectrum — say the Monterey Pop Festival and the election of Reagan, which was accomplished by the Moral Majority — they couldn’t seem more polar opposites from each other. But I think they’re one and the same.

There definitely seems to be a throughline. And it makes sense in broader terms, in the sense that people become more conservative as they age.

Yeah, the timeline of being younger and more liberal and free, then becoming older and more conservative and even a little paranoid. My parents went through that. My mom helped get Jimmy Carter elected — she worked on his campaign in Iowa. Then in the ‘80s, she voted for Reagan and became a staunch Republican. When you look at the election of Jimmy Carter, that campaign was the first time you heard terms like “born again” and other staples of the evangelical culture got into the mainstream. I think it was the momentum of the Jesus movement, the leftist approach to the Bible, that helped get Carter elected. Then after that, yeah, people aged and their political leanings [went right].

That gives us a pretty good idea of the background of the story. How about the plot itself? The main character is a former evangelical star who’s retreated from society altogether, right?

Yeah. In the present day, the narrator Jacob, who’s writing the book, is living alone on an island in an abandoned hotel for the past four years and really has the life he wants. He smokes weed and runs around naked and has a lot of freedom that he didn’t have as a child, but he's also regressed to a somewhat animalistic state. He doesn't have any intellectual pursuits. He’s just reacting, almost calcified his whole neocortex. But then he starts writing this book.

It’s hard to encapsulate in a few words. We start there in 2008, but then we go back to 1988 and introduce Jacob as an eight-year-old boy and his dark and twisted family. Then we go back to 1967 and see his parents and tell their story, which is ultimately the Jesus movement story. We go from there to 1977, then back to 1988, then the book closes in 1992. It all presents itself in a way that’s understandable, but trying to present a timeline and all the characters in a summary is difficult.

And there are some horror elements as well, right? You told me before it’s a horror novel.

The thing is, there isn’t a terrific amount of violence in the book. There’s some, but really the horror is psychological horror. It’s torture, but the torture of the mind. The world that Jacob inhabits as a child is under the care of a mentally ill father who believes they’re on the verge of the Rapture occurring. They’re isolated on this farm and it’s all Jacob has ever known. He doesn’t have any kind of outside influence telling him that he doesn't have to suffer in this way. He goes days without eating, and his dad makes him not pee for a few days — there’s some physical torment there.

What drew me to that was the opportunity to tell the story through the eyes of a child, where when you read it as an adult you have a completely different perspective than the person describing it to you. You want to tell the child that you don’t have to think this way, or this isn’t right. You know more than the narrator, you understand more about what’s going on.

Then some things happen to Jacob that reinforce the idea that demons are around him and Satan is trying to infiltrate his mind. It’s possible that he’s taken on some of his father’s mental illness genetically. I’m kind of playing with a Rosemary’s Baby, where it’s never really explained if the character is going crazy or if something is really happening to him.

Those aspects of religious psychological torture in a horror story sound a little bit like the early parts of Carrie, minus the telekinesis.

Stephen King is probably my biggest influence on this book of any of my favorite writers. It’s really a Stephen King kind of plot structure and tone, but where I would separate myself from King, and lots of other people who have failed at tackling radical Christianity, is I don't think many of them had any kind of empathy for the [religious] characters they were dealing with.

I remember when the movie Saved! came out, the satire with Macaulay Culkin, I was so excited for it because I was waiting for someone to really intelligently skewer the world I grew up in. But they just dropped the ball completely. It was flat as hell. I think the problem is, you need someone who has experienced it first-hand to show the empathy of these people. Even though they are doing disastrous things to themselves and the world around them, they are empathetic characters. In Carrie, you don’t really empathize with Carrie’s mom. Carrie is kind of a complicated character who has a lot of mixed emotions, but her mom is pretty much just a batshit crazy Christian lady. I wanted to show the batshit crazy Christian in an empathetic light, where you’re still baffled by how far he is divorced from reality, but you can still see his humanity.

You mentioned this is the first of six planned novels. How is the whole thing structured? Do characters and plot carry over, or is it more like a series of interrelated stories based on this weird historical Jesus movement?

Jacob remains the protagonist of the series. Other characters come and go, like a Game of Thrones situation — sometimes you feel like you have too many characters, then you add five more. But then you kill some off and it all balances out. The world continues spinning.

How has the reception been for the book so far?

It’s been kind of overwhelming. I hadn’t expected so many people to be able to relate to it. I knew there was this demographic of people who came up at the same time I did and had similar experiences that I did. I met a lot of them. But the number of people who can relate to the story has really surprised me.

My fear was that it was too much a niche premise. It shows evangelicals in an empathetic light, and it’s a history of evangelicals, but I can’t imagine any evangelicals wanting to read these books. They’re full of sex and drugs and cursing and atheists and all sorts of reasons why you should not be a Christian. So it doesn’t work for that market. I’m trying to sell the idea that evangelicals are interesting to the kind of people who read books with sex and drugs. That is [laughs] incredibly difficult. But there are so many people who have been emotionally disturbed by it, hopefully in a pleasant way, that they text me late at night because they can’t sleep. As terrible as that sounds, it puts a smile on my face. This book scared the hell out of me while I was writing it, and I remember thinking that if I could get a reader to feel a tenth of what I feel writing this, then it’s going to be a good book.

See Josiah Hesse's presentation on Carnality and the history of the evangelical movement at 7 p.m. Friday, July 31 at the Central Library. Admission is free. For more information, visit the event page on the Denver Library website.

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Cory Casciato is a Denver-based writer with a passion for the geeky, from old science fiction movies to brand-new video games.
Contact: Cory Casciato