The Path, The Serpent King and the Danger of Faith

WARNING: The following piece features spoilers from the first five episodes of The Path

Religion is hard.

In real life, obviously, there is probably no greater lightning rod than religion. It is simultaneously responsible for some of the greatest movements of peace and destruction in all of human history.

It’s also hard for TV. While faith is very much a part of the fabric of this nation through the years and including modern times, it’s very rare that a fair and accurate depiction is featured on television. There are the occasional caricatures (which is fair game; as a Christian I can certainly attest that some professing Christians certainly go out of their way to inspire mockery) and perhaps a few touchy-feely platitudes during “a very special episode,” but God is far more absent on our TVs than one might expect given the religious makeup of the U.S.

I guess it’s not hard to understand why. Religion is, after all, more than a little polarizing. Still, polarizing and difficult topics ranging from politics to race to rape and other forms of violence are explored fairly regularly on programs these days; but religion still seems very rare.

I think one of the main reasons is probably because of how incredibly difficult it is to depict something like faith. Many have tried and most have failed which is what makes The Path a refreshing surprise made all the more surprising by the fact that the show takes on the trickiest form of religion of all: a cult.

the path 2The cult at the center at the show is Meyerism and while it shares some DNA with Scientology, it really borrows from quite a few different faith systems. And to be honest, anyone who has ever had an experience within organized religion will find plenty of things all too familiar within this tense and convoluted world.

The Path stars Aaron Paul and Michelle Monaghan as Eddie and Sarah Lane, two members of Meyerism, her from birth and him since his conversion after the devastating loss of his brother years ago. Both give excellent performances, although their casting is a bit of a stretch when you consider that we’re supposed to believe they’re the parents of 16-year-old. They’re actually both technically old enough but they look young for their age, particularly Paul who may have the face of a teenager for life. I’m not sure if I’m buy him as the parent of a high-schooler but I do absolutely buy that he would name his son Hawk. They live on a Meyerist compound led by Cal (Hugh Dancy), a charismatic leader with whom Sarah shares a romantic history.

One of the challenging things with depicting cults is getting viewers to really see and understand why anyone would believe such things and devote their life to any such movement. I think The Path does a good job revealing those things by showing how the group reaches out to people who have been impacted by natural disasters, addicts who have run out of options and those, like Eddie, who have faced incredible loss. Like any religion,  it’s got some frustrating rules and customs, but it also has the awe-inspiring sense of community and teachings that you can understand people clinging onto. It’s not all about Cal saying a few wise-sounding things here and there and then commanding blind devotion like so many cult leaders we’ve seen depicted before (I’m looking at you, The Following).

There are certainly some sinister aspects of Meyerism and its leaders that go beyond your average Baptist church, but if you grew up in the church (or, I’d suspect, involved with religion of any kind), there are many negatives permeating Meyerism that you recognize all too well.

the path 3Watching The Path, my mind has wandered back to countless accounts of spiritual abuse where authority figures used God as a weapon and I can’t help but think of what a dangerous thing it is to believe.

I say this as someone who grew up a Christian and continues to practice. I’d be naive to deny that while faith can be really beautiful, it’s also terribly dangerous. Obviously, radical Islam is the example of religious extremism we’re most familiar with and the violent sects within that religion have undoubtedly unleashed a worldwide reign of terror. Still, it’s interesting that there are interpretations of the Quran that can give us Reza Aslan and Asra Nomni while other interpretations give us ISIS and the Taliban. In my experience with Christianity, while violent extremism is quite rare in modern times, there is certainly a plethora of ideologies that fall under the umbrella of Christianity. Some of these differing interpretations are minor while others are monumental and give way to some seriously dangerous teaching.

For anyone with the inclination that there is something more out there, religion serves as a means to connect with God. The community one can experience throughout these efforts can be pretty unique and incredible. At the same time, just as often times Cal sees his views as infallible–magical ladder be damned–there are endless examples of spiritual leaders who became much more obsessed with controlling their flock than they were helping them experience God.

In recent episodes, we have seen Cal arguing with top leaders within the movement over how to proceed now that their founder is out of commission (more on that later) and, like we’ve seen in so many religious organizations before, the most adamant and commanding voice wins. It’s particularly powerful to see Cal confront a high-placed woman, who had a bizarre spiritual encounter years ago that left her with burns on her hands and hallowed standing in the Meyerist movement, and ultimately come out the victor. So often those leading in religion turn it into a pissing contest where the most profound experiences or deepest knowledge doesn’t stand a chance against the Alpha who does whatever it takes to seize control.

the path 4The Path gives several different examples of control that are all too common in houses of worship. Cal is often smiling, charming and inspirational when he’s sharing a message or trying to connect with someone in order to convert, but his sexual urges often lead him to abuse his power. It’s impossible for anyone to see his encounters with Mary, despite her forwardness, as anything but a powerful man exploiting a damaged girl. Sure, he’s conflicted about it, but with his godlike status, Cal is unable to resist his cravings, knowing that she would give him whatever he wanted.

There are a number of reasons this behavior runs so rampant in religious organizations, but every single story of abuse at the hands of a “man of God’ sickens me. Often times, the same temptation to seduce an attractive subordinate entraps a pastor the same way it does high-powered businessmen and politicians, while other times it’s a culture of deep repression that breeds warped sexual practices.  I fault no one for committing to a life or purity as they feel God instructs, but far too often the Church makes sex so forbidden and taboo, every natural impulse feels like you’re spitting in the face of God Himself. Often, this breeds shame and shame breeds secrecy and once someone is forced into the shadows to explore their sexuality, they’re prone to making destructive decisions–both for them, and others.

What’s awful is that so many of these scandals give birth to equally shameful cover-ups. Everyone is familiar with how years of rampant sexual abuse was handled within the Catholic Church, but there are countless other stories of sexual abuse to come out of churches all across America, many with stories of cover-up and shaming to follow. In fact, when Miranda Frank (Minka Kelly) was manipulated into believing that she had something to apologize for–something to actually feel guilty for–in regards to an affair that never happened, I couldn’t help but think of many disgusting stories of church leaders who have convinced young girls that they should apologize to their rapist (usually an older married man) for dressing inappropriately or seducing them in some way.

Seriously, search the internet if you don’t believe this happens. One great thing that the internet has allowed is a platform for these stories to come to light when for so long, victims had to suffer in silence, believing just like Miranda Frank that they were somehow guilty of something when they were just the victim turned scapegoat.

Flawed and corruptible leaders are what makes faith so dangerous and scary. Knowing that so many have used their power to absolve monsters and guilt victims just in the name of saving face and protecting the reputation of their church (and in many fundamentalist churches, often sparked by their low opinion of women to begin with) and that they’ve done it all in the name of God is a truly horrifying thing.

I recently stumbled across a story about a married pastor from Orlando, Florida who had slept with a woman from his congregation in his office before later trying to bribe her into keeping silent. Despite a staff full of men who, no doubt, spout off their commitment to the sanctity of marriage and family values, many other leaders at the church were well aware of the affair and instrumental in coordinating the payoff. This story was especially disturbing to me because this was the pastor whose church I attended as a child. I remember very well seeing him preaching on stage Sunday after the Sunday. One of the leaders who helped cover up his sin? This guy that used to run my Sunday School class who I thought was the coolest guy ever back when I was 7. Guess not.

the path 1Speaking of control, it’s gone far beyond using one’s position for sex and money like the televangelist scandals of yesteryear.  It’s become increasingly common for pastors to be ousted for becoming too prideful and domineering in their leadership approach. That may seem minor or even like a no-brainer–of course that happens, right?–but as pastors have increasingly become social media savvy celebrities, protecting their brand and expanding the number of campuses their megachurch has is key and NO ONE can get in their way. This has led to a disturbing trend where pastors become drunk with power and don’t care about the people they trample along the way as they build their kingdoms.

One of the most famous examples of this is a pastor named Mark Driscoll who has a pretty horrible track record of spiritual abuse and saying abhorrent things about women. And while I’m all for a good redemption story, Driscoll took hardly any time off and next to no responsibility for his actions and is launching a new church in Phoenix, Arizona. Proving that scandals are just as easily swept under the rug by shocking naivete as they are flat-out cover-ups, the guys of the Bad Christian podcast recently challenged another megachurch pastor named Perry Noble as to why he’d back Driscoll’s new church despite it being public record that the man had done so little to make amends for all his past abuses. There’s a good chance that Noble was full of crap with his answer and very well knows it, but taking him at his word, he basically shrugged it off saying that Driscoll has gotten more mature and he thinks it’d be a real shame to keep Driscoll out of the pulpit because he’s just so darn good at presenting the Gospel. That is some serious head-in-the-sand rationalization.

But faith is a powerful thing. Just as in The Path, religion is typically something you’re born into or something you turned to in the midst of a crisis. The roots run deep. Defying your faith is often the equivalent of taking a stand against your family, biological or otherwise. In what could have been another tired teen angst storyline but has actually become a really interesting depiction of teenagers coming of age within a religious setting, Eddie and Sarah’s son, Hawk, has fallen in love with nonbeliever (or an “Ignorant” as they call her) and found himself at odds with his parents and quietly questioning the customs he’s been raised with.

the path 5This is a crucial moment for any teenager as they begin to grapple with why they believe what they believe–am I just parroting my parents? That sort of thing. Hawk is clearly headed down that path and Sarah is reacting very much like a number of Christian parents I’ve seen; anger, frustration and genuine bewilderment as to why her son would ever explore something outside of their faith. Of course, that terror is fed by memories of a sister who apparently fell away from the movement years ago under similar circumstances. Eddie is trying his best to understand his son and actually give him space to figure things out, but then again, Eddie has doubts of his own that we’ll get to in a minute….

The Path’s decision to operate as a family drama more than anything else has been an incredibly wise one. Whether it’s a cult, a mainstream religion or something in between, belief systems are often so deep and important to families that when anyone dare venture off the path, it can be seen in the same light as a son or daughter committing a crime or becoming a drug addict.

A couple weeks back, as I was spending my days contemplating The Path, I stumbled across a great young adult novel called The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner. The book, in a nutshell, follows a teenage boy named Dill who is trying to figure out his future and what he believes after his snake handling Pentecostal preacher is sent to prison following a scandal. Although Dill’s upbringing was within a fairly unorthodox offshoot of Christianity, the conversations he has with his parents and the doubts he grapples with are eerily familiar. He is from a world where faith trumps reason in every scenario and the most minor indulgence in worldliness is counted as rebellion.

the path 6The Serpent King is a truly excellent coming of age novel, but it’s also one of the most stirring depictions of Christianity I’ve ever seen. So often when Christianity is getting criticized in popular culture, it seems to be by folks with a clear vendetta against the Church (let’s be real, if you live in America and don’t go to church now, there’s a good chance you were hurt by one in the past) and the depiction ends up feeling one-sided and unfair. The Serpent King is incredibly skilled at challenging faith without skewering it. More than anything, it really captures what a lonely place doubt can be when you are from a world of faith. And I’m talking real, genuine doubt. Often times, doubt is dealt with at Christian conferences and services with kid gloves that say “I’m a doubter, I struggle….but then I just remember to trust God” or some other insultingly simplistic rhetoric that likely causes any true doubter to feel even more alone than they did before. True doubt within faith culture is lonely and scary and leaves one prone to feel the same pervasive guilt that Dill does in The Serpent King.

Because if your doubt pushes you leave to leave your faith behind, chances are you’ll have to betray your family too.

That’s the interesting through line The Path has given Eddie after a trip to Peru where he discovered–in the midst of a drug-induced stupor–that the movement’s founder is not off somewhere writing new spiritual truths about the mystical ladder they all climb–he’s lying lifeless in a coma.

Eddie can’t stop thinking about what he saw, as unsure that he is that he even saw it, and eventually connects with a woman who believes her husband was killed by Meyerism. It’s not long before Eddie’s secret doubt wreaks havoc on his family and the safer choice is just to try and grow numb to it, immersing himself deeper than ever before into Meyerism, quickly pursuing the “next rung” and squelching any lingering questions he may desperately want answered.

I’ve had an Eddie moment before. I’ve had it when I prayed and believed and had faith with all my heart and watched as certain situations absolutely went to hell before my eyes. I’ve felt like Eddie catching a glimpse of Meyerism’s comatose founder at times when I’ve read stories like the ones I mentioned above. Or when I consider that all Christians are supposed to be full of the Holy Spirit, showing “fruit” such as kindness, patience, gentleness and love (in fact, John says that Christians should be known by their “love”) and yet I go on Facebook and see Christians (many of whom seem super nice in person and in many scenarios are more generous and caring than I am if I’m being honest) spouting off all sorts of angry, hateful, paranoid rhetoric and typically attempting to tie Jesus into their rantings somehow.

Are they not really “saved” and full of the Holy Spirit or is it possible that none of us are? When so many Christians feel God telling them so many blatantly contradicting things, it can be a scary and perplexing thing for a believer to observe.

It’s next to impossible to find someone in this country who hasn’t had some sort of experience with religion. Some very good, some pretty freakin terrible. The Path is a bit of a Trojan horse in that it works almost as a thriller at sometimes, bringing us inside a cult with strange, creepy customs that we don’t understand. We watch in horror at the blatant brainwashing and exploitation of some of its followers. We get to witness from the edge of our seats as Cal switches back and forth between angel and demon. It’s a fascinating study of a foreign culture.

Until it’s not.

the path 7Because, as stated above, The Path is, at its heart, a family drama. A story about how religion binds us together and tears us apart. It’s about the lies we tell ourselves to escape from doubt. It’s full of universal stories of power being abused in the name of doing good. It looks different than the group we may belong to, but it’s not as different as we might like to think. And as we watch all of these people tormented in their own way, it’s abundantly clear that faith is a dangerous thing.

In telling a story that feels so universal, The Path has brought religion to TV in a compelling fashion. I’m sure as the show progresses, Meyerism will grow more sinister and probably end up imploding in some fashion, but its shades of our faith will continue to cause us to question, examine and seek.

And it’s a discussion worth having and a discussion I wish television delved into more often. Because for me and many others across the country, even though religion has been twisted and tainted and hijacked by corruptible men and even though these abuses continue week after week, we can’t help but feel there is something more. A God worth seeking and chasing and trying to understand. It puts us in the vulnerable position of having our hearts opened and our souls exposed. It leads us to get involved with and trust in organizations that will ultimately fail us, sometimes in devastating fashion, in our collective search for God.

And even though The Path and life itself confirms time and time again that faith is a dangerous thing, the hunger for truth and hope and “light” is so palpable that many of us determine it’s a risk worth taking.

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