Salvation Mountain

Philip Cosores

“Jesus, I’m a sinner. Please come upon my body and into my heart.” — The Sinner’s Prayer

“It feels like I only go backwards, baby / Every part of me says ‘go ahead!’” — Tame Impala

As soon as my feet touch the plaster I’m crying. I don’t remember starting. I don’t remember stopping. E says it was a long time after we got into the car again, though, maybe as far back as the Salton Sea. There’ve only been two men in my life who let me cry uninterrupted like that. Sometimes love is a not-doing more than a doing. Neither man stayed, but both have my eternal gratitude for letting my salty, swollen heart be, wallow in its tub. More people should not-do things, out of love.

Reconciling the muscle memory of my naive childhood faith with the severity of secular adulthood is like looking up the dictionary definition of a hymn to find out why it moves you. There are many ways of knowing things, but statements of exact meaning don’t do much when it comes to instinctual remnants; melody knows much more, there. So does a technicolor mountain oozing emotion in the middle of nowhere.

In pictures, Salvation Mountain looks sorta sardonic. Or maybe that’s how I wanted to see it. My cynicism is Saran Wrap, ready to cloister my present self off from the profoundly earnest feelings previous versions of me possessed about words like REPENT, the simplicity of the phrase God Is Love, or the sharp dagger of breath when I accidentally stumble upon the word Jesus. Sinner is a knife too, so’s BIBLE.

The madcap sprawl of the mountain is fragile but firm enough to walk on. Adobe clay mixed with straw and the vibrant, veering paint spiders up over the hillside until the crest, then creeps back down, spilling into a cave webbed with the same evangelical Christian messaging but set against darker, more aching colorwork, like Whoville gone Bible Belt. It makes me think of a Stephen King novel.

The air is cake, sweet and dense but crumbling at the edges. Everything is overripe, like fruit liquefying so slowly it’s never quite rotten. Photos of the place do justice to the striking visual elements, but little else. It’s an ecosystem of sin, sinner, and tourist. No money is exchanging hands, there are no tables in the temple to overturn; although, the selfie economy is going strong. I barely want to take a picture, it feels like photographing a dead body because you miss the spirit who lived in it.

That is what pictures don’t capture: how the place emanates feeling. The mountain crackles with anticipation, hung heavy with guilt, shame, and the sliver of glee that comes along with them. The desert guardians train their gaze on me, and all the other obvious visitors, aware that communing with the mountain is both a privilege and a burden. Some nod approvingly at my tears, tacit understanding unspoken. Words don’t get there. Or, well, REPENT does, I guess. I want to stop crying and clarify to them that I am not a Christian.  

Every primitive emotion, all the teachings that marinated my childhood brain in religion float up to the surface and spill out, glistening and glassy in the dusty, desolate hum. I feel like everyone can see me. I feel like no one can. I climb to the top, but there’s no triumph standing under the cross. No epiphanies, either. I’m not won back. I’m dizzy from crying and climbing, and E is busy on the ground, not-doing. I love him for that.

In the shadow of the cross, I finally come up with a word for how I feel every day about leaving my faith. It feels like a death; visiting this mountain is suddenly a pilgrimage to mourn the loss. Knowing Jesus was dead is how I learned about death in the first place, and also what made it less scary. The first dead person I knew of had simply beat it, come back right after. It couldn’t be that bad, then.

The stories of Jesus’ death, those are what drive home the physical elements of Christianity, take him into your heart, feel his nail-pierced hands. You may witness agape love’s victory over physical existence, but know that it is not divorced from it. Faith isn’t just spiritual, they say it’s physical — they say it lives in your heart. Christians believe our bodies are vessels meant to be filled up with God. What is my body once I have chosen to empty it of God, then? The residue of God is hard to shake, especially on your heart.

Scientists have studied the way a heart physically changes over the course of your life. They’ve discovered the human heart reshapes itself over time when extreme demands are placed upon it. Their work is centered on world-class runners and swimmers, analyzing the ways the left ventricle of the heart builds itself up to better serve the body, pumping blood. The daily physical practice works the heart so vigorously it becomes a different shape, molding itself to fit the function demanded of it. Even after they stop competing, the athletes’ hearts are never the same.

For a long time after I stopped believing, I thought Christianity ruined my heart. Daily practice had shaped it into something that only functioned in a system I no longer wanted part of, a training routine I chose to leave behind. My heart, reshaped for evangelical life, overexerts itself in the real world, pumping all this extra feeling for no reason, too big not to react to a hymn or a prayer.

After visiting the mountain, I’m beginning to see things differently. Now, I like to think that in turning away from religion, in my not-doing, I am also showing love.

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