Last week I turned in the thesis for my second term with BestSemester’s Oxford program. The title of the thesis had to be a question, and mine was, “In Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh and Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson, from what are Sebastian and Jeanette trying to escape?” The question I chose still seems a bit juvenile to me, but it allowed me to dig into some questions of the novels I’ve been wanting to explore, including “What happens to Jeanette’s faith?” and “To what extent is homosexuality at play in Brideshead?”
Some of the research I did for that thesis will get channeled into my next big paper, the SPU honors project. My tutor in Oxford emphasized the differences of gay history in England and the States, so in my Christianity and Gay Lit tutorial, I focused exclusively on English novelists, playwrights, and poets. In my honors thesis I hope to bring in some American writers like James Baldwin. The difficulty in such a project is that these writers are of different countries, sexes, social classes, denominations, and skin colors. Despite these differences, the books I am looking at share a gay character whose faith and relationship with their church community is colored by their sexuality. While I am not yet sure what the specific focus of my next thesis will be, I hope to look at liturgy in the various texts.
Part of the reason I began researching this topic is because, as mentioned in a previous post, gay Christians do not have much of a cultural history that specifically speaks to their experiences. I do not mean to say that we cannot relate to narratives that don’t explicitly speak to our unique circumstances (that would just be plain false) or that we cannot locate our own story in the narrative of God’s redemptive plan for the world as found in Christian Scripture (that would also just be plain false). I simply mean to acknowledge that humans look to stories to understand their own circumstances and to imagine ways that life could be lived differently, and that there appears to be a dearth of such stories that deal with the unique struggles of gay Christians. Texts I’ve been reading for the project express from different angles the formative and transformative power of stories. James K. A. Smith uses the concept of a “cultural liturgy” to describe how the narratives we interact with—not just in books, but in the rituals of everyday life—”shape and constitute our identities by forming our most fundamental desires and our most basic attunement to the world. In short, liturgies make us certain kinds of people, and what defines us is what we love.”1
When one who is raised in the rituals of most strands of Christianity experiences attraction to someone of the same sex, they experience something which either has never been mentioned in their church (due to ignorance of, fear of, or embarrassment about the phenomenon) or it has been actively decried from the pulpit—and so, they find themselves standing outside of their tradition, and often thereafter, outside of the Church. To them, the faith community becomes a location of alienation (as is the case in Oranges). Many such people have sought refuge in the City amongst groups of others who have walked similar paths, together forming a new community with a cultural liturgy of its own (what has charmingly been referred to by some Christians as “the gay lifestyle”). The new community is not bound by creed or communion but by a shared orientation, similar stories of rejection, similar hopes and aspirations, and, in some instances, a lot of previously (almost) unimaginable sex.2
This account, which I have pieced together from books, articles, and the stories of friends, is, of course, one of many possible outcomes. For people in some denominations, the following was true in the past, but for many it still holds today that if the gay individual chooses to stay in their church, regardless of whether or not they adhere to a traditional view of sexuality, they find that silence is what guarantees a sense of inclusion or normalcy that would be jeopardized if certain things came to light. The Oxford Movement provided a home in the nineteenth century for men for whom the “need for conscientious avoidance of physical expression of one’s sexuality was a very real problem.”3 Half a century later, Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain depicts one boy’s fit of religious experience in the presence of his black Pentecostal congregation, an experience he demands be remembered if ever one day his secret is discovered: “‘please remember—I was saved. I was there.'”4
The task of figuring out one’s sexuality is bound to the task of figuring out what one believes about God. If a believer is asked to leave her church—the only context in which she has lived and thus the only context in which she has understood God—her faith will change. Perhaps it won’t immediately shatter, but questions will be raised. This is not only a theme in gay literature. Roger Lundin writes, “more often than not in the literature of the past 150 years, the conflict between belief and unbelief has played itself out more readily within the private struggles of individuals than in public battles between the forces of progress and reaction.”5 While branches of the Church certainly are in a public battle over homosexuality, gay literature that interacts with Christianity tends to have a narrower focus: the individual and their beliefs.
As Norman W. Jones has helpfully pointed out, Christian literature and gay literature share three “common foundational commitments”:
identification as incorporating intractable mystery through a dynamic rather than static interplay of difference as well as similarity; personal ethical transformation emblematized in coming-out stories and conversion stories; and the formation of communities defined by nonbiological kinship bonds that are more created than found but are nonetheless foundational.6
In a series of posts I hope to begin writing soon, I would like to introduce to you literature (mainly novels) that deal with both sides of Jones’ coin. I desire to do this for two reasons, both of which I will explain with quotes from Jeanette Winterson. The first reason: “We mostly understand ourselves through an endless series of stories told to ourselves by ourselves and others.”7 While I begin this essay by lamenting the lack of a cultural history that directly involves gay Christians, there is indeed something of a history there, meager though it may be. The characters I will write about reach varying conclusions about God and the Church, as do real-life gay people. While some readers of this blog might not have access to the wisdom of older people who have wrestled with faith and sexuality, they (presumably) have access to a library or AbeBooks.com. The literature is not a roadmap, but we can learn from the characters we encounter—the questions they ask, the difficulties they face, the mistakes they make, the conclusions they reach. If these things are uncomfortable, if we disagree with certain conclusions, the texts become a path towards a deeper interaction with our own beliefs when we ask ourselves “Why?” in response. The texts can become part of the stories we tell ourselves; they can jumpstart our imagination; they can piss us off; they can help us move forward.
The second reason: “Literature is not a lecture delivered to a special interest group, it is a force that unites its audience. The sub-groups are broken down.”8 If the first reason I provide for starting this series goes along the lines of discovering what it means to live within the walls of being a gay Christian, the second is the necessary work of tearing those walls down in the name of empathy and love. Not all who read my blog are gay and not all are Christian, so it is my hope that interacting with the nuances of books like Brideshead Revisited and Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit will help Christians understand why some gay people leave the Church and help atheists understand why other gay people stay in the Church. It seems to me that many middle-of-the-road Evangelical and Mainline churches are trying to figure out how to love gay people. This blog is, in a way, my attempt to facilitate the Church’s efforts to learn how to better love and care for their gay brothers, sisters, and parishioners. As Winterson writes, “More, not less, is the capacity of the heart. More not less is the capacity of art.”9
Thank you for reading.
1. James K. A. Smith. Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009. Cultural Liturgies. 25.
2. The City is portrayed as a center of temptation in contexts Christian and non-Christian alike. See James Baldwin. Go Tell It on the Mountain. New York: Vintage International, 2013. First published in 1952; see also Hanif Kureishi. The Buddha of Suburbia. London: Faber and Faber, 1990. This is due in part to the anonymity that is only possible amongst millions of other people. Gregory Woods writes, “Indeed, anonymity may be the main attraction. It allows for the conditions of self-reinvention, whereby one escapes the prohibitions and inhibitions of family life.” Gregory Woods. “Gay and Lesbian Urbanity.” The Cambridge Companion to the City in Literature. Ed. Kevin R. McNamara. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. 233-44. 234.
3. Diarmaid MacCulloch. Silence: A Christian History. London: Allen Lane, 2013. 189.
4. Baldwin. Go Tell It on the Mountain. 225.
5. Roger Lundin. Beginning with the Word: Modern Literature and the Question of Belief. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014. 168.
6. Norman W. Jones. Gay and Lesbian Historical Fiction: Sexual Mystery and Post-Secular Narrative. Gordonsville, VA: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007. x. ProQuest. Web. 17 Dec. 2014.
7. Jeanette Winterson. “Testimony against Gertrude Stein.” Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery. London: Vintage Books, 1996. 59.
8. Winterson. “The Semiotics of Sex.” Art Objects. 106.
9. Ibid. 108.