Apologies for the lack of writing on here in the last six months. My honors project is partly responsible for this, but it has been done for a while now and is now online and downloadable, so you can see the fruit of my labor! If you are interested in what I still hope to write about in the Church and Gay Literature, this would be something that you might want to read. It interacts with Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson, and Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin. Disclaimer: it is long. And there are already some things that I have realized I would do differently. But I hope you enjoy it. Click.
The following essay has been stewing for a while. Seattle Pacific has been having a lot of great conversations about gender and identity recently, so this essay is in part a contribution to that discussion. I write with the conviction that good things are worth working on and the knowledge that the topics I explore here are likely relevant to many other institutions. It is also the first (I hope) of several posts reflecting on the wonderful and insane four years I have spent here. It has truly been a blessing.
Added 5/21: As this has been spread around quite a bit, I would like to add that what is discussed below, while certainly concerning and warranting change, is one aspect of events like Decade Skate, which are one aspect of communal life at SPU. It is, frankly, one of the few things that have concerned me during my time here. For people who are new to my blog, it is worth adding that overall, my experience here has been overwhelmingly good, and my blog, I hope, has been a testament to the powerful community SPU is. Thank you for reading.
Dropkicking two baby dolls into the crowd of underclassmen congregated in front of the library was about par for the course. Res hall traditions are always a spectacle of excitement, nonsense, and camaraderie, all of which I definitely felt then, having just crawled out onto the stage with my dads (a name guys on 3rd Hill call each other) in a mass birth train from underneath the legs of other dads, beginning to dance, dressed mainly in makeshift diapers, watching the two dolls soar unceremoniously through the air as the beat of our chosen soundtrack—a dubstep remix of Justin Bieber’s “Baby”—dropped.
When first arriving at college, a student might not know anyone else there; I did not. Even if he or she does, the new location, and all of the changes that come with it, can alter relationships. Some people just feel different in general, making it difficult for them to form friendships. The res hall floor provides, ideally, a new family with its own distinct practices, often called traditions, regardless of how long they have actually been observed. Traditions—floor themes, names, activities, and formal events—distinguish one floor from another, giving a group of hitherto unconnected people a common identity.
But these traditions, especially the activities and events, do change, sometimes frequently. The baby-dropping dance was for Fusion, a fall-quarter tradition instituted by Res Life with the goal of providing a positive, unifying experience for each residence hall. It may have also been an attempt to curb some of the more controversial floor-specific traditions that often involve(d) near or total nudity or possibly harmful behavior, which some defend by saying that they are more effective in forming intimate bonds. At any rate, Fusion is no longer. It was dropped.
Perhaps the most popular of the public traditions are those in which each floor prepares a skit that involves acting and dancing to a hodgepodge of songs, YouTube videos, movie soundtracks, and dialogue. For weeks, sometimes months, a floor will gather to choreograph and rehearse their dances and preen their soundtrack.
In my four years at SPU, I have participated in my hall’s version of this, Decade Skate, in all capacities. Freshman year, my floor did not compete, but we came and supported our sister floor. Sophomore year, we assembled a skit that we were very proud of, and, though we didn’t win, we got laughs, applause, and a sense of mutual accomplishment. Junior year, I was asked to host with a friend. This year, my senior year, hall council kindly asked me to be a judge. Having done all of this, and having attended as many Ashton Cups, I can think of a few things that tend to characterize these traditions.
Every year, at least two or three skits consist of a group of students exploring the SPU campus in some way. Another popular plot involves characters visiting various movies and TV shows.
Every year, the women tend to focus on plot, dance, and sets, while the men tend to focus on plot, dance, sets, and shocking the audience.
Every year, certain floors do certain things. Some are known for tight choreography, others for birthing scenes.
Every year, there are cringe-worthy moments, such as those birthing scenes, occasional insensitive racial caricatures, violence, and—always—over-sexed dancing from the men. Women’s floors exhibit this behavior sometimes, too, but by and large a lot less frequently.
Which leads to another observation: nearly every year, a men’s floor wins first place, even though there are far more women’s floors and even if a women’s floor has a far better skit. Going into judging this year, I had this in mind, but even then, the result was the same.
In addition to the immense creativity possible when so many people work together towards a common goal, our res hall events highlight the strange gender dynamics present at SPU:
It is no secret that college is a time during which many find their future spouse. “Ring by Spring” culture (encompassing Roomies Dates, the constant jokes during Welcome Week along the lines of “Your future husband or wife might be sitting next to you,” and the ridiculous significance given to getting coffee with someone of the opposite sex), even when participated in ironically, often makes the wedding ring, not the bachelor’s degree, seem like the real prize of four years at SPU. Combined with the infamous 68/32 women-to-men ratio, the urgency of “ring by spring” causes many of our students who don’t find their partner, women especially, I think, to feel like something is deeply wrong with them. It also is a source of distress for some LGBTQ people, who, especially at this time of life, may very well be torn about whether or not God (not to mention their university) allows their love in the first place. A final result of ring by spring and the ratio is that the vast majority of eyes on campus fall on the men; not that it makes everything easy for them, but straight guys are in high demand around here.
It is no secret that people—young people in particular, men in particular—try to show off in front of potential mates.
It is no secret that a large number of current SPU students were raised in church traditions that embraced the Purity Movement, which we now know has harmed a generation of Christian women by causing them to view their body as a commodity that can be ruined after one inappropriate use, while the men are more or less rapped across the knuckles and told to man up. Purity culture’s just-cover-it-up approach to the human body and its functions, particularly sex, has also caused a number of us—men and women—to feel ashamed of our naked selves and our desires.
Nor is it a secret that this generation of Christian men is comprised mainly of porn addicts who are much more familiar with the bodies of women than the other way around. Women, too, struggle with this, but not, I believe, in such high proportions.
So, given this stew of sexual confusion and frustration, maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that, taken out of their home contexts and dropped en masse onto a stage in front of their peers, young SPU men—without fail—tear their clothing off and grind on each other, almost as if you can demonstrate your masculinity by showing how far you can go with the same sex in front of the opposite sex without enjoying it, while doing it crudely. Should we find it surprising that men’s skits can demonstrate intense violence, sometimes towards women? I wonder, should we find it surprising that the audience roars with laughter and cheers in response? Should we find it surprising that these skits often win?
Perhaps some people reading this—especially underclassmen—think that I’m blowing a little bit of harmless fun way out proportion. But hear me out. I write this because I care about the SPU I am soon leaving. I worry that this pattern, along with the continued changing of individual floor traditions, the (don’t laugh) removal of the circular tables from Gwinn, the closing of Gwinn between lunch and dinner (thus making impossible the Gwinn Challenge), and other seemingly minor changes could harm (or already are harming) the number one thing people say they love about SPU: the community.
The moment that it occurred to me that the sexual and violent content of our performance-based res hall traditions can actually be harmful to SPU’s community was during this year’s Decade Skate. I was underneath a blanket at the time, which I brought in case Royal Brougham was cold. But the main function it served that night was to shield me when a few minimally dressed SPU men came unusually close to the judges’ table and began to hip-thrust violently in our faces. I didn’t think such a thing could be done so angrily, but within the context of the broader skit, which was equally angry, it felt like a thinly veiled “fuck you.” I didn’t realize until afterwards that another judge, a wonderful woman in the year below me, was also trying to get under the blanket. Looking back at this, I find this image to be a particularly revealing one about how such forceful displays of puerile heterosexual masculinity violate women, gay men, and others alike. Like a dog humping your leg.
I understand that parts of this particular skit were meant to protest the decision of Res Life to discontinue a certain tradition of theirs that involves Nerf guns. But, even though I understand the frustration behind such a protest—even though I too would be angry to lose a particularly fun floor tradition—I also know that when the context of an act or symbol changes, the way it is perceived changes as well. When a member of our community is shot to death on our campus, guns on our campus—even obviously fake ones—become symbols of the saddest and scariest moment in our community’s memory and potential triggers for horrifying episodes of PTSD. The shortsightedness or callousness of anyone who fails to see or care about that astonishes me. It is an idolatry of the self and of one’s own favorite practices over the love of neighbor.
The things we do are never neutral; they tell us about who we are, where we are going, and what we desire. And the “we” here is intentional—within the larger circle of SPU, the res halls house multiple levels of community. At every level, leaders and other community members should ask themselves those questions: Who are we? Where are we going? What do we desire?
In her essay “Imagination and Community,” Marilynne Robinson writes, “I am persuaded for the moment that this is in fact the basis of community. I would say, for the moment, that community, at least community larger than the immediate family, consists very largely of imaginative love for people we do not know or whom we know very slightly.” She continues, “I think fiction may be, whatever else, an exercise in the capacity for imaginative love, or sympathy, or identification.” What are Decade Skate skits and the like if not fictions, the artistic expressions of res hall floors? Could they be an opportunity to exercise imaginative love, sympathy, and identification?
To end this essay, I don’t really have any answers. I just have hopes—high hopes. And I do have more questions for you to think about—particularly those of you who are future leaders at SPU and, potentially, other Christian colleges with analogous traditions.
What communities are you a part of?
What traditions do you value?
What do your traditions say about you and your community?
Whom do your traditions leave out or alienate?
Are there other ways in which your traditions are harmful?
Do your communities and traditions glorify God?
If you don’t like your answers to any of these questions, what can you change? What specifically can you change? Are there rules that can be rewritten? Grading sheets that can be weighted differently?
Entering our sophomore year, the Hill Hall Council I was a part of was extremely mindful of how we might influence the hall’s culture. We did our best to bolster the idea that Hill is a place of love—a true home for those who live there. Who are we? Family. Where are we going? Into the unsure future. What do we desire? To get there together. As my four years here come to an end, it is my prayer that SPU will continue to be a place redolent of God’s love and a people who listen well, think critically, love generously, and, to do this, are ready to let some things drop.
[This is the second introduction (oops) to a series of occasional essays I’m calling The Church and Gay Literature (CGL). For my first introduction to the series, look here.]
Before discussing the first text for CGL (which will be Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh—read it if you haven’t yet!) I’d like to talk a little bit more about the purpose of the series and to define some terms. Whereas the following posts will focus on readings of specific texts, here I explain in part how I understand the word “gay”—the understanding I will bring to future posts. It is possible that it will change over the course of the project, but this is where I currently am. I have surely said some of this before, so please forgive me.
I’ve begun an honors thesis at Seattle Pacific University about homosexuality and Christianity in modern literature largely because I crave narratives—I need narratives to wrap myself in, sit in, try on, appreciate, savor, or react violently against to understand who I am and to inform my imagination about what life could be like. As far as I currently understand, identity, in all of its elusiveness, is about the narratives we inhabit. For example, take what I consider to be the most important and most involving narrative I belong to: when I say that I am a Christian, and when, with my church, I recite the creeds of the Christian faith, I am not only saying what I believe, I am claiming my place in a long tradition of imperfect people seeking to know God and to reflect Christ’s love to the world, being transformed ourselves in the process.
When I say I am gay, I could mean a number of things. Like most of my generation, I use the word as a substitute for “exclusively sexually/physically attracted to persons of the same sex as myself.” One syllable versus twenty-four. There has been much discussion about the definitions of words like “gay” and “homosexual” in the past few decades generally and, specifically, within recent months and years in the Church. One common question: Does “gay” merely refer to same-sex attraction or is it also a cultural identification?
I won’t try to answer this question fully here, but for my purposes it is worth some exploration, beginning with the simple admission that the word is certainly used both ways. Both meanings (attraction and cultural identification) are correct at different times, and I don’t believe that they are entirely separable. If someone with same-sex attractions is raised in a society that is dominated by and whose culture is catered to people with opposite-sex attractions in its movies, television shows, books, advertisements, matching towel sets, and religions, chances are that the same-sex attracted person will feel disconnected from the culture at some level. In response, they might remain closeted in order to maintain a façade that allows them to participate in their society’s culture like everyone else. They could possibly gain an affinity for certain films that convey—through the lives and struggles of even heterosexual characters—the sadness and anger of not being understood by others, the alienation they experience within their families, or the crushing weight of expectations society has for someone of their sex and gender. It makes sense that they would relate to Broadway musicals in which a character desires to transcend the drudgery of day-to-day life and by golly does just that, if only for four minute intervals, by bursting forth in joyous, uninhibited song.1 Or if they decide to find a partner, they might choose to move to a place where they can find a partner, live together with a lesser amount of daily harassment and hatred, and be surrounded by people who understand the difficulties they theretofore have experienced (family life, small towns, and, possibly, religious upbringings). They open businesses, form communities, and, like any community, begin to use the same words and develop a particular aesthetic.
Although its particulars vary from place to place and between generations, gay culture is a real thing. But by no means do all gay (same-sex attracted) people participate. It might just not appeal to them or be accessible to them. Or they might define themselves by actively not participating in gay culture. The “straight-acting gay man” is a type, literary and otherwise.2 But even then, it is a type made possible only by the existence of gay culture. Besides an inexplicable fascination with Meryl Streep and the occasional Beyonce binge, I’m not so great at gay culture myself, although I know some straight people who are. Kiki, anyone?
In the Church, the already difficult task of agreeing on terminology is often further complicated by sin, or rather the question of how much of this whole “same-sex attraction” business we can call sinful. Calling someone a homosexual within certain Christian contexts carries with it an assessment, judgment, or condemnation of that person as a pervert or abomination—sometimes this is implied by the speaker, sometimes it is merely inferred by the listener. In this series it is not my objective to cast moral judgment on fictional characters, whether they be guilty of sexual promiscuity or guilty of chasing God’s beloved out of the Church. I do reserve the right to express dismay, sadness, and anger about attitudes held and actions committed in the texts I read, because, even when it is fictional, literature is always an expression of some sort of truth; it reflects the lives of real people.
It is difficult for me to say how exactly I will use the terms “homosexual” and “gay” in reference to all of the texts I hope to cover. In most situations I will try not to use anachronisms. If I were to write about a text from before 1892, when the word “homosexual” was first brought into the English language via a translation of the writings of Austrian sex researcher Richard von Krafft-Ebing (who appears to have borrowed the term from Károly Mária Kertbeny, who invented the word in 1868), I would not use the word “homosexual” without qualifying it.3 In the same way I wouldn’t call a gay man from the 21st century a catamite, minion, or mollie.4 I will definitely use the words “gay,” “lesbian,” or “homosexual” if the character self-identifies as such or if they are described by the author as such. But if it is unclear in the text, I will do my best to maintain the ambiguity in my discussion—I’m not in the business of claiming as “gay” someone or something that is not described as “gay.”
However, some texts that I will choose (like Brideshead Revisited, actually) are not obviously or intrinsically gay. That may be because they reference a specific variety of gay culture that a modern reader might not pick up on (i.e., Oxbridge aestheticism). Or, like the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, some texts might not speak about gay sex or anything that obviously pertains to gay culture while still speaking uniquely to the experience of gay people. If I do write about literature of this variety, I will explain my reasons for including it in CGL.
Returning to the notion that literature reflects reality… While I started my thesis for fairly personal reasons, I share (some of) my findings here because there needs to be more of an understanding between the Church and sexual minorities. LGBTQ people leave the Church in droves because of how they are treated. Equally as important to me, I want to show in some way the value and beauty of Christian faith to those who have given up on it or who have never considered it. These Dated Clouds is partly intended to be an exercise in reconciliation. Following this intention, the CGL series is my attempt to approach the often acidic conversation between Christianity and homosexuality from a new angle and with a different tone.
Finally, I will be putting the vast majority of my time into my honors project these next few months, so time spent on my blog will be rare. Forgive my infrequent postings. When I do get to it, here are some of the texts I would like to write about, in not much of an order:
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
Maurice by E. M. Forster
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin
Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal by Jeanette Winterson (memoir)
A Visitation of Spirits by Randall Kenan
We Are Water by Wally Lamb
Darling by Richard Rodriguez (memoir/essays)
Selected poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins
Selected poems by Oscar Wilde
The Road to Emmaus by Spencer Reece (poems)
As always, I will invite your comments and thoughts.
1. See David M. Halperin’s discussion of D. A. Miller’s work on gay men and Broadway musicals: David M. Halperin. How to Be Gay. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012: 93-94. This whole section is heavily dependent on How to Be Gay, which is Halperin’s case for gay culture—not an instruction manual.
2. Halperin. How to Be Gay. 46-7.
3. Norman W. Jones. Gay and Lesbian Historical Fiction: Sexual Mystery and Post-Secular Narrative. Gordonsville, VA: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007: 4; David M. Halperin. “How to Do The History of Male Homosexuality.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 6.1 (2000): 87-124. Web. 109.
4. These are different varieties of the invert, which is one of Halperin’s categories of prehomosexual male sex and gender deviance. Each type arises from a specific historical period and location, respectively, medieval/early modern England, Renaissance France, and eighteenth-century London. David M. Halperin. “How to Do the History of Male Homosexuality.” 105-6.
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.
I chose a woodland creature
a stag with branching antlers
and said, “We saw each other
while walking through the forest.
I stopped, it turned and shivered
before it bounded backwards,
so leaving me to wonder…
Is that what you are asking?”
They nodded, smiled, and answered
the while suppressing laughter,
“Did you not try to call him?
reach out, get any closer?”
“Not really—just beheld him.”
But thinking twice, I added,
“The moment held some meaning,
some something, maybe longing.”
And only now I realize
my choice was goddamn Wilde,
off drooling in the forest;
off tracking shadows dancing;
all yearning sed non tangens.
My friends elucidated
the meaning of my answers.
The rest I have forgotten
besides the third and final:
“We laughed because the creature
that’s chosen for the last one
is s’pposed to be your partner—
yours blinked and ran away!”
They told me not to worry.
(It’s, after all, a game.)
What follows is a guest post from Claire Nieman, a good friend of mine from Seattle Pacific and church. In it she reflects on birth, death, and Advent. Thanks to her for the beautiful piece and thanks to you for reading. -sdje
— — — — —
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different
(from Journey of the Magi, T. S. Eliot)
I was at work on the postpartum unit when the Marysville shooting happened. It was all anyone could talk about at the nurses’ station. I feebly tried to change the subject a couple times, but the topic persisted. And how could it not? We talk about terrible things to attempt to fit them into the framework of what we know.
For unto us a child is born; unto us a son is given
That afternoon, one of my teenage patients wanted to go to the cafeteria and I had some extra time, so I brought her baby into the nursery. As the endless talk of violence continued, I picked up the baby and held him while I sat in a rocking chair. “What are we doing here, my tiny friend?” I asked him. “How are we going to live?” Newborns have no ready answer for much of anything.
“He has set eternity in the human heart,” says Ecclesiastes, “yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” Some of my baby patients withdraw so violently from the drugs their mothers have taken that they need morphine to relax at all. They are born wounded and yet they, too, hold eternity in their trembling hearts.
And his name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God
On Sunday, the First Sunday of Advent, I will be the cantor at my church. One of the liturgical anthems the cantor leads is the Alleluia, sung before the Gospel reading. The Alleluia we sing during Advent is different from the one used in Ordinary Time. It is in a minor key, a strangely solemn take on a song of praise. In the middle of a season of spectacular vestments and tidings of comfort and joy is a paradoxical song of lament. Advent marks the beginning of a new church year, and even within the rhetoric of hope we are called to remember why we are waiting at all.
This year I know lament. I sing my minor-key Alleluia in a world where mercy seems to be in short supply, a world where we hold active-shooter drills in hospitals. I sing Alleluia for innocent human beings murdered by people who take an oath to “protect and serve,” who make me bow my head at the audacity of Isaiah’s promise that of the greatness of his government and peace there shall be no end. I sing Alleluia for the person who collapsed and died on the floor of my hospital lobby last week. I sing Alleluia for the children in my hospital’s NICU born so fragile they can only be touched every six hours. I sing the Alleluia for the boys of 5th West Ashton, who brought their mattresses out to the elevator so they would be there if Paul Lee returned to his room on that Thursday night. I sing Alleluia for Jim Mitre, a pediatric psych nurse who dedicated his life to showing kids that maybe something out there is worth waiting for. I sing Alleluia to remind myself of the eternity set in my own heart, what Miroslav Volf calls “our solace and our agony.”
But in the same anthem I also sing of the promises of John 1, the life that was the light for all people. It echoes what we will sing in April, when the world slowly shifts from gray to green. Alleluia, Christ is risen, death has been swallowed up in victory. I can hardly wait.
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
After reading “Where Are All the Good Stories about Marriage?” by W. David O. Taylor, over at Christianity Today, some thoughts have bubbled up. I should be working on my thesis, but…
In the article, Taylor addresses—broadly—the role of Christians as culture-makers in a non-Christian society, and—specifically—the way in which recent movies and television series have portrayed gay relationships and not so many straight Christian marriages:
It is my contention that, while movies and television cannot be blamed exclusively for our society’s rejection of theologically conservative ideas about marriage, they have certainly made it easier for our neighbors to imagine that such a marriage, especially its exclusive status, is impossible or undesirable. I also contend that we have not fully reckoned with the power of the artistic imagination.
And therein lies a task for us.
I share Taylor’s concern that Christians have not done enough to use our “artistic imagination”. It seems to me that this problem is a fairly recent one. For centuries, Christians (of various tongues and tribes) have been the creators of luminous art that has expanded and created new artistic forms, inspired generations of people, and glorified God. From catacomb frescoes by early Roman Christians to the icons of the Eastern churches to the Lindisfarne Gospels to Gregorian chant to Dante’s Divine Comedy to Palestrina’s polyphonic masses to the linguistic style of the King James Bible to Christopher Wren to Bach to Dostoevsky to the spirituals of African American slaves to Henry Owassa Tanner (look him up!). Any such list is doomed from the start because Christians have made so much damn good art and it is worth pointing out that a lot of it was created for the purpose of worship—for the Christian community to rehearse its history and tell its stories in new ways, often within the context of a mass or other liturgy.
It is not necessary that art made by Christians be used in such settings. Nor is it necessary that art made by Christians include Bible stories or obviously recognizable Christian images and themes. I don’t watch TV and I don’t watch enough films to say anything very interesting about them, but I do read books. Borrowing the language of Gregory Wolfe, a lot of Christians who write about faith today do not necessarily do it in shouts (think Flannery O’Connor), but in whispers, like Marilynne Robinson. Marilynne Robinson teaches at the Iowa Writers Workshop—one of the best writing programs in the world. Nearly all of her publications, fiction and non-fiction, have won prestigious awards, including a book about a midwestern preacher and his wife (note: it’s a straight Christian marriage). The book is called Gilead and it won the Pulitzer Prize. Her new book, Lila (a prequel to Gilead) is about how the two met and how Lila came to Christ. Tomorrow Robinson is talking about Lila at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford, a university comprised by people of many faiths and ideologies, not a majority of whom are Christian.
I’ve visited a lot of cathedrals and abbeys over the course of my two terms abroad at Oxford, representing different time periods (from the 12th century to the 20th), different styles, and different locations. However, they all have one thing in common: they are crammed with tourists. I occasionally find this annoying (I’ve seen people take ducklip selfies whilst irreverently standing astride centuries-old graves of Irish nuns), but it is a good thing that these places of worship are still, in various ways, drawing in crowds of curious onlookers.
When Christians make really good art—even if it does unapologetically pertain to topics of faith—others want to see it, read it, watch it, study it, learn from it, be inspired by it, and potentially changed by it.
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For my SPU thesis, as well as the shorter one I’m currently working on for my study abroad, I have been reading a lot literature that pertains to Christianity and homosexuality—fiction and theory. If you follow my blog at all (thanks by the way!) you will know that this is a personal topic for me.
Questions of identity are difficult. I’ve spent my whole life living hours away from extended family. When I was ten my family moved from New Hampshire to Michigan. My heritage is a mix of German, Welsh, Swedish, Slavic, Scottish, Swiss, and English, none of which I am extremely in touch with (stay tuned for a post about Sweden). In her essay “Testimony Against Gertrude Stein,” Jeanette Winterson writes, “We mostly understand ourselves through an endless series of stories told to ourselves by ourselves and others.” Land, clan, and nationality are all powerful contexts in which we hear stories about ourselves that tell us who we are. They are lenses through which we see the world, and my lenses are all fogged up.
Because I am fairly distant from so many of these things that root a person into a larger narrative of life on earth, my faith has become important to me in a new way: it is a narrative through which I can understand myself as being part of something larger than just myself—something ancient, something true—Christ’s Body, the Church. It roots me in a story that begins with the creation of everything and ends with the restoration of everything. In between those points, there are some difficulties.
After slowly coming to terms with the fact that I am attracted to men, I also began coming to terms with the fact that a large part of Western cultural history does not pertain to me. Listen to the radio, watch television or a movie, or, do what I mainly do, and read a book—scan the canons of great literature, and while doing these things, imagine that you are a Christian attracted to the same sex. There aren’t songs for you—certainly not love songs. You have no literary history. There aren’t shows on television for you. You don’t have movies. Now reread the passage from Dr. Taylor’s article:
It is my contention that, while movies and television cannot be blamed exclusively for our society’s rejection of theologically conservative ideas about marriage, they have certainly made it easier for our neighbors to imagine that such a marriage, especially its exclusive status, is impossible or undesirable. I also contend that we have not fully reckoned with the power of the artistic imagination.
And therein lies a task for us.
I have a practical suggestion for those with theologically conservative views on marriage: making movies about people who have theologically conservative views on marriage for the sake of making movies about people who have theologically conservative views on marriage not only sidesteps the question of what gay Christians in your community can do, but in the current political climate in which the dominant voices on both sides are loud and angry, it will be taken and responded to (or, more likely, ignored) as just another political act.
Later in his essay Dr. Taylor writes:
As always, we should seek every opportunity to lay down our lives to serve our neighbors, gay or straight or otherwise, offering them the hospitality of Christ in witness to the fatherly love of God. Nothing good will come of holding onto stereotypes. Our neighbors are not our enemies. They are men and women made in the image of God and beloved by him. To them we owe the same kind of humble love that Christ has shown us.
This should change your art. If you want to make a difference with your artistic imagination as a Christian with theologically conservative views on marriage, make movies about people who have theologically conservative views on marriage learning what it means to love their gay sister, their transexual son, or their intersex neighbor—learning that loving them often has little to do with anyone’s ideas about marriage and has all to do with presence. And if you are trying to rid yourself of stereotypes, try portraying the LGBTQ people as coworkers, faithful Christians, devoted parents, not just condescending portrayals of the prodigal son.
If you want to learn how to seek every opportunity to lay down your life for your gay neighbor, start by making a space for us in your artistic imagination. Most of us know what straight Christian marriages look like. I was so blessed in the parents God gave me, but many LGBT people have been hurt, beaten, and disowned by their straight Christian parents with theologically conservative views on marriage. Try to imagine what you could do to make people with these experiences want to watch your movie, to listen to you. Creating a movie about a wonderful Christian marriage without any LGBT characters in it will tell them something about how you want the world to be.
Someone once said to me about volunteering at my old church’s Vacation Bible School while being gay that “it is clear what will happen to those who cause little ones to stumble,” referencing Matthew 9:42 (“but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea,” ESV). The implication was clear to me. While I disagree with how the verse was used in that instance, it is true that we have great responsibility in how we interact with people, especially about things pertaining to faith. Let it be through humble love, and if there is art involved, good art.