Humble Love, Good Art

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.

– – – – –

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.

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Asperges Me

Sometimes as I walk home through Queen Anne streets after a day of school and the air is particularly damp and the sky is dark it smells like the time my father and I climbed Mt. Humbug in Oregon, a mountain I bet no one climbs except people like us, passersby who stop on a whim (because sometimes it sounds nice to climb a mountain) and work their zig-zag way upwards to find the elevation where spring dampness becomes frost and snow that clings to the trees and everything shimmers. I pause and think of that day and of the other blessed few days I’ve spent hiking the Pacific Northwest and imagine what Queen Anne was like a few hundred years ago, before urbanization, just another tree-canopied hill cut from the continent’s cloth. I look up and want to go higher, to reach the moment of transposition where time and water freeze.

As I continue my short walk home, a song flits into my mouth.

Asperges me, Domine, hyssopo et mundabor,
Lavabis me, et super nivem dealbabor.

Miserere mei, Deus,
Secundum magnum misericordiam tuam.

Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui Sancto
Sicut erat en principio, et nunc, et semper, et en saecula saeculorum, Amen.

Asperges me, Domine, hyssopo et mundabor,
Lavabis me, et super nivem dealbabor.

Continue reading

in a year

There is a chain of ice cream shops in Seattle called Molly Moon’s, famous at least locally for flavors like Earl Grey, Vegan Coconut Chunk, Maple Bacon, Lavender, and Theo’s Chocolate, among others. The closest one to the campus of SPU is up on Queen Anne, next to another Seattle chain, Top Pot Doughnuts—making that little stretch of W. Galer a two shop pit stop of sweet food and regret. It was a favorite for my hall council sophomore year and for various late night restless stomach grumbles. I don’t visit nearly enough.

A year ago today I sat in that Molly Moon’s with a new friend, a nursing student at my campus. She cooked dinner; I bought ice cream. I was probably eating the Vegan Coconut Chunk because I don’t care who you are or what your views on veganism are—I’m not one—but that is the best damned ice cream you can put in a waffle cone and charge me five bucks for. And because it’s vegan, you can eat more of it and still feel relatively good about your life.

I don’t remember what she ordered. We sat at the window.

I wanted to get ice cream because ice cream is good and to have an excuse to talk longer. But I was also craving ice cream because I was very pregnant, not with a human being but with a story that had been years in gestation. By the night of that Molly Moon’s trip I had been sitting on ‘the end of a silence‘ for several weeks, wondering when to put it online. Feedback about it from friends and professors had been good. My family was as ready as possible for the daunting unknown, and I was itching for it.

Over our ice cream, Claire and I talked about life. I brought up the blog post and told her my anxieties about it. She preached for a solid twenty minutes about there being no room for fear in Christ and reminded me that God had been good to me thus far. The story of my sexuality is intricately intertwined with what some would call my testimony—the way I understand God to be working in my life, and I knew she was right. “You’re going to post it tonight.” “I am?” “You are.” “Wait, no I’m not.” “Yyyyeah, you’re doing it. You want to.” “I’d better call my parents…”

I was jittery on my way back to Hill Hall 306. Upon getting there I took out my laptop and sat down on low drawers my roommate and I used as a seat. My Freedom Playlist was on, the first song of which is “Shake it Out” by Florence + the Machine. I danced and typed. On the ride home I’d sent out a mass prayer text, something I did before first talking with my parents about my sexuality and depression on the last day of Christmas break freshman year. As I reviewed and nit-picked the already carefully preened essay, notes of encouragement from friends lit up the screen of my phone. A few of them, like Brian, dropped in to hang around. “What’s taking you so long? Are you uploading before and after pictures or what?” I laughed, imagining what those would look like. Then, some time later: “Have you posted it yet?” “No, Brian, I’m working on the headers.” “Oh, are you making them rainbow colors?” “Thank you, Brian,” I said, laughing more.

If you were on the ground floor of Hill Hall that evening, you would have heard someone yelling loudly—around 10:00 pm, I think . I pressed the Publish button, slammed the laptop shut, stepped out of my room, and roared. I startled someone walking past my room.

—–

My counselor told me that, for many people, coming out is like stretching a limb that has never been used before. It is true. At 19 I started a process of puberty that most people endured in middle school. It has been both frustrating and beautiful. [While I still feel no need to elaborate here what I believe about gay marriage, suffice it to say that I am not 100% certain. The times of lesser certainty have also been the times I’ve been most depressed and prone to despair. They are the times when I have felt most detached from myself, when I have difficulty showering because I cannot stand being alone with my body, when I have wanted to stop eating. They are the times when I cannot look at a child without worrying that people will think I am a pedophile because I’m gay. They have not been times of flourishing.] As it stands, I know that God looked at the man he created and said, “It is not good for man to be alone.” I’m trying to believe that I will not be, regardless of that question.

I was planning to write a post about what all has changed since a year ago today. Reflecting on the past year, I’ve realized that my sexuality is rather low on that list. In chronological order, the year transpired thusly: I came out; I finished my work as Hill Hall President; I worked 2.5 jobs over the summer; I started attending St. Paul’s Episcopal Church; I studied at Oxford; my depression returned (and resurfaces occasionally); I gained clarity in vocation, deciding to go to divinity school; I pub-crawled the UK with my parents;  I Christmas-ed at home and was reminded of the amazing friends I have in Michigan; I resumed life at SPU; I became more introverted; I walked shoeless across the Ballard bridge in the rain, got soaking wet, and smiled like an idiot; I exchanged books with my favorite professor. Over the year, my desire for intimacy has been teaching me what it means that God yearns to be with us. I’ve learned a lot about love, freedom, and devotion. I learned a lot about how to be myself, and I learned that my belief in God is tenacious, even when I don’t know why.

—–

Last summer Mother Melissa, the former rector of St. Paul’s, gave a sermon called “Let Go,” which began,

I am in my seat with my seat belt buckled and the tray top in front of me upright and locked.  All my belongings are stowed: my suitcase in the overhead bin and my backpack under the seat in front of me.  We have finally been cleared for take off. I hear the engines rev up and in a moment we are off.  Faster and faster we go until I feel the front wheels lift off the ground. And at once two things happen: I think to myself: “Here I go dangling myself up in the clouds again!”, and I do something I have come to do on every flight: I take my hands that have been sitting in my lap and I turn them palms up toward the sky.

I admit it—I’m afraid of flying.  And so right at the moment when the plane leaves the ground, my instinct is both to open my hands in a kind of personal surrender and, for a moment, to pray for all of us on the plane as we put ourselves in the vulnerable position of having nothing underneath us to catch us should we fall.

—–

I woke up the next morning and walked out of the dorm. I’ve never felt so naked. But I was caught in a web of love—wrapped in it and clothed. Thank you all for your kindness.

If you need me in the next two hours, I’ll be at the Molly Moon’s on Queen Anne, eating ice cream with Claire.

Please keep in your prayers those for whom sexuality has been a wound. Pray for the teenagers who contemplate suicide because they are bullied for their sexuality, and for the gay people being abused in Russia and beaten in Nigeria. Peace to you.

eats stones and leaves

After Elaine prayed for me, there was a bit of a pause. I wasn’t sure whether she would start up again or if she expected me to pray, or if it was just over. She smiled before opening her eyes and saying, “I just got a picture.” The first of several visions Elaine shared with me that night. “I saw water… just… little fountains of water starting to shoot up—not to full height yet, but… does that mean anything to you?” It meant nothing to me. Thinking that she would be expecting something relatively deep, I made a conscious effort to leave my face unchanged as I started formulating some good old fashioned English Major bullshit about water (one of our most fertile symbols). “If it doesn’t mean anything, that’s alright.” My God, she can read me. “I just thought I’d ask…”

“I see the shoots of water as new things God is opening up for you. They’re just starting, but they’re there.”

I told her I’d look  for the little shoots of water. She laughed quietly and said, “Ok.”

—-

Less than ten years ago my father rented a high pressure water gun, the kind used to blast paint off of outdoor surfaces. We were in the front yard, but he needed to get something inside so he handed me the gun, saying, “Don’t touch the water. It could tear your finger off.” I touched the water, just grazed it with my finger. It hurt, but my finger remained attached. Triumph. I later asked my mother for help with the large blister that developed.

—–

Having finished J. K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy a few hours earlier in Heathrow, I pulled Stoner by John Williams out of my book-crammed backpack. It was a book whose cover caught my attention at Waterstones and Blackwell, two booksellers in Oxford. The cover of the new Vintage Classics edition being sold has three books stacked on top of one another. The blurbs on the back say things like ‘Stoner is a perfect novel,’ ‘A terrific novel of echoing sadness,’ and ‘democratic in how it breaks the heart… It is a triumph of literary endeavor.’ The brief synopsis says it is about William Stoner, who goes to the University of Missouri in 1910 to study agriculture but becomes a teacher instead, marries the wrong woman, leads a quiet life, and is rarely remembered after his death. In the past I read A Separate Peace and, more recently, Brideshead Revisited—both wartime novels involving university students. I loved Brideshead and liked A Separate Peace well enough, so I bought Stoner. By the time my flight touched down in Atlanta I had finished the book’s 288 pages. It was, as a dear professor of mine would say, “dreamy prose.”

Continue reading

Scotland, for I [Part I]

I don’t know much about alcohol, but I know enough to recognize that the air found where Wycliffe Hall’s courtyard spills into Norham Gardens smells like a gin and tonic. Sometimes I just stand there to drink it in.

I don’t know much about alcohol, but I know that I didn’t like the fruity slider I got at the Oxford Union’s club, the Purple Turtle. They have sliders named after every college and hall in Oxford, in addition to the houses of Hogwarts. Whoever came up with the blue-green bubblegum tasting shot for Wycliffe Hall—the Oxford centre for typically conservative Evangelicals—must have particularly savoured the irony of their concoction. Myself and a couple friends each downed one to commemorate the end of our first month at Oxford and the start of our first night out dancing. The decision to go out that night, for me at least, was both a horrible one and a wonderful one. Earlier in the day I had a hell of a time getting my new phone plan to work at the local branch of a UK mobile company, courtesy of their completely incompetent staff and shady business practices. It still doesn’t work. The next morning I needed to wake up at 6:30 to catch a train to Edinburgh, thus beginning the ten days of vacation between my pre-term classes and Michaelmas. I lied to myself saying that I would be able to get sleep on the train (I can’t sleep in moving vehicles), and danced until two in the morning, followed by a happy trip to a kebab stand—the staple English remedy for late night less-than-culinary cravings.

From my journal on the train to Edinburgh, via Birmingham:

I know where you are
but I can’t go there, so I’m
looking for you here

[the names and phone numbers of my contacts in Edinburgh]

I’d like to write something about the women in my life. Something about resilience and loud voices.

When I arrived in Edinburgh, after two hours spent in vain at the local branch of the UK mobile company, I took a taxi to the flat of the couple I was to sleep at for two nights. One perk of having a father who works in the world of academia is the network of kind academics that comes with him. The couple I stayed with are both professors at the University of Edinburgh, in theology and art history. After dropping off my bags, I went to find another couple that my dad arranged for me to hang out with (also professors, both theology). They showed me around the university. I have a disorder that kicks in when I visit most universities: I stop enjoying the place for its own sake and instead start enjoying the life I could potentially be living there—the people I’d know, the buildings I’d live and work in, the air I’d breathe. After a fairly thorough tour of Old Town and New Town, my guides took me to the Scotch Malt Whiskey Society, of which they are members. I had a beautiful plate of (well raised) haggis and what will probably be the best whiskey I’ll ever have, which is depressing given that I’m twenty years old. Continue reading

Virtual Travel Letter #1

Hello everyone everywhere,

I’m taking a break from paper writing, so apologies if this letter is bizarre.

Sorry that it’s taken me so long to write. As I think I mentioned in a blog post a week or so ago, they keep us pretty busy here. “Busy hands make idle hearts” or something, right?

Week one was perhaps the busiest due to the various orientations they had scheduled for us. We listened to people talk and walked around a lot. Week one here was also probably the weirdest week one I’ve had in a while. First week at college I was the guy bouncing off the walls saying hello to everyone that I recognized from Facebook. First week sophomore year at college I was the guy bouncing off the walls saying hello to everyone that I recognized from Facebook and their mom (whom I typically did not recognize from Facebook) because I was dorm president. It was my role but I was genuinely excited to meet everyone and love on everyone.

I was very excited to get here, but I was a bit more exhausted by all of the activities than I normally am in week ones. The other people in the program are greatbut the transition away from college was a bit rough. At college I feel known and good about it. Being put in a completely new place with completely new people was an adjustment. I’m all settled in now, though!

OH—I’m studying abroad at Oxford, not sure if that was clear!  I just realized that up to this point, I haven’t mentioned any specifics in this letter. If you don’t know where I am and what I’m doing, this letter could just as easily pass for an update from an optimistic person beginning their sentence in Siberia—that is not the case. I am indeed lucky enough to be studying abroad in Oxford, at Wycliffe Hall. “Hall” pretty much “college with religious affiliation.”

Anyhow, week two was the first week of our regular schedule (pronounced “shed” + “djool,” by the way). We have a lecture or two in the morning along with an education film now and then. Thursdays are for field trips.

I’ve found a nice coffee place called The Missing Bean. It is filled with beautiful hipsters and pretty good espresso. It reminds me of Seattle. It’s odd though: no one has aeropress or Chem X here. Instant coffee is pretty big, as is tea. They’re all about tea here. Who knew?

We’ve visited many cool places in a short amount of time. Please enjoy the pictures I’ve included with my card:

Much love to the family and to the pets. I hope the project you were working on turned out well.

Also, please send money when you can. All of the decadent meals out are surprisingly starting to drain my funds.

Peace and love,

you know who

I’m at Oxford

Since starting this blog, I have generally tried to keep its contents different than what you might find in my journal. My journal mostly contains descriptions of what I do in a particular day in addition to anything that is particularly wearing on my mind. I try to only blog about something if I think that others will either find it interesting, helpful, or well-crafted. The more mundane things go on my Facebook.

But now I am studying in Oxford, with less access to Facebook and less desire to access Facebook. Instead, I will put up a new blog post now and then to keep those I promised I would keep informed informed.

After a looooooong summer of work I packed up everything in the flat I shared with two coworkers over the summer. Looking ahead, when I go back to Seattle in January I will not be living in the same place, so in addition to Oxford packing I had moving packing to do. I had to leave 6:30 am the next morning to catch my flight. As all of my possessions (including my burgeoning library) were being fit together into boxes like the dullest of all 3d block puzzles that someone inevitably gives you for Christmas, I began to lose it. Maddie and Meredith, two of my favorite ladies (and each wonderful poets), held me together until 1:00 am, when the packing was finished. We crammed my luggage into Maddie’s car and drove to Beth’s Diner for a late night breakfast.

Nothing revives like Beth’s.

I got three hours of sleep that night and one hour the next night on my flight to Heathrow from JFK (having flown there from Seattle). I landed in London at 7:30 am, cleared immigration, and hopped aboard an Oxford-bound bus with several other people I recognized from Facebook. I am here with Best Semester’s Scholars’ Semester in Oxford (SSO). I’m a scholar now, Ma.

Myself and two new friends checked in to Wycliffe Hall, our home for the next few months, before finding a pub to eat, drink, and be as merry as one may be after two and a half days with four hours of sleep. Over the past few days, other students and I have journeyed numerous times into the heart of Oxford for books, groceries, tours, and meals. Those trips occur when we weren’t in some sort of orientation for the programme.

We will soon be falling into a regular schedule of classes. Until the Oxford term starts in about five weeks, we will be taking a class called British Landscapes. It is basically an English history and culture class, from what I understand. It may be taken with specific focuses on various disciplines. We will also begin the Seminar class on a discipline of our choosing that. We will meet with a professor once a week as a group until Oxford term starts. After that, we will attend 16 lectures and write a research paper on a topic of our choosing within the selected discipline. For both the Seminar and British Landscape class I chose Art History. A better understanding of art will enrich my understanding of history and increase the areas I can write about. Plus, it gives me an excuse to go to all of the wonderful museums here.

When the Oxford Michelmas term starts, I will be diving into Shakespeare with my primary tutorial. It’s nice because I have one book for that class: William Shakespeare: The Complete Works. Ha. I won’t read all of it, but I’ll make a good dent. My secondary tutorial will be on Modern Literature. For the purpose of this class, ‘modern’ means 20th century. The authors I’ll read are Waugh, Woolf, Elliot, and Plath.

There it is, a basic summary of my time at Oxford so far. And now, off to bed.