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David & Jonathan–Soap Opera Gays

Let’s face it, David’s life was a tragic soap opera to watch. It’s no wonder he had a lot of problems as an adult: what kind of kid turns out normal after he’s killed a giant, worked for someone who wants to kill him, and spends most of his young adult years as a refugee in exile?

Ah, but there’s a silver lining tying it all together: I’m talking of course about Saul’s son, Jonathan, who Scripture says loved David “as his own soul.” After defeating Goliath, Saul takes David under his wing, and gives him responsibility on a national scale. David quickly gains an even greater reputation than the king, prompting Saul to turn sour with jealousy, and in a fit of rage, attempt to take David’s life. He ends up running from Saul for multiple years, before he eventually is crowned king of Israel after Saul’s death.

I encourage everyone to read the whole thing, starting in 1 Samuel 17, and ending in 2 Samuel 1. It’s a wild ride. But for those primarily interested in the bromance, check out 1 Samuel 18-20, then skip to 2 Samuel 1. Both before and during Saul’s pursuit of David, Jonathan works behind the scenes, and alongside his beloved, to avert disaster and diffuse the situation. David and Jonathan make covenantal bonds together, they tie their families together with multi-generational promises, they laugh and cry together, they kiss, they embrace, they fall at each others’ feet, they say goodbye then meet spontaneously again, and at the end (spoiler alert!), Jonathan dies in battle, along with his father and two brothers. David, when he hears this news, tears his clothes, fasts, and writes a lamenation called The Song of the Bow.

In this poem, which he commands the people of Judah to learn and repeat, David says this about Jonathan:

“Jonathan lies slain upon your high places.
26     I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan;
greatly beloved were you to me;
    your love to me was wonderful,
    passing the love of women.”

Sure, David calls Jonathan a “brother,” which isn’t exactly a romantic moniker. And sure, maybe all he meant by his love “passing the love of women” was that he was more ~emotionally close~ with Jonathan than with any of the women he slept with or married (since, you know, marriage wasn’t for love back then, and women were seen as literally inferior beings).

But I’d ask you to hold your dismissal, and read the passage again in light of the suggestion that David and Jonathan were a thing. Read it with lgbt people in mind; your friend or relative. Read it as a soap opera, with fictional characters whose silly drama is a broad-stroke caricature of real life narratives. Whatever helps you imagine what it could mean for an lgbt person if David and Jonathan were connected in that way.

That’s what we did at Soulforce this summer: during our VBS, our spiritual strategist Alba Onofrio set our sights on dismantling the structures that weaponize Christianity against lgbt folks, and helped us move towards liberating our bodies, decolonizing our minds, and healing our souls.

This is deep spirit work, and it was hard. I’d been avoiding reading large portions of Scripture for a long time, because the tension and exhaustion I knew I would feel would be too much. As much as I love meeting God in the pages of the Bible, most of the time I flip through certain verses and texts it’s in order to defend my existence, and justify my life choices to people who want to control what I do with my body.

But in the right context, spoken by a friend for the purpose of building up, not tearing down, Alba’s voice breathed new life into sacred text, and I was released into the gift of tears. I looked into the terrible, dramatic, heart-wrenching soap opera of David’s exile, and saw myself in Jonathan, willing to give my life for a boy I loved, to fight for him until death do us part. I looked into a sacred story, and saw my own reflected in its depths. I felt Scripture as life-giving once again.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of good representation for lgbt folks. I don’t just mean the representation we see in Hollywood (while lgbt actors have careers, most lgbt characters pander to stereotypes). I mean representation in life. Can we look around and see viable models of lgbt people in relationship with each other? Can we look at our churches and see lgbt people perfectly integrated in all positions? Can we look backwards, and see our stories in the pages of history?

Straight folks take this representation for granted, so it’s difficult sometimes to truly perceive the cavernous gap between the world as they see it, and the world from our eyes. But bridging that gap is possible, and in fact necessary if the church is to remain relevant in a changing culture (and by “remain relevant,” I mean survive).

To be honest, I had encountered in passing the argument that “David and Jonathan were gay!” as a justification for pro-gay theology, during my evangelical days. It struck me at the time as grandstanding, disingenuous, and manipulative of the “plain sense” reading of Scripture. While I obviously think very differently today, I’m not actually saying I firmly believe and am convinced that David and Jonathan can be called gay by our modern standards (David was actually bisexual–bisexuals exist too!). In fact, that kind of black-and-white thinking is exactly what I’m trying to say is stifling, obstructive, and life-draining.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter exactly what happened between David and Jonathan; whether they had sex or not, whether David reciprocated Jonathan’s feelings or not, whether Jonathan, were he alive today, would classify those feelings as romantic or sexual.

Simply allowing for that possibility is enough for lgbt people like me to take a shuddering breath, to feel a release from the pressure we’ve fought against for so many years.

It’s like insisting that unicorns are mentioned in the Bible: it’s a fun mental exercise, used to reveal the insipid legalism in much of the evangelical mindset. We can’t know either way; the point of it all is to maintain space for mystery, to entertain the possibility that maybe there’s more to life than we realize, more than what fits into our comfortable binaries and our social institutions.

But I do have to leave with an observation: not all God’s children are born with gaydar. If the straights can’t be trusted to recognize rainbow people when we march across the pages of fiction (my entire English class once protested of the blatantly lesbian Annie John “but some gals are pals, it’s just hard to tell!”), can we really trust them with any other literary or historical figures?

~~~

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Finding Rebekah–Let’s Ask the Women

The story of Isaac and Rebekah in Genesis 24 goes like this: good old father Abraham asked a humble servant to find a wife for his son, and when she came back, it was love at first sight!

We all know the moment at the well, when God answers (some would say miraculously) the servant’s prayer with uncanny timing, and Rebekah is revealed, through giving water to the camels, as the divinely ordained bride for Abraham’s only son Isaac, both of whom are now totally peachy even though dad almost killed him all those years back. And when Rebekah rides into Abraham’s land and sees Isaac, she gets off her camel, puts on a veil, and Isaac takes her into his mom’s tent and she became his wife; and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.” 

It’s all well and good for Isaac, but I want to know what Rebekah feels. Especially when she’s asked to suddenly give up her old life (and her old loves) to go find a husband in a man she has never met.

That kind of situation is so foreign to us that I think we should hold off on the hand-waving dismissal of “that’s just how they did things back then, spouses didn’t know each other.” While that’s true, we as North American Christians in the 21st century should not be so quick to dismiss that as a given. What must that feel like, as a woman, as a new bride, as someone with hopes and dreams and likes and dislikes, and most of all, family, to put all those things aside for the sake of continuing your life with a well-off stranger?

And then there’s this part of the story, right before the iconic “love at first sight” verses. I can’t recall ever hearing this part of the passage read aloud in any church setting:

model-2346258_192054 Then he and the men who were with him ate and drank, and they spent the night there. When they rose in the morning, he said, “Send me back to my master.” 55 Her brother and her mother said, “Let the girl remain with us a while, at least ten days; after that she may go.” 56 But he said to them, “Do not delay me, since the Lord has made my journey successful; let me go that I may go to my master.” 57 They said, “We will call the girl, and ask her.” 58 And they called Rebekah, and said to her, “Will you go with this man?” She said, “I will.” 59 So they sent away their sister Rebekah and her nurse along with Abraham’s servant and his men. 60 And they blessed Rebekah and said to her,

“May you, our sister, become
    thousands of myriads;
may your offspring gain possession
    of the gates of their foes.”

 

61 Then Rebekah and her maids rose up, mounted the camels, and followed the man; thus the servant took Rebekah, and went his way.”

To be fair, I don’t think we send our relatives off with blessings like “may your offspring gain possession of the gates of their foes” anymore either. There’s a lot that’s inaccessible about this whole thing to contemporary readers.

But what bothered me is that the servant didn’t even let Rebekah say goodbye to her family. Her mom and brother asked for at least ten days, and instead the servant asks to leave immediately. I doesn’t escape my notice that Rebekah is given the ability to choose whether to go with him or stay, but all things considered, she had few real options. And the servant’s reason for not delaying is that he wanted to return to his master as quickly as possible. He didn’t seem too concerned with what this decision meant to Rebekah.

Family defined a woman’s identity. Rebekah introduced herself as “the daughter of Bethuel son of Milcah, whom she bore to Nahor,” because the servant didn’t ask “who are you?” he said “Tell me whose daughter you are.” The gravity of leaving your family (permanently, no postal service) and joining a new one, in which you will know and be known intimately, can hardly be overstated. Have any of us had to leave behind our living loved ones permanently? 

I’m not saying it’s wrong, but it’s romanticized. Rebekah’s incredible sacrifice and strength of resolve is at least as dramatic an act of faith as Abraham leaving his own family behind when God first called him to go to an unknown land, and I think that should be the focus of what we teach our youth, rather than perpetuating fruitless romantic ideals. 

Let’s return to the last verse, the bow that ties it all together: and she became his wife; and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.” 

So we know that Isaac loved Rebekah, and that might have been from first sight. But we aren’t told how Rebekah feels towards Isaac. Cue sexist trope of women having no active sex drive or romantic affections, just passively receiving attention from men. Insert proper marriage ceremonial things here, I’m sure, but it sounds like Isaac got to baby-making pretty quick. It’s nice that the guy felt better after mourning his mom, but is that a healthy model for sexuality today? That’s not even healthy self-care, we already know that using a new relationship to replace or rebound from the trauma of a painful one is inherently damaging. If our significant others got with us right after their mom’s passing, and specifically said we comforted them for that reason, would we have no problems? 

Sure, I can see the theological niceties of saying “look how God provides,” and I do think it was on purpose, that God orchestrated a beautiful and loving and redemptive marriage between Isaac and Rebecca. I just want us to hail Rebecca as the heroine of the story. And to stop pretending her story is an easy or painless one.

The servant also deserves a closer look. Swipe back a few chapters, and we see the motivation for finding a wife who would have to uproot and travel back to Isaac: you will not get a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I live, but will go to my country and to my kindred and get a wife for my son Isaac.”

In order for the promise to continue, intermarriage with local women was not an option. Abraham made the servant swear an oath, placing his hand under Abraham’s thigh (apparently that was a thing back in the day), and was adamant that Isaac remain with Abraham while the wife was to come to him. Any mention of mutual feelings or compatibility? Nah, marriage for love hadn’t been invented yet. Marriage for family purity though, that was super in style. Tribalism in peak season. 

So is there nothing to be said of the servant at the end of the story? What did he get out of this situation? What was the conversation like when he went back to Abraham, not just Isaac, with the story of his success? Was he lauded, celebrated, given due praise? Or did Abraham, his worries assuaged, brush aside his excitement and send him off on some other errand, just like us readers are encouraged to forget him as soon as he relays his message to Isaac?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but just asking them, giving space for other voices to be heard, can energize our witness and our engagement with Scripture. And if we really believe that the word of God is living and active, we should expect a dynamic message that meets us right where we are, in this time and place.

Who’s ready for a Sunday school lesson about the courage and faith of the matriarchs?

Binding Isaac–Let’s Ask the Children

The typical sermon constructed around the Binding of Isaac goes like this: Abraham had so much faith in God that he was willing to sacrifice anything, even his own son, for the sake of obeying God. That’s how much faith Abraham had.

It begs the question, faith in what exactly? Which attribute of God did Abraham have so much faith in that he was willing to bind his son to an altar and kill him? Certainly not faith in God’s view of all beings created equal, with equal worth, having an equally hopeful future and purpose. And apparently, not faith in God’s unchanging nature or unbreakable promises. Remember, his wife laughed out loud when God suggested she would get pregnant. And in fact, not more than four chapters prior, Abraham himself changed God’s mind when it came to the fate of Lot and the city of Sodom.

So why didn’t Abraham argue with God over his son the same way he did for his cousin Lot?

We need to remember that children were not seen as they are today. Now we lather our kids in legal and social protections, perhaps to a fault. Then, they functioned as a measure of a man’s material worth, alongside women and cattle.

But that’s far from an excuse. In fact, that should be an indictment. Isaac’s relationship with his father would have suffered irreparable damage after this moment, no matter that Abraham never actually sunk the knife in.

At this point, I should also point out that the idea of challenging the patriarchs is not a radical, revisionist reading of Scripture. One pastor I once heard give the typical “obedience and faith” sermon on the binding of Isaac turned right around and said we shouldn’t follow the example of patriarchs like Jonah (who ran away) or Adam (who caved to temptation). So it seems that even by evangelical standards, using the patriarchs as anti-examples is acceptable. It just depends on the message you’re trying to send.

And so, in search of a different message, I’ve been helped by articles like this towards a different understanding. What if we read this passage, and others like it, through the lens of child advocacy and development? What if instead of obedience to authority, conformity to external power structures, and blind faith in the benevolence of authority figures at the expense of reason and rationality, the lessons we learned from this part of Scripture had to do with preventing child abuse, and promoting emotional literacy and bodily autonomy for children? What if we asked how Isaac felt, and gave him a voice where Genesis gives him none?

If someone were to replicate Abraham’s act of “faith” today, they would be arrested. Maybe it wouldn’t directly involve child sacrifice, but would any scenario in which a parent disregarded the life of their child for the sake of principle be acceptable? Our current laws and social norms say absolutely not. And yet we continue to teach our youth to venerate Abraham for being ~faithful and obedient~ because it’s all a test; it’s about whether you’re willing to put God first above everything else. 

But what if God was testing Abraham to see if he understood what kind of God he was serving? In other words, what if the test was not whether Abraham would follow instructions to the letter, but whether he would have the guts, and the discernment, to say, “No, I’m not doing that, the God I serve would not ask something like that of me”? 

The line between Abraham’s mistake of actually intending to sacrifice Isaac (and causing all kinds of trauma), compared with his earlier successes of literally changing the mind of the Almighty by bargaining for the life of a few of his relatives in a nearby city, could serve as a nuanced and potent discussion of ethics today, especially when it comes to prayer and revelation. Just because we can talk to God, and trust that God is revealed to us, does not mean we always see or hear correctly. 

The ancient world was full of gods who demanded blood and unswerving loyalty. That was nothing new. To see God as Lord, to understand obedience and surrender as central to a pious life, was nothing new. But that this particular God, claiming to be absolutely sovereign over all other gods, was also good and gentle and humble? That was radical and revolutionary. Maybe the blessing at the end of the ordeal, where God reaffirmed Abraham as the future father of many nations, was only the least good outcome: maybe Abraham, and us as well, missed a valuable opportunity to understand God as loving above all else; to understand that we worship the God who does not require child sacrifice. 

My guess is that you won’t find this interpretation of Genesis 22 very often in evangelical circles. That’s not necessarily because all evangelicals are resistant towards alternative readings of Scripture (although that’s often the case). There’s just such a good opportunity in these verses to bulwark the institutional authority of the church, and tighten the unholy ties between church and state. The purpose behind the “obedience readings” of passages like Genesis 22 is to further the status quo in regards to power structures and authorities. If the test of good Christian faith is blind obedience to the point of sacrificing loved ones against all rationality and intuition, then it makes sense that slaves ought to obey their masters, or wives ought to submit to their husbands and not speak in church, or the poor should submit to the governing authorities.

The Religious Right has intentionally and explicitly used Scripture for political ends: it’s up to us to counter their harmful theologies and just as intentionally use Scripture to work towards the flourishing of all humankind.

Naturally Odd–Unicorns in Romans 1

According to the KJV Bible, unicorns existed. So did dragons and dinosaurs.

Here are places to find them: for unicorns, check out Numbers 23:22, Numbers 24:8, Deuteronomy 33:17, Job 39:9, 10, Psalm 22:21, Psalm 29:6, Psalm 92:10, and Isaiah 34:7. For dinosaurs and dragons, check out Job 40:15-24, and all of chapter 41.

While some may be familiar with the discourse around the behemoth and leviathan, very few people I’ve encountered are aware that the KJV recognizes unicorns as a given part of God’s creation. Here are some of their appearances (bolds are mine):

22 God brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn. (Num 23)

17 His glory is like the firstling of his bullock, and his horns are like the horns of unicorns (Deut. 33)

Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide by thy crib? 10 Canst thou bind the unicorn with his band in the furrow? or will he harrow the valleys after thee? (Job 39)

He maketh them also to skip like a calf; Lebanon and Sirion like a young unicorn. (Psalm 29)

10 But my horn shalt thou exalt like the horn of an unicorn: I shall be anointed with fresh oil. (Psalm 92)

And the unicorns shall come down with them, and the bullocks with the bulls; and their land shall be soaked with blood, and their dust made fat with fatness. (Isaiah 37)

Insisting on this point will quickly generate some heated debate, which is ironic because when lgbt people make these kinds of claims, it’s a tongue-in-cheek criticism of indefensible unscientific perspectives that people use Scripture to cling to, as well as an earnest assertion that creation, a reflection of its Creator, is more weird and wild than we give her credit for; our little sister Nature is not a tame fairy, she will not go quietly into our boxes, or file two-by-two into a wooden boat.

This summer I’ve been blessed to participate in a VBS put on by Soulforce, an organization dedicated to sabotaging Christian supremacy and ending spiritual violence against lgbt people. Our focus is reclaiming the gender and sexual diversity in creation from those who would have us believe “nature” supports the artificial binaries we’ve constructed in order to control subordinate bodies.

To begin our adventure, we turned to Romans 1, a classic “clobber passage” that lgbt people are all-too-familiar with. The turning point of this passage is the word “nature”: what is “natural” and “unnatural,” and what does it take to move in between the two?

I’ve always wondered to whom Paul was referring when he lays out his graphic and dismal transition from “natural” to “unnatural,” priming us for the bait-and-switch in chapter 2 when he reveals he’s condemning judgmental attitudes in the early church. In the span of 14 versus, Paul refers to those he’s addressing as “they” no fewer than 13 times. So who are “they”?

Usually evangelicals use this passage to justify violence against or exclusion of lgbt people. “They” refers to gay men, lesbians, and bisexual and trans people. “They” are the ones who have “exchanged the truth of God for a lie” and “worshipped created things rather than the Creator.” And as a result, according to the logic of the passage, our very sexual desires became perverted, and we ended up in festering communities of sin and filth.

There are several problems with this, not least of all the very next chapter: if “they” specifically refers to lgbt people, then why would Paul say, in the very next breath, “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things”? Does this mean that straight Christians who judge lgbt people are… also lgbt? That doesn’t seem to fit. The most common response I’ve heard to this is a classic deflecting tactic: evangelicals will turn right around and expatiate on how everyone is a sinner, we all have our crosses to bear, no one is perfect, all sin is equally sinful compared to a holy God, and you can’t judge one sin as worse than another (at which point the conversation should stop, since ranking sins is characteristic of evangelical Christianity in this country). All these phrases redefine “they” as referring to everyone, every human being. In other words, they change their minds about the specific condemnation of lgbt people in the first chapter of Romans. It’s talking about everyone, not gay people.

There is an interesting point to be made, however, in regards to the ancient understanding of sexuality as inherently bisexual; to some degree, people in Paul’s day really did believe that everyone could find themselves attracted to any gender, including their own. But that’s history, and when has history ever been relevant to the honorable evangelical tradition of gay bashing?

So then we turned to examining “nature,” to see what she had to say about sexuality and gender in the animal kingdom. We quickly found that the narratives of monogamous, heterosexual pair-bondings do not dominate the scene in any capacity, and even basic understandings of reproduction and sexual contact came into question.

These discoveries deserve posts of their own, but the point is that we were lied to about what “naturally” occurs in creation. The rift between real patterns of animal behavior and what I was led to believe stretches too wide to be a mistake. It’s deliberate misinformation for the express purpose of controlling our bodies and sexualities.

In light of all this, I submit that “they” refers to the Religious Right, “those who by their wickedness suppress the truth.”

A reclaimed and repurposed look at the Romans 1 passage offers a more liberating perspective: whatever the specific context, the biblical mandate is to do what is “natural” for each of us; the sin is exchanging what is natural for what is unnatural. 

Translation: closet living and forced celibacy is going against nature, and living into our sexuality is a biblical requirement.

In this way, lgbt people can keep all the weight and authority of Scripture, with none of the fear and shame, and move forward with a renewed application of sacred texts that gives life instead of takes it away.

We are the unicorns in Romans 1: that part of creation divinely inspired to live naturally odd lives, mysterious enough to threaten the status quo, magical enough to generate mythologies around us and our history, loud enough to join the chorus of the heavens and earth that cry out knowledge day and night.

It will be an uphill battle, because when the evangelical church has long denied the existence of lgbt people within its ranks, are we at all surprised that culturally gay symbols would face the same vehement rejection, even when they are found in the pages of Scripture itself?

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The “Set Apart” People–Popping the Christian Bubble

Here are two unpopular opinions: 1) Christianity is a culture, and 2) it’s not healthy to be in an all-Christian environment.

Sounds funny coming from a Christian, even funnier from someone who believes that the energies of faith, hope, and love, mediated through intentional community, can heal the ills of the world.

But I stand by those statements, because I care about the future of the church. And right now, the North American church is diseased. Not by the ~homosexual~ agenda, not by cultural Marxism, but by an unholy relationship with empire. As Warren Cole Smith makes clear in his writings, the modern American church is entangled in the Christian-industrial complex, and actively involved in perpetuating imperialism, willing to sacrifice the lives and wellbeing of disenfranchised people for the sake of power, wealth, and status.

It’s a grim diagnosis, but if true, why does it matter whom individual Christians spend their time with? It matters because the point behind saying “you shouldn’t surround yourself with just Christians” is that many people don’t think of Christianity as a culture. But it is. And that’s absolutely essential to understand: it means when we talk of living counter-culturally, as a “set apart” people, we need to apply that line of thinking to church life as well. The gospel call to a distinct and subversive way of living will always end in disrupting the status quo, especially that of religious conservatives like the Pharisees. 

A pastor recently said that those of us who successfully live out this “set apart” life will be misunderstood, our motives questioned, our methods obstructed. I’ve been challenged and misunderstood and questioned by Christians ever since I came out and insisted on keeping my faith. But as Mother Teresa encourages, we should do and be good anyway, regardless of the pushback and criticism we receive from the culture we’re living “separate” from.

And so I will: by being my fully gay self without stepping outside the church, I’m living out the challenge to “go against the grain” and be “counter-cultural”.  It’s just that the culture I’m countering is Christian, not whatever caricature of “mainstream” culture evangelicals use to bolster their positions. 

But what church am I talking about? I don’t mean the spiritual Body of Christ, which I believe to be diffused across the globe, irrespective of culture, race, class, gender, sexuality.  As Gerard Manley Hopkins once exalted in his poem Kingfishers Catch Fire:

“Christ plays in ten thousand places, / Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his / To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”

But if we actually hold this sentiment to be true, if we assert that our faith is transcendent of culture (as any timeless truth must be), then we should expect Christ to appear in unexpected places, and we should be wary of any system that seeks to constrict the manifestation of Christ to a certain type of person (in this case, ones called “Christians”).

And we should most of all shun any rhetoric that enforces “us vs. them” dichotomies, vilifying the “other” as degenerate, lost, dangerous, less capable of good than we are.

But that’s exactly the rhetoric Christian communities perpetuate.  Groups that define themselves as Christian in opposition to the “unsaved” or “nonbelievers” intrinsically, whether intentionally or not, paint those outside the group as inferior in some way. Sometimes those outside the group are just to be pitied, and nothing worse. But that’s the exception rather than the rule.

Take for instance the assertion that our true home as Christians is on the other side of eternity. One pastor I recently heard emphasized that we don’t fit into the culture as Christians; we’re aliens and foreigners and our home is not here. The good thing is I know his praxis includes refugees and immigrants; that’s often the biggest hurdle of hypocrisy that the majority of evangelicalism fails to get over. And it’s the height of vanity when white Americans complain of feeling displaced on land we stole from the First Nations through genocide.

But I want to push back on the assertion itself: do straight white male Christian pastors really feel that they don’t belong in this world? 

I get the universal appeal of “homeless hearts,” a term Jay Johnson uses in Peculiar Faith to describe the restlessness every person feels as a result of our fallen condition, because I make it myself. Chesterton refers to this when he says Christianity answered “why I could feel homeless at home.” This idea is a cornerstone of my theology and praxis. 

But given all that, shouldn’t we defer to the people who are literally actually homeless, as well as to those who are forced to the margins of society? Sorry but Christians in this nation are not that. Lgbt people are, people of color are, women are, disabled people are. To keep harping on how Christians are the outcasts does not reflect reality in this nation. It’s great to make the universal appeal of “homeless hearts,” but that’s not what usually happens. More often, I hear people specifically name Christians as the inherently dispossessed group, which is just simply not true in this country. 

And that’s why I insist on identifying Christianity as a culture (as well as all the other things it is): because if you’re going to argue that people of faith are dispossessed, people who are followers of the one true God, people indwelled and transformed by the Holy Spirit, people dedicated to living a life of discipleship to Jesus, in ways that confront and confound the “spirit of this world,” then you have to distinguish between those people and “the church,” or “Christians.” You just have to distinguish. Because the two are not the same. Sure there’s overlap, it’s a dynamic Venn diagram, but they are not the same. Especially in this country. In case anyone forgot, 81% of the evangelical vote went to Trump. 

Now’s a good time for a caveat, one I hope will shift focus from what I resist to what I stand for:

Christian communities that define themselves as part of a larger group tend to be much healthier, and produce better fruit. For example, my parents spent the better part of two decades doing inner-city ministry in Los Angeles with an organization called World Impact. One of the central values they lived by was that ministry must be incarnational, which in context meant living just like the neighbors in order to be a neighbor, a member of the community. For lots of new missionaries, that means giving up a level of luxury they were used to, and committing to doing life with those around them, instead of insulating themselves from those around them.

This is in line with what Warren Smith posits as a solution to the malaise of evangelicalism: a return to missional models of church planting, tried-and-true methods that have continued to show great success decade after decade.

Books have been written about this, but the thing I want to draw out of that solution is this: the Great Commission has always been about going to people instead of withdrawing from them (and then asking them to come to us).

So let’s make sure not to surround ourselves with Christians. Let’s do our best to pop all the Christian bubbles when we see them: venture out into unfamiliar ground, meet unfamiliar people, whenever our daily parlance threatens to become insular and repetitive.

Popping the Christian bubble will not only give Christians a breath of fresh air: it will also allow nonChristians to catch a less distorted glimpse of the God we serve, full of grace and truth.

 

Thanks Church–Why I’m a Recovering Evangelical

Three years ago, I wrote a post about facing fear, realizing that at the core of my struggle with faith and sexuality, boys were not the problem: fear was. Around the same time, I finally broke off my involvement in the ex-gay community, and experienced a rush of relief from the shame I carried for being gay in the church.

I use the phrase “recovering evangelical” as Warren Cole Smith uses it in his excellent volume, A Lover’s Quarrel with the Evangelical Church. I won’t repeat his well-versed and thorough research in its entirety, but suffice it to say there is a deep disease in the evangelical church today, and I was thoroughly infected. Let me also pause to say that, like Smith, I approach my critique of the evangelical church from the position of a lover, not a cynic. I am an insider, a family member, to the evangelical church. Which makes the divorce all the more bitter. Because it comes down to this: the church, the Body of Christ, is designed to be a home for all. People like me, who grew up in this home, never wanted to leave. But lgbt people are kicked out of homes all the time; it’s not our wayward feet that leads us astray, it’s active rejection from those whom we used to call family.

As a young gay teen, I was instilled with a deep fear, not that I was hell-bound, but that I was doomed to isolation in this life, among the humans I loved. I wasn’t afraid of hell; I was afraid of myself. I’m not sure which is worse. Both can lead to suicide, and too often that’s exactly what young lgbt people resort to. If your future is monstrous, there’s nothing to live for, and if you’re the monster, you shouldn’t endanger people by continuing to live.

I realized I was gay when I hit puberty, around 12 years old. I was suicidal by 14. By the grace of God, I gathered the courage to come out to my parents instead of taking my own life, and since then fear has never been tight enough to stop my breathing.

But as I began to find personal freedom from the fear of myself and my sexuality, I wondered where that fear came from in the first place, and how wide and deep it really is.

As it turns out, fear is a primary motivator behind much of today’s evangelical theology, culture, and community. This is a hard pill to swallow, but it needs to be said. And if our first reaction is to balk and withdraw from this diagnosis, maybe it would help to consider the incredible courage it takes lgbt people to come out, part of which involves admitting the powerful role fear plays in our lives.

Modern evangelical eschatology is apocalyptic: the world is going to hell in a hand-basket. Since the Fall, humankind has continued to decline, and in our contemporary society we can see increased levels of decadence and depravity. The violence rocking the globe is an inevitable (and therefore to some extent excusable) result of the creation’s “groaning” in wait for Jesus’ return, at which point all things will be made right again, but only after this world has been devoured by fire.

As Smith would remind us, Jesus did not see things this way: his life and ministry were categorized not by fear of the future, but by urgent hope for a redeemed one. Our fear stems largely from events that caused national anxiety, such as the Cold War, Vietnam, and Watergate. Many also considered the creation of the state of Israel the last fulfillment of prophecy, an event that heralded the end times. At this point, we should be able to see that these fears are unfounded.

Nevertheless, they leak into our politics. Gay and bi people threaten the stability of the family; trans people threaten the safety of women and children; nonbinary people are sadly confused snowflakes. In that context, to turn around and suggest that lgbt people, with our lives and identities, have something valuable to offer the church, and aren’t just the uncomfortable leftovers that we have to let in on Sunday? Preposterous.

But we do have something to offer. Namely, the journey towards overcoming fear and shame.

As a recent high school grad, I struggled to stay consistent in the online ex-gay bible studies I was involved in. I had already been suspended from the course a couple times because I hadn’t reached the level of “faithfulness” or “success” that was expected at a certain level. For context, I was trying to “find freedom from homosexuality,” in language that boldly promised an end to “same-sex attraction,” and a realizing of the fulness of our God-given potential (which meant being straight).

At this point, around 19 years old, I had some issues with the program. I had heard the phrase “love the sinner, hate the sin” repeated ad nauseam, and I still thought it was a useful distinction: whatever was sinful about being gay, the feelings themselves, the fact that I was attracted to other males, couldn’t be sin. At no point had I ever chosen these feelings, and I was literally in the process of choosing against them. How could I be held responsible for something I had no control over? But the rhetoric of the ex-gay community continued to insist on gayness itself as the disease that needed healing, and I internalized this message in a deep and foundational way.

The thing about shame is that it runs deeper than guilt: you can feel guilty over actions, but shame is about identity. And the whole point of confession and sanctification is that sin is an issue of guilt, not shame. Yes, the doctrine of original sin teaches that sin is part of our very nature. But as people indwelled with the Holy Spirit, we are made new, in our entirety.

And honestly, this part of evangelical doctrine (especially total depravity) that postures the “unsaved” and “nonbelievers” as a different category of human, intrinsically less holy, and less capable of virtuous motives than Christians, is frankly gross. It’s exactly the kind of rhetoric that encourages violence against lgbt people: if we are by nature sinful and depraved, by virtue of our sexually gendered selves, then we can never fully enter the communion of saints like straight and cisgender people can.

Unsurprisingly, this was the message I heard from the ex-gay community. You were only acceptable if you were fighting tooth and nail to not be who you were; refusing to identify as lgbt, repenting of any and all sexuality, whether bodily activity or mental fantasies (yep, masturbation and imagination both called for repentance), and praying and hoping for the day when God would unlock your latent attraction to the opposite gender. This was bulwarked by “testimonies” of “successful” ex-gay participants, who often wrote only a few months after taking the course, and admitted to continuing same-gender attraction. Several of them boasted of marriages to opposite-gender partners, which then imploded years later. The overwhelming majority of ex-gay participants, research shows, do not experience orientation change, and many cannot maintain the superficial “lifestyle” changes they tout as victories instead.

Thankfully, my story did not end up as one of those statistics. I ended my involvement in ex-gay communities during college, and have never looked back. Almost immediately, I felt more at home in my own body, more at home with God, and more at home among others.

This is, of course, a deeply personal reason for describing my current state as one of “recovery.” I also think it is important to retain the word “evangelical” in that recovery, because it is the context in which ex-gay communities continue to thrive.

Once again, however, I found that shame runs deeper and wider in modern evangelicalism, and affects other bodies besides lgbt youth. Later, I hope to address the rise of the Religious Right and the Moral Majority, the establishment of the single-issue voter, especially in regards to reproductive rights, and the extent to which evangelical politics have become inbred with Western imperialism.

Now, I want to reiterate that I still believe salvation lies in the miraculous power of faith.

Jay Emerson Johnson, in his fantastic book Peculiar Faith, outlines a way forward for Christian witness, using insights from the lives of lgbt people to discern the future of our transformative faith. Commenting on the Book of Acts, Johnson says in asking Jesus whether he would restore the kingdom of Israel, the disciples were missing the point. Whatever the resurrection of Jesus means, it does not entail restoring an orderly past. Instead, it institutes a dynamic and open future.

81% of evangelicals (who voted) voted for Trump. Trump ran on a platform of nostalgia: the slogan “Make American Great Again” is catered to a population who pines for the good old days, which are inevitably a romanticized view of a past that never existed. This false promise blatantly ignores the lives of people of color, women, and lgbt people, none of whom have any “glory days” to look back on (not in this nation, at least).

Christ calls us to more. Taking seriously Christ’s call to ministry among the poor, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed, ends in nothing less than a movement that “overturns economic systems that keep the poor in poverty (Acts 4:34-35); resists institutional authorities jealous of their own power (5:17-26); violates social and class boundaries (8:25-40); and rejects cultural and religious standards of propriety (10:9-30).”

That is a faith I can get behind. These are theologies that give life, rather than take it.

What am I recovering from? Fear and shame. What am I holding on to? Faith, hope, and love. Once the evangelical church can more fully leave behind the former and cling to the latter, I’ll be ready with open arms to receive her again.

Until then, I’m keeping my distance.

Embodied & Erotic–My Problem with Christian Music

During my second week as a barista-in-training, I had a customer exclaim, “You guys are playing nonChristian music? Who’s in charge of this?”

I deflected the question, saying I wasn’t in charge of music, and I hadn’t even noticed. It’s true; until she pointed it out, I hadn’t paid attention to the music we were playing in the background. Then I listened, and was happy to hear the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, an indie-rock band whose music I thoroughly enjoy.

I wish I could say I had no idea why the woman had an issue with secular music. Unfortunately, I can: I grew up in the same evangelical environment that called any form of nonChristian media dangerous at best, and completely sinful at worst (which was often). It was a great irony, because my parents and I loved to make fun of the endlessly repetitive and unoriginal covers on Christian radio stations, while at home appreciating the excellent quality and variety of Putumayo’s world music collections. Nevertheless, at church, in youth groups, and at bible studies, I was taught that secular music was dangerous, especially for its erotic qualities. Careful, our elders said, if you listen to secular music, you might just want to have sex.

As a young gay teen, this message caused deeper problems than even those with a puritanical streak anticipated. I was wary of music with any hint of sexuality (which was most music), because for me, sexuality itself was sinful and dangerous. The distinction between love and lust did not exist when it came to how music affected me: because I was to repress any and all gay feelings, I was also to avoid any and all sexually suggestive music that would affect me in any way. Not because they could lead my burgeoning self astray; my sexually gendered body was already damaged goods, and only needed the slightest push to fall into irredeemable sin.

Back in 2014, Jon Foreman from Switchfoot explained why he does not use a Christian label for his music:

“What is more Christ-like, feeding the poor, making furniture, cleaning bathrooms, or painting a sunset? There is a schism between the sacred and the secular in all of our modern minds… An obligation to say this or do that does not sound like the glorious freedom that Christ died to afford me.”

In an article responding to Switchfoot’s comments on what counts as “Christian” music, Kristie Eshelman maintains that “it is so important for us to have a kingdom-oriented mindset in everything we do. It’s not necessarily about slapping a Christian label on everything we touch; it’s about our faithfulness and obedience in our vocations and in the workplace.”

This should be intuitive to dedicated Christians who care about God’s kingdom on Earth; certainly for Christians who care so much about proper piety that they refuse to listen to anything but Christian music. However, the label itself can keep us from faithfulness and obedience in our vocations.

Warren Cole Smith, author of “A Lover’s Quarrel with the Evangelical Church,” argues that commercializing the term “Christian” has caused great amounts of harm to our witness and our communities. He uses the term “Christian industrial complex” to describe this problem: a “pathological relationship [that] has emerged between the Christian retail industry and the Christian church.”

Rather than regurgitate his careful research and wide-ranging analysis of Christian culture, I want to assume that my audience shares at least an unease about the state of the church today, and that this unease can be loosely attributed to a feeling that we’ve capitulated to the culture we’re supposed to be “set apart” from. So many Christians, of all age groups and backgrounds, feel a disconnect between what the church is and what it should be. Whether that encompasses young people leaving the church in droves, the rise of the megachurch and subsequent floundering of smaller, local congregations, or disillusionment with modern ways of doing church, we feel that something has been lost, or not quite attained.

For me as a young closeted teen, having no words or context to understand where these feelings of angst and dissatisfaction came from, avoiding sexuality in music proved an impossible and endlessly frustrating task, and only served to exacerbate the desperation of my repressed sexuality. As I discovered the world of dance, I slowly gave up any pretense of disliking “secular” erotic music from a moralizing perspective. I still wrote poems about the power of sexually charged music, and always ended them with how I would remain steadfastly immune to it. But in time, that too proved to be not only impossible but disingenuous.

Because to my great surprise, as I matured, I began to notice the erotic in sacred, “Christian” music as much as it was in “secular” music. Countless worship songs posture the singer and the sung-to in an all-but-explicit erotic relationship. And these contemporary examples of eroticized spirituality are just the latest iteration of a long tradition of Christian mysticism: everything from the Song of Songs to the desert mothers and fathers’ insistence on using the language of the erotic speaks to the long-standing embodied nature of our worship.

But in our theologies, at least as they’re dumbed down into language kids can understand, we uphold the artificial dichotomy between the body and the spirit; between the sacred and secular; between the sexual and the spiritual.

It’s time to bridge the gap and heal the rift, if we are to encourage young folks, especially lgbt people, to worship the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.

We do a disservice to our Creator when we posture “Christian” music as pure, sexless, and holy, against “secular” music as dirty, lustful, and sinful. This distinction does not keep our children from secular music, it keeps them from their bodies.

I’ve always had a sacred connection to sexual music. I could never fully separate the two: in the most hallowed of worship songs, I found the erotic. In the basest of love-sick ballads or club hits, I found pangs of the divine.

It seems Rob Bell was right: this is really about that. The sexual and the spiritual are intimately intertwined, especially in the realm of music. This connection should be embraced and explored, not avoided. For young lgbt people, it could mean the difference between holistic healing, and perpetuating our fractured selves.