Label Makers

Well, three months of pretending I had better things to do than blog have come to an end. I have a new post over at Spiritual Friendship on labels and social identity and why the energy some Christians are putting into fighting words is preventing them from truly serving others. Check it out here.

An excerpt:

‘In high school, before I ever used the word ‘gay,’ before I had even admitted to myself that I wasn’t attracted to women, I was being psychologically torn to pieces by other Christians’ (and my own) manner of talking about gay people. Even as I trumpeted things like, “There’s no such thing as a gay Christian,” “They chose to be that way,” and other homophobic aphorisms, I knew that something about me was a lot like something about them and that I could never, ever be open about it.

 

By trying to clearly maintain a linguistic boundary between gay people and people in the church, Christians not only make Church teaching unnecessarily unintelligible to non-Christian gay people (and, really, non-Christians in general) but run the risk of inflicting harm on young people in the church. Whether people want it or not, some youth in the church will see aspects of their experience reflected in the broader culture under the social category of ‘gay’ and not be able to simply divorce their self-understanding from it. Nor should they have to.

 

I choose at times to use the label ‘gay’ both to remind church communities that they cannot talk about LGBT+ people as if they aren’t sitting in their congregations or aren’t beloved friends and family and to provide a visible example that might help other sexual minorities who are wrestling with their self-understanding to avoid some of the trauma I experienced. I didn’t have any role models for this while I was growing up and I desperately needed one. Out of fear of compromising its sexual ethic the Church has inadvertently compromised its more foundational witness of God’s reconciling movement toward humanity.’

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A Church of Pure Imagination

I’ve been asked multiple times in the past month why I am still side-B, why I am still pursuing celibacy as a gay 23 year-old in these United States of America. What is interesting to me is how, with each inquiring friend, it was implied that we weren’t discussing theology or the interpretation of certain notorious texts. The “why” was really more of a “how.”

It’s a refreshing change.

One of the more frustrating things about the current conversation is how it so easily gets sucked into the myopic quicksand of “what the Bible says.” Please don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of the authority of scripture and the importance of right interpretation, and I probably wouldn’t be celibate if I didn’t think the Bible taught it, but there is a dangerous attitude of “the Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it” running rampant in many churches.

The idea that the conversation straight up ends with interpretation is, honestly, lethal to true religion, strangling the imagination out of faith and poisoning the endlessly complex “how then shall we live” of the Christian life. I think the rate at which gay Christians are abandoning celibacy is a pretty good indicator of that fact; though not always the case, the majority of people I know who have made the switch do so not because they’ve been convinced by “affirming” theology but because celibacy and an abundant life seem mutually exclusive, which, I need to add, is a kind of theological reason in its own right.

I think what this is revealing about conservative American churches, and perhaps churches in general, is that they are deeply mired in a failure of imagination.

When churches neglect to preach and model the good of singleness and celibacy, when they glut themselves on the opium of romance or oversell marriage to the detriment of both married and single people, they aren’t just straying from the truth of the Bible – they are corroding and constricting the imaginations of those in the congregation. What the men and women and children sitting in the pews can or cannot imagine as possible or good is greatly affected by what the church speaks of as possible or good.

At its redemptive best, this imaginative proclamation allows aching and isolated people to believe that there is a God who loves and desires them and that they can know his transformative grace and be welcomed into a community of hospitality and passion. But, tragically, that proclamation is often drowned in a flood of toxic sentiment, leaving many unsure of their worth and unable to form healthy relationships with other people or even God. The callousness I have seen some church-goers display in response to this pain is incomprehensible.

So I am no longer surprised when a friend of mine “switches sides,” and I am beyond tired of the way some Christians demonize them as simply weak or selfish or histrionic.* Do I find my friends’ reasons for switching entirely satisfactory? Rarely. But I also don’t find most churches’ reasons for not switching satisfactory, either. Unless a community is seriously modeling a commitment to hospitality and grace for all stages of life, its sexual ethic, no matter how “orthodox” it may sound, will never seem viable or good in any meaningful way. This imaginative failure is also a moral failure, with churches leaving their gay members with little to no ability to actually live – or god forbid thrive – within the rich tradition of church teaching.

So when I am asked why I’m side-B, my first thought has little to do with how I interpret Romans 1. Instead, I think about how I was surrounded by a loving group of friends who gave me the space and freedom to process through the initial fear and confusion of realizing I wasn’t just “temporarily-not-straight;”

I think about how I was blessed with mentors and counselors who were constantly feeding me and challenging me and supporting me and blowing my mind with the truth of the gospel, who called out the lies that had been choking me for most of my life;

I think about the months I spent working in a drug rehab center in South Africa or an orphanage in Guatemala and how unbearably full and alive I felt, how enmeshed I became in those vibrant communities that taught me so much about hospitality and service.

I think about how all these experiences enabled me to imagine a future of abundant life as a celibate person.

For most of my college career I was haunted by a singular image that I thought would define the entirety of my existence: When I closed my eyes I saw, I felt, myself closing the door to a cold and dark apartment, entirely empty, devoid of anyone who would witness my life and show me that I was known and loved. The frozen silence of it all was terrifying.

That I thought this was my inescapable future after a lifetime of sermons and biblical education is unequivocally depressing. That this vision is hardly unique to me is even more so.

But then two years ago, while coming out to some of my closest friends as we prepared for graduation and all that lay beyond, that image of despair was finally replaced. As I finished up my story one of my friends looked at me and said, “You know, Matt, as you were talking I just had this picture in my head of you surrounded by laughing children, and you were so happy. Maybe that means something.”

That was a gift of imagination, my brothers and sisters joining with me to envision a better future, an abundant future, one that has empowered me to live more joyfully and passionately in the present.

But I’m one of the lucky ones. The number of stories where loneliness and isolation remain the dominant themes, where the message of the church is bound up with shame and hopelessness, is staggering. More truthfully, it is infuriating.

So I’m praying that churches would rediscover their blessed ecclesial witness. I’m praying that, in my own journey, I can do justice to the vision of abundant life the gospel and my community have helped me believe is possible. I’m praying that we would really listen to the numerous testimonies of pain, that we would repent, that we would learn to love better, and that together – because we can only do this together – we would become the kind of people that Jesus imagined we could be when he lived and died and rose again for all.**

Matt

* If you have come to find your capacity to feel hope and joy oppressive, take a peek at the comments section of any number of Christian publications about homosexuality and let the sweet, sweet darkness sweep over you.

** I am not saying that if everyone had my experiences they would have come to the same conclusions I did, nor am I saying that my anecdotal evidence can be applied even close to uniformly for every LGB Christian. But this imaginative chasm between “celibate” and “happy” is incredibly prevalent – evident in the number of times people say to me, “You’re celibate? But… you seem so happy…”

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Speech-Act, Pt. 2

Having briefly explained why I’ve struggled to consistently write over the past few months, we now turn to a vastly more important/ less whiny topic: how I hope to constructively engage the conversation surrounding homosexuality and faith.

I don’t know how to describe this without devolving into some kind of horrendously embarrassing INFP psycho-babble, but I feel like I need to “rediscover my voice” (oh god it burns!). What I mean is I am distinctly aware that I must reevaluate how I speak/write about sexuality because I have changed significantly over the past year. It’s like my fifth puberty of the soul.

Before I took a break from blogging in May, my goals were primarily to help the conservative evangelical church understand something it didn’t seem to understand very well at all and to show men or women who may have been wrestling with their sexuality that they are neither alone nor doomed to isolation and pain. With a few exceptions I never really spoke much about “the conversation” as a whole or how I aspired to, in the ever-catchy phrasing of The Marin Foundation, “elevate” it.

So when I came out in July and returned to writing, I was surprised by how difficult it had suddenly become to say anything. My original desires hadn’t changed too drastically, but the way I wanted to go about pursuing them had made a few significant shifts.

This post is mostly for myself – a rhetorical measure to which I want to be held accountable – but I hope it can also incite reflection and a renewed sense of gracious commitment in anyone who feels they have something to say. Which, I might add, is everybody to some degree or another.

I don’t want to cheapen pain or suffering by using it as a crutch to maintain reader interest. Finding new, particularly potent ways to communicate the ache of being different or controversial or rejected or alone seems to be the calling card of many a blog that addresses being a Christian who is gay.

People respond well to confessions of pain, and, what is more, really treasure a description of pain that resonates with their own experience. That is a very good thing. I’ll never forget how powerful it was to encounter Henri Nouwen’s work for the first time, his words casting some alchemical spell over my despair that changed it from monstrous to human. I just wanted to do the same for others.

But when pain seems to be what increases blog traffic and reader response, it can become so easy to start peddling it like some shiny trinket. The internet rewards drama, and I must admit I’m growing incredibly weary of how often conversations or posts about sexuality and faith – mine included – are mired in agony-laced sensationalism. Though it produces (not altogether bad) results in the short-term, I think it ultimately compromises the integrity of our witness and the character of the dialog.

By all means I want to speak honestly about pain and struggle (which also requires I admit when I experience neither) and give others the opportunity to speak honestly about theirs, but I’m not sure honesty pairs well with ceaseless metaphors about “some kind of flaming/icy/abyssal/dark serpent/dagger/monster/dementor crushing/piercing/rupturing/devouring my heart/brain/bowels/soul.” Pain can be too important a thing to devalue with dramatic excess.

I want to show grace to those who disagree with me – constantly asking myself how they may hear my words and trying to avoid the ever-alluring strawman arguments.  This is obviously easier said than done, and it is difficult to feel that those who disagree really understand your beliefs or whatever (because if they did they’d totally change their minds, right?). At the same time, one of my greatest frustrations stems from seeing certain ultra-flimsy, thoroughly bankrupt ideas blindly recycled in article after article – as if the author isn’t very interested in the hard work of listening and reflecting. I hope those two powerful actions, listening and reflecting, increasingly define the way I live.

I want to communicate with clarity and nuance. At times, in order to feel like I was “clear” about what I believed, I have sacrificed patience and grace. Conversely, in an effort not to step on toes, I have sometimes been vague and noncommittal. Attempting that fabled rhetorical balance can feel as futile as smashing two positive magnet-ends together or keeping a millennial in a room without wi-fi, but striving for it, however imperfectly, is so very necessary and so very worth the effort.

I want to write with a sense of levity, when appropriate.  Many things can and should be taken incredibly seriously; human life is fraught with tragedy and lament. I don’t ever want to exploit someone’s very real suffering for a laugh. At the same time, I think it’s impossible to write accurately about sexuality without a strand of humor, and reading post after deadly-serious post can so easily make one feel hopeless about everything. Learning to laugh at myself and my absurd experiences as a sexual being, like everyone, was and is an exercise in hope.

I want each post to proclaim the gospel, explicitly or not. Because this is how it all begins and ends for me: I am only who I am because God has reconciled me to himself and has called me to live each day serving others in light of the gospel. For all the seasons of doubt and darkness, I keep coming back to that truth; I am here because I am loved, and I am here so that I can love others. I want everything to point to that reality so that others might know it for themselves.*

Certainly this list isn’t exhaustive, and there are other personal goals I intend to aim for (e.g. be at least 20% less annoying than Scrappy-Doo or Snarf, and include as many childhood pop-culture references as I can without over-saturation), but this is a start.

If you have any suggestions of your own, I’d be interested in hearing them. Uh, I mean, I’d love to listen to and reflect on them. Yes, that.

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Matt

* Pretty sure I used up my monthly quota for “Christianese” with this paragraph, and that was even after serious editing. 

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“…is this the real life?”

(From June 19, 2010)

We live on a planet called Earth. On a daily basis we interact with thousands upon thousands of material objects, whether it be a crunchy piece of gravel beneath our feet or another human being. We sense things, we know things. This is real life. This existence of ours is true and good; it is not an illusion from which we must break free in order to reach some spiritual existence beyond our mortal chains. I am not arguing for the rejection of this reality in favor of another. Rather, I am arguing for the transformation of this reality by the truth of another, namely (and solely) the eternal kingdom of God and the inauguration of the Church through the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

This is more than just a moral transformation. The purpose of Christ’s coming was not to change us from bad people to good people upon our conversion which then allows us into heaven (or more popularly, saves us from hell). His coming changed the very nature of our existence. In an admittedly limited sense, our conversion is akin to transplanting ourselves into a foreign culture. If you wake up some day in Uganda, it would be remarkably foolish to assume that adhering to the norms and cultural rules of America will get you anywhere. It would also be remarkably foolish to assume that you are no longer American now that you are in Uganda. A posture of humility and learning must be adopted as you try to understand this new context. You have a cultural reference book that seems strangely inadequate in some situations and a native guide who you wish would be a little more direct. You mess up. A lot. But your hosts are gracious and you continue to become more accustomed to your daily life. There are some things that you were able to do in America that are simply impossible now, some things that are strange and bizarre to the Ugandans that you should probably avoid, and some things that are acceptable and good.

Such is our arrival into the kingdom of God, only completely different and multiplied by infinity. It is our tendency, at least in America, to assume that our conversion only changes our character and moral axis instead of transporting us wholly (or opening our eyes) to a new kingdom, a new reality (which really is not very “new” at all) that functions entirely uniquely to anything we have previously experienced. We are now first and foremost citizens of the all consuming kingdom of heaven, manifested on earth as the global body of Christians as one unified and unbreakable Church, bound together by the love of Christ poured out for us as a sacrifice upon an altar composed of sin and constructed by our own hands. This kingdom is not something we are journeying toward nor is it something we are trying to create on earth; we are already in it and it is already established. It is not yet a complete kingdom, however. It cannot be because then we would not so desperately long for the return of Christ, nor would we need Him any more. We who have entered through the narrow gate could only have entered by passing through Christ who now stands between us and the world.

The implications of this are, of course, rather daunting, as events which demand of us everything tend to be. Some people have called Christianity the “upside-down kingdom”, but I don’t think that’s correct because it makes our mundane, secular existence the normative experience and the kingdom of God a radical departure from the apparent. Instead, the kingdom of God is the truest truth, the most real reality, the basic actuality by which all humanity must measure its existence. We do not, we must not begin with our secular lives and from there gauge how we should act. We, as Christians, begin and end with obedience and submission to the reality of Christ’s call on our lives. This call will often (in fact almost always) demand that we act in defiance of what we and the world perceive as real. Our defiance will bring persecution upon us because it is so thoroughly distressing to be confronted by the revelation that everything we have accumulated and striven for on this earth is ashes and dead weight that drag us willingly to hell because we did not first have Christ, in and through whom alone we find the redemption of our being. As the anointed bearers of this glorious reality, we gain the added benefit of no longer fearing what the world may do to us because it will never be able to change the eternal reality that Christ has called us into communion with Him.

Christ’s call does not lead us out of the world, but rather directly into the heart of it. We must not reject the world and its troubles because we have found something better. If Christ had done that we would all be in hell right now. We must follow Christ into the darkest reaches of the world (which are never far away), armed not with judgment or condemnation but with renewal and transformation, healing and acceptance, love and love and love and more love that flows through us from the fount of the Cross and empowers us to do all things.

This is Christianity. It is not an institution, a moral guideline, a secluded retreat, a facebook note or a comfortable existence. It is the eternally present reality of our complete and total bondage to Christ and His kingdom which frees us to joyfully and powerfully seek restoration in all the earth to the glory of God. It is a reality that not only extends beyond borders but destroys them, not only reaches through socio-economic differences but renders them unimaginable, not only gives us a reason to live but makes life everlasting. It is a reality to which God has drawn us. It is Himself.

And we reject it, we reject Him, every day. We reject Him for the things of this world. We reject Him because the world has told us to act a certain way, to see a certain way. It has told us that our allegiance is to arbitrary and divisive political systems, that our brothers and sisters, fellow members of the kingdom of God to whom we are inextricably linked, are “others”, different from us. It tells us that the demand of Christ to live entirely for Him, to serve with our whole lives, to cling to nothing except to Him, to go to the poor and needy, to seek peace with all, is not really what the Bible says, or that it does not matter what the Bible says because current “reality” seems to say something different and God most certainly could not demand something impractical of His children (such as dying on a cross).

I reject God every day because I just cannot yet accept the full demand of my conversion. I’m scared, I’m weak, and I love too much that which I should not. And yet the pursuit of this reality has been the most life-giving aspect of my entire existence. God is so faithful and is forever with me and my broken, failing, beautiful brothers and sisters in Christ all over the world.

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A Modest(y) Proposal

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(This is in response to an article by the lovely Emily Maynard, titled Is a Woman Responsible For a Man’s Lust? It’s a great piece that deserves to be read. She was incredibly bold to write what she did, and I admire the sincerity and truth behind much of what she says. Check it out. Even if you don’t read what I write in response, you should read what she has to say.)

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I’m pretty sure nobody knows what the word “modesty” means anymore, especially within the context of the evangelical church. And when I say “nobody” I include myself. Over the years my understanding of the word has always seemed terribly shallow and distressingly tangential, as if its charged and controversial outer layer denies all attempts to comprehend its blessed center.

But we sure think it’s important to talk about it! Well, at least for women. It seems that modesty has become, primarily, the rope with which the evangelical church hopes to pull each junior high girl from the deep-v abyss into the light of unassuming crew-necks and inner adornment.

This is important, the common rhetoric goes, because to reveal “flesh” or dress to enhance the feminine figure is just asking the male masses, dominated as they are by uncontrollable sexual urges, to lust. It’s inevitable because men are “visual” creatures (as opposed to the tactile and verbal females), and can’t help themselves. By dressing immodestly, women are causing their vulnerable brothers to stumble, striking a critical blow to their pursuit of purity. This has been the standard discourse on modesty for some time.

But things might be changing. Courageous women are coming forward and opening up about the harm they have suffered on the receiving end of this kind of rhetoric. In the linked article above, and in the subsequent comments, we hear numerous stories from women whose relationship with their bodies, with men, other women, and even God, have been vitiated and filled with poisonous, painful lies.

Implicit in the rhetoric of “modesty” is the idea that women are responsible for male lust. In a nutshell: (straight) men lust because women dress immodestly. There’s more, obviously, but that is the consistent emphasis. I know I thought along similar lines growing up, and it’s taken the testimonies of brave friends and strangers to open my eyes to the horrible consequences of “modesty” as we know it. (Again, read the article for greater detail.)

For the sake of space and time, I simply want to ask some questions and throw around some ideas that may help us move forward as a loving community dedicated to mutual responsibility. I don’t claim to have answers – I’m new to this discussion – so bear with me.

  1. Modesty is not just a female virtue, and lust is not just a male vice. So often the relational dynamic is framed as “Men struggle with lust, and women struggle with a desire to be lusted after.” This goes hand in hand with the lie that porn is just a male problem, and contributes to the sinful stereotype that women are naturally designed as “responders” rather than “actors.” What is more, I, as a male, never had a message on modesty addressed to me. Bluntly, that is ridiculous. How can we reclaim modesty as a non-gendered virtue that is integral in the life of the church?
  2. The sin of lusting is not merely the presence of “dirty thoughts,” but exists, primarily, in the act of stripping someone of their inherent dignity and worth before God. Emily Maynard’s article addresses this point beautifully. It’s impossible for a woman to be responsible for male lust defined in this way. The question needs to be asked, however, When does “natural, non-sinful desire” end and “lust” begin?
  3. Modesty as an ecclesial virtue (akin to humility and an awareness of one’s value before Christ) is not a cultural construct. Modesty as an apodictic shopping list for women is a cultural construct, and means vastly different things all around the world. Topless women in rural Africa are not being immodest; Victorian-era women showing ankle are. Women’s hair in 1st century Palestine was considered sexual; now, we are totally fine with whipping it back and forth in public.
  4. I worry that the truth of #3 too often leads critics of “modesty” to say standards are arbitrary and therefore theologically irrelevant. I don’t think this is the case. Paul’s understanding of modest dress in his letter to the Corinthians and elsewhere is certainly culturally bound (head coverings, anyone?), and yet transgressing those cultural constructions was still a sinful transgression. Are current standards the problem, or is it found primarily in the rhetorical failings of those who speak about them? Are we past the point of being able to deal with the two separately?
  5. Paul’s culturally bound instructions, however, do not primarily frame modesty in terms of sexuality and lust, but in terms of power and excess and a failure to live into one’s status as a new creation. Though we cannot ignore the present reality that modesty intersects significantly with sexuality, we need to reclaim it’s broader purpose of challenging the selfish use of wealth, the refusal to consider the good of the community more important than your own desires, and the maintenance of unchristian power dynamics (e.g. to wear the ignomious “braided hair” Paul references would require the tedious labor of a servant).
  6. Emily Maynard says, “…nothing you do or do not do can influence lust in someone else.” This is, I think, incorrect. Temptation is influence. You can’t force someone else to lust, but you can sure make it harder not to! Women have been the locus of blame for so long, that I understand (in a limited way) the desire to be totally blameless. But autonomy has never been the modus operandi of the church, or of Christian morality.
  7.  She continues, “…you’re only responsible for taking your own heart to Jesus.” In the sense that we are not responsible for the salvation of others, and that women must be freed from the crippling guilt of male lust, this is true. But, as I said above, the Church is built upon mutual responsibility to the other. The solution to the problem of “modesty” will not come from emphasizing individualism, autonomy, or freedom from responsibility, but from reclaiming a just mutuality that requires men to bear the weight of their own sin and to acknowledge their role in the suffering of women and to strive alongside them to eradicate the stigma and shame. This won’t be resolved by “men doing something” or “women doing something” but by the Church doing something. What this looks like, I’m not sure yet. But it certainly wouldn’t be a mistake to begin by giving women a safe space to tell their stories and be heard, as they always should have been.
  8. Romans 15 (“Do not cause another to stumble…”) has been used incessantly to charge women to be modest. But it also mentions that if we unduly cause others in the church pain, we are accountable for it. It’s about time we realize that the old rhetoric is causing many women and girls incredible pain, and that this pain has been largely ignored or demonized by those in positions of cultural and ecclesial power. Whatever male “need” there is for women to dress certain ways may have to take a backseat to the female need to know their bodies are good, beautiful, loved, and their own.
  9. Women need to be listened to, more and more. Their voices have been historically muted in the Church, and we must do everything in our power to acknowledge the worthiness and truth of what they have to say, especially in regard to (though certainly not limited to) their own bodies. If I hear another sermon with someone “mansplaining” to a woman about her body, I may go crazy.
  10. The radical love and mutual submission taught by Christ must be the posture we assume as we move forward. To continue on as we have been would require us to blind ourselves to the demands of the Gospel.

There is so much more to this, and I have this nagging, dreadful feeling that, even still, I’m perpetuating some of the same terrible binaries, stereotypes, and inconsistencies so prevalent in this discussion. I had hoped to write more constructively about what modesty actually is, how it must also be articulated as an essential virtue for men, and how American culture generally devalues and abuses women’s bodies, but living in an orphanage with a crazy schedule and a lack of resources has made that a bit more of a task than I could manage right now.

Please, let’s talk about this. Any ideas? Thoughts? Rants? Stories? It’s about time we create a space to have this discussion in love.

Matt

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