To Be Gay or Not To Be Gay: Is That the Question?

Further Reflections on a Complicated Issue 

In “The Predatory Wasp Of The Palisades Is Out To Get Us!Sufjan Stevens gives us what “is tempting to describe… as a story of male-male agape—just touching on the erotic, with mentions of falling asleep in the backseat of a car—between Stevens and his best friend, but Stevens also lets you see right through it as a love story between himself and Jesus, God born human, a man stung and mocked and wrestled with” (Daddino, Seattle Weekly). 

This may ignore the most straightforward interpretation of the song: “male-male agape” plus eros/philia.  “He runs washing his face in his hands.  Oh how I meant to tease him.
Oh how I meant no harm.  Touching his back with my hand I kiss him.  I see the wasp on the length of my arm.”  And “We were in love!” repeats the chorus jubilantly.  This love was a means of experiencing God’s glory: “Halelu!”  But this love really didn’t work out: “My friend is gone, he ran away….  Though we have sparred, wrestled and raged. I can tell you I love him each day….” 

All of this has led many people to ask, “Is Sufjan Stevens gay?”  To this I would respond: a) you’re missing the point of the song, and b) our culture assumes that the world is divided into a gay/not-gay dichotomy.  Kinsey showed this to be a blatant falsehood, although his numbers were probably skewed due to his sampling methods.  Regardless, Sufjan has recounted in concerts that he was well before puberty when the incident occurred.  This isn’t proof that he’s “gay.”  This is proof that a lot of people experience a lot of things that our culture would use to say, “Hey, you’re gay!”  What if the truth isn’t that simple?

The Worst Sin of All

“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”  Matthew 7:12

“To love [God] with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” Mark 12:33

The worst sin of all is hate.

People see those hating in the name of Christ, and curse God.

Gays cause bridge collapse.”

?!?

Hey! That wasn’t a spy movie….

I did not know what to expect with “The Talented Mr. Ripley.”  All I wanted as another spy movie.  Instead, I got “The Mysterious Yearning Secretive Sad Lonely Troubled Confused Loving Musical Gifted Intelligent Beautiful Tender Sensitive Haunted Passionate Talented Mr. Ripley” (full U.S. title). 

(plot spoiler imminent)

A man who is very insecure about his identity succeeds in assuming the identity of his new best friend, whom he admires, loathes, resents, sexualizes (w/o having sex w/), and kills in the process (2nd degree murder). 

What is fascinating about this depiction is the clarity with which we see Tom Ripley seek his own identity in Dickie Greenleaf.  For him, to love is to become.  When that fails, he must kill in order to become the object of his obession.  He has no self, or very little stable sense of one. 

Is it possible that sexual identity is just one of the more vivid/controversial/painful/awkward-to-talk-about manifestations of our whole being?  A surface symptom of deeper things going on?  Or is what you see what you get?

Why Straight, Christian Men Should Listen to Lesbian, Agnostic Songwriters

When I bought the Indigo Girls’ Retrospective, I endured some awkward questions from the cashier. 

“Is this a gift?” she asked. 

“No, it’s for me.” 

“I thought most of their fans were… you know….” 

I shrugged.  “They’re amazing lyricists and musicians.” 

And it’s true.  Whatever criticism one might have of their views, one cannot deny that Amy Ray and Emily Saliers speak with great clarity and beauty.  To be sure, in their protest songs they may shout at you.  But, in their love songs and life songs, they warmly invite you to walk in their shoes.

What is the nature of love, as expressed by the Indigo Girls?  With shocking Biblical imagery, Amy Ray presents it as “Strange Fire.”  This is a reference to Leviticuts 10, when two priests gave an unauthorized offering to God and were destroyed by his wrath.  But here, that fire is love, which is offered to each other, not to God, and forms a “refuge from the wrath.”  The poet then lashes out against those who oppose that love, with “haughty eyes and lying tongues and hands that shed innocent blood” (Proverbs 6:17, quoted verbatim in the song).  At the very least, the song illuminates the greatest transgression of Christians toward those experiencing homosexual desires: by stigmatizing the struggle and “casting stones,” we have committed greater sins than the sin we sought to oppose.  (“Is it a sin?” is a conversation for another day.)

It is not my place to attempt to summarize the entire body of the Indigo Girls’ work, but I would be amiss not to at least mention “Ghost.”  Emily Saliers captures the utter bitter-sweetness of unrequited love: “I burn up in your presence and I know now how it feels to be weakened like Achilles with you always at my heels….  I can’t swim free the river is too deep, though I’m baptized by your touch, I am no worse than most…. in love with your ghost.”  Is this unrequited love the same as that between a man and a woman?  How can you know if you don’t listen?

The Midwest as the Promised Land

Marilynne Robinson, Garrison Keillor, and Sufjan Stevens on the Blessings of Middle America

What was monotony in my teen eyes has metamorphosized: green vistas and golden fields spread flat as far as the eye can see, undulating slowly with the passing miles.  Anyone who has traveled across the American midwest can attest: boring can be beautiful.

From the outside this might appear to be a land of flatness and cold.  But those who have rested within its embrace know the truth.  Miracles happen here.  Epic betrayals, too, but hope springs eternal and the fields are ripe with redemption.

In Gilead, Marilynne Robinson provides the text of a dying father’s letter to his 7-year-old son.  “I was thinking about the things that had happened here just in my lifetime– the droughts and the influenza and the Depression and three terrible wars.  It seems to me now we never looked up from the trouble we had just getting by to put the obvious question, that is, to ask what it was the Lord was trying to make us understand….  And what is the purpose of a prophet except to find meaning in trouble?” (233)  Every life is a miracle, every act of forgiveness is an act of God.  The more prodigal the son or prodigal the land, the more bold a “wild gesture” it is to stay on and love anyway (247).  Even a dead father can reach from the grave with the promise of unconditional love.  Such wonders can happen in the city, too, but in a simple land, stripped of all worldly sophistication, such blessings taste all the sweeter.  Only in the darkness can a light shine the brightest.

Somewhere in Minnesota, Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon eckes out its existence.  The mix of nostalgia and parody helps sweeten the sometimes bitter truth: life is difficult.  The title of last week’s headline: “In Lake Wobegon, all of the beautiful weather makes ones thoughts turn to death, of course.”  Yet this is “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”  Even ordinary places can know greatness, however contrived, and in the dead of winter, thoughts of God and his provision are never far from the locals’ minds.

The strangest proponent of the blessings of the Midwest is Sufjan Stevens.  They say that he will write one album for each of the fifty states.  Maybe so, but he is taking his sweet time with the land he knows best.  Michigan wavers between the hopes and questions of faith.  “For The Widows In Paradise; For The Fatherless In Ypsilanti” reads like the promises of  Jesus to the widows and ophans of southeast Michigan.  Yet we hear also the longing of “Oh God, Where are You Now?”  The land is “paradise,” but it is greatly in need of God.  llinois is the haunt of aliens and of serial killers.  This is a land of repentance.  The most memorable refrain is “I’ve made a lot of mistakes,” from “Chicago.”  This is also a land of love, but of a love that loses, whether to the complications of pre-adolescent same-sex attraction, or to the complications of cancer.  Yet thoughout all this, the glory of God can be seen.

This flat land speaks of wonders, if this land can speak, any land can.  It’s enough to “make me homesick for a place I never left” (Gilead, 235).  Love where you are!

Biblical Profanity!?!

The Debate Continues

This is a response to previous comments.  This deserves book-length treatment and if anyone (i.e., me) gets into trouble on this one, it will because of brevity.  

If you think that cussing is wrong and you struggle with cussing, in spite of strong convictions, please do not read further.  I do not want to cause you to stumble.  This post is rated R for language.

If you think that cussing is wrong and you struggle with judging others who cuss, you might not want to keep reading.  This is going to offend you.  Come back later for my post on freedom, because you will be my target audience then.

If you are not a Christian, I hope that what follows will be educational, or at least interesting, if a bit wierd. 

Regardless, even if you’re not in it for the grammar and the Biblical exegesis (interpretation), then stay around for the four-letter words and for an honest attempt at  sane living.

Before discussing the ethics of profanity, we must ask:  What is Biblical? And what is profanity? 

By “Biblical,” I mean both the specific guidelines which the Bible gives us and the principles we can arrive at based on the entirety of its teaching.

By “profanity” I accept the definition: “abusive, vulgar, or irreverent language.”  However, I have observed that we define profanity by its specifics and by its uses.  There is a finite list of words, most of which we all now know by heart, even if we don’t use them, which are on this “forbidden list.”  But the list in the U.S. is far graver than it is in most of the world.  Germans have relatively few words and topics, which poses a huge dilemma for teens trying to be cool, leading to the importation of the “f-bomb” into everyday speech.  But in our culture, due to “Puritanism,” which probably has more to do with Victorianism and the 1950s, we have quite a few. 

What use do these forbidden words serve in American English?

1. To express extreme positive or negative emotion.  “Damn!  What a shot!”

2.  To intensify a word or phrase, usually, but not always, for emotional effect.  “That was a damn good dinner!”  See also the suffix “-ass.”

3.  To insult someone.  “You bitch!”  *It is interesting to note that no male equivalent of this term exists.  Even “bastard” primarily serves to call into question a man’s parentage, esp. the marital status of his mother.  See also “son of a bitch.”

4.  To insult God, a.k.a. blasphemy.  “God, damn it!”

5.  To add filler.  “So I was fucking going to the fucking store, man.”  See also “like.”

6.  To be sexually explicit.

These uses often occur concurrently.  “You stupid-ass son of a bitch!” covers 1, 2, and 3, for example.

Now, rather than premeturely ruling out words simply because they appear on “the list” — which would be foolish since none of them actually appears in the Bible, nor is there any precedent in Hebrew or Hellenistic-Christian culture for the forbidden word list — we can make an informed decision in light of what the Bible teaches regarding these 5 uses of “profane” language. 

1.  Expressing extreme emotions before God is encouraged in the Bible, so long as it is an  honest expression.  Words by themselves are neither holy nor unholy; they are a means of expressing what is in our hearts, and it is for our hearts that we will be held accountable (Matthew 12:34-35).  Entire books of the Old Testament represent the out-pourings of the deepest longings, yearnings, and doubts of people’s souls: Psalms, Lamentations, and most of the prophets.  I see nothing wrong with using “profanity” to express extreme emotion in prayer, especially if you use such language to express extreme emotion anyway.  (“Damn, Lord!  What the hell happened?”)  Nor is there anything inherently wrong in expressing extreme emotions to each other, although we should be careful, especially if those emotions include anger (Proverbs 15:18, 16:32; Ephesians 4:26).  Jesus encourages the disciples to pray to God as to their Father and the only kinds of prayers that he criticizes are too long and showy (Matthew 6).  One of my favorite prayers: “God, I’m fucked-up.  Help me!”

2.  Intensifying words and phrases for effect can be equally problematic.  I know many people who are “extreme talkers,” who use superlatives (“the most ____,” “the biggest ____ “) for everything.  If you make everything extreme, then nothing is extreme, and when it comes time to praise God as “awesome,” your words lack weight.  Extreme talking is simply irresponsible use of language.  One of the primary thrusts of Proverbs is that we must be careful with our language.  In our cultural context, you need to know your audience.  Careful use of language needs to be simple and straightforward, but G-rated?  I don’t think so.  Jesus has invited us into a life of great freedom and great responsibility.  Because we’re forgiven and His Spririt lives in those of us who are His, wee have the freedom to discern for ourselves and within our own communities that which is appropriate in matters on which He himself is silent. 

 3.  Jesus is not silent about insulting someone.  “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca, ‘is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell” (Matthew 5:21-22).

4.  Neither is the Bible silent about insulting God.  One of the earliest of the ten commandments: “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain” (Exodus 20:7).  When I begin to doubt the importance of the Old Testament, I remember  that Jesus Himself believed that this was the Word of God.

5.  Filler is irresponsible, but not morally offensive, for the same reasons as “extreme talking” (see #2).  However, we should take great care not to judge those whose filler is less PC than our own, since this reflects more on their socio-economic-educational-geo-cultural background than it does on their moral worth.

6.  Sexually frank speech and speech about bodily functions should not be a problem in the right context.  The Evangelical sub-culture can be intensely prissy and there isn’t anything Biblical about that.  I’ve had Southern friends tell me that “Ladies don’t poop.”  Bullshit!  However, sexually explicit speech, jokes, etc. are a problem.  Why?  Because sex is so precious and important, such a blessing when held in its proper place (marriage) that to speak of sex jokingly or graphically deprives it of its purpose as something intimate (Ephesians 5:3-4).  Plus, such talk can easily lead us to lust in our hearts, which is as bad as adultery (Matthew 5:32).

In all of this, the root issue is not clean words vs. dirty words.  The root issue is careless words spoken by careless people.  James 3 offers a stern rebuke, but Jesus’ is sterner:  “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak” (Matthew 12:36).

How are we to live and speak in light of all of this?  We are committed to a Person, not to a set of rules, and to the community of all who follow Him.  We should use language that best honors Him and uplifts our brothers and sisters.  Such language is always honest and loving; sometimes it is soft, gentle, and appropriate for my grandmother; sometimes it is not.  When offering a stern but loving rebuke, you might need to drop an f-bomb or two in order to get your brother’s attention.

If you are tempted to cuss in front of a legalist, it is probably unwise, becausee they will stop listening and start judging.  More importantly, if you are going to offend someone and cause them to want to violate their own conscience by doing so, be careful!  If he thinks its a sin, then it is a sin for him in this case, just as in the debate over unclean food and holidays in Romans 14, for this is fundamentally a matter of opinion.  Do not cause a brother or sister to sin… but neither trample on their freedom!