Evangelicals and Culture

Unsurprisingly, I often find myself in conversations with evangelicals over my use of the word “gay” to describe my sexuality. The concern is that by using this term I am not fully rooting my “identity” in Christ, or that I am going to be tempted to sin, or that through me and others like me the church will be infiltrated by the so-called “gay agenda.” These conversations are tiring as it feels as if I have been put on trial, facing the rapid-fire questioning of a desperate accuser. No matter how much I try to explain that my use of the word “gay” is a phenomenological and not an ontological claim, no matter how much I affirm my identity is “in Christ” (whatever it is that we mean by “identity”), no matter how I try to name the ways in which we use non-biblical descriptors of ourselves all the time, it seems that it is never enough.  I am often left shaken for a few days wondering what it is about me that is so unsettling? Why does my existence cause a reaction of this force and depth?

The irony to me is that I am qualifying my “gay identity” by giving my life to God in celibacy (which is more unsettling? That I am gay or that I have given up sex?). I have surrendered my sexual desires to God in obedience to the divine commands of God, as mysterious and arbitrary as they often seem to me (I am not one of those natural-theology folks, I am too Barthian for that. And further, the apparent “evil” of gay marriage and gay sex is not readily observable to me. What is the problem with two people committing their lives together in self-sacrificial love? There seems to be a case that could be made that this is a moral good, actually.) The reality is that I have not given myself over to “gay culture” but actually have jeopardized my belonging in that community because of my theological beliefs about human sexuality. How is it that by submitting my sexual desires to Christ I am somehow infiltrating the Church with the “gay agenda”? It would seem the opposite has happened — Christ has infiltrated me and wreaked the devastating havoc of the gospel in me so that I might die to myself and live in Christ. I would hope that if the proverbial shoe were on the other foot, I would want to celebrate that.

A further irony is that most of these evangelicals don’t put their own lives under the same sort of endless microscopic inspection. The whole “pull the log out of your own eye before picking the speck of sawdust out of your brother’s eye” seems lost on them (Matthew 7:3). What of evangelical culture that has been infiltrated by celebrity culture? So much so that there are pastors and leaders who are worshipped, given enormous amounts of power, and tragically, when that power is abused and these celebrities have been found to harm others, sometimes grievously so, there seems to be a greater rush to forgive the abuser than the victim? But even if the power is not abused, what of celebrity culture speaks to the way of Jesus, who “did not regard his equality with God as a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant…he humbled himself” (Philippians 2:6-8)? What of the worship of celebrities, even Christian celebrities, brings us closer to Christ who bends down in love to serve others, to wash the feet of his disciples, and poured out his very life on the cross among thieves, despised and rejected? Is there not a serious concern here for how we are being formed and shaped as disciples?

What of evangelical culture that has been infiltrated by the dominant business culture? Traditional and even biblical forms of church governance and oversight have been pushed aside in favor of the “efficient” principles of business. Pastors are seen less and less as shepherds charged with the cure and care of souls, but rather those who busy themselves with meetings, finances, endless building projects, programming, etc. The vision of success replaces the call to faithfulness. The size of church staff, and its budget, and the arena or “campus” where it meets, are held up as examples to be mimicked as if the narrow way of the cross to which the Church is called was just a cute saying that Jesus really couldn’t have meant to be serious.

What of evangelical culture that has been infiltrated by our entertainment culture? Worship  no longer seen as the nexus where the gathered body of Christ is encountered by the triune God who makes demands of us, but rather as a place where I go to be entertained with lights and sound and screens. Here again, there is an uncritical adoption of technology that has the power to distort and harm what it means to be human. Here again, the Church as become like a fast-food drive-thru menu with enough programming for everyone to go home happy. No long obedience in the same direction needed, just the instant gratification of giving up your birthright for a pot of stew.

What about evangelical culture that has been infiltrated by the dominant culture’s obsession with sex? Sure, the line has been drawn in the sand when it comes to gay marriage and abortion (which I would find myself in theological agreement with), but what of divorce? What of the use of condoms and pills to have sex with ummmm…”no consequences”? Yes, there might be a case to be made for the use of birth control, but so far there is a lack of a consistent evangelical sexual ethic whose only constant seems to be: “as long as you aren’t gay you’re okay!” Evangelicals deny that they are obsessed with sex, or have been co-opted into a Freudian framework where all roads lead to and from sex, but the tree shall be known by its fruit. And there is a serious lack of attention given to those who are single and celibate, to other forms of love outside that of marriage—to friendship, to the family of God that is redefined in Christ. This sexual obsession has resulted in an overemphasis  on marriage and children (I purposely choose not to use the language of “idolatry” here for marriage and procreation are goods to be affirmed, celebrated and nurtured), and on the darker side of obsession: a perverted hatred of the body and demonization of sex and sexuality.

What of evangelical culture that has been infiltrated by the bloodlust of American nationalism so that God and country are fused together, support for America’s never ending war machine and military industrial complex trumpeted as support for Christianity and its “values” around the world (we might ask, whose “values”, when our Savior said to put the sword away and died on a cross, a device of state sanctioned torture). Here pagan values of homeland, courage, honor, duty are baptised and cloaked with the Christian language of virtue.

What of evangelical culture that continues to be infiltrated by racist hatred, refusing to repent of its sins, propping up those in power instead of going the way of the way of the cross, dying again and again to self for the sake of the other? Of taking the last seat at the table and leaving the seat of honor for others?

This is not a call for moral equivalency. I do not want to avoid the log in my own eye. But I do want to raise the stakes. I am aware that this essay veers close to the logical fallacy of whataboutism (what’s that? Even if I name it myself it doesn’t make it not so!?). But I think the question at the heart of this is that of our relationship with the cultures we inhabit and the scrutiny this question demands. If this is meant to be a serious conversation, I want us to be asking really serious questions. If it is meant to be a conversation, I actually want to ask questions, too, and not only answer them. I actually do think that there is a right concern over how to engage the many cultures we inhabit. I actually do think there is a conversation to be had about the use of language, about “identity” and about what it means for gay Christians to live in that liminal space—in Christ, between cultures. But I would think that if there is so much concern about the appropriation of “sinful” cultural ideology, practices, and habits in the Church, there are graver threats to the Church and her witness right now then that of her gay children. For the Church, especially the evangelical church, is so close to doing what it seems hell bent on doing—driving away from Christ and his cross all her gay children. The question is, once we are gone, who is next?

 

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