The Non Prophet: Sexthics, or Why I Can’t Go Tell it on the Mountain Top
Mom, I know you’re reading this.
Don’t worry everyone – you can keep reading. This isn’t some syrupy son-to-mother ode about how much I love my mother and how wonderful she has been over the years, from helping me come to terms with my queer identity when I was a self-loathing Evangelical Christian to working multiple jobs to support my siblings and I. I’ve done that many times over and I needn’t embarrass her with yet another public account of my cloyingly clichéd “my mom is my hero” bit.
Instead, I’d like to embarrass her by talking about my sex life.
I’m kidding, Mom! But seriously The New Gay: as I peruse some of the delightfully raunchy content on this Website, I feel a little guilty for letting my mom know about my new writing gig.
But my feelings are more than just concern for my mom’s sensibilities, which is probably unfair overprotectedness anyway since she’s seen a lot. As I browse the colorful content of TNG, I experience a sensation akin to penis envy. This site is full of poetic ruminations on the private lives of queer folks (I’m calling you out, Andrew F), and I’m jealous of more than just their eloquence. I’ve got things to say about my so-called “private life,” too! (Though I should distinguish that such reports would differ in both style and content from the advertised exploits of the aforementioned ex-asexual. We can’t all be so deft and debaucherous.)
I’ve always had a mean confessional streak, which is probably part of what drew me to Evangelical Christianity at eleven years old. The idea that there was a strength that was often anything but quiet in getting in front of an audience and laying one’s sins out in the open for all to see appealed to both my desire to have all eyes on me and my very real feelings of woundedness. It made sense to me that openly declaring one’s imperfections was a way to achieve perfection.
The act of “testimony” is a staple of Charismatic faiths. Of course, there are plenty of things that are considered inappropriate to disclose by the community’s standards (see: Ted Haggard), and when such things do see the light of day, the perpetrator is often cast out unless they seek forgiveness, and even then this is sometimes not enough (see: Ted Haggard).
At times I fear a comparable excommunication in respect to my work as an interfaith dialogue facilitator. I feel constricted by more than just my mother’s eyes when it comes to my public writing. I’d love to be as confessional as some TNG contributors when it comes to the dirty details of my life, but I worry about being haunted by the specter of immodesty in my professional career. I’m afraid to alienate. The fact of the matter is that I work with religious communities on a regular basis that could condemn the fruits of my lifestyle.
Does this make me the Larry Craig of TNG, acting in the shadows and unable to express myself fully for fear of constituent discontent? An ex-boyfriend of mine who is familiar with my work as of late recently accused me of “pandering” too often. I resisted his critique, but I have to admit he’s planted a seed of doubt in me.
My concerns about selective sharing and audience awareness grow out of more than just my desire to air all of my dirty laundry. I find myself in a bit of an ethical dilemma at times – a part of me resists the kind of life where my participation in communities of particularity is contingent upon acting apologetic for things I am not sorry for.
My solution to this quandry? Understanding discretion as an ethical act of empathy.
It is important to me not cut myself off from specific communities because of a selfish desire to “tell it all.” I don’t think such disclosure is always necessary or even helpful. In fact, I’m tempted to term that yearning exhibitionism (more on this in a minute). And so I trade my instinct to divulge my indiscretions for sense of discretion.
These questions of how much of and in what ways I share myself come up in various arenas of my life. In one of my Spiritual Direction courses I’ve found myself discussing sexual ethics with a Catholic Priest from India the morning after a late night out when suddenly I pause mid-sentence and ask myself: “Is what I’m sharing appropriate? How is he reacting to this?” On another occasion, I am leading an interfaith dialogue workshop when I begin to wonder, “Is this a safe space for me to make my queer identity known? Who do I risk alienating if I do?” Self-awareness and empathy can be fucking annoying bedmates sometimes but if I want relationships of respect and compassion they’re helpful allies.
And yet for all my talk of ethical discretion I have to acknowledge my longing to indulge my lean toward revelation. There is still a sizable yearning in me to be a prophetic voice in the world (messiah complex, anyone?). A part of me wants to run to the nearest church and shout: “Does my lifestyle make you uncomfortable? Well get the fuck over it!” Like Jesus totally knocking over a bunch shit in Herod’s temple or, if I’m a bit more honest, the Big Bad Wolf come to blow your house down, I’ve a stormy inclination to rabble and rouse.
But I also know from experience and observation that aggressive pre-emptive strike is not always the most productive move. Asking others to accommodate me without being willing to be sensitive to their sensibilities doesn’t engender dialogue – it’s elitist.
That means I’ve also had to learn the hard lesson of making my writing more accessible. This fall I had the opportunity to write an editorial for the Washington Post’s “On Faith.” Before submitting it I had a co-worker at the Interfaith Youth Core look it over. Her response was gently critical, and can be essentially boiled down to: “dumb it down, Chris.”
But I also don’t think that means I’m pandering or being “comfortably dumb.” These days I’m trying to avoid injecting haughty intellectualist references into my work because, again, my hope is that it will reach a wider audience.
If I’ve developed a bit of an anti-intellectualist streak, it’s not merely an organic product of my roots – when I met a fellow Minnesota native at a recent party and identified my hometown, she responded with “Oh yeah, the place where every other thirteen year old girl is pregnant!” – it’s the fault of the institutions themselves. I decided against enrolling at some top Religious Studies programs and opted to do my Master of Arts in Religion at a “humble” seminary precisely because I believe that academia is, by very definition, exclusive. And many churches (in theory) invite all to full participation and authority.
Does that mean I deny academic rigor? Of course not. I enjoy a good challenge (you hear that, Andrew F?). But I think larger conversations that only incorporate particular worldviews or, when they account for others only report on them secondhand, lack a flavor that I desire.
I recognize that I’m contradicting myself here. I can hear it now: “He wants to include every perspective but, by denying part of himself, isn’t he not including his own?”
Again, I turn to an ethic of empathic discretion. I want to foster a culture of religious pluralism, and that is a process that doesn’t occur overnight. If I alienate some folks before allowing them to hear my stories and share their own, there is the possibility that neither of us will give the other the time to develop a relationship. I don’t want to be written off before I have the opportunity to be known, and if that means I’m repressing myself, so be it. My desire to “tell it all” is not as strong as my hope to cultivate a space that is safe for everyone to share her or his story. I’m here and I may be queer, but I don’t necessarily expect everyone to get used to it – not right away, at least. First comes community, then prophecy.
Just as there is a certain arrogance symptomatic of insular ivory tower academia, the idea that others should have to accommodate all of me and all of my experiences in each and every context strikes me as self-important. I think in some ways social media is fostering an environment in which we expect that every intimate detail of our life is newsworthy. As great as the democratization of media has been, I’m starting to wonder if everyone really needs to know what I did last night (and in case you were wondering, Mom, I was at home.) The cultural notion that a little bit of mystery goes a long way may be eroding out from under us, replaced instead with a deep-seated hunger for exposure, but I’m trying to resist.
This personal move away from TMZ-style self-disclosure toward an ethic of empathic discretion couldn’t be timelier: my thesis on narrative and new media is due this week. Please don’t ask how much I have left to write for it; I’ll keep that information to myself, thank you.
It’s also borne fruit in my personal life. After years of swearing up and down that I never would, I recently decided it was time to cave and be Facebook friends with my mom. For one, the privacy settings will keep her from seeing most pictures in which I’m tagged (thanks for taking a disproportionate number of party pictures, college friends). But I’m also coming to a point in my life where I feel that I don’t wish to hide as much of my lifestyle from the people with whom I share my deepest bonds.
The beautiful irony of the situation is that she rejected my friendship request. My mom has clued me in to the fact that she follows my blog, reads this column, listens to my radio roundtables, reads my work in Jettison Quarterly, and keeps tabs on my public work for Interfaith Youth Core, yet she will not have me as a Facebook friend.
My guess – she doesn’t want to know what my Facebook, a collective forum for public content, contains. She trusts me to share what I think is relevant, appropriate, and life-giving in the context of our relationship.
So Mom, I think I’m glad we’re not Facebook friends. I’m happy to fill you in on my life as I deem fit. And in case you’re wondering, I haven’t made out with another boy since you caught me hickey-necked on New Year’s Day in high school – I swear to god.
Chris’ column, The Non Prophet, runs Wednesdays at 2 PM. For more on Chris, visit his website.
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