Letter to an Evangelical Friend, Part 2: Obeying Jesus Without Knowing Him?

Last week I posted some of my email dialogue with my evangelical friend “Denise” about gay rights, the Bible, and how we choose our bedrock principles for discerning God’s will on such controversial issues. Her letter culminated in the following invitation to self-examination:

“…Speaking just for myself here, I have had to say to Jesus: ‘If it turns out those aspects of Calvinism which so trouble me are right, and that faithfulness to You means I have to accept their views, then I have to choose You.’…Might it be that one reason you don’t any longer want to read books/arguments contradicting your position is that deep down you wonder if you ever might be faced with that choice, and definitely don’t want to ‘go there’?…I just wonder which would come first, were it to come to that? Jesus, or your position on the gay issue?”

Denise and I are close friends, and our dialogues always take place in a spirit of love and humility, with respect for each other’s boundaries and for the limits of human knowledge of the divine. My next remarks, then, are not intended to apply to her.

I’m troubled by the power imbalance that can occur in debates between gay-affirming and traditionalist Christians when the latter make the rhetorical move of questioning their dialogue partner’s level of submission to God, Jesus, or the Bible. Suddenly the ground of argument has shifted from our intellectual disagreement to a personal defense of my core faith. This is not a conversation that anyone should be forced to have when friendship and trust have not already been established between the speakers.

Even where a personal context exists, an individual’s relationship with God belongs to the realm of sacred mystery where words fail. We should hesitate to speak of it or demand that others do so, lest we violate its intimacy or, by dragging it into conceptual space, make it too rigidly specific and idolatrous. It should not be put on display to prove a point. And if that point remains unproven, will not that core faith also be shaken? Would traditionalists rather see me agree that Christ is not my Lord, than remain a Christian who happens to support GLBT equality? Sometimes it seems that they would.

In reflecting on Jesus’ life and death, I had the thought that God’s life among us took this particular form to establish once and for all that we should not worship any power other than love. Love is the only power that God retained when he was born as a homeless, illegitimate, peasant baby, and died as a criminal whom the secular and religious authorities conspired to execute.

Therefore, when Christians invoke power-based concepts (God’s sovereignty, Biblical authority) to limit actions that compassion would otherwise recommend, one could say they are reverting to a worldly misunderstanding of what it means for Jesus to be Lord.


Here is what I wrote to Denise:

I can’t imagine Jesus would ask me to take a position that seems incredibly cruel and factually unsupported (to the very best of my cognitive abilities) as proof of my obedience to him, because then the concept of “Jesus” would be emptied of all content except inscrutable absolute power.

Certainly I can, as an intellectual exercise, entertain the possibility that God-in-Jesus could turn out to desire child sacrifice (to use an extreme example that nobody is arguing for, although one could say that Christian parents who cast out their gay children are enacting a present-day version of this story). Kierkegaard considered this very scenario in his commentary on the binding of Isaac, and if I remember my college philosophy class correctly, he came down on the side of the “teleological suspension of the ethical”—namely that God could command us to do something that seems totally evil and pointless according to our best judgment as human beings, but we should do it anyhow.

The problem with this position is that it takes away the main reason I believe Jesus is Lord—as opposed to Kali the Destroyer, Satan, Mother Nature, etc.—which is that Jesus is supremely loving, compassionate, nonviolent, humble, a defender of the radical equality of all people, and someone who privileges just outcomes over rule-following. I am a Christian because I want to believe God looks like Jesus, and because I am a better person when I try to look like him too.

It’s possible that the God who runs the universe is so alien to our ideas of kindness and goodness that we should just shut up and do whatever He says. But there is no workable way to implement this. There’s no unmediated, uninterpreted access to God’s will. When we suspend our own evidence-based judgment and suppress our compassionate instincts, we are only handing over our soul to some other human being who is all too happy to tell us “what God wants”.

When I take a stand on gay rights, I don’t see myself as relying on my personal feelings and “subjective ideological preferences” against Scripture and tradition. I’m speaking out of the collective experiences of all the gay people who have struggled, often at the price of their lives, to love God and their neighbors while honestly living the way God made them.

One could be more justified in saying that certain non-affirming Christians are privileging their personal preferences (about gender roles and human sexuality) over the evidence of science and psychology, not to mention the testimonies of their silenced gay brothers and sisters. We seem like isolated heretics and random individualists only because there are many more who are afraid to bear witness. Religious, familial, and civil discrimination collude in preventing gay and gay-affirming Christians from connecting with one another to create a new spiritual community and a new interpretive tradition.

It seems to me that on the issues that preoccupy us both—salvation for non-Christians in your case, or the permissibility of homosexual relationships in my case—we ourselves are personally not at risk. You are a Christian, and I am straight. Our anxiety springs from the yearning to have all others enjoy the same blessings that we have received. Based on the movement of the entire Biblical narrative toward an ever-widening membership in “God’s chosen”, it also seems to me that this motivation is greatly to be trusted, as a reason to choose one Biblical interpretation over another.

The two issues seem similar to me in another way. If God loves everyone and desires their well-being, whatever God commands must ultimately turn out to be for the benefit of every person. Eternal damnation, with no possibility of repentance and forgiveness, might be good news for some abstraction like “God’s sovereignty”, but it can’t possibly be of any benefit to the souls thus punished. Similarly, overwhelming evidence suggests that the results of suppressing a person’s sexual orientation are deeply traumatic for that person, which is why anti-gay rhetoric usually focuses on the benefits to “us” (society, the church, etc.) from getting rid of “them”. One simply can’t make the case that the closeted person himself is better off, spiritually, than one whose body and soul are integrated.

I honor the humility and sincerity of your struggle with obedience to Scripture. But to me it looks like a struggle between a natural inclination toward compassion, and a fear that this compassion is impermissible. That way of life doesn’t attract me.

Finally, to return to where you began, I absolutely agree with you that faith in the Person of Jesus requires some doctrinal container to shape it. That’s actually why this whole opposition between obedience and inclusiveness makes no sense to me. I follow Jesus because he stands for some very specific values, inclusiveness being among them. I don’t think he intended it to be very mysterious, either. In all the actions he took to manifest God’s nature working through him, he appealed not only to law and Scripture, but to logic, the poetic imagination, and the evidence of people’s senses. God’s idea of good and bad is different from ours, sure. But in every example where Jesus makes this point, he’s revealing God’s love for outcasts, never shooting down as “disobedient to Scripture” a person who crosses social and religious identity boundaries in the name of love.

That is why, even if I turn out to be mistaken on the gay issue when I stand before the throne of judgment, in the meantime I’d rather err on the side of inclusion.

Two Poems by Nick Demske

“An idea’s value depreciates the moment/you drive it off the lot,” proclaims Nick Demske in the one untitled poem in his self-titled collection from Fence Books, anticipating critics who might carp that his furious, punning, scatological, exploded sonnets are as overstuffed with pop-culture ephemera as the trash can outside Mickey D’s. How long before we need footnotes to understand a line like “Peppermint/Schnapps complements uninsured Hummers like an over/Eager metrosexual”? Will civilization survive that long? (Assuming it isn’t already dead.)

Eleven years after America indulged in a month-long exegesis of certain presidential ballots, many of us will reach back into the mental file marked “old news” and come up empty. Remember pregnant chads? The V-chip? David Schwimmer? The end of history? Ah, those were the days.

Ecdysiast, now: a word that conceals (with its prissy erudition) as much as the act it describes, reveals. A similar double-mindedness is at work in Nick Demske’s poetry. Cheap goods and commercialized words join with sacrosanct ones in a passionate melee. Could be an orgy, could be a fistfight. Sometimes all I see is a cloud of dust, as in the cartoons. But worth watching anyhow.


Vote yes on this ballot and get a free
Abortion when you purchase any additional abortion of equal or lesser
Of two evils. Honk if you’re saving yourself for marriage. Hear ye
Sinners; he clave the rock and the waters

Menstruated forth like a head wound—no, a
Boil on Job’s ass! Vote yes if you’re not chicken.
Bu bawk bawk bawwwk. This poem paid for by the
People that brought you natural selection,

Epidurals and baby bibs
With Noah’s ark graphics stitched on. Vote yes and choose to give
A child Life. Vote yes for
Promotional use only, vote yes sir, right away sir,

Vote yes if you love me, vote yes, vote yes, vote yes
Yes, yes, no please don’t stop I was so close.



“the answer to all those rhetorical questions”
-Nick Demske

for Sara Thornton

A finger contours the serrations. A hand with all its digits
Intact caresses these stumps with a wash rag. This is
All my fault. I never should have let this happen.
So liberated we voluntarily bind our librations

Inside this cage; its dimension lines a high art form, throbbing out our rhythm.
She sways like the bangs of a willow. With her bamboo manicure.
With your skin shell hide husk rind etc. But I’ll never die because I am
A god. You, on the other hand, are

Female. It’s so cold the snow looks like diamonds. If we’re
So frickin’ beautiful, we’ll shove our lily hands into the contents
Of this diaper here and mould them to a song. We’ll burrow deeper
Into all our thickly caked integuments, just to dim our radiance’s violent,

Seismic vox. Undistorted majesty demands
It’s own grotesqueness. It’s so cold the coal looks like diamonds.

Murder Ballad Monday: Olivia Newton-John, “Banks of the Ohio”

I feel guilty about liking this ballad, which I first heard on a Bill Monroe album. In its traditional form, it’s about a man who murders his girlfriend in a seemingly senseless fit of temper, after which he explains that it was because she wouldn’t marry him. This scenario is not so entertaining when you consider how many women are battered and killed by possessive partners. So when I found this Olivia Newton-John version with the genders reversed, I felt a little bit more justified in posting it. But only a little. Violence is bad, m’kay?

My Interview on the Mass Cultural Council ArtSake Blog

Last year I was honored to receive a fellowship for poetry from the Massachusetts Cultural Council. Since then my gratitude has only increased, to see the publicity support that the MCC gives its fellows and finalists. In conjunction with our reading last week at Forbes Library in Northampton, the MCC’s Dan Blask interviewed me on their ArtSake blog. Here’s a sample:

ArtSake: Along with your poetry, you also write fiction and nonfiction. Do you approach writing prose differently from the way you approach poems?

Jendi: Yes, definitely! Poetry and fiction must be written by hand with a mechanical pencil in a 6×9 Mead Five Star notebook. Nonfiction, by which I mean my blog posts about gay rights and Christianity, is written on the computer. I don’t know how to shape a narrative in creative nonfiction. There are too many facts, and most of them were hard enough to live through once.

When I write poetry, I’m not thinking about an audience. What wants to be written, gets written. It’s like a computer’s self-diagnostic. I write to find out what I think. Naturally, my values and preoccupations are reflected in the poetry, so in that sense, it often contains a critique of society, but it’s driven by my own need to express my authentic inner experience, rather than to have a particular impact on others. (Though I wonder whether the two are really so separable – doesn’t every self-disclosure cherish a tiny hope of being recognized and responded to in kind, however much one tries to cultivate self-protective detachment?)

My novel-in-progress is about a young fashion photographer in 1990s NYC who struggles to reconcile his faith and his sexual orientation. With this project, I have more of a conscious intention to bring about social change, along with telling an entertaining story.

Writing a novel is harder than poetry because it’s impossible to be in the “flow” for that length of time. With a poem, by the time I figure out where my subconscious is taking me, the trip’s over. I don’t have much opportunity to get in my own way. Far more planning has to go into the novel, which means that there are many chances for self-consciousness and ideological agendas to seize control, instead of letting the work tell me, itself, what it needs to be. I counteract this problem by conceiving of the novel as a collaborative effort between myself and my characters. They’ve got to retain the freedom to surprise me. My job is to see enough of the big picture so that they don’t get lost and despondent, but not be so directive that they lose their independent life force. It is a constant, elaborate, frustrating, fascinating dance that calls on all my relationship skills, and maybe even improves them in the so-called real world.

I do my creative writing by hand because this slower, temporally linear method allows intuition to take the lead. Writing on the computer, it’s too easy to pull back and see the big picture, to let the analytical mind start rearranging and criticizing, and skip past that quiet inwardness where the soul of the poem or story gestates.

Read the rest here. Videos of myself and my talented co-readers Rosann Kozlowski, Nancy K. Pearson, Cynthia Morrison Phoel, and Jung Yun are available on the Winning Writers YouTube channel.

Letter to an Evangelical Friend, Part 1: Why I Don’t Read Anti-Gay Theology

“Denise”, a close friend from the days when I was an evangelical fellow-traveler, has long wrestled with the question of the salvation of non-Christians, with the same intensity that I devote to gays-and-God. Her compassionate heart inclines toward as inclusive a vision as possible, yet she also holds the firm conviction that she needs to find Scriptural warrant for any position she takes, in order to be fully obedient to Jesus as Lord.

Perhaps this is where our theological paths diverge most, though I can’t say I’ve really settled exactly what role the Bible does play in my life–some as-yet-unarticulated third way between Denise’s view that “every word in Scripture is exactly as God wanted it to be”, and the liberal view that it’s an important source of history and mythology but not uniquely authoritative.

Earlier this month, I had the honor of giving a talk at my church about how my faith and my creative writing inform one another. I sent Denise a copy of my notes, excerpted below, and she sent back some profound questions that inspired another six-page letter. She’s given me permission to share excerpts from our dialogue. I think it encapsulates the core issues in this debate, and some of the reasons why affirming and traditional Christians often seem to be talking past each other.

First, here’s a section from my speech notes:

…When I began this novel, I knew two things in my heart that didn’t make much sense to me: these characters came to me from outside, and I felt the Holy Spirit empowering me to do things I’d never done before. At the time, my mentor was an evangelical writer who said that a book about “sodomy” couldn’t possibly be honoring God. I didn’t have the Biblical expertise to stand up against that. I just couldn’t shake the conviction that these characters had been entrusted to me somehow, and I shouldn’t abandon them in order to secure my spot in heaven.

To make a long story short, this led me on a journey into progressive theology and political activism. I thought more about the reasons we are attracted to certain Biblical interpretations, and the importance of taking responsibility for our emotions and prejudices when we approach the Bible. The human element appeared inescapable. I kept coming back to Jesus’ words, “By their fruits ye shall know them.” You can make clever arguments for just about any interpretation, but if the net result isn’t more love and more equality, you’re probably off-base, whatever the text seems to say.

But along the way, I lost a lot of confidence in the authority of the Bible, and I still wrestle with guilt and uncertainty about my Christian identity because of this. It’s not that I don’t think you can make a good Scriptural case for inclusion, but that I really don’t care as much as I used to, either way. I hope this is more of a way station than a final stance.

How radical it felt to me, how scary, to begin to believe that creative writing is a source of theological knowledge! Though we have Scripture and tradition to tell us what Christians have historically believed, I think we equally need personal, contemporary experience to understand the world to which those doctrines are being applied. The arts, guided by the Holy Spirit, can give us that experience, particularly by widening the circle of our compassion.

There’s a lot of hidden privilege in our theologizing. The question about gay inclusion, for instance, is often framed as “Should we (normal straight people) let them into the church?” Writing, or reading, a story from the perspective of a gay person makes us think twice about assuming that we deserve to be the gatekeepers in the first place. If we’re open to it, we can see that this very different person is just as human as ourselves, and that their life and love has the same potential to manifest the divine spark. This seems to me to be very much in line with the gospel stories, where Jesus constantly reverses the expectations of people who think they’re God’s favorites.

And here are Denise’s questions:

The main theme as I read it in all of the above centers around this question: Does an orthodox doctrinal faith operating as “container” for prayer, the creative imagination, and one’s personal living, help or hinder? Do the constraints of a doctrine one doesn’t feel free to question cramp prayer, the imagination, and living, or does an orthodox doctrinal Christian faith free one up from “slavery” to more subjective ideological preferences and agendas for the deeper freedom Paul speaks of, that we have in Jesus Christ?

You know, I’m sure, how much I always resist many of the constraints of a tightly systematized doctrine–both because of my temperament and because I honestly believe the paradox and mystery of the Bible argues against its importance, or even its possibility. At the same time, it seems to me that absolute commitment to Jesus as Savior and Lord has to be at the heart of any true Christianity. How much does that commitment mandate faith in doctrine (as opposed to faith merely in a Person?).

We all have our own issues here– issues that are so crucial to us that any threat to our preferential position shakes us at our very core. For me it has always been the salvation issue, and specifically some perspectives on predestination. For you I sense that the gay issue is the most important, though obviously the salvation issue raises questions for you as well. Speaking just for myself here, I have had to say to Jesus: “If it turns out those aspects of Calvinism which so trouble me are right, and that faithfulness to You means I have to accept their views, then I have to choose You.” I don’t know where you would come out on this “forced choice” were you to be faced with it. I realize that you don’t believe, and probably can’t imagine, you would ever be faced with this choice, since you are so convinced faith in Jesus does not require us to consider homosexual behavior a sin. Quite the opposite, in fact.

But what if it did????? Might it be that one reason you don’t any longer want to read books/arguments contradicting your position is that deep down you wonder if you ever might be faced with that choice, and definitely don’t want to “go there”?
I’m not trying to persuade you of anything here, Jendi. As you know, this is not one of my “issues”. But I just wonder which would come first, were it to come to that? Jesus, or your position on the gay issue?

Here is the first half of my response (with minor edits for style):

Why I Don’t Read Anti-Gay Theology

[1] Non-affirming theologians are often starting from such different premises, regarding the “inerrancy” of the Bible or the “infallibility” of the Catholic magisterium, or an essentialist and complementarian view of gender roles, that there isn’t sufficient common ground for me to get any value from their arguments. I disbelieve in the above-mentioned premises on wholly separate philosophical grounds, not because of the outcomes they might produce for the gay issue.

[2]I don’t need to seek out these arguments because they are all around us in politics and the media, as well as in the writings of conservative Christians whom I read on other subjects. Every time gay people are lobbying for secular civil rights such as marriage, adoption, employment non-discrimination, and anti-bullying programs in schools, Christian leaders who oppose these measures are given an opportunity to air their Biblical position. The Proposition 8 trial alone generated hundreds of pages of this.

Generally, it is not only easier but inescapable for a minority group to know what the majority thinks about them, including the rationales for their subordination. It’s the majority that needs to make a special effort to notice that other perspectives even exist.

[3] Entering one-sided conversations makes me wary. I’d like to flip the question around and ask why non-affirming Christians are so reluctant to listen to gay Christians’ narratives of their own lives? Why, in other words, is it incumbent upon GLBT people and their families to seek out arguments against us, from people who often choose to be uninformed about something we know about first-hand?

A recent instance of this occurred at Harding University, a Church of Christ college in Arkansas. A group of students (anonymously, for fear of retaliation) created a website and print magazine collecting their personal narratives of living with same-sex attraction as Christians at Harding. They spoke about bullying, coerced “reparative therapy”, and suicide attempts—all merely because of their orientation, not sexual activity. The administration responded by blocking the website and declaring the magazine to be in violation of the student handbook.

[4] Let’s concede for a moment, for purposes of this discussion, that non-affirming Christians have the better of the textual argument—namely that the authors the relevant passages in Leviticus and the Epistles intended to condemn all same-sex activity, not only male prostitution and rape of the defeated enemy during wartime, as affirming theologians have argued. That’s a reasonable position, though not the only one.

From that, however, most non-affirming Christians make the questionable leap that the social mores that pertained in Biblical times must be timeless universal commands. This ahistoricism seems to me to foreclose important justice-based critiques of the status quo.

Whichever society you look at, the norms concerning family and sexuality have almost always been formed under conditions of gender inequality—a structural sin that Jesus cared about quite a lot. We conveniently erase a key political dimension of Christianity when we adopt a presumption against progressing beyond ancient social structures.

The direction of the Biblical narrative, especially in the New Testament, is toward ever-expanding equality before God, breaking down barriers based on ethnicity, ritual purity, socioeconomic class, and gender, to name a few. The first Christian communities didn’t perfectly achieve this, and neither have we, but we should try to head in that direction. It would be a shame if we froze that development 2,000 years ago by reifying their imperfections instead of continuing their forward movement.

[5] I would respect, though disagree with, a Christian who conceded that there were no personal pathologies or societal harms associated with homosexuality and that sexual orientation is unchangeable for most people, yet who still believed that the prohibition on same-sex intimacy was a Biblical command, albeit one with no explainable reason behind it except God’s mysterious design.

However, that is hardly ever how the debate unfolds. Probably suspecting that most modern people would not accept such starkly deontological ethics, non-affirming Christian writers/leaders/activists nearly always feel the need to bolster their case with derogatory and long-discredited factual assertions about homosexuals and homosexuality. Such assertions include:

*gay men are pedophiles

*gay people “recruit” others into homosexuality

*gays are incapable of, and/or opposed to, sexual fidelity and monogamy

*gays who want equal rights under civil law are persecuting Christians and interfering with their religious freedom

*gays are unfit parents

*recognizing gay marriage (under civil law, not in the church) will create a sexual free-for-all that undermines marriage and families

*people become gay because they experienced child abuse

*people become gay because their father was emotionally unavailable and their mother was domineering

*all people are naturally heterosexual—”gays” are just confused

*homosexuality can be changed through prayer and therapy

*the “homosexual lifestyle” leads to poor health outcomes and unstable relationships because it’s inherently wrong (in other words, not because of social stigma, parental abuse of gay kids, and discrimination in health care and employment)

Not only do these errors fatally undermine these writers’ credibility in my eyes, but I hold them somewhat accountable for the hate crimes and gay suicides that result from the spread of false stereotypes about gay people as dangerous, perverted, and unnatural.

Next in this series: Would I choose Jesus first? Does the question have any meaning? What do you think?

Murder Ballad Monday: The Highwaymen, “The Road Goes On Forever”

This honky-tonk ballad, about a working-class couple who turn to robbery and murder as a way out of their dead-end lives, really doesn’t have much redeeming social value, but it’s a masterpiece of storytelling. When I listen to it, I alternate between feeling empathy for their grim situation and recoiling from their cold-blooded narcissism. Does Sonny’s final gesture redeem his misspent life, even a little bit? You decide.

My Poem “not with the old leaven” Now Online at the St. Sebastian Review

My poem “not with the old leaven” is now online in the first issue of the St. Sebastian Review, a new literary journal for GLBTQ Christians and allies. Yes, we do exist! As editor Carolyn E.M. Gibney says in her introduction:

Many times over this past year, in the midst of my clumsy attempts to get this journal going (It’s sort of
felt like learning stick shift all over again: You think you’ve got it, then you lurch forward violently for a
few seconds, sit stunned for a moment, and start the damn car once more.), I’ve had people – mostly
genuinely concerned and gentle people – ask me: Why would you create a journal for queer Christians?
How many of you are there?

My answer is always the same: Twelve. There are twelve of us. (At this point in the conversation I smile
and tell them I’m kidding. Which I am. Mostly.)

It’s true that this seems like a bit of a strange niche. Queer Christians tend to fall into the section of the
Venn diagram that most people either A) don’t think exists (which in most cases is easily rectifiable), or B)
vehemently deny is metaphysically possible. ‘You can’t be gay and Christian!’ they say.

Word on the street, though, is that metaphysics can only take you so far. (Buy Martin a beer and he’ll tell
you why, in the end, he never could finish Being and Time.) And, in any case, the problem, unfortunately,
has never been metaphysical. The problem is not whether gay Christians can or should exist. The problem
is that we do exist, and that people still consider our existence a metaphysical question.

The question of being queer and Christian is deeply, terribly physical. And immanent. And quotidian. (‘See
my hands?’ I would like to say back. ‘See, here: Touch the wound in my side.’)

That’s partly why I started this journal. I want to affirm that the question of the intersection of queer and
Christian has moved, must move – entirely and completely – from the realm of the metaphysical to the
realm of the ethical. The question, now, dear friends, as I’m sure you already know, is not ‘What?” but

The issue is available for download as a PDF here.

Videos from Green Street Cafe Poetry Reading with Mark Hart and Jendi Reiter

Last week I shared the stage with poet and Buddhist teacher Mark Hart at a reading at Northampton’s Green Street Cafe. I would do the job for the free dinner alone. If you weren’t there, you’ll just have to imagine the roast duck and polenta, but you can feast your other senses on the videos now posted on the Winning Writers YouTube channel

Here’s a clip of me reading “World’s Fattest Cat Has World’s Fattest Kittens”, which won 2nd Prize in the 2007 Utmost Christian Writers Poetry Contest. Mamas (and daddies), don’t let your babies grow up to be writers.

My Poem “Bullies in Love” Wins Anderbo Poetry Prize

My poem “Bullies in Love” has just won the 2010 Anderbo Poetry Prize judged by Charity Burns and Linda Bierds. Anderbo is a NYC-based online literary journal edited by Rick Rofihe. This poem was inspired by the episode of “Glee” where the homophobic football player kisses sweet little gayboy Kurt. Who says watching TV doesn’t pay?

Bullies in Love

Wouldn’t it be nice to believe all hate is desire,

the bullet that wings the bird

wanting to be a bird?

Believe, if little dead boys can

hold their dear opinions in the ground,

that the fist is only a heart

stunned by too much muscle?

Because then you would still be visible,

chosen as carefully for destruction

as the cities of the plain

or the shy girl in a vampire novel,

the girl who is all elbows and sorrow

and stands outside at weddings.

The truth is, most hatred is different from really rough sex,

neither masked for the sizzle of mystery

nor screaming the name of the defeated, its own.

Not thinking is its flavor.

Deafness, its spice.

But believe, because you are not yet twenty-one

and drowning, not yet lying down at seventeen

beneath the homecoming train, not yet a choking thirteen

hung from your mother’s garage ceiling,

because you are still at home on prom night

watching the Discovery Channel, you will be convinced

that the zebras, by now, must be aware of the cameras

and that the one who tumbles beneath the lion’s

rank delicious weight is choosing

something like the mating that escaped you.

Bad Daughters of Eve

One of the lectionary readings for yesterday, the first Sunday in Lent, was the Genesis story of Adam, Eve, the snake and the apple. On its face, this text suggests that we disobeyed God by using our own judgment instead of obeying blindly, and all of humanity’s problems go back to this root. Given how easily and often this interpretation has lent itself to abuses of church authority, I feel compelled to search for more creative ways of understanding one of the foundational myths of Western culture.

Without proposing a reduction of religion to mere psychodrama, I’d like to suggest that the Garden of Eden story expresses (among many other things!) an early stage in the maturation of the individual. It’s a poetic representation of how the child looks at the parent’s authority. And because, in St. Paul’s words, we are eventually meant to “put away childish things”, it’s not the last word on the interplay between independence and obedience.

Remember how it felt to be a small child. Our parents made a lot of rules whose purpose we didn’t always understand. As we got older, hopefully we saw more of the reasons for rules that seemed arbitrary at the time. Meanwhile, though, the bargain looked a lot like Eden: nurture and protection, and the freedom to ignore the hard choices that adults had to puzzle through (“the knowledge of good and evil”), in exchange for being a dutiful son or daughter.

But one day, we decided to test those limits. Ride that bike into traffic. Eat a whole box of cookies. What happened when we got caught? If we tried to hide the evidence, or shift the blame, that reaction, rather than the disobedience itself, was the greatest proof that we really weren’t mature enough to write our own rulebook yet.

Even so, Eden was kind of nice. They do your laundry for you and there’s always popcorn in the cupboard. From the teenage perspective, being kicked out feels like punishment. What are you talking about, go earn your own bread by the sweat of your brow? Without that responsibility, though, you’re not really living into the independence that you said you wanted.

What I’m suggesting is that the Fall and expulsion only look like a crime and a penalty from the human viewpoint because we’re ambivalent about growing up–“growing into the full stature of Christ”, to quote St. Paul again. Adam and Eve’s first act of self-awareness is to clothe themselves, to create physical separation and privacy between themselves and their divine parent. Individuation is a necessary but lonely process, and both parent and child sometimes feel nostalgic for the Edenic oneness of the womb.

For Christians, this trajectory comes full circle in the Incarnation and Atonement. Where Adam and Eve fell short of God’s design for full human maturity because they didn’t take responsibility for their own transgressions, Jesus embodies that design by taking on and cleaning up the transgressions of others. Where Adam and Eve clothed themselves in fig leaves to become different from their creator, God clothed Godself in human form in order to restore that connection, but still in a way that respected human freedom.

Again, this has its parallels in family life. As we develop an adult’s broader perspective, we discover that our personal autonomy, which may have seemed so absolute during adolescence, is shaped and limited by family obligations and by the behavior patterns we’ve inherited from our forebears. Though our abusive ancestors weren’t our fault, it falls to us to say “The buck stops here”–to face and reform those abusive tendencies in ourselves, and to bind up the wounds of our loved ones.