Sunday, August 8, 2010

I Stand All Amazed

Today I walked by a beautiful Church a few blocks away from our home. The doors were open, and the service had just started. I could hear singing, and see the light streaming though exquisite stained glass windows. Near the door was a welcome sign that said all were welcome with a little rainbow flag in the corner telling me that they really meant all. My husband and I could have sat down at the pews and others would have looked at us and smiled as we worshiped Christ holding hands with each other. A small part of me wanted to join just because we can, but as a whole, I still feel on the outside of Christianity despite the rainbow symbols in almost every Church doorway here. The problem is my experiences with Mormonism ruined Jesus for me, and it makes me so mad. When I was younger, my view of Jesus was simple, and it was easy to love him. I mean, if you set aside questions about the historical figure or how literally his divinity should be interpreted, and just look at his life story for the simple merits of the story, the idea of Jesus should resonate with gay men more than the heroes and gods of other myths.

Here is a man who comes out of an established religion and criticizes its obsession with rules, questions its authority, and advocates a higher more spiritual way of worshiping. He preaches compassion, mercy, and forgiveness towards groups that are disadvantaged. He encourages tender characteristics like kindness, love, gentleness, and humility, and he encourages nurturing activities like healing, community service, and comforting the afflicted. He surrounds himself with men, and (courtesy of the Catholic Church) he is devoid of the rampant heterosexuality commonly associated with the central heroes of other myths. He promises his followers comfort, peace, and eternal life. He is persecuted by the predominant religion of the region, and he associates with people largely considered social, political, and even sexual deviants. He is betrayed to the authority and is tried for crimes he isn’t guilty of, and then he is killed despite his innocence. If ever there was a figure to champion the distressed, the downtrodden, the misunderstood, or the persecuted minority, it is Jesus Christ. And as a deity he is portrayed in graceful linens, with a hero’s abs (courtesy of gay Catholic artists), and typically with unusually good hair. His followers worship him often with elaborate, beautiful clothing/settings/props, and almost always with theatrical drama. I should love his life, his story, and his followers—his is the ultimate gay man’s myth/hero/deity! More significantly, he was someone I could relate to.

But unfortunately when I think of Jesus now, my mind turns to the role he played in my faith when I was in college and trying to come out of the closet in the midst of a social war. At BYU during my last experiences in Mormonism, Jesus was used as weapon against my new identity and my future. He became the lawgiver, not the lawbreaker—one who enforces the nit picky rules of pamphlets instead of seeing past them. Now I think of him as perfection and as the perfectionist demanding my perfection. I see him as Greg Olsen portrays him, made of wax in sickly yellow light looking over Jerusalem with sad condemnation. If he offers comfort, guidance, or support, it is patronizing and hollow, disregarding what I feel or want for what I am "supposed" to feel or want. I think of him as judge, looking sternly from his picture frame over the shoulder of the Bishop who asks invasive questions and decides whether or not I should be allowed to attend classes. I think of him as the head of the Church, the voice behind Thomas S. Monson and the creeds of men—the rallying call behind Proposition 8. I think of him as being perfectly obedient, never questioning authority. I think of him as a heterosexual married man, not because there are tender stories of romance, but because he is the perfect priesthood holder. He is a patriarch, the man in charge who keeps his wife (wives?) quietly stowed away and hidden from the public. I think of him as he is portrayed in eternity, not with beautiful hair and heroic abs but as the mirror image of a more distant sci-fi, Zeus-like father, white and old and alien, with light so bright you can’t even look at him and with the great expansive, unreachable cosmos behind him.

I realize that portrayal of Jesus is not what every Mormon knows, and I’m glad. You may think of him as the way I first described him, or perhaps in a different way entirely but a way that still resonates with you, and that’s great. But unfortunately for me, I am stuck on this Jesus who isn’t very Jesus-like, and it makes me mad. With that view of Jesus, is it any wonder that I am looking elsewhere for inspiration? Is it any wonder than when I seek the divine in nature I see it in a goddess? Can you blame me when I want the majesty of a god and I turn to Apollo? Or for goodness sake when I need spiritual inspiration and have to find it in Aang the airbender, a children’s cartoon character? Some day, when I am ready, I would like to reread the gospels and try to see Jesus without all the projected baggage from my Mormon past, and maybe then I can love him the way I want to love him if not the way I once loved him. Until then I will pass the open doors of inclusive Churches and still feel detached from the Christ they worship.


Pablo said...

Even when I was still trying to reconcile what I deeply felt with what is taught in Mormondom (both in the church officially and among the people culturally), I felt like an outsider. The Jesus you described in your second paragraph is the one that resonates most with me.

It deeply saddens me that because Mormonism is so monolithic and obsessed with maintaining such unrealistically rigid rules of compliance, the talk of developing a "personal relationship with Jesus Christ" is mostly empty words. I can envision a personal relationship with the critical-thinking Jesus. But I can't even fathom why I would want a relationship with the Jesus who combines the worst aspects of jaded bureaucrat, probation officer and Zeus.

My experience trying to be the good, compliant Mormon boy ruined the concept of who Jesus was and ruined the potentially positive impact organized religion may be able to play in my life. I don't hate organized religion, though I understand why some do. It simply doesn't work for me right now, in a very similar way that you describe in your post.

Daniel, I hope that you and I both can find ways to renew our sense of the divine in a way that does work for us. The excellent books written by Prof. Bart Ehrman have helped me in really wonderful ways to reframe my thinking about Jesus and what is attributed to him and written about him in the Bible. His personal story is compelling, in part because his academic path, his views on Christianity and the development of his personal beliefs are interwoven in such a fascinating way. I highly recommend his books.

Thanks for another thought-provoking and heartfelt post!

Rob said...

Oh Dan, I'm so sorry to hear all this. I still do and always have thought of him the way you first described. It's been easy for me to shuck off the cultural barnacles of a big church organization gone wrong in many ways and conclude that the Savior would be just as upset as I've been about a lot of things. I'm sorry it's been difficult for you.

The thing I've always clung to is that my faith is not in the organization or its personnel. The church is a delivery vehicle, nothing more, and sometimes its deliveries don't work. When it comes to how I envision the Savior and a "personal relationship there," the church really doesn't even enter the equation for me. It's MY relationship, not theirs. The Olsen paintings and the Correlated lessons and all that, for whatever reason they don't ever touch me where it matters. I don't pray to the church or in its name. I don't look to anyone in the church for examples of how to live. I learned long ago that doing that is dangerous. There's only one person it's safe to rely on like that, and His is the only judgment or opinion I care about. And I can draw close to Him on my own just fine without the Olsen paintings and the boring lesson manuals and the weekly harangues about divine displeasure with lagging home teaching statistics.

There's another reason too but it's kinda private, I'll tell you about it directly sometime. I hope you can get past all that negative programming Dan and return to your childlike faith. I didn't feel like going to my voraciously pro-Prop 8 ward today so I went to St. Paul's Episcopal instead, where I have friends who welcomed me with smiles and hugs. And I felt the spirit of Christ there too, the first one you described. It was wonderful.

Seth R. said...

It's kind of odd that you accuse Mormonism of ruining your childhood image of Jesus - then you go on to present a detailed and nuanced detailed picture of Jesus that is obviously a position you formed about him later in life.

No kid views Jesus in all the ways you list in your second paragraph. For most of them - Jesus is just a nice guy who was nice to people and died because other people were mean.

Daniel said...

@Seth R.
Perhaps I wasn't very clear--that first description of Jesus is sort of a combined description of what I saw in Jesus as a gay teenager and what I currently think I should see in Jesus as a gay man, but can't because of the baggage I accumulated in college. The first description is based off things I felt before college--things I wrote in my journal and things that I remember feeling.

The second Jesus is based off my experiences at BYU and is quite different from the first.

Chedner said...

"Or for goodness sake when I need spiritual inspiration and have to find it in Aang the airbender, a children’s cartoon character?"

That cartoon is AMAZING.

cj said...

Well Mr. Artist, I think you should paint Jesus as you see and feel him at this stage in your life. Express yourself. Make him real. Rid yourself of Greg Olsen waxiness. I dare you.. It might help.

Bravone said...

Daniel, I agree with much of what Rob posted. Although I currently actively participate in the LDS Church, for several years, I did not even believe in God, not to mention His Son.

I too blamed my feelings on the Church. It is hard not to when you are raised being a member of 'the one and only true church' and then you lose that belief. At least for me, when I lost my belief in the church, I lost my entire spiritual belief system because I thought everything I knew about spirituality came from the church.

Now, I am grateful for that period of my life because it forced me to challenge every belief I had once taken for granted. I had to start from scratch, first desiring to know if there was a God, and then what that meant to me. Then I needed to know about Jesus Christ. Did I need a savior, and if so, was it Christ or someone else.

My spirituality was reborn independent of the Church. Like Rob mentioned, it was a profoundly personal experience, not connected with any church. I have since come to believe the LDS Church is the best vehicle for me to learn of and implement the teachings of Christ, but that came much later.

I hope that you are able to reconnect with Jesus somewhere, someway. I do know he is our Savior. Wherever you need to go to find him, I encourage you to do it. Through him, you will find peace and healing.

Anis said...

It makes feel so normal, that other adults like Aang the Last Airbender!! Chew, I was starting to worry I was not normal :p!

Ferrari von Cartier said...


I can never not be inspired and grateful whenever I read your posts; I struggle with many of the same issues. Attending BYU has thrown off my spirituality compass. My experiences here have left me numb and desensitized, no longer feeling close to a God I once held so dear. I enjoy your words because they so neatly articulate a struggle so universal. There are so many more bitter, wary, and spiritually exhausted individuals out there, both gay and straight, who can benefit from your example.