‘The Thousand-Petaled Lotus: Growing up Gay in the Southern Baptist Church’ & ‘Queer Clergy’
Author: Thom Nickels
December 20, 2014
I’ve noticed that many people—mainly, those who say they are “spiritual” but don’t subscribe to a specific belief—tend to call “God” anything but God, as if the G-O-D word were somehow not only intellectually bereft but also belonged to the narrow-minded crazies who give organized religion a bad name.
This tendency to go out of your way to call God anything but God strikes me as somewhat silly. Cumbersome terms like the Creative Force, the Divine Light, the Cosmic Force, and the Summation of All Things are over-elaborations that fail to mask an underlying fear of saying the G-word.
Why make the metaphysical more complicated than it has to be? At a wedding I attended recently, the New Age celebrant spent so much time inventing new names for God that his sentences became as complex as the prose of Henry James and Marcel Proust. Just saying the name of God took an inordinate amount of time. How much simpler it would have been if he had just summed it all up with the three-letter word from antiquity.
The politicization of “God” is an unfortunate trend that’s even extended to those who can’t bring themselves to write the name “God” without erasing the capital G and then replacing it with a small g while compounding things further by inserting a dash between the small g and the final d. The dash of course represents ambiguity, doubt and a marked reluctance to accept anything in the written canon, or “history,” of God, such as the Old and New Testaments. The dash then becomes a sort of intellectual safeguard or badge, reminding the reader that the writer isn’t one of those people who follow primitive (which is to say, childish) concepts, but that (s)he is a mature, skeptical, smart person who will not fall victim to the old myths. There are exceptions to this. Among some reverent Jews, the practice of spelling”G-d” with a dash replacing the ‘o” has to do with the sacredness of the word itself and implies no disbelief at all.
I am writing this a few days before the Thanksgiving holiday. Thanksgiving, of course, is probably the year’s most unifying holiday, when people of all faiths and creeds (or of no faith or creed) come together in different ways to give thanks for surviving another year in a world where anything of any catastrophic proportion can happen at any moment. Yet, even at Thanksgiving, there’s a reluctance to address to whom we want to offer our thanks. I’m reminded of what a friend told me about a flag he had seen on the lawn of a home that contained the image of a pumpkin and the words, “Give thanks.” To whom, I ask? To the air? To the pumpkin? To the nearby dogwood tree? This, I think, is a prime example of a growing reluctance among many people to use the word God.
In Michael Fields’ The Thousand-Petaled Lotus: Growing up Gay in the Southern Baptist Church (Langdon Street Press), we enter the world of the born again Christian. Fields’ childhood had the wholesome consistency of Pepperidge Farm white bread. It was the kind of childhood that could be set to musical renditions of “Jesus loves me, this I know/For the Bible tells me so…” As happens with almost any good boy from a seriously religious family, the minute homosexual desires surface, there is an intense rearranging of the status quo. Tables get moved, potted plants tumble to the ground, tea kettles whistle, and sometimes, a kid gets kicked out of the house
Little Michael, who grew up in the 1960s in the Bible belt metropolis of Nashville, Tennessee, prayed to God (note that Fields is not afraid to use the G-word) to stop the gay in him. God did not listen; in fact, He had other ideas. Unfortunately, it would take this good-natured Baptist boy some time before he accepted who he was when it came to love. God, as it turned out, seemed to be looking after him. “Jesus put me on the spot when he laid Robert on my heart,” Fields writes. “On the other hand, other than the gay porn movie that was unspooling in my head, I was a model Christian boy. On the other hand, like other boys I wanted to be cool so that the bullies would never throw eggs at the house and toilet paper the trees at Halloween.”
Creating humor from troubling experiences is much more challenging than writing an angry screed. It shows maturity; it shows that the writer’s initial struggle—that all of his raw suffering—has had time to seed and flower into something that (s)he can now make sense of and live with. Fields relates an old truth: “The homosexual knows that he never became a homosexual, that homosexuality is not something that is acquired, like a taste for scotch.” Although we’ve heard this sentiment before, it’s worth encountering it again. It reminds those of us who still go to church or synagogue or temple that prayers that ask God to change the way we love are more often than not cast upon stony ground.
Fields asks: “What are homosexuals made of, that we should be impervious to the power of prayer? Stern stuff, it seems. Are homosexuals men of steel? Or something so wispy it cannot be grasped long enough to be changed, like smoke?” In the old days, there was electroshock therapy, jail time in many states for consensual same-sex behavior, raids on gay bars and institutionalized homophobia everywhere you looked. To be gay in many instances was a liability.
The book opens with a meditation on God: “…Suppose that when God looks out on creation, suppose that when he looks out on your life, or mine, he sees no time at all, infinite or otherwise. Suppose that, for the eternal God, eternity has nothing to do with time. There are other definitions of eternity. Here is one I like: existence outside of time. By this definition, God, who is limitless in every dimension including the fourth, exists outside time altogether.”
As for Southern Baptist stereotypes, Fields plays that notion nicely when he writes, “The Southern Baptist of the early 1970s may have been evangelical, it may have been fundamentalist, but it was not exactly creationist. Our parents might take us to church on Sunday, but they expected us to pass a test on evolution the following Monday. If I was asked in Sunday school how long it took God to create the world, I would answer, ‘Six days.’ If I was asked on Monday morning how long it took our ancestors to climb down from the trees, I would answer, ‘Millions of years.’”
Fields concludes his story with a list of possible subjects for a future book. Reading this list, we can see that his coming out has created a change in his theology. For one thing, Fields writes that heaven is now no longer about an afterlife, but about life here and now:
The kingdom of heaven is spread out on the earth.
The kingdom of heaven is here, the only place there is.
The kingdom of heaven is this, the only thing there is.
The kingdom of heaven is this world.
Yet, if the earth that we see around us is all that there is of heaven, we’re in a lot of trouble. Shouldn’t heaven be an eternal respite from the hellish trials that are experienced on earth? Wars, automobile accidents, plagues, airline crashes, pain, illness, hunger, poverty, death, injury, riots, rape, 9/11, cancer, AIDS and Ebola in Heaven are unimaginable, even contradictory. From my point of view, Fields seems to have thrown too much away, because if earth is Heaven, then what must hell be like?
Queer Clergy (The Pilgrim Press) is a mammoth book that has been on my desk for a while. It’s thicker than a deluxe edition of Atlas Shrugged or the American Library edition of The Susan Sontag Reader. I call it the big Protestant book, because it’s subtitled, “A History of Gay and Lesbian Ministry in American Protestantism.” Its author, R.W. Holmen, is a Dartmouth graduate, a lifelong Lutheran, a (heterosexually) married man and a former trial attorney. In 2009, Holmen published his novel of Saint Paul, the Apostle, in which he characterizes Paul as a repressed gay man. Queer Clergy, in that tradition, documents the struggle of LGBT Christians to be accepted in their various denominations. “This book,” Holmen writes, “is about the gay rights movement within the church that parallels that of secular society, but the movement toward full inclusion in the church was and is more than merely a reaction to popular culture; progressive religious activism actually predated and encouraged Stonewall and its aftermath. Stonewall and the gay liberation movement was closely entwined with concurrent developments within ecumenical Protestantism.”
We learn of Metropolitan Community Church founder Troy Perry and his suicide attempt as a young man—a crisis that helped him realize that his life was useful and God was leading him “somewhere.” When that day came and he announced that he wanted to “build a bridge between Christianity and his gay community,” Holmen tells the story of how Perry’s gay friends balked and looked at him cross-eyed. One friend even quipped, “Helping queens get religion isn’t anyone’s bag.”
Holmen touches on the struggles of many LGBT clergy and seminarians, but the one that struck a chord with me was the story of Chris Glaser, who in 1976 was a Presbyterian seminarian at the General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church in Baltimore. While the UPC was not ready to ordain gays and lesbians, it did at that time adopt a cautious plan “to study the issue.” The long struggle over the issue caused Glaser to realize what was really happening. While a small committee had recommended him for ordination, when it came to the larger church, he ceased to be a person and was reduced to an issue. “The committee had the opportunity to know me as a person, but the larger group knew me principally as an issue…. I believe personalizing the issue becomes the central factor in transforming opinions on homosexuality. Every advance in the gay movement has been preceded by someone’s willingness to incarnate the issue.” For anyone interested in the history of the LGBT struggle within Protestant Christianity, this book is it.