I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues
I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues
I had intended to start my writing this year by waxing eloquent about Bruce Springsteen; but events have overtaken me, and meditations on `the Boss' will have to wait for a month or two. In fact, it was another icon of popular culture, Sir Elton John, or, to give him his full name, Sir Elton Hercules John (aka Reginald Dwight) who has rather occupied my thoughts these last few weeks. For surely, the images of him forging a civil union with David Furnish, his homosexual partner of some years, and then departing on honeymoon are microcosmic representations of the modern Western world, with its highly sexualized culture of celebrity.
I clearly remember some ten years ago being present at a church discussion of homosexuality, where I made the case that it would never gain significant ground because the majority of people, many perhaps for reasons of sheer bigotry rather than careful thought, would simply continue to regard it as self-evidently wrong. Well, that was then, and this is now. It's not often that I look back on my life and criticize myself for being naïve; cynicism (a far less pardonable vice) is usually the error into which I habitually fall. But my attitude in the early nineties has, without doubt, proved to be hopelessly naïve. My only excuse is that I'm a historian and get paid to explain the past, not predict the future.
There is, of course, no single cause which explains why many of us so badly underestimated the depth of the impending problem or the speed at which attitudes would change. It is now clear, for example, that the hijacking of the language of victimhood was crucial. Yet such language only has real meaning within the context of serious, systemic persecution in terms either of economic or physical oppression. Now, while there are no doubt continuing examples of anti-gay violence, the systemic physical oppression of gays came to an end when homosexuality ceased to be a criminal offence. And it is risible to argue that the failure to extend marriage tax credits to gay couples represents serious oppression, any more than not extending such privileges to unmarried couples, or siblings sharing a house together constitutes persecution of these categories. And for all the guff about negative stereotypes, I'm hard pressed to remember the last negative gay stereotype I saw on TV, at the movies, or even heard about in a country and western song.
Of course, in this context, the AIDS pandemic has no doubt played a significant role: on the one hand, the world is constantly being told it is not a gay disease (very true), while the disease is itself used to give real victim credibility to the gay community. Apparently, as long as you are a victim, you can have your cake and eat it. But such flip-flop logic is standard where homosexuality is concerned. Consider, for example, the existence of a `gay community' doing everything from singing in gay choirs to queer rock climbing to launching TV channels. In doing these various things, gay advocates constantly stress that sex is only one part of gay identity. The problem with this is embarrassingly obvious. On the one hand, those with same sex orientation do not wish their identity to be reduced to a crude sexual preference; at the same time, it's the only thing that unites them. After all, I love road and trail running and taking part in races; yet the sexual orientation of my running partners and fellow competitors is irrelevant to me, of no interest whatsoever, indeed none of my business, and certainly of no relevance to whether they run and compete well or not. The flip-flop logic of many gay people, who want to make their sexual preference simultaneously both the central determining part of their identity or community and only a peripheral part of that identity or community is unstable at best, utterly incoherent at worst.
In making my case ten years ago, I suspect I also underestimated the power of the media to shape values. Now, I am far from holding to the reductionist, quasi-Marxist view of the media which sees it as all-powerful and the masses as hapless victims of its nefarious schemes. The relationship between media and public is like that between producer and consumer, one of negotiation, a carefully choreographed dance between what the producer wishes to push and the market wants and/or will tolerate. Yet shows such as Will and Grace, Queer Eye, and the countless other programs which promote, sometimes quietly, sometimes overtly, a positive image of same-sex issues have surely been decisively influential in reshaping public opinion.
This points to the carelessness of much Christian thinking. Now, Christians have, on the whole, been pretty sharp at spotting the evils of pornography, simply considered. After all, porn is morally lethal in the way that having one's brains beaten out with a baseball bat is physically lethal: both the medium and its effects are crude, obvious, and actually relatively easy to avoid if you see the bat coming at your head and manage to duck in time. But sitcoms and prime time network entertainment are deadly in a different way. As carbon monoxide creeps through a house and is undetectable until the effects are irreversible and necessarily lethal, so the drip-drip-drip of prime time slowly but surely dulls the moral brain cells of those who uncritically absorb its messages and its projected lifestyles with no awareness of how they are being transformed, even manipulated, by the propagandistic virtual reality to which they are exposed. Will and Grace and Queer Eye are the moral carbon monoxide of modern culture, killing us softly with their song, as Roberta Flack might say.
From Fringe to Mainstream
Yet there is one other factor which I did not anticipate ten years ago and which has proved remarkable: the desire of the gay community for social respectability. This has undoubtedly motivated the lobby groups and those who play identity politics as much as anything else. Now, I had always assumed that homosexuality, by its very nature, was a transgressive, risky venture whose main purpose was to break taboos and express sexual rebellion in a most dramatic form. To borrow Nietzschean taxonomy, I thought it was Dionysian in its very essence, a way of life rooted in a radical hedonism which broke through boundaries just because they were boundaries; and which knew no morality - at least, no slave morality - being beyond good and evil; certainly, this is the line taken by Camille Paglia, the art critic and bisexual scourge of the gay establishment; yet here we are a decade on with the comfy, middle class gays of Will and Grace and Queer Eye providing prime time entertainment on the network channels. While I confess to having never seen more than thirty seconds of the former, and none of the latter, the short trailers which flash by in commercial breaks seem to indicate that these programs show homosexuality in a manner about as socially rebellious as a Republican Youth Convention (and considerably less scary), and about as transgressive as an old folks summer daytrip to the Jersey Shore. And, to crown it all, now we have old Reggie Dwight, Knight of the Realm, no less, and his partner getting hitched to a media fanfare. Perhaps that is rebellion in some quarters, given the fact that marriage seems to have fallen out of favour with many heterosexuals; but it seems to me rather to be an attempt to be normal, to be accepted, to be just like the heterosexuals - or at least, just like they used to be. It is of a piece with all the puzzling hoo-hah in the Anglican Communion and ECUSA and the PCUSA where gays want to be priests and ministers of all things, the very purveyors of the slave morality Nietzsche so despised. What on earth is going on? To transgress social boundaries and yet to be accepted within social boundaries. To defy convention and to conform to those very conventions. To stick it to the establishment and to demand the privileges of that same establishment. How terribly white-collar and middle class the whole thing has become. Once again, the gay community wants to have its cake and eat it, it seems. Will the flip-flop logic never cease?
Simple Simpsons and Scandalous Religion
So how should the church respond to all this nonsense? First, (and here I sound like a broken record) we need to have a properly critical attitude to what is going on. Of course, sinfulness of the human heart is what has created this mess; but universals are never that useful when it comes to interpreting particulars. Homosexual activity is sin, it is transgression; but then that makes the move towards gay marriage so strange. The drive to rebel and the need to be respectable here seem to go hand-in-hand, even though they surely push in different directions; and any church response needs to reflect long and hard on the Janus-faced nature of what is going on. In this context, I'm sure that we will find next to useless what I dub `The Simple Simpsons' of Christian cultural criticism (you know, the type who go into a panic every time Christians are sent on The Simpsons, yet never ask how the program fits into the larger politics and agenda of the cultural system as a whole). Hedonism and untrammeled sexual license are clearly not sufficient on their own as explanations of the phenomenon. Dare I suggest that only a robust understanding of sin, and of humanity made in the image of God, can really offer a starting point for understanding the moral and cultural ambiguities involved in gay marriage.
Second, we need to see this as an extremely encouraging development. As gay marriage makes homosexuality respectable and safe, it will inevitably make Christianity scandalous and dangerous. And that is how it should be: the cross is frightening, disturbing, volatile. For too long it has functioned as a piece of costume jewelry, so it's about time it was once more an atavistic, disturbing force within society; and gay marriage is one sign that, in a sense, the world, fallen as it is, is returning to fallen normality. In the future, when the mega churches have finally become malls, when the emerging types have been conservative-and-liberal, Catholic-and-Protestant, dazed-and-confused for so long they don't know who they are anymore, when Reg and Dave are celebrating their silver wedding anniversary in traditional style, then perhaps those looking for rebellion, for an opportunity to `stick it to the man' will only have the cross and traditional Christianity to which they can turn. And that could perhaps prove to be the greatest evangelistic opportunity of them all. Till then, the situation looks set to get worse before it gets better; but, as Sir Elton once sang, I guess that's why they call it the blues.