How to Narrate Complexity

I finally watched Desire of the Everlasting Hills, a recent hour-long film that’s gotten a lot of attention in our circles of late. It tells the stories of three Catholics who, at least at one time, understood themselves to be homosexual but now, in light of their return to the Church… well, you’ll just have to watch it and see how unpredictable and multi-layered their narratives are. As Eve Tushnet has pointed out, these are by no means simple “ex-gay” stories, but nor, I think, are they exactly the sort of stories we often highlight on this blog. I thought I had heard most everything in our little gay Christian world, but this movie surprised me.

One of the things that especially stood out was the way each of the three subjects managed to narrate complexity at each stage of their journey. It’s one thing to tell a “before and after” story, in which confusion is succeeded by order, or vice versa. But this movie includes genuine mystery and complexity in every chapter; a too-tidy, answer-dispensing resolution never arrives.

For instance, Rilene, a woman who lived with her partner for 25 years before embracing chastity, spoke movingly of the loneliness and uncertainty and unsettledness she felt while living with a devoted and caring partner. Her story, even prior to her fateful confession and her pursuit of chastity, wasn’t: “I came out and found love and happiness.” Nor was her chastity: “I’ve embraced Church teaching and erased all memory of my partner’s love and fidelity.”

And then there’s Dan, another of the movie’s subjects, who described a similar sort of loneliness but from the perspective of someone who, unlike Rilene, never had a long-term partner. Dan’s is the loneliness of celibacy. He also spoke very movingly about the danger of thinking of yourself, as an obedient Christian, as someone who’s removed from the longing to love and be loved by another person. He said he doesn’t ever want to think of himself as someone who’s “gotten over” those kinds of hungers and desires.

After finishing the movie, I found myself wishing we had more stories like this.

***

Last week I was talking with a friend about Lauren Winner’s memoir from a couple of years ago, Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis. It’s a book that was occasioned by Winner’s divorce several years earlier—a divorce that both prompted and indicated the depth of her frustration in faith. In brief:

The enthusiasms of my conversion have worn off. For whole stretches… since [my] baptism, my belief has faltered, my sense of God’s closeness has grown strained, my efforts at living in accord with what I take to be the call of the gospel have come undone…. Once upon a time, I thought I had arrived. Now I have arrived at a middle.

Reading the book was a strange experience for me. At certain points near the beginning, I was tempted to write it off as a lightly Christianized version of the stereotypically American journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance, one particular incarnation of which Winner herself lampoons as Masticate, Meditate, Masturbate. But at other points it was simply beautiful: not just gorgeously written (Winner is a wonderful prose stylist) but also a sensitive portrayal of what it might look like to pray an extended version of Donne’s supplication in my favorite of his sonnets: “Wilt thou forgive that sin, through which I run, / And do run still, though still I do deplore?”

There’s an interview with Winner that’s appended to the book, and in one of her answers, she says this:

[T]heologically, I am still very much sorting through things pertaining to my divorce. Among other things, divorcing has shaken up the assumptions I bring to reading scripture. In leaving my marriage, I was doing something that simply was not permissible, not in the way I have always interpreted scripture, and that is something I remain troubled by, confused by — it is not something about which I feel cavalier. I don’t know, as neatly as I once knew, what my hermeneutic of scripture is, What does it mean to be someone who affirms scripture’s authority, someone who wants to live inside the scriptural story, but who has made a major life choice that contradicts something about which Jesus in the Gospels is pretty clear? I don’t have a straightforward, stable answer to that. I expect I will be trying to work it out for a long time.

That sense of uncertainty—of being in medias res—pervades the book. We don’t get much of a sense at all for her ex-husband’s character, and the details she does offer are (a) few and (b) almost entirely respectful. But she also doesn’t exactly blame herself. She highlights her own unhappiness, prayerlessness, and insecurities as leading to the divorce, which she calls a “spectacular, grave, costly failure.”

The reason I bring all this up here is that it struck me, reading Winner, how few memoirs I’ve read—and here I think in particular of the personal narratives of my fellow gay Christians—are able to articulate a sense of landing in a definite place and at the same time able to recognize that place as a very fraught, confusing, uneasy one. I wish more gay Christians were able to explore that kind of complexity, but I tend not to find a lot of ambiguity and tension in gay “conversion” stories—whether the conversion tends in more “progressive” or more “traditionalist” directions. Maybe that’s inevitable when a minority has to carve out a niche in an inhospitable culture. Maybe admitting uncertainty can’t really be done when you’re expecting the majority culture to exploit your honesty and vulnerability for its own ends, heedless of your own personal pain. But just ponder with me for a moment how refreshing it would be to read gay Christians writing with Winner’s kind of openness.

What if more “affirming” gay Christians started saying things like this: “Coming out has meant that I’ve remained troubled by my relation to the historic Christian tradition’s sexual ethics. It’s been confusing to have a partner now but also feel the weight of the Christian teaching that I want to figure out some way of staying accountable to.” And what if more “traditionalist,” celibate gay Christians started saying things like this: “I haven’t been ‘healed’ of all that I wish to be healed of. I remain frustrated, to a large extent, by loneliness, by uncertainty about whether my parish community and family members will really be there for me. I don’t know if Christian friendship will be enough to sustain me in my hunger for intimacy. I don’t have stable answers yet, but I’m on the road—I’m a wayfarer.” Of course most of us try to eliminate dissonance, for obvious reasons. “A double-minded man [is] unstable in all his ways,” Scripture tells us (James 1:8). Still, some amount of dissonance has to be there—for all of us—since we’re all fallen, and we who are in Christ are, in this life, always in status viatoris. Now if we could just find ways to talk about it…

The person who comes to mind as an exemplar of this kind of posture is W. H. Auden, who’s a sort of personal saint and hero of mine. He once wrote in a letter to a friend: “Though I believe it sinful to be queer, it has at least saved me from becoming a pillar of the Establishment.” Although I wish Auden could have found his way to a faithful, fruitful practice of celibacy, I appreciate his honesty about the in-between-ness of his faith and failure. His owning up to that tension, rather than editing it out, allows a lot of the rest of us to more easily identify with him and perhaps find our way to a more faithful response for ourselves.

***

All this is, I hope, somehow coherent! Mainly I want to say, watch Desire of the Everlasting Hills and let’s try to find a way together to practice the kind of honesty and humility that the film’s three subjects portray so beautifully. Narrating tension and complexity is costly and difficult, but this film gives us a glimpse of how we might make an attempt.

16 thoughts on “How to Narrate Complexity

  1. I really loved the Third Way film, and it had the advantage of directly addressing the brokenness between the gay community and the Christian community. But Desire really did evoke deeper emotions, and I really admire the filmmakers for their trust in the three stars’ stories. Desire conveys the world we live in, where — despite our words and attempts to categorize — good things look bad, and bad things look good. One might say that the ending offered “easy answers”, but I don’t think so. As the film ended, the protagonists showed real and inspiring trust in God, yes, but also real and genuine fear about the future.

    The quote that keeps going through my head, with relation to the movie, is by Peter Pan: “to die would be an awfully big adventure.” Desire of the Everlasting Hills invites a person on an adventure which involves a kind of death. It doesn’t guarantee that adventure will be good, least of all in the way we now define “good”. But it does make the adventure capture your imagination.

  2. I loved Desire of the Everlasting Hills as well because it told real human stories and not caricatures. It showed that every human experience including gay relationships, has redeeming qualities but that ultimate fulfillment can only be found in God. I’ve heard some negative reactions from conservative Christians who thought the film portrayed gay experiences too positively. To me, that sort of reaction stems from misunderstanding of and contempt for homosexuality. I’ve been telling my own story as a gay evangelical Christian with traditional sexual ethics, and the personal feedback has really reinforced the need for people to hear and tell this important story in our lives. Confessions of a Gay Evangelical Christian coagec.wordpress.com.

  3. ‘Documentary’ is my favorite genre. This post mentioning Desire of the Everlasting Hills prompted me to watch it this evening. I, like Coagec, enjoyed this film “because it told real human stories and not caricatures.” It also seemed well produced.

    Thanks for sharing.

  4. Desire of the Everlasting Hills was, in many ways, the story of my life seen through these three people. What is the redemptive value in living such a life only to find refuge (in my case) in a heterosexual church that believes homosexuality is a choice. Has anyone come up with a theory of why some of us were given the cross to bare in SSA?

    • The same could have been said by a black person, considering joining the Catholic church in more racially troubled times. It’s true that people in the Church have distorted views of you, Lross. But you were born “for such a time as this”. It is YOUR opportunity to be vulnerable the way Jackie Robinson was vulnerable, entering into an organization in many ways hostile to him. Don’t look at yourself as a victim; look at yourself as one of God’s ways of reforming the Church.

      As for why you experience this attraction, please know that everyone has a question like that. Some people wonder why they seem made to be fat, others why they are so sensitive by nature, others why they aren’t intelligent, others why they aren’t good-looking. There are no easy answers to these questions, but I recommend looking at them with a sense of humor. Shakespeare is a beautiful model of that sense of humor, when he writes to a young man he admires:

      And for a woman wert thou first created;
      Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting,
      And by addition me of thee defeated,
      By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
      But since she prick’d thee out for women’s pleasure,
      Mine be thy love and thy love’s use their treasure.

      I wouldn’t recommend looking into theories of why same-sex attraction exists. Accept it, learn from it, try to be holy with it. That’s all we can do with any of our human tendencies.

  5. I am so glad this article was written! I have been thinking a lot lately about stories that are not black-and-white, and this article hits the nail on the head. Thanks, Wes.

  6. Like Coagec commented, I, too, “loved Desire of the Everlasting Hills…because it told real human stories and not caricatures.” Wes, your mentioning this documentary prompted me to watch it. ‘Documentary’ is my favorite genre.

  7. Thanks for this link Wes – I watched the documentary last night, purposely not reading yours (or others) comments beforehand as I wanted – at least for me – a ‘fresh view’ of the documentary. I found that it addresses some of the questions I have, about faith and the LGBT community. I plan to watch it a second time, then I will read yours (and others) comments. Thanks again Wes.

  8. Pingback: Love True Love, Wherever It Exists | Spiritual Friendship

    • I’m guessing Wes knows who Dan in the movie is. And I wouldn’t say that Spiritual Friendship folks and Dan Mattson are enemies, by any stretch of the imagination. I’m not a “Spiritual Friendship person” any more or less than I am a “Courage Apostolate” person — in fact, I long for the day when those two groups work together.

      Some authors at Spiritual Friendship have experimented, in Dan Mattson’s judgment (and I concur with him) with bad theology. But the “SSA and chaste” movement would be completely foolish not to see all the talented people as allies. We should make efforts to all get on the same team — Christ’s team.

      At the risk of promoting my own blog, I’ve written an entry about this “division” between Courage-types and SF-types that might be worth looking at: http://mercyst.wordpress.com/2014/06/04/on-discourse-about-being-gay-and-christian/

      The views I present there are necessarily caricatures, and they’re not intended to paint people into corners. But I do think that — once you strip away the questionable theology that I sometimes see in SF posts, there is a HECK of a lot to like about Spiritual Friendship.

      • Ack, I hate that I can’t edit! The second paragraph should say “all of the talented people at Spiritual Friendship as allies”, not “all of the talented people as allies”.

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